Price and Availability
The BlackBerry Curve 8520 is available from T-Mobile for $129.99 when you sign a new two-year service agreement. That's a low price for a brand-new BlackBerry.
The BlackBerry Curve 8520 is the first BlackBerry smartphone to feature an optical, touch-sensitive trackpad instead of a trackball for navigation -- and I like it. Too often, I found the trackballs to be too loose to help you scroll through lists and menus easily. The trackpad, however, was perfectly responsive to my touch. It also clicked satisfyingly when pressed, unlike the trackballs, which I found often rolled when I was actually trying to press them.
Size-wise, the Curve 8520 is smaller and rounder than the BlackBerry Tour; it's similar in size (though just a tiny bit thicker) to the ultra-slim BlackBerry Curve 8900. The keyboard is also a bit more cramped than the roomy one found on the Bold, but it's excellent, nonetheless.
The Curve 8520 is available in black or frost, and unlike the Curve 8900, it lacks the chrome accents around the edge of the phone. Instead, you get a rubberized grip that I found quite comfortable. The phone's buttons, including the volume controls and a camera key, are integrated into the rubber edge, and are easy to find and use.
The Curve's screen measures 2.4 inches diagonally, which feels a bit small compared to some of the displays on today's best phones, which often measure 3 inches or larger. And its resolution is only 320 by 240, which is not as sharp as the high-resolution displays found on other BlackBerry phones, like the Tour and Bold.
Call quality ranged from good to decent in my test calls. My callers sounded loud and mostly clear, and they said the same thing about me. I did notice occasional static during some calls.
In addition to making calls over T-Mobile's cellular network, you also can make calls over Wi-Fi wireless networks using T-Mobile's HotSpot calling service. This costs $9.99 per month, but it allows you to make calls in places where a wireless network is available, but the cellular signal is weak. It also allows you to save the voice minutes allotted on your monthly plan. The quality of my test calls made over Wi-Fi was good, but not significantly better than calls made over the cellular network.
Browsing the Web
The included BlackBerry browser is decent, but not on a par with the excellent mobile browsers found on the iPhone and Android-based phones. The BlackBerry browser displays Web pages just as you would see them on a computer screen, and lets you zoom in and out easily. Some pages feel slightly cramped on the Curve's relatively small screen, though.
You get support for Wi-Fi networks for speedy browsing. But you won't find support for high-speed 3G networks, so if you're out of Wi-Fi range, you have to rely on the very pokey EDGE network for data access. EDGE speeds are comparable to using dial-up service to access the Internet, so be prepared for slow page loads and plenty of waiting.
Like all BlackBerry phones, the Curve 8520 excels at messaging. It will support 10 personal or business e-mail accounts, and setting them up is a breeze. You also get access to several instant messaging applications, including AOL's AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, and Windows Live Messenger, plus support for text and multimedia messaging.
The BlackBerry OS is mixed when it comes to software, but it does have some attributes. First, you get access to BlackBerry App World, RIM's application store which is growing nicely. It lacks the enormous (and often overwhelming) selection of apps that you'll find in the iPhone App Store, but you will find a decent selection of titles in there.
The Curve 8520 also has the DataViz Docs To Go editing suite preinstalled, but you only get the Standard Edition of the suite, which doesn't allow you to create new Microsoft Office documents. For that capability, you'll have to upgrade to the $70 Premium Edition.
Overall, though I find the BlackBerry OS just a bit unorganized and harder to navigate than it should be. For example, you'll find two folders on the Curve: one is labeled Music and one is labeled Media. Both will take you to the music player, though. Why not simplify things with one entry point only?
The included 2-megapixel camera is pretty basic. It has a digital zoom, but lacks both an auto-focus and a flash. Some of the snapshots it captured were surprisingly good, with bright colors and crisp images -- as long as my subjects were sitting still. When a subject moved at all, the results went downhill quickly. The camera also captures decent video clips, though some of my movies looked slightly blurry and choppy.
Music and More
The Curve 8520 breaks with BlackBerry tradition by offering external controls for its music and video player. These buttons sit in the rubberized edging on the top of the phone, and make it easy to launch the music player without requiring you to dig through the BlackBerry's sometimes-confusing menu system.
The music and video player is decent, but basic. Videos looked good on the smallish screen, though not as good as they do on the higher-resolution screens of the Bold and the Tour. And while the music player is easy to use, T-Mobile does not offer its own music store. That means you can't download tunes over-the-air to your phone. If you want music, you'll have to transfer it yourself using the BlackBerry desktop software.
You won't find GPS on the BlackBerry Curve 8520, but you can use the Google Maps application, which tracks your location via cell towers. It can't provide true turn-by-turn driving directions, though.
The BlackBerry Curve 8520 offers nice mix of features for a low price. Sure, it lacks GPS and 3G support, but if you can live with those omissions, you'll find the Curve 8520 packs in plenty of other features.