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BlackBerry Curve 9220: New Bottle, Old Wine
One of the key reasons why BlackBerry rules the smartphone roost in India has been the entry-level Curve 8520, released way back in August 2009. A basic smartphone without 3G and specs like a 2 MP camera, the 8520 was a mega-success primarily because it was affordable and provided access to BBM, social media feeds and e-mail—different facets of the BlackBerry service. So, despite the smartphone’s low-end features, the price-sensitive Indian customer (and especially the youth) purchased the 8520 for BBM and the BlackBerry service.
On video: BlackBerry Curve 9220
Fast forward to circa 2012 and RIM is launching the Curve 9220, the successor to the 8520 with some incremental changes, and seems to be relying on the same business philosophy that made the 8520 a success, and the jury is now out on whether the same mantra will work almost three years later.
To say it in a line, the 9220 is a thinner, slightly sleeker 8520 with the new BlackBerry OS 7.1; it is the first BlackBerry to boast of FM radio and in what few will focus on but is perhaps the most important aspect in my opinion—has the best battery on any BlackBerry smartphone available today.
If you’re familiar with the 8520, the 9220 won’t take you by surprise. Like car makers who announce a ‘new’ edition of an old car by tweaking the headlamps or adding a dash of chrome, RIM has made the 9220 sleeker, which is primarily because it is 1.2 mm thinner than the 8520. It’s the same low-end 2.44-inch display with a resolution of 320 x 240, that Shayne Rana, the Tech2 reviewer who reviewed the 8520 said was “quite mundane” way back in 2009.
Is that a dedicated BBM buton or just the same old shortcut key?
It’s the same trackpad too, but which performs just as well on the 9220 as on any BlackBerry, making navigation a breeze. However, frills like a lit-up border for the trackpad are missing, and that’s understandable on a low-end smartphone. The QWERTY keypad is quite good and there have been some minor changes from the 8520, including slightly larger keys and minor changes in design, which make typing on the Curve 9220 a pleasure—surely music to the ears of BBM addicts and e-mail warriors.
What’s missing is the 8520’s USP of media keys on the top. While a tiny pause button has been added to the volume/zoom keys on the right side, the media keys are sorely missed. The 3.5mm earphone socket has moved to the top, with the usual lock key. The micro USB slot for charging and PC connectivity stays on the left, while the hot swap slot for the microSD card is under the rear panel and closer to the top of the device.
You might notice that I haven’t mentioned anything yet about the ‘new dedicated BBM shortcut key’ that RIM is touting. Here’s why: Terming this feature ‘new’ is at worst outright fraud and at best marketing spiel. The left convenience key has been around on older BlackBerry smartphones, including the 8520. Granted, it came set by default to voice dialling, but the Settings menu allowed a user to change its use to other features (including BBM) in a few seconds. What really is new is that RIM seems to have finally realised that getting rid of the left convenience key on the whole range of OS 7 smartphones they released last year was a terrible mistake and hence they have wisely decided to bring it back.
It's a few milimeters slimmer than the 8520
On the weight front the 9220 feels a few grams lighter than the 8520, but is easier to hold and slip into pockets because of the slimmer profile. The Curve 9220 will also be released in a range of cool colours aimed at the youth segment, including red, violet, blue, white and of course the standard black.
Features and Performance
This is where the 9220 races ahead of the 8520. Running the spanking new OS 7.1, the 9220 offers a fresh user experience quite far removed from the one offered on the ancient OS 5.X on the 8520. We didn’t get details on the processor used, but I suspect it’s the same 800 MHz 32-bit Marvell PXA940 that powers the far sexier Curve 9360.
Running OS 7+
The Curve 9220 comes with 512 MB of RAM, four times as much on the 8520 and 512 MB ROM, which is double that on the 8520. Performance was smooth and the 9220 was very responsive though once in a while I did see the dreaded clock that signifies a lag in performance. However, overall performance was great.
The 9220 comes with the Premium version of Documents To Go, which offers document editing features as well as a native PDF document viewer. This makes it great for all sorts of office use and even students can make great use of this suite. Also pre-loaded is BlackBerry Protect, which allows you to back up and store personal data securely in the cloud, and can help locate a misplaced BlackBerry.
The Webkits-based browser that’s standard on OS 7 is light years ahead of the older one on the 8520. Web page rendering has improved vastly over OS 5.X and multiple tabs make Web browsing easier, though the lack of 3G means browsing is painful on creaky, choked 2G networks and is a joy only on Wi-Fi.
