Sprint Blackberry Style Review
Following a trend of phone companies naming their phones after cool adjectives or nouns, Research in Motion released the Blackberry Style this past week on Sprint. I do find it rather ironic that a phone named “Style” is actually a clamshell smartphone, since in 2010 this particular form factor is not in style at all; far from it, actually.
So with that said, is this new device something you should feel stylish packing around with you? UnwiredView is here to answer that question plus many more in our full-scale review of the Blackberry Style 9670 on Sprint.
The Style runs for $99.99 with contract, and is one of the first phones (besides the Blackberry Torch) to run the new OS 6 out of the box. I was very intrigued to play around with a Blackberry phone that runs OS 6 with no touchscreen, and see how it’s different.
My first thought in seeing the Style was the fact it is a clamshell smartphone. We don’t see too many of these out there mainly because it’s so hard to pull it off well. Clamshells with full physical keyboards tend to be either too wide (wide is okay for some sliders or slate phones, but it looks too large for comfort on a flip), or the keys tend to be too small in order to decrease the phone’s width.
Blackberry has had many years of experience to find a way to pull it off, and they succeeded this time. I can’t exactly say the same thing about its clamshell predecessor, the Pearl 8220 (it was cheaply made and flimsy, and used the Pearl SureType keyboard instead of full QWERTY), but a lot of lessons were learned and the Style was born as a result.
Box of the Blackberry Style
Just like many of Sprint’s recent offerings, the Style came in the usual gray-and-yellow box with the random person doing a random thing right next to a phone that by scale is actually taller than the person in the picture. Very inaccurate representation of a phone, of course, but in this case it appears to be a stylish woman just standing up and admiring the phone. I guess it can be assumed this is supposed to be a business professional, as that is usually the typical demographic RIM aims for nowadays.
Inside the box itself, I found the standard 3.5 mm headphone set, USB cable with wall module, as well as all the fun documentation. The user tools are located on a mini CD, which will include user manuals and desktop manager for Blackberry. Underneath all this there is a “get started” guide, which is supposed to help assist you in getting everything set up, especially if this is your first time using a Blackberry.
Hardware and Design
Earlier I made mention of clamshell smartphones being too wide. I came away from my review of the Style very impressed because not only is this phone not too wide, it’s actually the same width as the iPhone and Nokia N8, and narrower by a slight margin than the Torch, its older brother. It feels like a hockey puck to a certain degree, and has a certain level of awkwardness when gripping it, but it still is mostly comfortable to hold in my hand.
I noticed that whenever Blackberry steps outside of its comfort zone by experimenting with a form factor different than the standard candybar (a la Curve and Bold, for example), the company goes to great pains to ensure that each and every one of its phones still maintains the same Blackberry look and style. In other words, while the Style is a clamshell, it still has the shape, size and design of any other Blackberry made over the last two years. It’s made of the same material, the keyboard looks identical to that of the Bold or Tour, and the sides have a very smooth feel reminiscent of several other Blackberry phones made this year.
My review unit is black, and the Style is available in purple as well, though the decision of which color to choose seems irrelevant since both colors look highly glossy and pick up fingerprints, smudges, and grease incredibly easy.
On the outside, The front display has a 240×320 pixel resolution, which is one of the best I’ve seen for the front display on a flip phone. By default it shows off an analog clock with vital stats (such as battery life, internet connection, reception level, etc) and mentions any notifications you may have. Currently I see my emails and SMS, Facebook and Twitter updates. Here’s how it works: use the volume keys, up or down, to move from one notification to the next; to select and view more details about that particular notification, hit the convenience key (both volume and convenience keys are located on the right hand side of the Style).
The external display isn’t perfect. It only shows a preview of each message, so in order to view longer texts or emails you’ll need to flip the phone open and read them the old-fashioned way. Still, this offers a great opportunity when you’re busy to see if it’s even worth opening the phone to read it in the first place. If not, obviously it saves you time not having to worry about it until later.
The back sports a 5 MP camera with LED flash and not much else. The battery cover is a little flashy with what looks like a bit of brushed gun metal to give it the modern classy look. Looking at the right side there you will see a volume rocker and convenience key, the same shortcut key you’ll see on any and every Blackberry made in the last few years. Over on its opposite end, there is a MicroUSB charging port and 3.5 mm headphone jack if you want to shun the headphones in the box in favor of your own personal set.
Flipping it open it’s easy to notice the same kind of keyboard you would find on a Bold 9700 or Tour; the keys on the Style are ever-so-slightly smaller and more crowded in comparison, but not by much. The set up is pretty much the same across the board: gracing the topside of the keyboard is the call button, menu, trackpad (I love the trackpad so much more than the trackball!), go back button, and end call/power. The rest of the keyboard is stretched out over 4 rows in the same fashion we’d see any other keyboard. Blackberry opted for more of the raised-key look on the Style, which will be very close to the Bold, Tour, and even 8800 series. All of your typing will feel incredibly familiar and shouldn’t take long to get accustomed to. Even though the keys on the Style’s keyboard are raised, they still seem flatter than most Blackberry keyboards. It does make it a little more difficult to type on.
