The flip phone is a dying breed, but Research In Motion (RIM) is trying to bring it back with its latest handset, the BlackBerry Style. 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 other BlackBerry devices.
Despite the name, the round BlackBerry Style isn't the most fashion-forward phone. In fact, in the sea of full touchscreen devices, the flip form factor seems a bit, well, out-of-date. That said, the Style isn't a bad-looking phone with its rounded curves, black and chrome finish and textured battery cover. And I honestly don't mind the flip form; it has its place in the phone world. Some people actually prefer smaller phones to gargantuan smartphones (4.3-inch displays aren't for everyone!).
When closed, the phone measures 3.8-by-2.4-by-0.7-inches, making it incredibly pocketable and portable. It weighs a manageable 4.6 ounces. There's an external 2-inch 240-by-320 display, which displays notifications for new messages, calls and calendar reminders. It will also display album art and song information when you're in the music player mode.
Opening the phone reveals the 2.7-inch 360-by-400-pixel display. 2.7-inches feels a bit small-even for a BlackBerry. For messaging, brief Web browsing (more about that later) and navigating around the Style's user interface, the screen real estate is just fine. If you want to watch video, however, 2.7-inches is just way too small. Oh yes, and did I mention that the display isn't touch? Even though the BlackBerry OS 6 makeover seemed to imply that RIM was headed toward a touchscreen world, the Style sports a good old-fashioned non-touch display.
The trackpad on the Style is incredibly responsive, however, and sort of makes up for the lack of a touchscreen. You can use the trackpad to toggle through the icons and swipe to move between the multiple homescreens.
The Style, of course, has a full-QWERTY vertical keyboard. In the BlackBerry tradition, the keys are slightly sculpted, making them easier to press. Unfortunately, the Style's keyboard is subpar when compared to keyboards found on the Torch or the Bold series. It is a bit too narrow for my liking and the keys felt a bit sticky. There was also 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. The icons and text in the OS appear sharper and smoother than they did in previous BlackBerry OS versions, but the overall look is ultimately 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. You can also notch it to view one or two rows of apps at a time. I preferred to keep mine so that one row of apps was showing at all times, so that I could easily access the apps I used the most. You can also slide your apps horizontally and view your apps 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 searches through your contacts, apps, music--just about everywhere on your phone. If you want to speed up the process, you can tweak the settings so that it searches only through specific parts of the phone. I found it quite fast, however, and I relied on it heavily to find what I needed in 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 (Android, iOS, WebOS) offer universal search, but the BlackBerry's version is the most powerful and comprehensive of them all.
BlackBerry finally gets a WebKit browser
Hallelujah! WebKit finally comes to the BlackBerry OS. Until now, the BlackBerry platform's biggest pitfall was its shoddy Web browser. Unfortunately, this updated browser still has its problems. Full Flash Player 10 support unfortunately isn't ready yet for BlackBerry, though RIM is still working with Adobe to deliver the multimedia platform to future phones. Additionally, 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 browser slow to load, especially with media-heavy Websites. I actually managed to crash the browser a few times, too, which was frustrating.
Messaging, email, and social feeds
Email is where RIM really shines, and BlackBerry 6 OS adds some features that solidify the company as the master of messaging. You can of course sync with your company's BlackBerry Enterprise Server with support for Exchange, Lotus Domino, or Groupwise for real-time email 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. You have the universal Messages inbox, which contains your SMS items, email messages, and BlackBerry Messenger, and then you have your dedicated email (in my case, Gmail) inbox. In the dedicated Gmail inbox, you get archiving, threaded conversations, labeling, and starring - an arrangement that's just 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'm not a huge fan of social aggregators; I find them a bit messy, and I prefer to read my feeds in separate places. I don't have a use for them, and I wish smartphone manufacturers would stop insisting that dumping all of your social networks into one place increases your productivity. RIM's Social Feeds app certainly does not.
Like the others, Social Feeds combines your Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging apps (Gtalk, AIM, BlackBerry Messenger), and RSS feeds into a seamless view. Though it is easy to add accounts (as simple as logging in) and the interface is fairly easy to decipher, Social Feeds is missing a lot of functionality. You can post status updates and view others, and that's basically it. If you want to do anything more, such as comment on somebody's Facebook status or tweet, you have to move to a stand-alone Facebook or Twitter client.
As much as I enjoy the flip throwback, I forgot how awkward it is to take a picture with this form factor. Though the Style has a dedicated camera shutter button, you can't take a photo with the phone closed. You must leave the phone open to take the photo, which isn't exactly ideal for taking 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 too impressed with its image quality. My shots indoors looked blown out and overexposed. My outdoor snapshots looked better, but they weren't as sharp as 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. You simply run your finger over the album art to navigate through your collection.
You'll also find a brand-new YouTube application with a fairly straightforward interface, as well as 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 if this is due to the browser or the hardware, however, but I experienced similar speeds on the BlackBerry Torch. It took 30 seconds for YouTube's mobile site to fully load. It took 27.2 seconds to load PCWorld.com's mobile site and a painful 2 minutes and 37 seconds for the full site to load. For comparison, it took from 15 to 20 seconds for PCWorld's full site to load over Wi-Fi on a mid-range Android phone, the LG Optimus T.
The BlackBerry Style isn't the most exciting BlackBerry device to hit the carriers, but it at $US100, it is fairly affordable. The Style might be a good fit for those who miss the flip style and want a more compact form factor, but the phone feels like a bit of a regression for RIM. Its mediocre camera and average keyboard keep it from being a standout, however.