Review: BlackBerry 9670 Style
Phone Scoop takes an in-depth look at RIM's latest BlackBerry for Sprint. The 9670 Style sports a clamshell design yet still offers a full QWERTY keyboard.
RIM's latest BlackBerry is a bit of a departure for the smartphone company. The Style is RIM's first flip phone with a full QWERTY keyboard and BlackBerry 6 on board. Those seeking a compact smartphone that offers all the power of larger models in a decidedly teensier package could do worse than look at the BlackBerry Style.
I was not expecting to like that BlackBerry Style. At all. I've never been a fan of the flip, and early photos of the Style showed it to be an even gawkier-looking flip than the Pearl Flip. I was surprised, then, to take a shine to the Style. It has a significantly smaller footprint than any BlackBerry other than perhaps the Pearl 3G. It is small, smooth, and still light despite the presence of metal materials. It has to be the most pocket-friendly BlackBerry ever. The materials and build quality are top notch. RIM has never slacked on how its phones are built. Everything about the Style feels good.
The glossy front of the Style mimics the Pearl Flip and offers a large, secondary screen. A 3.5mm headset jack, microUSB port and microSD card port are all located on the left edge of the phone. The hatch covering the microSD card port is a tricky one. It requires that you remove the battery cover in order to pry it open (that, or you have to resort to tools sharper than the average fingernail). Since you have to remove the battery cover, I have to wonder why RIM bothered with the hatch design at all.
On the right side of the Style are Curve 8330-esque volume controls and an application key. These keys are covered by a soft-touch paint job. All three have excellent travel and feedback, with the perfect amount of "click."
The Style's hinge is fantastic. It looks great, works well, and feels solid. It has some serious spring tension, and snaps open and shut with authority. The keyboard that's exposed when the Style is open is a typical, good keyboard from RIM. The keys have classy-looking metallic frets separating the four rows of keys. The keys themselves are angled for the user's thumbs, though they have slightly less shape than keys on models such as the Bold 9650. The keys have perfect travel and feedback.
My one complaint with RIM keyboards is not about the hardware, but about the key selection. I would like to see the "period" get its own key, rather than require the ALT button. Same goes for the "@" symbol. It would also be nice to see some message-centric keys for emoticons, "www" or ".com." I don't expect RIM to add these, but it would be nice.
RIM has placed the usual controls above the keyboard. The Send, BlackBerry, Back, and End/Power keys are all flush with the surface of the Style. There are no physical boundaries to spell out where they are. Each gets plenty of real estate, though, so it isn't too hard to find them. The optical trackpad is nestled between these keys. As with other RIM trackpads, it works very well.
The Style has two displays. The outer display is monochrome most of the time, but will flash some color when there are incoming messages. It shows the typical signal and other status indicators, as well as a large, analog clock. It is fairly bright and viewable indoors, but outside it is absolutely worthless.
The internal display offers a roomier 2.7-inch diagonal with 360 x 400 pixels. It isn't the highest resolution display out there, but RIM is able to make this one look good. Colors are warm and rich, and there is very little raggedness to text, icons, and images. It is exceptionally bright both indoors and out. I was able to read it in direct sunlight just fine, though it was washed out a bit.
As with nearly every other Sprint phone I've tested in the metro NYC region, the Style held onto two bars most of the time. The bulk of the time I spent reviewing it, it latched onto Sprint's EVDO network, though I did see it dip down to 1x a few times in poor coverage areas. When traveling around NJ, I had no problems receiving or making calls. I didn't miss any, and didn't drop any. That's not the story in NYC, however. Manhattan's concrete jungle is a challenge to any network, and the Style missed several calls when I was walking around the West Village. Data speeds were inconsistent everywhere, in good coverage and in bad. Sometimes data seemed to arrive instantly, and other times it would freeze up and hang.
Call quality on the Style was very good, though not perfect. Most calls were clear of background hiss and noise, but every now and then those with whom I was speaking took on a robotic, digital tone. Earpiece volume was acceptable for most regular environments, but even with the volume set to its highest level, Style users might find it difficult to hear conversations in noisy places. The Style's speakerphone sounded good and it was sufficiently loud. I had no problems using the speakerphone in a crowded restaurant (yes, I was *that* guy for a few minutes). The ringers and alert tones can be set to good alarm clock levels, but not rock concert levels. The vibrate alert was a touch too gentle for my taste.
It should be no surprise to those familiar with BlackBerrys that the Style has excellent battery life. It easily makes it through two days on a single charge, if not three. Even with heavy web use, messaging and phone calls, the Style's battery indicator barely budged the first day I tested the phone. Light users can make it through a weekend getaway without a charger, no problem. Road warriors who will be using their device all day long will want to bring the charger with them on any business trips.
