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For the last year I've had two contract phones, one a fancy phone with lots of minutes, texts and internet access and a second, more basic phone with a low contract price. Although you could probably describe me as a bit of a Samsung fan girl (I love my Galaxy S2), when it came time to upgrade my cheaper contract I decided to verge away from them and try a Blackberry. As this contract is relatively low cost, I could only choose a low end Blackberry and ended up with the Blackberry Curve 8520 on a £13 a month contract with 100 minutes, 500 texts, 100MB mobile internet, 500MB Openzone Wifi and Blackberry Internet Service.
What's In The Box?
When RIM designed the box that the Blackberry Curve 8520 is supplied in, they certainly weren't thinking either small or stylish. The box is far larger than it needs to be and definitely does not excite the senses, there's no wow factor, and it's almost as if they think a large box will make you think you're getting more for your money. Now you may not feel the box is that important, and indeed in the scale of things it isn't, but should this be given as a gift, it just doesn't look that exciting (unlike an iPhone or Galaxy).
Within the box there is the phone itself, a battery, hands-free set, USB lead, adapter plug, installation CD, quick start guide and basic instruction manual. I especially like that the phone can be charged via the USB lead (which is a standard type shared with my Samsung phones and Kindle), or the USB lead can be plugged into the adapter plug, so allowing the phone to be charged from a wall socket. This means that there is a great deal of flexibility in charging the phone, both at home or abroad. It also means that should the phone need charging while I am at a friend’s house, there is a good chance that they will have a suitable lead.
The quick start guide is, as you would imagine, very basic and to be honest the instruction manual isn't a whole lot better. Personally I learn to work gadgets like this by trial and error, but I don't think I would have found the manual that helpful anyway and there are far better user guides to be found online. The installation CD is compatible with recent versions of both Windows (XP onwards) and Mac (10.5.5 onwards) and if you don't have a CD/DVD drive (netbooks) it is also available for download from the Blackberry website. To make full use of the software you also need to have either iTunes (7.2 onwards) or Windows Media Player (10 onwards) installed. Installation was reasonably quick and trouble free on my 2.5 year old Windows 7 laptop, but I have to admit I find the software itself a little clunky and counter-intuitive. With this software you can update your phones software as well as back up the files kept on it and move files around.
Does It Have Killer Looks?
Although the 8520 is available in several colours (depending on network provider) mine is in the classic black, personally I would have preferred another colour, but black was all that was on offer. Size-wise it's fairly compact at 11cm by 6cm and just under 1.5cm thick and it fits snugly in my hand. At 105g it is also light, very light, but this is not always a good thing and personally I like a little weight behind my phone as I think it denotes durability. The top half of the front of the 8520 is dominated by the 320x240 pixel HVGA+, transmissive TFT LCD screen (that's a lot of technical speak). This screen is bright, clear and does a reasonably good job of displaying photos and videos, but is simply not a patch on the Galaxy S2's screen. Maybe it's because I've been spoiled, but I find that at 5cm by 4cm (approx), it is rather small and looks crowded when viewing web pages, emails and messages.
Across the middle of the front is a small track pad that also functions as a select button, when I say small I really mean tiny. Although it works in exactly the same way as a touch pad on laptop, it is about half a centimetre square. On either side of this touch pad there are two buttons that are flush with the surface. These buttons look as if they are touch operated, but require a definite push to work. The bottom third of the front is taken up with the 35 key, backlit, QWERTY keyboard. These keys really are tiny, on first glance I couldn't believe that I'd be able to use them, but they are set into the surface of the phone at differing angles that makes pressing the correct key slightly easier.
The front of the phone and battery cover are formed of a gloss plastic (and glass screen) that looks really nice straight out of the box but becomes smudged and smeared with fingerprints within seconds, which seriously detracts from the looks. The outer edge is formed of a far more practical rubber-like material which hides a number of buttons. Among the “hidden” buttons there are a volume control, camera button and media controls. Also along this outer edge you will find the USB/charging port and 3.5mm headphone jack, it's worth noting that there is no cover to the USB port which leaves it exposed to dirt and dust. There's very little to say about the rear of the phone, it simply features a camera lens and the Blackberry logo.
It's quite difficult for me to put my feelings about the styling of this phone in to words. It certainly looks (and feels) different compared to the Samsung phones I've been using over the last few years. I certainly would not say that it's a fantastically good looking phone, it's more practical than stylish, and yet at the same time it looks a little quirky, what with the keypad. But while the high gloss finish looks very nice for a few minutes, it quickly becomes smeary and tacky looking. It's also a very light phone, to the point where it feels cheap and dare I say it, plasticky. Personally, I'm really not that impressed with the look or feel of the Blackberry 8520, to my taste it looks and feels cheap. But as they say looks simply are not everything, this is not my main phone and as long as it does it's job then I'll be happy.
