The BlackBerry Curve 8300 is the latest chic smart phone to sashay down the cell phone runway. Petite and gently rounded at the corners (as its name suggests), the Curve does for Research In Motion's line of QWERTY-keyboard-equipped handhelds what the Pearl did for RIM's standard keypad devices: Add a badly needed dose of style.

A more consumer-oriented cell phone/PDA hybrid than most of its siblings, the Curve packs such multimedia features as a 2-megapixel camera with built-in flash and 3x digital zoom, and new desktop media management software developed in co-operation with Roxio.

It's a world phone, with support for all four GSM frequencies (800, 850, 1800, and 1900 MHz). If only it supported broadband, too... But alas, the Curve's data transfer rates top out at 2.5G EDGE speeds. Lack of Wi-Fi or HSDPA support are among the device's few weaknesses.

Pricing information is not yet available: AT&T, the largest GSM carrier in the United States, says only that it will offer the Curve to customers there, later this spring.

I spent a few days with a production-level Curve equipped with late pre-production software and was generally impressed. The device certainly makes a terrific first impression: Small (4.2 by 2.4 by 0.6 inch) and lightweight (a tad under 4 ounces), it resembles a Treo that someone has flattened and widened out by applying a rolling pin.

It rested comfortably in my hand when I used it as a phone, and voice quality on calls was fine (though not as great as I might have hoped in view of RIM's touting of its noise-cancellation technology, intended to improve audio quality in noisy environments). We haven't yet lab-tested the Curve's talk-time battery life; check back later for a full assessment of this feature.

The Curve really shines as a mail and data device. Its 320-by-240-pixel screen is gorgeous - gone are the bad old days of muddy BlackBerry color displays. I also liked the small, marblelike trackball; its fluid movement substantially improves on the jog-wheel approach of yore. The trackball was particularly useful for skimming through Web pages on the embedded browser. But sometimes the trackball's fluidity moved the cursor more quickly than I anticipated it would - so I did a lot of backtracking through data entry fields.

I couldn't test the Curve's e-mail capabilities with a BlackBerry Enterprise Server, but the BlackBerry Internet Service did a first-class job with my Gmail account - not surprisingly, given RIM's expertise with e-mail. Setup took only a few seconds, and thereafter new mail appeared quickly in a neatly organised inbox list.

Though RIM's multimedia credentials are less well established, the Curve is poised to remedy that with its improved media player, which was intuitive and easy to use, and its new BlackBerry Desktop Media Manager software, which facilitates transferring and organising music, audio, and video files and which supports basic multimedia functions such as image editing and CD ripping. It's no substitute for dedicated music, video, and image-editing software, but for some users it will suffice.

The images I captured with the camera were adequate but (like most pictures taken with camera phones) a tad fuzzy. In my informal tests I could not assess the impact of the flash on image quality.

Unfortunately, such over-the-air activities as media downloads are relatively sluggish - I wish that RIM had included true 3G or Wi-Fi support. In addition, I miss the GPS chips and navigation software that come with the 8800, a more utilitarian, business-focused device.

Out of the box, the BlackBerry offers a rather thin array of productivity features in comparison to those you get in Windows Mobile PDA/phone hybrids. For serious word processing or spreadsheet support, you must turn to the growing number of third-party apps.

Overall, however, I found the Curve a seductive alternative to other candy-bar phones with wide-aspect-ratio screens, such as the Samsung Blackjack and the T-Mobile Dash. If operators get the price right, the Curve could well become the hot PDA/phone of the moment.

OUR VERDICT

This could be the phone of the moment, combining the style of the Pearl with traditional Blackberry values. No details on pricing yet, though.