I have to be perfectly honest here… I was anything but excited when FedEx dropped a BlackBerry Style 9670 review unit from Sprint at my door. I have nothing against BlackBerrys and I certainly have nothing against Sprint, but the idea of reviewing what would probably end up being just another BlackBerry was not exciting to me in the least.
Part of me wanted to skip the review altogether. A big part of me. After years of seeing nearly identical BlackBerry devices hit the market one after the next, is there really anything left to say?
So in this review, I tried to focus mostly on what makes the BlackBerry Style 9670 different from its predecessors. If you want to read about why RIM’s email system is great or how awesome BlackBerry Messenger is, feel free to look back on any of the thousands of BlackBerry reviews that have been written over the past few years. You’ll surely find your fill. If you want to read about how crazy it is that in 2010, BlackBerry devices still can’t synchronize read statuses properly with Gmail accounts, please look elsewhere. I’m not here to beat a dead horse.
If instead, you want to know what makes the BlackBerry Style unique and why it might or might not appeal to you, read on.
RIM’s last clamshell device, the Pearl Flip, was a mess. It felt cheap and dated, and I wasn’t a fan of the SureType keyboard. Plainly put, it did nothing to push the BlackBerry brand forward. The Style, on the other hand, is a very well designed and well built phone.
When closed, the handset is very compact — it measures less than 4 inches tall, less than 2 1/2 inches wide and less than 3/4 of an inch deep. But it’s not light or cheap feeling at all, weighing in at 4.62 ounces. It fits quite well in the hand and when flipped open, it doesn’t feel overly top-heavy as some clamshells do.
The build is also very solid. Whereas the Pearl Flip felt like a cheap toy, the Style feels sturdy and well made. It’s no HTC Desire or iPhone 4, of course, but for a $100 phone it’s not bad at all. The flip mechanism is smooth and sturdy with no play whatsoever, and the battery cover has a nice aluminum feel to it despite the fact that it is made of plastic.
Like the Pearl Flip, the inner display on the BlackBerry Style is angled slightly inward when the device is flipped open. While the design is nifty from afar, I find it less than ideal. RIM’s best phones all utilize the candy bar form factor, where the display and keyboard are perfectly aligned. On the Style, this is not the case. If you hold the phone as you would any other BlackBerry while you type, the display is angled down slightly, toward your chest. It’s still visible but it’s a bit awkward. If you tilt the phone back a bit in order to achieve the proper viewing angle for the display, typing becomes uncomfortable.
The only time I like the display angle on the Style is when I place it on a flat surface while flipped open. The protrusion on the back of the flip combined with the angle of the display give it a nice viewing angle while resting on my desk. It also makes a pretty formidable catapult at the dinner table.
Another difference between the Style and BlackBerrys of old is the button configuration on the sides of the device. Like the Torch, the BlackBerry Style has a volume rocker and a convenience key on the right side of the device, but there is no configurable button on the left. I’ve grown accustomed to having the left button configured to launch BBM while the right button launches AIM. On the Style, I obviously have to adjust my habits a bit.
The internal display on the Style is about as good as you might expect. It only supports 65,000 colors and the resolution is not spectacular at 360 x 400 pixels. I highly recommend going into the device settings and disabling the option to auto-adjust display brightness. Any setting above 60% will look fine, but the display becomes very difficult to see when it auto-dims.
On the software side of things, BlackBerry 6 brings some new features to the table that BlackBerry fans have been waiting for quite anxiously. The full HTML Web browser, for example, is a massive improvement compared to the old BlackBerry browser. Compared to other operating systems such as webOS, iOS or Android, however, RIM still has a long way to go before its browsing experience is up to snuff.
Other new features such as Universal Search and the revamped Options menus are also well received. The former works wonderfully, allowing me to find any app, setting, song, email or contact with ease. The Options section is still overcomplicated though, making even the simplest task far more arduous than it needs to be.
Coming from the BlackBerry Torch, which I’ve spent quite a bit of time with, it is glaringly obvious that many of the styling changes in BlackBerry 6 are designed for use with touchscreens. On several occasions I’ve caught myself motioning toward the display in an effort to flick open the app tray or poke at the on-screen camera shutter button. This likely won’t be a big deal for people who aren’t coming from the Torch, but the UI is still awkward at times.
Have you noticed that there is a touchscreen on every iOS, Android, webOS and Windows Phone 7 device on the market? This is because using an OS designed for touch on a device without a touchscreen is awkward. RIM pulls it off much better than any of the aforementioned operating systems could, but that’s because BlackBerry OS is still in its infancy where touch input is concerned.
As a phone, the BlackBerry Style does its job quite well. This is one area where I’m happy BlackBerry devices haven’t changed much over the years. Reception is terrific, call quality is outstanding and I’ve yet to drop a call — even in areas with spotty coverage. The top speaker is crystal clear and parties on the other end say they can hear me with impressive clarity. The 9670 also has a fantastic speakerphone speaker, even at high volumes.