Is It Easy To Set Up?
On switching the 8520 on, the first thing you have to do is wait for it to boot up, and wait, and wait, and wait a little more. This phone takes the longest I've ever known to be ready to use, I timed it today and it took 3 minutes and 41 seconds to be usable, which is quite simply ridiculous. To begin with I actually thought there was a problem with the phone, but on reading around it seems that this is actually the norm. Once the 8520 finally kicks into life there is a short set-up wizard that takes you through connecting to wifi, setting the clock and setting up email accounts. Only I couldn't set up my email accounts as Vodafone had kindly forgotten to activate the Blackberry Internet Service and without it I could only connect to a works server, which seeing as my employer is a two year old, really wasn't going to happen. Once I had finally got the Blackberry Internet Services activated it was simple enough to synchronise the 8520 with my three email accounts. The final part of setting up the 8520, was to connect it to my computer for updating and filling the memory card up with music. I have to state here that updating means that the phone will need to reboot again, which means another interminable wait for it to wake back up.
Will I Need A Degree To Use It?
The 8520 runs on Blackberry's own operating system and personally I don't find it as easy to find my way around as it could be. There is a single home screen, which can be customised using a photo or picture stored on the phone (or memory card). Personalisation is fairly easy, although I have found the only way to manage this is by finding the file and then going into the menu. The home screen also displays the standard information such as date, time, carrier and signal strength along with a number of short cuts to various messaging accounts and the address book. The little track pad is used to scroll through these accounts and the button decorated with a blackberry is used to bring up the main menu or option menu. I personally find the main menu a little disorganised, with lots of file icons that make it difficult to work out exactly where I need to click. The track pad itself, though has so proved to be at the perfect level of sensitivity, I have no problems with accuracy as far as that goes.
Can You Use It To Make Calls?
No matter how fancy a phone for me personally it's primary purpose will always be to make and receive telephone calls. Adding contacts to the 8520 is a somewhat laborious affair, it's certainly not as intuitive as it could be, and not as obvious as many other phones. Once I worked out how to add contacts, I was fairly impressed with the amount of detail I could include in the contact. Several numbers can be added for each contact along with a couple of email addresses, birthday etc., it's almost like a little address book rather than phone book. Making calls is a fairly simple affair, especially once you've worked out where the contacts are stored, although using the track pad to scroll through can be slightly hit and miss. Once in a call sound quality is acceptable, if a little low in volume. The volume control is nicely positioned for raising or lowering the volume and it's surprisingly comfortable to hold the phone to my ear. Pressing numbers when faced with automated menus is a breeze, which is one way in which this phone actually beats a touch screen phone.
There are the usual options within a call of switching to loud speaker, which seems to work as well as you would expect, not exactly fantastic, but not useless either. The supplied earphones/hands free set could be fantastic, but I will never know as they simply are too large to fit in my ears and as far as I know my ear-holes aren't particularly small. As luck would have it there is a standard 3.5mm connection, so I have used my own earphones for listening to music, but as yet have been unable to carry out a conversation using the hands-free.
I guess that messaging is considered Blackberry's forte by many people and I was looking forward to the improved experience only to feel somewhat deflated by the reality. Blackberry Messenger (BBM) is the most well known aspect of messaging on the Blackberry, a service where Blackberry owners can message each other for free as long as they've subscribed to the Blackberry Internet Service (so it's not really free). I'm sure this is a great service but not wanting to give out my number (or BB PIN) to all and sundry and having unlimited text messages on another phone, I'm not interested in this service and haven't even bothered setting it up.
With the ability to set up a total of ten email accounts along with SMS and MMS messaging, even without BBM I get a lot of message alerts, and to be honest I do find the 8520's method of organising them a little confusing at times. I only have three email accounts set up on the 8520 and I do get instant alerts for each of these, with a little light flashing in the top right corner of the phone just in case I haven't heard the audio bleep. Messages are accessed via the row of icons at the bottom of the screen and when a new message is received it's corresponding icon is decorated with a star along with that flashing LED. Where I often get confused is that the first of the icons encompasses all messages and when opened I sometimes wonder whether it is my junk mail that I'm opening or my personal mail. Once the appropriate email/messaging account is opened I do find the messages are logically arranged, with conversations kept together while still keeping messages in date order.