The trackpad is really sensitive by default, but I turned down the settings on mine to around 60 and it really limited the number of apps I normally open up by accident simply because the slightest touch on the trackpad would whisk the cursor away to the other side of the screen.
Flipping open the Style feels smooth and unhindered. There is no difficulty in opening the Style, and never feels like it’s going to fall apart. This is a huge plus to me.
Once flipped open, take a look at the hinges. The hinge on the Style looks very solid, like it will last a long time with moderate or heavy use. To any hardcore Blackberry user, this will not come as much of a shock since Blackberry tends to make their devices more durable than others. As the phone gets opened, the screen’s top half of the phone will actually partially duck beneath the keyboard half, only enough to tuck the screen out of the way when the phone’s in use.
The main display is a 2.7” LCD using a 360×400 pixel resolution. This means the display is going to be very similar to the Torch and Bold, which looks fine for being a smaller 2.7” screen. It is still disappointing to see that no progress has been made by RIM in improving the display. Certainly I have a feeling that the Style began its development stage around the same time as the Torch, which would explain why the screen resolution is the same. But the question continues to loom: when will the screen quality get any better on a Blackberry than it has been over the last two years straight? In this industry, if you aren’t moving forward, you’re moving backward.
So in terms of the phone’s design, does it live up to being full of “Style”? Maybe for 2008 or 2009, it is, but I just feel as though it’s already dated in some ways. The question is, has any of RIM’s devices in 2010 actually felt completely fresh and modern? Probably not. But just like most other Blackberrys in existence, the Style does throw in a look of class. And quite frankly, Blackberry prefers that design over trying to look hip and stylish any day of the week.
Software of the Blackberry Style
The Style takes advantage of Blackberry’s new OS 6, still in its stages of infancy. Having played with OS 6 on a Blackberry Torch, I first thought that this new OS would work out well only on a touchscreen device, due to the types of gestures that are used to navigate through the several different home screen panels and minimize/maximize those screens. But since the Style lacks a touchscreen interface, and the OS looks almost identical to its Torch brother, Blackberry has to find different ways to perform the same kinds of functions.
My favorite improvements of the new OS in general are the inclusion of a webkit browser, a full HTML browser much similar to what Android and iOS use; a universal search option that allows me to look through all my email accounts, social feeds and applications to find what I am looking for; and a universal inbox that mashes together all emails/SMS messages with my social feeds such as Facebook and Twitter. It’s nice to just have one folder with all of my updates, instead of having to search through 5-6 different folders to get the information I need.
OS 6 also splits up the usual one-size-fits-all app tray and organizes many of the special apps into several sections or categories, such as “all”, “frequent”, “recent”, “media”, and “downloads”. This is especially helpful when you have dozens of apps and hate having to search your entire app tray to find what you need. Rather, either use the universal search to find it or filter it in one of the other app tray sections.
Some elements of OS 6 on a non-touchscreen device are just as easy as on the touchscreen Torch, some are not. Most gestures can be done through the trackpad; instead of swiping your finger up or down on the screen itself to easily open/close the app trays, you need to scroll the trackpad down all the way to the bottom to get the tray to open up. To get it to close, hit the back button or go up to where it says the name of the tray’s category and click the trackpad once. Or, just double-tap the menu button to open it and double-tap again to close it. Easy enough. Moving back and forth from one screen panel to the next is also easy, only requiring a swipe of the finger left or right over the trackpad.
Features of the Blackberry Style
The Blackberry Style’s camera is 5 MP with autofocus, LED flash, image stabilizer, and plenty of different scene settings; in other words, it’s precisely where it should be for a new Blackberry of the $99 price range. It also records VGA video, which is somewhat of a sour point for me on any modern smartphone with a camera of 5 MP or higher. I believe that any phone with a camera of that caliber already should also invest in better camcorder capabilities.
A huge flaw in the Style camera is its placement on the device. It’s located on the back of the phone, which normally is not a large concern by any means. However, on a device like the Style that has a rather short back, almost every single time I turned on the camera I discovered that my fingers were covering up the lens. The way I grip the phone normally, it feels very unnatural to move my hand even further down the phone to take video, not to mention how top-heavy the rest of the phone feels as a result.
Overall the camera is not very impressive for a 5 MP resolution, and I wanted to see better video capture quality than plain VGA. Below are a couple sample shots and one sample video I took with the Style camera/camcorder to show off the quality. The pictures can be somewhat blurry even with image stabilizer technology built in. My only guess is that the pictures would be sharper if I could use the camera holding it the normal way, but this will have to do. The video records at VGA 640×480 res, and takes 20 fps. The sample shown below is a bit choppy and I can’t make out as much detail as I’d like, but it sure does get left in the dust being behind other smartphones with 30 fps rate and even some with HD recording.
The Style comes with 512 MB of internal flash memory and includes a 8 GB microSD card. If you need more space, the Style will handle microSD capacity of 32 GB. I like to see phones come with a large enough microSD card to remain competitive in memory to most other major phones on the market.
