RIM’s first attempt at a flip BlackBerry wasn’t especially well-received. The Pearl Flip was commendable for being a significant departure in form factors for RIM at the time (even compared to the Storm), but the lower-end specs, reworked trackball layout, and prominent rear jut when open made for a fairly awkward phone. Recently, RIM and Sprint announced their second go at a clamshell BlackBerry, and have this time armed it with their best software, top-end specs, and their latest design principles. We’ve unboxed it and gave it a once-over, but here’s our full-blown review.
Despite the added gusto, reception to the early first looks have been less than stellar. Can the BlackBerry 9670 succeed where the Pearl Flip failed, or is RIM poised to be embarrassed just when the competition is getting stiff?
Go ahead and hit the jump to see if the Style deserves the name.
Available for $99.99 w/ 2-year contract from Sprint
Specifications (Specs – sheet)
- 2.7-inch QVGA (360 x 400) display, 2″ 240 x 320 external display
- 624 MHz CPU, 512 MB of RAM
- 5-megapixel camera with autofocus and flash
- 3G via 800 / 1900 MHz EV-DO Rev. A, Wi-Fi b/g/n
- GPS, Bluetooth 2.1
- microSD (support for up to 32 GB)
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- BlackBerry OS 6
- 4.5 hours talk time, 10.5 days standby
- 96 (175.5 when open) x 60 x 18.5 mm, and 131 g
- External display for notifications
- Spacious, easy-to-type keyboard
- Poor battery life
- Bulky when open
In terms of straight-up specs, the BlackBerry Style 9670 meets the Torch on most fronts. It has the HVGA display (albeit not touch and a bit smaller), Wi-Fi, GPS, 3G, 624 MHz processor, and 512 MB of RAM. The form factor, of course, is drastically different, even if it borrows some older BlackBerry design hints. Compared to other high-end smartphones out there, one will probably find the Style lacking, at least on paper. 8 megapixel cameras, 4″ screens, HDMI-out, WiMAX, 1 GHz processors and WVGA resolutions aren’t what you’d call uncommon sights in smartphones these days.
The flip action has some kick to it and requires little force to open or close. The hinge itself seems pretty solid and unlikely to break with wear and tear, but I do worry about the spring losing power over time. Plus, there’s the inherent risk with all flip phones of the top half catching on something and breaking off, but that just comes with the territory. There isn’t too much grip on the battery door, but the rubbery siding should be enough to keep your Style from slipping.
The difference between how good the BlackBerry Style looks when closed versus open is almost funny. When closed, you’ve got a sleek metallic trim, smooth top surface, and a defined (but smooth) separation between top and lower halves. It’s even small enough to slip into a pocket without any hassle. Crack it open though, and you have this gigantic slab of technology that’s almost 7″ long. There’s a lot of dead space below the joint and around the trackpad that would be better eliminated to make the handset smaller. Though the border around the screen isn’t crazy thick, after using the Torch, I’m left wishing RIM was able to squeeze a bigger screen on here, especially if the whole package is going to be bigger than the 9800 when opened.
Although it’s just as wide as the Torch, the added height when open makes it feel really bulky. At least the Pearl Flip had the luxury of being about 10 mm less wide. That extra real estate on the Style does result in a noticeably larger keyboard for easier typing, and it definitely feels more comfortable when taking calls, but little else makes use of the room. Since the Style is only marginally shorter than other BlackBerrys when it’s closed, and waaaaay bigger when open, it’s hard to imagine why I wouldn’t just get a Torch if I had the option of rolling with AT&T.
The BlackBerry Style comes with OS 188.8.131.52, which, on top of the usual phone, e-mail, instant messaging, and media playing capabilities, also includes some new features. Universal search provides local and web results the second you start typing from the home screen, a new WebKit browser produces more accurate (if not that much faster) web surfing, and a new icon layout based on categories like “Media”, “Frequent”, and “Favourites” is a bit more fun to use than the drab old arrangement.
E-mail, as always, is the biggest sell with BlackBerry. It ties in with enterprise e-mail servers with the greatest of ease, and with new individual-liable enterprise server controls, your workplace’s IT admin staff can let you install all the apps you want without having to lock your device down for security. There’s a variety of well-polished personal information management apps that can keep you productive, like Tasks (complete with reminders), document viewing apps for PDFs, Word Docs, and PowerPoint presentations, or the Memopad for freestyle note-taking.