When it comes to typing out messages the QWERTY keyboard is nowhere nearly to use as it would first seem. The keys are incredibly tiny, I really struggled the first few days and still often press the key adjacent to the one I actually want to use. Add to this the fact that you need to press the “Alt” key to access symbols such as full stop and typing becomes more are more fiddly. Another aspect of writing messages on this phone that I dislike is that the dollar sign is accessible via the Alt key, but to use the pound symbol you have to go into a whole new group of symbols. Would it have been so hard to customise the phone for UK consumers? If it had been the other way round I'm sure that there would have been pressure to change it.
While there isn't predictive text on the 8520 there is a spell check facility that will tell you if it thinks you have spelt a word wrong. It will also offer suggestions as to the correct spelling, which is then accessed using the little track pad and select button. The only difficulty with this dictionary is that it doesn't include many of the more common text abbreviations.
All in all, considering this phone (along with other Blackberries) is sold on the back of it's integrated messaging services, I find it just a little too awkward to use the keyboard. While with every other phone I've used I've been able to type messages one handed, using either a keypad or touch screen, with this phone I need to use two. This means I cannot text and push a buggy at the same time and so have to stop if I have an important message to answer. I also find that I have to concentrate far harder when texting and often make mistakes, either by pressing the wrong key or forgetting to press the Alt key before attempting to access a symbol.
Can You Take Photos?
The 8520 does feature a camera, albeit a very basic 2MP camera with five times digital zoom. The camera can be instantly accessed by pressing a button on the side of the phone, which I love as it makes taking off-the-cuff photos that much easier by negating the need to work my way through menus. Photos taken with the camera are reasonable, look good when viewed on the phone's own screen and are the perfect size for uploading to Facebook, but they certainly aren't clear enough to print out for display. When I say reasonable, I am talking about photos being taken in reasonable lighting conditions, where the subject is stationary. There isn't a flash so poor lighting conditions will result in dark, blocky photos, and if the subject moves the resultant photo will be blurry. When lighting conditions are perfect, the colour and balance in the photos seems pretty true to life, without any tendency to oversaturate any colour and a good amount of vibrancy. With the zoom being digital and the starting resolution being so low, zooming in on a subject will result in a dramatic loss of quality, so much so that I really wouldn't bother. While this is no way going to replace a dedicated digital camera (or my beloved Galaxy S2), it is decent enough at taking quick snaps.
There is also a video recording facility, which is once more hampered by both the digital zoom and lack of flash/LED. There are two video recording modes, standard at 320x240 and MMS at 176x144. Personally I really wouldn't bother with the MMS mode as it is only just viewable and nothing that you would want to keep. The standard recording mode really isn't anything to talk about either, the colours in the resultant video are vibrant and the audio clear, but there is a large degree of noticeable pixallation and an amount of ghosting and that's without using the zoom. If the zoom is engaged then picture quality steadily decreases until at maximum zoom it is almost unwatchable.
Does It Play Music and Videos?
As with many phones today the 8520 does support and play a variety of media files including music and videos, although it doesn't support as many formats as other brands. Transferring multi-media to the phone is simple, by connecting the phone to a laptop where the software has been installed you can even have the phone automatically synch and any memory card be filled with a random mix of music. Files can also be transferred over using the phone as a removable USB drive, which is quick and painless, or files can be transferred using Blue tooth.
As with the camera there are hot-keys on the phone for accessing multi-media, in this case they are at the top of the phone and there is a play/pause button along with skip forward and back. It's easy to pick a particular tune to play and is also possible to play all music either consecutively or randomly, or tracks in an album or by a particular artist. It is also possible to set up play-lists and all the embedded track information along with artwork is displayed on the screen. The major of sound formats are supported including MP3, AAC and WMA which means that unless you use one of the less common “lossless” formats you should be able to play anything that is on your computer.
Sound quality is reasonable but in no way what I would call exceptional. Top volume is really not loud enough to make an impact when played in the garden and the overall sound is a little flat. There is no distortion as such, it's just it doesn't sound as rich as other phones I have owned and there is no feeling that you can hear every nuance. I can't actually comment on how well the supplied earphones perform as I can't actually use them, but combined with my trusty Sony earphones the sound quality is improved over the built-in speaker, while still being nowhere near the quality I've experienced with other makes of phone.
Watching videos on the small screen is a little eye burning to be honest, although I'm sure that if I wasn't used to the much larger screen on my Galaxy, I would find it a little easier on my eyes. Don't get me wrong the screen is clear enough, audio reasonable and the basic file formats supported but personally speaking I really find the screen too small.
Can You Get On The Web?