The 9670 Style is the second handset to ship with BlackBerry OS 6, RIM's newest mobile operating system. Unlike what we saw on the 9800 Torch, however, the Style relies on the trackpad and not a touch screen to interact with the menus. RIM has basically ported all the touch gestures you might think to use on a touch screen to the trackpad. You swipe your thumb up and down the trackpad just as you might with a touch screen to get the menus and applications to respond. Given that most BlackBerries are non-touch, it feels natural and I had no problem transitioning from touch-based BlackBerry 6 to trackpad-based BlackBerry 6. That's no small feat; RIM should be proud.
The biggest changes in BB6 have been applied to the home screen. From top to bottom, the basic home screen has the status bar, the notification bar, main screen/wallpaper, and the app tray with four visible apps.
The notification bar acts similar to the drop-down notification shade in Android. It lets users quickly get a look at all the unread messages they may have received. Perhaps my only complaint about the notification bar is that it is only accessible from the home page. It won't open when using other applications. That seems an odd limitation to me.
The app tray is where users will really be able to customize BlackBerry OS 6 handsets. Rather than a boring grid of apps and folders, the tray offers five different user-configurable home screens / menus. The first (and default) screen lists all the apps. The second lists those used most frequently. The third shows all downloads. The fourth is reserved for media. And the fifth is for user-chosen favorites.
Whether the app tray is closed or open, users can swipe sideways between these five different home screens. When the tray is closed, only the top four apps, widgets or shortcuts are visible on each screen. It's neat that you can slide sideways even with the tray closed to see those other apps. The one problem is that in order to get the trays to swipe left or right, users have to highlight the MENU part of the tray. They won't swipe unless it is highlighted, and it's tricky to highlight.
The Universal Search tool is best used to search for correspondence with a particular contact. It's very useful. If you're not looking for a contact, it will also help find media (pictures, video, music), applications, and other data stored on the phone. If what you're looking for isn't on the phone, it offers web-based tools (YouTube, Google, etc.) to continue searching.
The menu system used to access the Style's settings has also been overhauled in BB6. Rather than a simple (and deadly boring) list, the settings screens have been lumped into fewer groups that are easier to understand. For example, the Display group lets users adjust the date and time, theme, font, back lighting, message coloration, and more. On older software versions, many of those were placed in separate folders, which required further drilling down.
Making phone calls from the Style is very similar to making calls from RIM's existing BlackBerry devices. Pressing the green send key opens the phone application. There are three tabs along the top for the call log and contacts. Whichever of these tabs was last open or used is the one that shows up when the send key is pressed.
Dialing with those diminutive keys can be frustrating, which is why I always made calls from the Contacts app. The call log looks almost identical to current BlackBerries. With a call in progress, the options presented to users include quick access to the speakerphone, mute switch, and so on.
RIM made more changes to the contact app's behavior than the phone's, but the two are tightly integrated. As mentioned earlier, the Universal Search function adds a lot of power to the Style, BlackBerry 6, and how users will interact with their contacts. Being able to type a contact's name from the home screen and go directly into a call or the contact app really speeds up many communication functions of the Style.
Seeing recent communications when viewing a contact card is handy information to have. It's nice knowing when you last called or emailed someone at a glance. Want to call them? Select their number. Want to email them? Select the email address.
The contact app can cross-pollinate information with Facebook and Twitter. For example, Facebook profile photos will show up in the BlackBerry address book.
Whether you're a corporate user or a Yahoo user, the Style handles Exchange, POP3 and IMAP4 accounts with no problem. Users can add up to 10 different email accounts to the Style. It can display HTML email, but the phone is fussy about downloading images for those emails. Options abound, and there are simple controls to perform actions such as replying, forwarding, and so on.
The SMS/MMS client now offers better threaded messaging. Messages are called out in text bubbles that help to visually separate the different sides of the conversation. Adding any sort of media to outgoing messages is a breeze. Content is nicely embedded in the text bubbles.
BlackBerry Messenger is on board, of course, to allow for PIN-based messaging. Using BBM lets users avoid SMS charges and offers tools such as received/read receipts.
If BBM isn't your thing, the Style also offers Yahoo Messenger, AIM, Windows Live, and Google Talk IM clients.
All of these messaging services (and social networking, too) are wrapped together in a master inbox and the notification bar. While useful, both can be overwhelming. Some people may want to exclude their Twitter @replies from their main inbox. That's the tack I'd take were this my personal phone. Same goes for some Facebook messages. You can hide the entire master inbox and retrieve messages each from its own account inbox, if you wish. If you have multiple email accounts, Twitter accounts, Facebook, and so on, arranging all these into a usable stream takes patience.
