Legions of BlackBerry addicts have long traded style for functionality. BlackBerry devices were never at the top of anyone’s “Best Dressed Phones” list, and the BlackBerry OS looked positively archaic next to state-of-the-art phone platforms like Symbian and Sony Ericsson’s Walkman series. RIM took a big step towards changing all of that with their latest batch of handsets. Slimmer, sexier, and sporting an interface often likened to Apple’s legendary Mac OS, today’s BlackBerries are ... dare I say it? ... almost kind of cool.
The BlackBerry 8800 sits alongside its baby brother, the 8100 “Pearl,” as T-Mobile’s RIM offerings (as of my writing this only AT&T carries the newer 8300 Curve model). While the Mac OS comparison might be a stretch, the overhauled user interface and trackball navigation system have made the BlackBerry experience far more user friendly. Combine that with a slimmer, hipper design, a built-in media player, and the legendary BlackBerry push email system, and you’ve got yourself a very useful device that will make being “chained to Email” that much more enjoyable.
RIM built the 8800 with a longer, narrower, and more squared-off body than previous generation BlackBerries like the 8700g (also on T-Mobile). The 8800 is also noticeably thinner than its predecessor, measuring 14mm front to back versus the 8700g’s 20mm profile. The 8800 actually weighs a single gram more than the 8700g, but the weight is nicely distributed, making for a handset that feels solid but not heavy in the hand or pocket.
The 8800 is finished in black with silver accents and features both RIM’s redesigned QWERY board and the trackball first seen on the Pearl. I found the overall design of the device to be quite pleasing - BlackBerry is still a business first kind of gadget, but the new look says “sleek and hi-tech” as opposed to the “clunky and nerdy, but functional” vibe of the older models.
A candy bar phone at its core, the 8800’s front panel is split roughly 50/50 between a large 2.4” LCD display and the QWERTY keypad beneath it. The keypad is augmented by a center-mounted navigational trackball flanked by four buttons for Call, Home Screen, Back, and Cancel. Volume Up/Down controls are mounted on the phone’s right side, a Push-to-talk button is found on the left, and Power and Mute buttons are up top. The rear panel includes a sliding panel that reveals the battery and microSD card slots; while the panel must be removed to access the memory card, cards can be removed and installed without disturbing the battery.
BlackBerry has long been synonymous with mobile Email, but there’s more to the 8800 than “just” its rock-solid messaging system. This Berry packs GPS and an audio/video player in addition to the productivity apps RIM users are used to. And don’t worry - that Breakout clone game is on there, too.
The 8800’s GPS system worked really well, and came in handy one day when we got off the freeway to make a stop and decided to find a “shortcut” to the next exit instead of backtracking the way we’d game. Though the maps were a bit slow to load over T-Mobile’s EDGE data network, the GPS system itself initialized and locked onto a satellite very quickly, and the included TeleNav navigation app was very useable. As with everything on this device, scrolling around the GPS maps was aided by the device’s trackball.
New BlackBerries are coming pre-loaded with a media player, and the 8800 is no exception. In fact, given the inclusion of a wired stereo earpiece, the 8800’s out-of-the-box media capabilities actually outpace many so-called “music phones.” Okay, I might be stretching it with that one, but within minutes of unpacking the phone I was listening to an mp3 while checking my email - while riding the train to work. The media player’s functionality is pretty basic, and trying to sort through big music libraries or scan through videos while they’re playing are basically exercises in futility, but videos look sharp on the 8800’s large display and audio sounds pretty good through the included earphones. MP3, AAC, and WMA audio is supported, as is MP4 and WMV video.
RIM’s calendar and organizer applications are solid, and the device synched easily with a Windows XP PC using the included BlackBerry Desktop software, though I’ve heard reports of some installation hiccups on Vista boxes. A free Mac OS app, PocketMac for BlackBerry, allowed for synching on my Apple MacBook.
The T-Mobile version of the 8800 that I tested also supports the carrier’s MyFaves plan. MyFaves allows for unlimited calling with any five contacts, whether they’re T-Mobile subscribers or not. MyFaves requires a compatible T-Mobile calling plan.
The BlackBerry 8800 does not have a camera. Other RIM devices, including the Pearl 8100 (T-Mobile) and Curve 8300 (AT&T) do feature integrated cameras.
Display & AudioDisplay
A large 2.4” LCD screen takes up about half of the 8800’s front panel and is more than up to any task the device is capable of. This 320 x 240 display is only capable of 64,000 colors - as compared to the 262,000 or even 16 million found on other handsets on the market - but proved clear and bright in virtually all lighting conditions. An ambient light sensor automatically adjusts the display’s brightness to best suit the conditions you’re using the phone under, and I found it to work very well in bright sunlight, dark rooms, and everywhere in between. About the only negative thing I can think of to say about the 8800’s display is that it’s pretty prone to fingerprints and smudges. I seem to write that about every phone I review these days, though.
BlackBerry’s user interface took a big step forward over the past year or so, and while the drop down menus on the 8800 still have that “retro” VAX terminal feel to them, the home screen and icon-driven submenus are more Mac OS than MS DOS. Icons can be arranged in grid or list form, and the home screen displays the number of unread messages you have, both in individual accounts and as a total tally. I guess that’s either a good or bad thing depending on your personal relationship with your Inboxes.