As one would expect with a phone billed as being “smart”, the 8520 carries a couple of options for connecting to the world wide web, although I'm going to start with what is missing and that is the faster 3G and HSPA connections, which means that data transfer over the mobile network is tortuously slow and any pages containing pictures noticeably lag. What you do get is GPRS with Edge technology, that would have been considered fast a couple of years ago, but is now rapidly becoming defunct. Thank goodness for the wireless connection, that is easy to set up and has no problem finding and connecting to hot spots (and my generous allowance with Openzone). When using wi-fi (which again is not the most recent specification) pages load noticeably quicker, but still not as quickly as they would if the “n” standard was supported. One problem that I have noticed is that if both wi-fi and GPRS/Edge are activated then the 8520 will automatically use the more expensive and slower Edge to connect. I have no idea why this is, but it is extraordinarily annoying as I end up having to regularly go into the settings to turn this on and off depending on whether there is a hotspot in range.
The included web browser is OK, but really nothing special. Although I haven't yet found a web page that will not load, I have to be honest and state that I rarely use the web on this phone. It's great for quickly looking something up, but seriously the screen is too small and even though it is easy enough to zoom in, this means I spend an age scrolling the page so I can read everything. The only real way I use this phone and the internet together is with Facebook, which is integrated into the phone using an App. By doing this I am instantly alerted to any FB notifications and am update my status while out and about or directly upload a photo or video.
Did You Say There Were Apps?
Apple has the iStore, Android has Google Play and Blackberry has Appworld. As with the iStore and Google Play there are a large number of apps available to download, some free, some paid for, some incredibly useful and others simply banal. From what I have seen so far there are far fewer apps available for Blackberries and a few of those I have tried have not been as fully featured as they are on Android, it also seems that some of the Apps that are free on Android have to be paid for on Blackberry. To be perfectly honest, I refuse to pay for any Apps, mainly as this is not my main phone. Among those Apps I would say are indispensable are Facebook and Twitter, but be warned downloading from Appworld is a slow affair, with it taking several minutes to download and then the phone needing to reboot after each installation (and I've already told you how slow that is).
There are a number of games and Apps pre-installed on the 8520, the games are a waste of space, being extraordinarily boring. I did think I would enjoy the Sudoku, but the controls are simply too fiddly to make it easy to try and beat times. Along with the standard calculator, memo pad, and organiser there are some basic office apps, which as I find the keyboard so fiddly I haven't bothered with. One aspect of the phone I do like is the ability to back the phone contents up and I would imagine that those who use Microsoft Outlook would find the ability to synch with that helpful.
Will The Battery Last The Day?
While not fantastic the battery-life is better than expected. While the primary battery charge lasted less than a day, successive charges have lasted longer, with the battery now lasted approximately 1.5 days between charging with regular use. This use includes sending/receiving 20 or so texts, 50+ emails, plus maybe one hour playing music and 10-20 minutes call time, along with being connected to both wi-fi and Edge.
Is There Anything Else?
So far, barring the smudging and fingerprints on the glossy screen, the 8520 has stood up well to standard use, without showing much sign of anything going wrong. It hasn't frozen yet either, but there again I really don't put it to too much use and have multiple applications open at the same time. Being quite a common and for some reason fashionable phone, there are a number of accessories available, not only from the standard shops but also from markets, meaning that you can by covers and cases at ridiculously cheap prices.
The Blue tooth is a bit of a faff to set up and only works reasonably well, although again I haven't made extensive use of it, as I have my Galaxy and anyway all my music and photos are stored on my laptop.
Would You Recommend It Then?
Ah the ultimate question and perhaps the hardest to answer. Starting from the view as to whether the Blackberry Curve 8520 lives up to it's claim of being a smart phone, it is a great disappointment in this respect. I would call it half a smart phone really as it simply isn't as easy to use, have as many features or is as powerful as many other smart phones in a similar price range. When compared to the even the cheapest Android phones it simply does not compare. For those that find touch screens difficult to get on with the QWERTY keyboard may prove to be a boon, except for the fact the keys are so small, fiddly and close together. Let's put it this way, it's certainly not suitable for those with visual difficulties.
Personally, while I've done my best to get used to this phone, I'm really not getting on with it and the only real advantage is that it fits neatly in my hand or pocket which makes it more convenient when out and about. Although I understand that this is a budget phone, I really do think that Blackberry are trying to ride on the back of what was innovation five or so years ago. OK so the BBM is a godsend to those who spend all day messaging their friends who also have Blackberries, but for those of us who prefer to actually speak or don't know anybody on BBM it is not such a great phone. While I'm glad that I tried this phone, I am certainly not a Blackberry convert and far prefer Android, where I can get a phone that does so much more for the same sort of price (£100 SIM free).
So no I am not recommending the Blackberry Curve 8520 as you can simply get far more bang for you buck with other phones and in my personal opinion the technology used in it is simply outdated.