Katherine Boehret

A BlackBerry Priced Right For Newcomers

Web browsing and email have comfortably migrated to mobile handhelds like the iPhone, BlackBerry and Palm (PALM) Pre. But many of these gadgets still cost a lot compared with cellphones that come free with renewed two-year contracts.

This week, I tested a new BlackBerry that costs less than any other BlackBerry did at launch—that is, if you buy it at the right place. Research in Motion’s (RIMM) BlackBerry Curve 8520 costs just $49 at Wal-Mart (WMT)—or $130 if you buy it at T-Mobile. Both prices are with two-year T-Mobile contracts.

The BlackBerry Curve has been one of the company’s most popular models. All iterations of the Curve combine a full QWERTY keyboard with a sleeker, more stylish look than bigger BlackBerry models like the Bold. And Curves typically cost less than their larger counterparts. In February, RIM refreshed its Curve brand for the first time in over two years with the 8900. This model was a real upgrade for Curve users, thanks to a brighter screen, faster performance and flatter keys that were easier to press. But six months later, it still costs as much as $199 (after rebate)—a steep asking price considering how some older 8300-series Curves are offered for around $50 with two-year contracts.

This newest $49 Curve 8520 lowers that price barrier. Its monthly T-Mobile service plans are also relatively inexpensive, starting at $55 for voice and data (not including MMS or SMS messaging).

It has two features never before seen on a BlackBerry. First, in place of a trackball or scroll wheel, this Curve uses a trackpad—a mini version of those used for mouse navigation on laptops.

Second, it has designated physical buttons for playing, pausing and skipping ahead or back within media like videos and music. These rubbery buttons are built into the top edge of the BlackBerry.

I like the look of the Curve 8520—especially how the surface covering its screen extends down to the trackpad and its four surrounding buttons, giving it a smooth facade. It comes in two colors, black and frost (I used the black). Its low price, alone, will be enough to draw customers.

But something about the way its keyboard and navigational keys worked felt cheap. Letter keys felt light and hollow while the Send, Menu, Escape and End keys around the trackpad clicked as I touched them.

The specifications of this BlackBerry tell the tale more specifically. Its 320×240 pixel screen looks faded next to that of the Curve 8900, which is 480×360. The blinking red indicator light at the top front corner of all BlackBerrys is a barely noticeable dot on this device.

And its camera is only two megapixels, not 3.2 megapixels like on the 8900, and is the first on a BlackBerry not to have a built-in flash. Also, it doesn’t run on the fast 3G network, though it uses Wi-Fi and automatically connects to trusted networks when in range of them.

First-time smartphone owners may not notice or care about these small details, but veteran BlackBerry users will pick up on them right away.

The Curve 8520 incorporates useful physical features found on previous models like right- and left-side convenience keys that work as handy shortcuts. It comes with a 1-gigabyte microSD memory card so users don’t have to buy their own before loading this device with photos, music and videos.

A strip of rubber runs around the Curve’s edge, covering up and smoothing over its convenience keys and volume buttons. This rugged addition isn’t visible from the front of the BlackBerry and it will probably go a long way in preventing nicks and dings. The word “Curve” is imprinted on the back of the BlackBerry, proudly branding this model.

The navigational trackpad is a cinch to use and moves the cursor up, down, right and left with very little effort. To select, one needs only to press in on the trackpad just as with the trackball. Unlike the trackball, which rolls in place and can get stuck once in a great while, the trackpad doesn’t have any moving parts.

The physical media keys on the Curve 8520’s top edge work to instantly start playing media from any screen, like a music video that I watched. If you were to use your BlackBerry as your sole portable media player, these would be more valuable. And their position on the top of the Curve makes them easy to reach if the device is in a pocket or purse.

In my everyday usage scenarios, I usually forgot about these shortcut buttons and just used the trackpad to find and select a track or video for playing.

BlackBerry’s App World store for applications that users can load onto the device still only offers 2,000 apps, compared to Apple’s (AAPL) 65,000. This means that for now, this new Curve can’t be enhanced with as many outside programs, which is a real downside. And if you do download a lot of apps, or music or videos or photos, you may have to get a bigger memory card.

The Curve 8520 isn’t made for BlackBerry fanatics. But it’s a good entry-level BlackBerry for users who still haven’t let go of their basic cellphones. At Wal-Mart’s $49 price, it’s hard to beat.


Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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