For less professional use, BlackBerry plays very nicely with webmail services like Gmail, Windows Live, Yahoo!, and AIM. RIM has even started integrating wireless contact and calendar sync across some services so your BlackBerry’s native address book always looks like what it does in a web browser. Social networking and instant messaging are as great as ever on BlackBerry. Official client for Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn all tie in with the native messages application so you’re notified of updates as soon as they happen. Those apps also plug in to the address book to include updates in the contact card, and even pull down a caller ID picture from their online profile on a number of networks. Instant messaging apps have similar tie-ins, and see particularly frequent use in the native messages app. OS 6’s new e-mail setup app volunteers to sign you in to instant messaging apps after setting up associated webmail accounts with the same credentials, which I thought was a nice touch.
A fresh addition to BlackBerry 6 is the Social Feeds app, which pulls in updates across instant messaging and social network apps. You can filter the app so only particular networks are showing, or drill down to the dedicated app if you want to get busy with replies or other interactions. You can also use Social Feeds to post status updates across multiple networks at once, which I sometimes find tricky if you have some kind of forwarding already set up. For example, I have my Aol Instant Messager account set up to send my status updates to Twitter and Facebook. My Twitter account is also set up to send updates to Facebook. That means if I absentmindedly update my status on all networks, my Facebook profile will get updated three times with the same message. That there is an easy way to lose some high school friends you never talk to anymore anyway.
What I like most about BlackBerry is that in time, your contacts in time become more than just a list of phone numbers and e-mail addresses, but an amalgam of actions associated with that person. Within about 3-5 taps, I can either be calling, texting, instant messaging, e-mailing, finding GPS-based directions to, Facebook poking, Tweeting at, transferring PayPal funds to, or sending pictures from my camera to any of my contacts, and that’s not unique to the Style. That being said, BlackBerry smartphones, no matter which one you go with, are great phones for people who are busy with other people.
The few of you coming from Android or iPhone will sorely miss the old variety of third-party applications. RIM’s official App World still trails the Android Market and iTunes App Store in terms of sheer numbers, but there are a number of perfectly viable third-party vendors, like MobiHand, Handmark, GetJar, and Handango that also sell BlackBerry apps. One might argue that App World favours quality over quantity (the comparatively high pricetags certainly suggest that), but I have yet to see evidence of that. Within a week of getting iOS 3.1 on my iPod Touch, I had spent about $10 – $20 in the App Store. Even after several years of using and professionally covering BlackBerry I hadn’t spent a dime in App World until a few weeks ago. (It was for the original Final Fantasy game, if you’re curious.)
Why? For starters, all of the vital apps are free, and all of the ones that would be nice to have (but not absolutely necessary) are too expensive. It doesn’t matter how easy RIM makes it to buy apps, be it through carrier billing, credit cards, scanning QR codes, or buying directly through a desktop browser – if apps cost more than your average consumer would feel comfortable throwing away to a hobo, they aren’t going to risk losing money on a crappy app they may very well delete in a month’s time. Sure, it would be great if all applications were “Super Apps ™ ® ©” that every BlackBerry user would cling to for deal life, but that’s just not the shape of the market right now. Unless it offers mission-critical functionality (in which case the developer could just pull off a subscription fee), mobile software is lightweight and disposable. (Side note: when will App World support subscription payments? Jussayin’.)
Secondly, the quality just isn’t there because of hardware and developer limitations. Application developers who are used to other platforms don’t like coding for BlackBerry because it’s a pain, and there’s only money if they make their app stupid expensive. Tack on limited memory and a general lack of accelerometers and 3D processors in BlackBerry phones, and you can see why the really fun stuff like augmented reality and kick-ass games just don’t show up. That may very well change once the Neutrino platform by QNX makes the jump from RIM’s PlayBook tablet to smartphones, especially considering we’ve seen some cool stuff made in Adobe AIR, but that transition isn’t going to happen for awhile still.
Anyway. The Style’s operating system will be a nice visual upgrade for those coming from an older BlackBerry, and offer a few new functions. Those new to smartphones may be tempted by by the larger app markets on iPhone or Android, but should take into account the benefits to productivity BlackBerry has to offer.
Web browser, Multimedia, Camera
The new WebKit browser in BlackBerry 6 provides multiple tabs, and better page rendering than the old browser, but I still have trouble imagining it being noticeably faster than on devices running OS 5. There have been official benchmarks, sure, but its performance still pales in comparison to what iPhones and especially Android handsets have to offer now that full Flash 10.1 is spreading. The Torch had the added bonus of pinch-to-zoom by virtue of its touchscreen, but I find that tended to take a little while to render after zooming in – no worries about the Style not having the feature.
