BlackBerry Style: Fun Design, Unimpressive Features
At a Glance
The flip phone is a dying breed, but RIM is trying to bring it back with its latest handset, the BlackBerry Style ($100 with a two-year contract from Sprint; price as of October 27, 2010). The Style sports a compact design and the latest version of the BlackBerry OS, but the camera is subpar and the keyboard isn't as good as the ones on other BlackBerry devices.
(A portion of the review has been taken from my article "Hands On: BlackBerry 6 OS.")
Design: Flip Phone Throwback
Despite its name, the rounded BlackBerry Style isn't a particularly fashion-forward phone. In fact, in a sea of full-touchscreen devices, the Style's flip design seems a bit out-of-date. It certainly isn't a bad-looking phone, though, with its rounded curves, black and chrome finish, and textured battery cover. And the flip form has its appeal, especially to people who prefer smaller phones and don't want a 4.3-inch display.
When closed, the phone is incredibly pocketable and portable, at 3.8 by 2.4 by 0.7 inches and 4.6 ounces. The external 240-by-320-pixel screen measures 2 inches diagonally and displays notifications for new messages, calls, and calendar reminders. When you're in the music player mode, it displays album art and song information, too.
Opening the phone reveals a 2.7-inch 360-by-400-pixel display that seems a bit small even by BlackBerry standards. For messaging, brief Web browsing, and navigating around the Style's user interface, the screen real estate is just fine. But if you want to watch video, it's way too small. Also, even though the BlackBerry OS 6 makeover suggested that RIM was heading toward a touchscreen world, the Style sports an old-fashioned nontouch display.
The trackpad on the Style, however, is incredibly responsive and to some extent compensates for the lack of a touchscreen. You can use the trackpad to toggle through icons and swipe to move between the multiple homescreens.
The Style has a full-QWERTY vertical keyboard, of course. In the BlackBerry tradition, the keys are slightly sculpted, which makes them easier to press. Unfortunately, the Style's keyboard isn't as good as the ones found on models in the Torch and Bold series. It's a bit too narrow for my liking, and the keys felt a bit sticky. I also noticed a bit of a delay between what I typed and what appeared on my display.
BlackBerry 6: A More Modern OS
Though BlackBerry 6 OS isn't a complete overhaul, it adds some much-needed improvements and overall refinement to RIM's mobile operating system. Icons and text in the OS appear sharper and smoother than they did in previous BlackBerry OS versions, but the overall look is still distinctively BlackBerry.
Reminiscent of pre-2.0 Android, BlackBerry 6 OS has a vertically sliding applications drawer. You can slide it all the way up to view all of your apps, or slide it down to view none at all. Another option is to notch it so you can view one or two rows of apps at a time. I preferred to set up mine so that one row of apps was visible at all times, giving me quick access to the apps I use the most. You can also slide your apps horizontally and view them as filtered by categories such as Favorites, Media, Downloads, and Frequent.
At long last, RIM has brought universal search to the BlackBerry OS. And it's pretty powerful, too, as it prowls through your contacts, apps, music, and just about every other content collection on your phone. To speed up the process, you can tweak the settings to run searches only through specific parts of the phone. I found the universal search quite fast, however, and I relied on it heavily to find information I needed during my hands-on tests. I also liked that it gives you the option to search Google, YouTube, the Yellow Pages, and BlackBerry App World if it doesn't find what you're looking for on the phone itself. A lot of platforms (including Android, iOS, and WebOS) offer universal search, but the BlackBerry's version is the most powerful and comprehensive I've seen.
BlackBerry Finally Gets a WebKit Browser
Hallelujah! WebKit finally comes to the BlackBerry OS. Previously, the BlackBerry platform's biggest pitfall was its shoddy Web browser. Unfortunately, the updated browser still has its problems. Full Flash Player 10 support isn't ready yet for BlackBerry, though RIM is still working with Adobe to deliver the multimedia platform to future phones. And since the OS has no HTML5 support, you're pretty much stuck with YouTube for Web videos.
I can live without Flash support for now, but I can't deal with a sluggish browser. I found the Style's browser slow to load, especially with media-heavy Websites. I managed to crash the browser a few times, too, which was frustrating.
Messaging, E-Mail, and Social Feeds
E-mail is where RIM shines, and BlackBerry 6 OS adds some features that solidify the company's status as the master of messaging. As always, you can sync with your company's BlackBerry Enterprise Server with support for Exchange, Lotus Domino, or Groupwise for real-time e-mail delivery. With BlackBerry Internet Service, you can access up to ten personal/business POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts.
Here's where things get confusing: Essentially you have to deal with two separate inboxes for managing your messages. The universal Messages inbox contains your SMS items, e-mail messages, and BlackBerry Messenger. The dedicated e-mail (in my case, Gmail) inbox contains archiving, threaded conversations, labeling, and starring--an arrangement that's about as close to the Gmail desktop setup as possible. In the catch-all inbox, however, you don't have access to any of these features. This is a bizarre oversight on RIM's part.
Social media aggregators are a hot item in competing smartphones, so it comes as no surprise that RIM has created its own. I find social aggregators a bit messy, and I prefer to read my feeds in separate places. Ultimately I don't have any use for aggregators, and I wish that smartphone manufacturers would stop insisting that dumping all of your social networks in one location somehow increases your productivity. RIM's Social Feeds app certainly does not.
Like competing aggregators, Social Feeds combines your Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging apps (AIM, BlackBerry Messenger, Gtalk), and RSS feeds into a seamless view. Though adding accounts is as simple as logging in, and the interface is fairly easy to decipher, Social Feeds lacks a lot of functionality. You can post status updates and view others, and that's basically all. If you want to comment on somebody's Facebook status or tweet, for example, you have to move to a stand-alone Facebook or Twitter client.
I enjoy the flip throwback, but I had forgotten how awkward it is to take a picture with this form factor. Though the Style has a dedicated camera shutter button, you can't snap a photo with the phone closed. You must leave the phone open to take the picture--not ideal when you want to capture a quick snapshot. The 5-megapixel camera is a step up from the 3-megapixel shooters formerly found on BlackBerry phones, but I wasn't impressed with its image quality. My indoor shots looked blown out and overexposed. My outdoor snapshots looked better, but they weren't as sharp as ones taken on other phones' 5-megapixel cameras.
Can a BlackBerry phone be an entertainment device? The music player gets a much needed face-lift, gaining a CoverFlow-like interface that nicely showcases your music collection's album art. To navigate through your collection, simply run your finger over the album art.
You'll also find a brand-new YouTube application with a fairly straightforward interface, and a BlackBerry Podcast app for managing your video and audio podcasts.
Call quality over Sprint's 3G network was very good on the BlackBerry Style. Voices sounded loud and clear, and my contacts could hear me fine, even on a busy street corner.
Browser performance over Wi-Fi was dismal. I'm not sure whether this was due to the browser or to the hardware, but I experienced similar speeds on the BlackBerry Torch as on the Style. YouTube's mobile site took 30 seconds to load completely. PCWorld.com's mobile site took 27.2 seconds to load, and the full PCWorld site took a painful 2 minutes, 37 seconds. By way of comparison, PCWorld's full site took between 15 and 20 seconds to load over Wi-Fi on a midrange Android phone, the LG Optimus T.
The BlackBerry Style isn't the most exciting BlackBerry device to hit the carriers, but at $100, it is fairly affordable. The Style might be a good fit for people who miss flip-style phones and want a handset with relatively compact dimensions, but the phone feels like a bit of a regression for RIM. Its mediocre camera and average keyboard prevent it from being a standout.
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