I'd rather see the social networking apps pulled out of the master inbox and aggregated in their own spot.
Lastly, the Style lets you read your messages on the exterior display. When a new message arrives, you'll see a notification on the external display. Using the volume toggle keys, you can choose to open up and read your SMS and MMS messages and see how many unread emails you have
The Style comes with official Facebook, MySpace and Twitter applications pre-installed. Each works well enough of its own accord to keep users in touch with their circles of friends, family and colleagues. All the social networks report new messages to the notification feature of BB6, which displays the number of unread messages at the top of the home screen. The social networking apps are also integrated into the contact app and messaging functions. Need to call a Facebook friend, but don't have their number in your BlackBerry contacts? The number is available in the Facebook app (if the person has posted it on Facebook).
Alternatives are available in BlackBerry App World if you don't like the way the official apps integrate with BB6.
There is also a Social Feeds application that streams status updates and posts from Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and user-defined RSS feeds. If you'd like to consume all your social networking in one spot, this app lets you do it.
The media player was improved by RIM with the introduction of BB6, and the Style carries over the same new player as seen on the Torch. Now, when viewing artist, album or song lists, album art is displayed next to the file or folder in question. The result is a more visually pleasing experience.
Once you've chosen to listen to a song, the Style automatically displays cover art in a coverflow appearance for the current playlist. This means that while you're listening to the music, you can scroll through your library visually via album cover art. It's neat, and I like that it is built directly into the player, and not just the outer music menus.
The music player can be sent to the background and users may listen while doing other things, such as browsing the web. Incoming calls pause music, which resumes once the call is disconnected.
There are some advanced options, but not too many. There is an audio boost; captions can be turned on/off; and music can be "enhanced" (RIM parlance for adjusting the sound with its own pre-set EQ curve) when the Style is used with headphones.
The Sprint Music Store and Slacker are preinstalled so that users may seek out new tunes rather than listen to those they preloaded.
My big complaint is how the camera is positioned. It is on the back of the phone, on the bottom half. It is almost impossible to hold the Style without accidentally covering the camera. You have to scoot your hand down the Style a bit so that the camera remains exposed. On any slab-style phone, this wouldn't be bothersome, but the Style is a flip phone. Positioning your hand so far down the phone leaves it feeling top heavy and is uncomfortable. My hand was sore after using the camera for a while.
Leaving the side convenience key set to launch the camera is the best and fastest way to get at it. It launches in perhaps a second or so. The Style has a 5 megapixel camera with autofocus and an LED flash.
The physical button can be used to focus and take pictures, as can the trackpad. Some basic options can be controlled from the viewfinder without calling up a separate menu. The flash can be turned off, on or set to auto. The geo-tagging can be turned on or of. And the shooting mode can be changed, which includes a wide list of options (auto, face detection, portrait, sports, landscape, party, close-up, snow, beach, night, and text). The BlackBerry key can be used to get at several other settings, such as resolution, where pictures are stored, etc.
When you want to take a picture, the Style responds pretty quickly. It shoots and saves pictures in 1- 2 seconds, which is about the best you can expect from a phone.
The video camera's controls are pretty much identical.
One thing I like about the Style's camera is that it puts a thumbnail of the most recent shot in the corner of the viewfinder. This means you can see the picture you last shot. Click on it, and it opens the gallery application.
Pictures can be viewed as a list, or in a grid. From the main gallery view, pictures can be selected, moved, shared, edited, and all that you expect.
Once you open a picture, you can sail through the entire gallery by swiping in either direction on the trackpad. Editing features are limited to rotating. Pictures can be shared via email, MMS, Bluetooth, Twitter, GoogleTalk or Facebook.
The Style is the second handset from RIM to come with a competitive 5 megapixel camera, which has autofocus and a flash. It's a much better camera than the 3.2 megapixel shooter RIM has relied on for its top phones for years.
The Style handles aspects such as white balance, color representation, and exposure as well as any other cameraphone. Images had vibrant and rich colors, and the Style appropriately accounted to whatever type of lighting was available. It had some problems here and there, with whites being blown out a few times, but mostly it did OK.
The flash can be set to auto, on, or off. Using the flash in the right settings will help. People in dark places are asking to be illuminated with the flash. Objects don't fare as well, and can give you a nasty flash effect.
The average user will be mostly pleased with the Style's photo capabilities. More advanced users will have better results if they make use of the extensive shooting modes, and take care to use the flash appropriately. I would have no qualms about sharing photos captured with the Style via email, Facebook, Picasa, etc.