While there aren’t a ton of customization options to be found on this BlackBerry, you can set the display font face and size to your liking, which is pretty important on a device meant for heavy email usage. The display also did a fine job of display Web and album art graphics, images (there’s a built-in image gallery app despite the lack of a camera), and video clips.
I tested the quad-band GSM 8800 on T-Mobile’s network in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. The handset was pretty good when it came to voice calls - a little muffled here and there, but nothing to really complain about. Signal strength was good and folks on the other end of the line generally didn’t have to say, “What? I can’t hear you,” very often. The built-in speakerphone was also about average for a cell phone - usable in decently quiet surroundings, but not so great in noisy areas or plopped on a table for group calls.
The 8800 has an integrated 2.5mm stereo headphone jack and came with a set of wired stereo earphones with an inline microphone. I used the ‘phones for calls and listening to music, and for cheap stock earbuds they actually weren’t bad.
The device also supports Bluetooth earpieces, though stereo Bluetooth is not supported. I easily paired the 8800 with a couple of wireless headsets, and performance was good during voice calls.
Messaging, Internet & ConnectivityMessaging
Messaging is, of course, BlackBerry’s bread and butter, and testing out the 8800 really got me hooked on mobile email. While the device’s narrower, sleeker form necessitates a smaller QWERTY keyboard than the one found on the 8700g, I still found it quite comfortable to use for thumb-tying emails of considerable length. The keys aren’t spaced as far apart as they were on the 8700, but that didn't’ give me any problems. A curved, raised ridge on each key compensated nicely for the decreased spacing, and though the buttons are finished in a smooth plastic they still felt plenty tactile to my thumbs.
Use of the 8800 requires T-Mobile’s BlackBerry data plan, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a device that’s easier to configure for email (this is true for all BlackBerries, and not just the T-Mobile 8800). The system of course connects to corporate BlackBerry Enterprise servers with support for Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Domino, or Novell GroupWise Email systems, and I was able to add my own Gmail-based work account and personal POP3 and IMAP accounts without any trouble. All in all, up to 10 accounts may be active at once. BlackBerry’s push email technology delivered new messages to the 8800 in real time, without the need for manual or scheduled “Send/Receive” sessions. The BlackBerry Messenger application handles instant messaging chores.
An integrated viewer can display a plethora of email attachment types including Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Corel WordPerfect documents, PDFs, and standard image formats. Third-party software is available to allow for creation and editing of certain document types, as well.
The trackball navigation system really enhanced my Web browsing experience on the 8800, as did the page overview feature. Similar to the mini map feature found on Symbian Series 60 devices, the 8800 creates a thumbnail overview of any Web page being browsed so you can quickly scan across content and choose the portion you want to look at. Remember, while 320 x 240 is a great resolution for a cell phone, it’s still far less than the average computer monitor that most Web sites were designed for. So a thumbnail overview can come in handy during mobile browsing.
The RIM BlackBerry 8800 is a quad-band GSM phone suitable for use around the world. My review model was locked to the T-Mobile network in the United States; a version of the 8800 is available on AT&T, and a CDMA variant - the 8830 - can be used on Verizon. The phone is capable of EDGE data transfer, but not higher speed 3G cellular or 802.11 WiFi connections.
RIM built Bluetooth v2.0 into the 8800, but the A2DP profile for stereo audio is not supported (though there has been talk of RIM updating the phone’s software with this feature). File transfer and voice dialing over Bluetooth are supported, and the integrated mini-USB 2.0 jack can be used to connect to a computer for synching, file transfers, and use of the 8800 as a cellular modem. The USB jack is also used for charging the device.
There’s a reason terms like “BlackBerry Addict” and “BlackBerry Thumb” have entered our vernacular. BlackBerries make Email faster and easier than any other portable devices out there. Symbian and Windows Mobile smartphones have closed the gap somewhat, but between push technology, the easy to use setup wizard, and the scores of BlackBerry Enterprise servers installed in corporate IT departments around the world, BlackBerry is still the one to beat when it comes to Email on the go.
The RIM BlackBerry 8800 for T-Mobile is a fantastic messaging device built on top of a solid, if not amazing, cell phone. While the 8800 is sleeker and more fun than the 8700g that preceded it, nobody’s going to mistake it for an iPhone - there’s no camera to be found, and while the media player is a useful addition, it’s not on par with the entertainment offerings found on other, more entertainment-minded handsets.
That doesn’t really matter, though, and there are two reasons why. First, BlackBerries are still for email, and the 8800’s full-sized keyboard and large, vivid display make for comfortable reading and thumb-typing of memos on the go. Second, if you really want a BlackBerry with a camera, there’s always the Pearl. Or the Curve. I doubt it’ll be too long before we see the Curve come to T-Mobile, and BlackBerry’s recent successes in crossing over to “consumer class” customers interested in messaging-centric handsets makes me think we’ll only see more media features in future RIM devices. But if you’re on T-Mobile now and can live without a camera, the 8800 is a solid, solid choice for your BlackBerry needs.