Since we are talking about a Blackberry device, it’s probably a totally obvious statement to mention email and messaging is one of the Style’s biggest strengths. But it’s been stepped up a notch with OS 6. Earlier I talked briefly about how OS 6 integrates the mailbox with Twitter and Facebook updates without any real effort. The only concern I have about Blackberry’s messaging services is the lack of real exchange support for regular customers. It becomes frustrating for me when I want to sync my Google contacts, calendar, and other email accounts wirelessly using the Exchange server, and find that I cannot do so without downloading a special app that takes extra time to sync everything, instead of doing it in real-time.
Sprint throws in some of its own services in here, which may all sound very familiar since they are included with most Sprint smartphones. Sprint Zone, Sprint Navigation, Sprint TV, Sprint Music Store and NASCAR Sprint Cup Mobile. Those are the largest portions of bloatware on the phone, but if you feel like adding in your own special flavor to your new device, check out the App World directly on the Style to find the latest and best apps for it. App World has a long ways to go when compared to every other app store in the US market today. You’ll find a larger variety of apps to choose from when using Android or iOS, but on a Blackberry you not only have the few thousand apps in the App World to pick from, you can also choose some from third-party sites if it fits your fancy.
The Style also comes with Twitter, Facebook and MySpace all preloaded as separate options, and you can also combine them together in the Social Feed, a new OS6 improvement that puts all your updates into one feed, and even includes the option to subscribe to RSS feeds as well.
Another unique feature that was briefly mentioned in my review of the Blackberry Torch and OS 6 was the new ability to sync music over WiFi. When I’m on the same WiFi network as the computer that holds all of my music, I can have the two devices see each other and sync with each other easily. It will be essential to get the latest version of Blackberry Desktop Manager in order to do this. Not only will you be able to back up your phone, you can sync many types of information with it as well, such as calendar, contacts, and messages.
I also found a hidden nugget in the phone app: when in the middle of a call, hit the Menu button and you’ll find an option to enhance your call audio. A popup window shows up asking if you want to boost the bass and/or treble. I’ve never seen this before on any phone.
Performance of the Blackberry Style
This is where Blackberry shines every time. Anytime I use a Blackberry, I can count on it being consistent with all of its other products; the antenna is strong, the battery life is long, and call quality is excellent. The voices on the other end of the line are crisp and loud, easy to hear, and vice versa.
While the Style is packing a sub-par processor that’s estimated at 600 MHz, I noticed a large contrast between this phone and the Sanyo Zio. Both phones have roughly the same speed processors, and the Style benefits from Blackberry’s efficient and speedy UI. No matter what processor speed, the Style is going to outperform its brethren in terms of overall lag experienced (or not experienced).
My call quality on the Style was great, and never had any concerns from anyone I talked to on it. This has never come as much of a surprise to me given Blackberry’s reputation of making a solid device that can handle a lot that you throw at it.
I enjoy the battery life on the Style. Talk time is rated at 4.5 hours, average for smartphones, but I got it to last roughly around 5 hours straight talk time. More realistic to my usual routines on a smartphone, I got almost a day and a half out of moderate use.
If there’s any reason to get a Blackberry, it’s going to be performance. RIM knows how to design a properly executed phone with great messaging features, and now are branching out to other areas such as multimedia. They’re on the right track for all the other stuff, but as long as Blackberry still retains its solid reputation for making a reliable smartphone, it still has a future.
Still has a future so long as they do start catching up with the rest of the smartphone gang. Using the Style made me feel as though I were using a state-of-the-art phone from 2008, which made me realize that Blackberry hasn’t made anything state-of-the-art in a very long time. The Style feels as though it began the design process around the same time as the Torch, which is why they both have very similar specs.
But being top of the line isn’t the reason to get the Style. Get it because it’s a reliable phone and a relatively comfortable fit as a clamshell smartphone. Get it because the price is right on it, not too high and not too low. Get it because it’s a solid phone that doesn’t feel flimsy as if it’s going to fall apart any moment.
Here’s the don’ts: Don’t get it if you want the best quality camera or multimedia experience. They’re decent on the Style, but not fantastic. Also don’t get it if you’re looking for a world phone, as it only sports dual CDMA 850/1900 bands. It also doesn’t have the fastest processor, HD video recording, or any touchscreen interaction.
Overall, in looking at all of the recent offerings in Sprint’s lineup around the $99 range, the Style outshines most if not all in that category. If you like the flip form factor and don’t care about having the nicest bells and whistles, it’ll be a good buy for your money.
Oh – I almost forgot the most important part – is it really very stylish? Will it make you cool just for having it? It’s not quite THAT hip or cool or whatever term you want to use. But it’s classy. The glossy look on the front and gun metal on the back help add to the aesthetic appeal. It’s not a hipster device, but still a good device for professionals.
What do you think about it, based on what you’ve seen and read so far? Leave a note in the comments for us. Also check me out on Twitter at http://twitter.com/phonewisdom. Below you’ll find a two-part video (a full 20 minutes of Blackberry Style goodness) and picture gallery. Enjoy!