As with the still photos, color, exposure, and white balance are pretty much spot-on with the Style's video capturing capability. It even reacted well to a drastic change in light. The videos captured with the Style will certainly be Facebook- and maybe even YouTube-worthy.
The WebKit-based browser continues to be one of BB6's better features and brings it into the modern mobile web era with more features and power than previous BlackBerry browsers.
The options and BlackBerry key work as on older BlackBerrys. Users can set the home page, set the default search engine, add/sort bookmarks, subscribe to RSS feeds and so on.
It stinks that the Style isn't a touch device, because it loses the BB6 browser's best features: pinch-to-zoom, double-tapping, and so on.
The Style's browser does support multiple open tabs at a time. The tabs can be accessed by choosing a little button in the upper right corner of the browser window. The tabs are shown in a visual bookmark fashion, making it easier to see which site you're jumping to.
Browser performance was faster on the Style than the Torch (AT&T). The Torch's browser was slow even over Wi-Fi. The Style's speed was very good when the network coverage was good, and excellent over Wi-Fi. The software has definitely been tweaked a bit for better performance.
The Style can be customized somewhat by users. Ringers, ringtones, wallpapers, and all that stuff is easy to adjust. RIM's use of ringer profiles is always helpful. It allows users to set up distinct alert actions depending on pre-defined circumstances (Normal, Silent, Meeting, etc.).
The home screen can also be customized to a certain extent. It's not as vastly customizable as an Android handset, but users can populate the five different screens with a number of apps, shortcuts, and so on. According to RIM, more HTML5 and WebKit-based widgets are on the way, which will further allow users to customize their handsets.
Last, the Style can access and install a range of themes, though only a few come preinstalled on the device. More are available from Sprint. The themes make subtle changes to the appearance of the menus and screens.
BlackBerry App World 2.0 is preinstalled on the Style. The peformance of the App World interface has been dramatically improved. It is much faster to use and browse through applications. RIM says there are more than 10,000 apps in there, which is more than the average user needs. One new thing worth mentioning is that in order to use App World, users have to set up a BlackBerry ID. Creating a BlackBerry ID adds a step, but allows users to sync apps to their desktop and across handsets if and when they need to change BlackBerrys.
The Bluetooth functions of the Style worked perfectly. Pairing with headsets, speakers, other phones and PCs was a snap. Call quality through mono Bluetooth headsets was good. Quality of music through stereo Bluetooth speakers was pretty solid. Passing files back and forth between other handsets or computers was not a problem.
The 9670 has a really nice analog clock on the external display. I couldn't find any way to switch it to a digital read-out. It's great when indoors for checking the time. Press any button and the external display lights up and shows the time. It's more difficult to read outside, however.
Alternately, you can set the Style in "bedside mode". This essentially assumes that you're going to place the Style on a nightstand within arm's reach when you're in bed. It will show the clock and let you interact with the alarm. Bedside mode can also be activated when the Style is charging, which means the clock is visible any time the Style is plugged in.
The Style is pre-loaded with BlackBerry Maps and Sprint's navigation service. The latter offers voice-guided, turn by turn directions, and does a good job at it. Google Maps for BlackBerry is also available, however it doesn't offer voice guidance or turn-by-turn directions. It will provide directions from point A to point B, but only in list form. It is capable, however, and works well. Google Maps also works as a good search tool if you want to find stuff nearby, and is a free download.
Here is a video tour of the BlackBerry 9670 Style. It is a new clamshell-shaped smartphone that runs BlackBerry 6. You can watch the video here:
Or visit YouTube for more viewing and sharing options.
The Style is a solid effort from RIM. It gets all the basics right. Battery life is epic, call quality is good, data speeds are acceptable, and the screens get the job done.
BlackBerries still aren't the media monsters that Android and iOS devices are, but that's not what they focus on. Most users will find the tools available to be good enough. The newer media player works well, and the gallery app is really good. Too bad the camera is a bit of a pain to deal with.
On the messaging front, the Style covers all the bases, and covers them well. With support for so many different messaging types, the options to configure communications is nearly endless and can be highly customized.
What really sets the Style apart from other BlackBerries and other smartphones in general is its form factor. Clamshell-style smartphones are a rare breed these days. RIM did a great job developing most of the hardware features, and the phone has a quality feel to it.
For Sprint customers, the Style is a very easy phone to recommend. It does everything the Bold does, but differently. It's pocket friendly, compact, and, er, well, "Style"-ish.
I read an article that stated the trackpad allows these same gestures (slightly modified) by using the "alt" key with them. I believe it said something like if you hold the "alt" key and swipe up on the trackpad, it will zoom in. Can you confirm?