All of that being said, the BlackBerry browser is still entirely passable. You can drop shortcuts to websites on your home screen, bookmark favourite sites, subscribe to RSS feeds through the menu which are then read in Social Feeds, launch into searches from the address bar, and send web pages or images out to social networks or directly to friends through IM, e-mail, or otherwise. You can’t identify the BlackBerry browser as Firefox or Internet Explorer any more, which was handy once in awhile when you wanted to get a full web site rather than an automatically-generated mobile one.
Using the media player with the BlackBerry Style’s external display is a bit of a mixed bag. With the volume rocker and convenience key, you can pause, play, and skip tricks, plus you can see album art and track info on the screen, but when it’s running, pretty much all other functions are blocked; you can’t check your incoming messages, and even the time isn’t displayed anywhere.
Still, the 9670 continues to offer the usual amenities of BlackBerry media playing, with compatibility for viewing a variety of digital video formats (including streaming over 3G or Wi-Fi), a microSD memory card slot supporting up to 32 GB (sorry, no 4 GB of local storage as previously rumoured), and the new Podcasts app bundled with OS 6 lets you subscribe to regularly syndicated audio and video shows. Unfortunately, you can’t add your own feeds and have to make do with what RIM provides, but their catalog is continually growing. The Desktop Software also lets you sync locally-stored music over Wi-Fi with your desktop computer, but I’ve yet to get it to work. Besides, I’ve never seen sideloading via USB a particularly onerous task.
The BlackBerry Style 9670’s 5 megapixel camera is altogether good enough for me. It has loads of preset filters to adjust for low-light, landscape, close-up, portraits, and even other more obscure situations, like the beach, or when it’s snowing. It’s a passable video camera in a pinch, which is helped out a lot by a great flash. The real key with the BlackBerry’s camera is its tight integration with native apps and social networking, so you can share your snaps really easily. Here are a few samples in low-light landscape, regular lighting, a close-up, and a bit of the digital zoom being used.
Call Quality and Battery Life
I had a really rough time with battery life on the BlackBerry Style. Maybe it was a fluke unit, maybe roaming on Telus with a Sprint phone takes some more juice, maybe that external display is leeching extra power, or maybe I didn’t amply charge it out of the box, but I couldn’t for the life of me get a full day of regular usage on the 9670. Casual e-mail checking alone might get one through the work day, but I got 6 hours between checking incoming messages and either playing music, or occasional browsing on Wi-Fi. If this battery life is more than just a one-off mistake, the best-case scenario is that there’s some overlooked battery drain in OS 6.0 that was made when it was ported over to the Style, and that a future patch will fix it. For those that end up getting a BlackBerry 9670, I hope that’s true.
Call quality was fine, and as mentioned, the added length actually makes the Style more comfortable against the face. The OS’s call handling is pretty solid, considering how streamlined the contact app is. Universal search also recognizes phone numbers if you just want to dial rather than look for something on Google.
There are a few key selling points for the BlackBerry Style that might make it for you. For one, the keyboard is the biggest one I’ve seen on a BlackBerry for awhile, which is a big deal for some folks frustrated with the nigh-microscopic keys most of the latest BlackBerrys have offered. Secondly, this is currently the only OS 6 device on Sprint right now, although the Bold 9650 and Curve 9330 are due for an update soon. Third, the flip form factor may, for some reason, hold a special place in your heart. Easy locking and phone-answering, no butt-dialing or screen scratching, or maybe just sheer nostalgia. The Style is also the best BlackBerry on Sprint right now, since it has a better camera and bigger screen than the 9650. There’s no indication that the 9780 will be making a jump to CDMA any time soon, so the Style may be it for Sprint BlackBerrys with 5 megapixel cameras for now.
Despite how it fares among its BlackBerry brethren, the Style will be a hard sell for new customers who so much as glance sideways at, say, the Samsung Epic or the HTC EVO. The BlackBerry loyalists who have funneled their lives through push e-mail and are already dedicated to the lifestyle won’t think twice about moving up to the latest and greatest from RIM, but those who are on the fence and have yet to pick a camp will really want to explore their options, especially if they have some flexibility in carrier choice.
I would recommend the Style 9670 to anyone who wants a high-end BlackBerry, minus the stuffy stigma. The external display and big keyboard offer some very practical bonuses, and the unusual QWERTY/clamshell form factor will appeal to a small but dedicated niche of mobile users. Personally, I’m sticking with the Torch for now. The bigger screen, smaller size when open, and touch sensitivity make it a pretty easy choice between the two.