It makes you wonder why some competitors aren’t prying these puppies open and learning from RIM’s fantastic phone technology.
Having a sizable external display on a flip phone is great, and RIM did a good job making use of it. Beyond the nice big analog clock that appears when any side-key is tapped, the display shows signal strength and remaining battery charge along with unread message counts. When new messages hit one of my inboxes, I can view the sender without having to flip the phone open. What’s more, if I have multiple unread messages I can cycle through them on the external display using the volume keys. I can then tap the convenience key on any email to view the message body.
The camera on the BlackBerry Style does not take great shots. It does, however, take ok shots, and that’s more than I can say for most BlackBerry camera phones. The flash works surprisingly well in moderately low light, and well-lit scenes come out pretty crisp. There’s still a bit of grain on images but it’s definitely not as bad as older models.
Battery life on the BlackBerry Style is not great compared to other BlackBerry phones, which typically afford jaw-dropping longevity. On the other hand, this is a compact little phone with a tiny 1050 mAh battery. With that in mind, the battery life on the Style is impressive. Power users might have trouble getting through a long day, but with average to above-average amounts of usage, the Style will go at least a day between charges.
Another big plus on the Style took me by surprise — the music player. The music player app itself is nothing special but the quality of music playback seems to be improved compared to similar BlackBerry models. It’s no iPod, but when I plugged in my Ultimate Ears Triple.Fis and cranked some Taylor Swift… umm… err… I mean… Metallica, I was pretty impressed with the sound quality. It’s still a bit muddy, but it’s really pretty decent considering the phone’s pedigree and price range.
Last up on the plus side but certainly not least, is the keyboard. I don’t really need to get into how great BlackBerry keyboards are, so instead I’ll gauge it among its peers: on a scale of Pearl to Bold, it’s above a Torch and below a Curve 8900.
On a device without a touchscreen, BlackBerry 6 is not very exciting. Yes, seasoned BlackBerry users are still giddy over the introduction of a halfway decent Web browser. Yes, BlackBerry 6 does introduce some nifty new features such as Universal Search on the home screen. But overall, it’s still just BlackBerry OS.
It’s slow, it’s clunky and it just doesn’t feel modern or sexy at all. That may seem like a superficial complaint, but I assure you it’s not. There’s a reason you have Windows 7 installed on your computer and not Windows 3.1. And trust me… when RIM finally does start releasing new devices with a modern QNX-based operating system, even the most hardcore BlackBerry junkies you know will be gushing over the new OS while wondering aloud how they dealt with the old OS for so long.
Managing applications is also still very painful. Installations take way too long, deletions still often require a painful reboot, and so on. The first app I installed was WeatherEye, a simple weather forecast viewer I downloaded from BlackBerry App World. The first time I tried to launch the app, I got an “Uncaught exception” error. I cleared out the error and tried again. This time WeatherEye displayed a splash screen, ran through a bunch of text and then froze. I had to pull the battery to exit the app.
The next app I installed was Gmail but it’s nowhere to be found in App World, so I had to search the Web for it.
And so on.
If an app has a fatal error or is not compatible with my phone model, why is it available to me in App World? And why should I have to go hunting around the Web for apps when there’s a perfectly good centralized portal on my device?
Needless to say, this is not an optimal user experience. It’s slow, it’s painful, it’s full of roadblocks and it’s anything but consistent. It needs to be fixed.
My other big complaint is the camera. I’ve already stated that the camera takes decent pictures, but there is a pretty significant flaw that could have easily been avoided — the lens positioning is terrible.
It’s a ridiculous design flaw, actually. The camera is located on the back of the Style just above the battery cover, and it is situated exactly where you would naturally place your pointer as you take a picture by pressing your thumb on the optical trackpad. As a result, you have to adjust your grip when snapping shots and it feels very unnatural. The camera should have been situated on the top of the flip beneath the BlackBerry logo.
As an aside, the BlackBerry Style is clearly aimed at the consumer market. Adding a “self portrait” mode that allows people to take pictures of themselves using the external display as a front-facing digital viewfinder should have been a no-brainer. It would have scored the Style some major points among tweens. Come on, RIM.
The Bottom Line
In the end, the BlackBerry Style isn’t a terrible $100 smartphone from Sprint. It’s also not a great one.
It’s definitely aimed at consumers and it doesn’t have much of a place in the enterprise market. For the younger crowd already hooked on BBM and RIM’s famous BlackBerry keyboards, the Style is a great option. Add to that Sprint’s solid network and extremely competitive rate plans, and you’re good to go.
On the other hand, those who are looking for a modern, streamlined smartphone experience should look elsewhere. I’ve said it before; you’ve said it before; everyone has said it before… the BlackBerry experience as we know it peaked long ago. But if you look toward the horizon and squint your eyes at just the right time of day, you can see QNX riding south with guns blazing. Whether or not he’ll make it to town with enough ammo left to save the townspeople remains to be seen.