As with all BlackBerry smartphones, media remains a delight. The 9220 didn’t play 1080p videos but 720p was not a problem and it played a wide range of formats, though marred by the poor resolution. And audio quality is sharp and quite excellent and I especially loved the deep bass on the 9220.
Media features are the same as any older BB device with the exception of the FM Rdaio of cousre
And yes, the big one—the Curve 9220 is the first BlackBerry to feature FM Radio. Now, I’m not a big-time FM fan thanks to the lack of stations offering international music in Mumbai. However, on local trains, the lifeline of Mumbai, I see every second person listening to FM radio on the commute home and I know this will be a welcome extra feature in India.
This is the depressing part, since the 9220 offers nothing new as compared to the ancient 8520. The most glaring omission is the lack of a 3G radio. When the 8520 was launched in 2009, 3G didn’t really exist in India (yes I know MTNL did offer 3G then, but that hardly matters), but today carriers even offer daily packs for prepaid customers and it can be quite affordable when used on a short-term basis. Incidentally, Vodafone offers an unlimited 3G data option to BlackBerry BES users at just Rs 299 extra per month in addition to the Rs 899 per month charged for BES. So, 3G is quite cost-effective in India today and RIM has taken a step backwards here by leaving out 3G.
Same old connectivity options and still no 3G
In more bad news, despite running OS 7.1, the 9220 did not feature the option for Mobile Hotspot that is present on other BlackBerry smartphones running OS 7.1. Granted that the mobile hotspot feature is best used if you’re on a 3G network, yet I wish it part of the feature set. The standard support for BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS), which makes setting up e-mail accounts a breeze, continues. Bluetooth has been upgraded to Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. And Wi-Fi support now extends to b/g and n. But GPS is missing.
Nothing new here. Same fixed focus 2 MP camera as the old 8520. Pictures are grainy especially under artificial light. Passable for a 2 MP shooter, but one expected more in a smartphone which is supposedly an upgrade. Cheap Rs 3000 phones have better cameras than this one.
It's a quite grainy but not too bad for a 2MP camera
As I said before, this is my favourite part of the 9220. The 1450 mAh battery is the best one on any BlackBerry today. To put it in perspective, a top-end BlackBerry smartphone like the Bold 9900 packed with 3G radio, NFC, touchscreen and a high-res display only has a 1230 mAh battery. In real life this meant that on BES I got over a day of juice (compared to the around 5 hours I get on the 9900) and on BIS I got nearly 48 hours of use before the battery died. That’s outstanding performance indeed and if there’s one reason why I would spend a couple of thousands more on the Curve 9220 as opposed to the Curve 8520, it would the amazing battery life the 9220 offers.
In the Tech2.com Video Test, the 9220 clocked close to 7.5 hours of continuous video playback with the mobile network on and e-mails from 5 different accounts pouring in. In the loop test (2 hours of video, 2 hours of music, 2 hours of streaming and a 1.5-hour phone call), the 9220 almost completed one loop. To be fair, I conducted the loop test at work when the 9220 was on BIS on the Tata Docomo network. Unfortunately Tata Docomo is very spotty at my workplace and offers merely 1-2 bars of network strength, which means battery was being sucked up at a far higher rate than usual.
OS 7.1 also offers a Battery Saving Mode and you can set threshold levels. However, while this feature is a must-have on other BlackBerry smartphones running OS 7.1, it will remain unused on the Curve 9220.
The display resolution could have been a little higher
The 9220 is also missing the very cool BlackBerry Tag feature support, which makes possible transactions, data exchange, and connections with a mere touch, is missing.
At Rs. 10,990, frankly, the Curve 9220 doesn’t hold a candle to cheap Android devices that are now proliferating and which offer features like 3G, GPS and mobile hotspot at a lesser price. So, if you’re considering the 9220 for your first smartphone, only look here if all your friends have BBM and thus you have to go for a BlackBerry because of peer pressure. The other reason could be if you type a fair bit and touchscreen phones are the equivalent of smartphone hell for you. And also for BlackBerry USPs like e-mail.
If you’re thinking of an upgrade from the 8520, the 9220 doesn’t offer enough and the battery may the only key factor that might push you to upgrade—I’d suggest you wait for the 9320, which should release in May and will come with 3G support.
Overall, while I welcome the amazing battery and OS 7.1 with the boost in RAM and ROM, I wish RIM had more to offer on the 9220.