Research In Motion

(RIMM)

has served up a fantastic BlackBerry Curve just before

Apple's

(AAPL) - Get Report

iPhone's grand slam.

The latest of RIM's new, sleeker line-up, the 8300 Curve, offered by AT&T (T) - Get Report this month, is easily the best BlackBerry of the bunch.

The slim Curve does many things much better than its predecessors, and for the moment, better than the competition as well.

BlackBerry cracked the consumer market last year with its popular Pearl phone.

And even with Pearl's shortcomings -- a small keypad, poor camera and weak music player -- it was still a dramatic breakthrough for the previously all-business email phonemaker.

RIM's follow-up pretty much nails it. The BlackBerry designers seem to have been working from Pearl users' wish list when they put together the Curve, which goes for $150 with a two-year contract.

Unlike the Pearl, the Curve has a full qwerty-style keyboard, a very good 2-megapixel camera, a significantly revamped and upgraded media player, TeleNav maps and rubberized sides for a firmer grip.

But don't be tricked by the name; there's really not much curvature here. Despite all the not-so-straight-laced features, the Curve is still a BlackBerry, and it stays well within the familiar lines.

In other words, it's not likely to win any smartphone beauty contests.

The Curve is the shortest and one of the lightest of the current crop of smartphones. It's nearly an ounce lighter than the slim BlackBerry 8800 and fits easily in a shirt pocket. The polished chrome-colored plastic gives the Curve a look similar to a rival phone, the HTC Dash.

To view Scott Moritz' video take of today's Good Life segment, click here.

From a fashion standpoint, it suffers from a relatively large "forehead" -- ¾ inch of shiny plastic above the screen. But it regains style points for the nice tapered chin below the keypad.

The screen measures 2½ inches diagonally, though there is easily room for a 3-inch screen if RIM had decided to go the distance.

As with TVs and computer monitors, there's a steady push for more screen real estate. The clamor for bigger screens is about get very loud with the arrival of the iPhone June 29. If iPhone's big-screen design takes off, it will be in part due to people's preference for looking at more screen and less phone.

Of course, on the flip side of this all-screen, no-keyboard debate is BlackBerry. If the iPhone's touch screen keyboard can keep typists happy, then chalk up another win for the Apple design team. But if touchscreens fail to satisfy the vast emailing public, then BlackBerry will continue to rule the mobile email market.

As an email device -- for office email and personal email pushed to you -- BlackBerry remains peerless, and the Curve is a worthy standard-bearer. (Monthly fees for BlackBerry service start at about $35 a month, in addition to your basic cell phone service plan.)

Give and Take

There are a few shortcomings. The Curve connects to the Internet over AT&T's EDGE network, which has a 2G semi-fast access speed that usually delivers Web pages in a grueling half minute. If it's any consolation, the iPhone is also hobbled by EDGE. And curiously, there's no IM on the Curve. Instant-messenger fans will have to try their luck with the preloaded BlackBerry messenger.

But the Curve is set up well with two major improvements: the camera and the music player.

Picture taking is easy, and the 2x and 3x zoom don't deteriorate the shots' quality. In outdoor shots, the Curve's camera compared well to 3.2-megapixel camera pictures.

But the music player was a truly surprising achievement. RIM partnered with Roxio for a music manager program to help synch playlists between your PC and the Curve. It was even easier, though, to simply drag and drop songs onto the device from a computer.

The phone's music player was a breeze and the stereo sound was clear and sufficiently loud. The phone has a microSD memory card slot under the battery, giving users the option to add capacity for hundreds of songs. It also uses a standard sized 3.5mm plug for earphones.

This is the first smartphone I've tried that makes the iPod superfluous: You can listen to music and email, surf the blogosphere and even take pictures and not miss a beat. When calls come in, the music stops; when the call ends, the song resumes.

After three hours of continuous play, the phone's battery was only one quarter depleted. So theoretically that's a 12-hour play time capacity, which is not bad.

Calls worked without a hitch. And the speakerphone was a pleasant surprise. The sound quality was good enough to pass as a regular call.

The Curve does not come loaded with a GPS chip, so there's no navigation service like the 8800. You can purchase a separate GPS receiver that connects wirelessly through Bluetooth to your phone for TeleNav's audible travel direction service -- a $10-a-month add-on service.

A brief travel test provided accurate directions. There were some delays as the system performed rerouting, but the speed improved with time.

Overall, the Curve rocks, though it's soon to be drowned out by Apple's iPhone debut.

One thing is clear for phone fans: The single device, multitask moment -- as promised two years ago -- is finally upon us.

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