What’s Good: Integrated WiFi for Web, Email, and HotSpot@Home UMA Calling; Trackball is easy to use; Integrated IM Clients; Second-to-None Push Email; 2MP Camera with Flash; 3.5 mm Headphone Jack; Compact Size

What’s Not Good: OS Menus and Fonts Remind me of 1989; SureType QWERTY board will be too small for some; Video capture quality is mediocre

Bottom Line: T-Mobile’s new Pearl takes a good thing and makes it better by way of integrated Wi-Fi networking for data access and T-Mob’s HotSpot@Home service.  A few other minor improvements make the handset’s media player and keyboard a little bit better.  Pearl’s still too small for my hands, but it packs smartphone functionality and money saving features into a great device that looks and feels like a phone — not a brick.  RIM’s gotta overhaul their user interface soon, though.  The icons and fonts feel more and more dated every day.

Specs:
Make/Model: RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8120
Network: GSM
Data: EDGE, 802.11 b/g WiFI
Carrier: T-Mobile (Locked)
Size: 107 x 50 x 14 mm
Weight: 91 g
Form Factor: Candybar
Display: 2.25” Color LCD, 260 x 240 resolution, 65,000 Colors
Memory:  64 MB built-in, microSD card slot
Notable Features: SureType QWERTY keyboard; Trackball navigation; Push Email; IM Clients; HotSpot@Home (UMA calling); myFaves support; 3.5mm headphone jack; 2MP camera;


Introduction

About a year and a half ago I reviewed the RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8100 for T-Mobile.  I didn’t really like it all that much, mainly because the keyboard was a bit small for my hands and thumbs, I found the OS ugly and the handset itself felt a bit cheap to me.  Now T-Mobile’s gone and sent me their new Pearl, the 8120, and I took to testing and reviewing it with an open mind. 

Seems both the phone and the reviewer have grown up just a little bit in those 18 months or so.  While the 8120’s still not the best fit for my large-ish hands and thumbs, this time around I appreciated its combination of diminutive size and large feature set a little bit more.  As consumers demand more and more Web, Email, and Media functionality from their handsets, it’s really great to see a device that does it all while retaining the size and shape of a good old fashioned cell phone.

The 8120 improves on the 8100 in a few ways, most notably by integrating a WiFI antenna for fast Web browsing and access to T-Mobile’s HotSpot@Home calling plan.  $10/month gets you unlimited voice calling anywhere there’s an open WiFi network - great for extra minutes (and improved reception) at home and on the road.  A few other upgrades make this new Pearl noteworthy, as well.  Now if only RIM could make the BlackBerry OS look like it was designed during the current millennium. 

Okay, it’s not that bad ... but it seriously is in need of a makeover.  Especially in the area of system fonts. Some of the Pearl’s menu screens really remind me of the VAX terminals my high school used for its library card catalogue system back in the late ‘80s.

Blackberry Pearl 8120


Design & Features

Blackberry Pearl 8120Perhaps the best thing about Pearl is how it packs all of the functionality of its big brother, the BlackBerry Curve, into a device that’s the size and shape of a standard candybar phone.  Small and slim enough to tuck into a pocket, Pearl doesn’t feel like a smartphone when you hold it or carry it around.  It looks like a regular ol’ cellphone, not some uber-geeky device (or traditional BlackBerry) - at least until you glimpse at all those buttons on the front panel.

Pearl’s front is split between a 2.25” display and a twenty-button keypad topped off by four softkeys and a navigational trackball.  A chrome-accented speaker and multicolor LED indicator light adorn the top edge of the front panel, as well.  RIM tweaked the 8210’s keyboard just a bit, firming up the action while making the buttons flow around the center-mounted trackball a bit more gracefully than they did on the 8100.  The layout’s the same, though, condensing a traditional QWERTY layout onto 20 alphanumeric keys by assigning two letters and a symbol each to most of the buttons. 

This Pearl adds a standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack which, along with a microSD card slot and a USB 2.0 port for high speed data transfer, makes the device a decent replacement for your portable media player.  An upgraded camera features 2MP resolution and a very handy flash that doubles as a light for video recording.  You also get Stereo Bluetooth compatibility and playback support for a plethora of audio and video file formats.

BlackBerry’s push Email system is still at the core of even this, RIM’s most consumer-oriented device, and the Email app is easily configured for use with up to ten email accounts.  I easily set my review device up to access a GMail account, a custom domain account, and a newly created account with a T-Mobile address.  An attachment viewer program deftly handled images and office documents sent via Email.  Pearl also came ready out of the box to connect to AIM, Yahoo, Google Talk, and MSN Messenger accounts, which I really appreciated when I was able to carry an IM conversation on from my office to the train in order to finalize after-work plans with some friends one evening.

The new Pearl looks a lot like the old Pearl, and also much like AT&T’s recently launched version of the 8120.  T-Mobile swapped the 8100’s black paint job for a grey finish on the 8210 but kept the same chromed plastic accents that I disliked so much the first time around.  I’m still not keen on them, but maybe I’ve been a bit desensitized to them by the dozens of handsets that have come to market sporting cheap mirrored plastic strips in the past year.


Usability & Performance

Blackberry Pearl 8120I tested the Pearl 8120 on T-Mobile’s GSM network in the San Francisco Bay Area, and also used the device for UMA calling on the WiFi networks at my house, in my office, and in a few hotspot locations.  Pearl’s performance on voice calls was generally excellent, with only minimal complaints of background hiss from the people I talked to.  The UMA functionality boosted call quality - particularly in locations like my house where T-Mobile reception is less than full strength - and only drained Pearl’s battery slightly more than GSM-only calling.  UMA calling worked using a T-Mobile supplied router as well as over other brands of routers, which is a big step forward from the first T-Mobile UMA phones, which didn’t much like non-T-Mob routers.

The integrated speakerphone worked pretty well, and the Pearl worked quite nicely with both the included stereo headset and my own Etymotic hf2 set, yielding stereo audio with quality just a hair below that of an Apple iPod.  I was able to easily pair Pearl with a variety of mono and stereo Bluetooth headsets, and both range and audio quality were very good over Bluetooth. 

Beyond UMA calling, Pearl’s strong points are its messaging capabilities.  Push email is amazing - I spent a little too much time sending myself Emails just to watch them appear on the Pearl before they showed up in my computer’s Email program.  T-Mobile’s EDGE network is plenty fast enough for sending and receiving Emails but I did notice major lag during IM sessions when no WiFi network was available.  As with the original Pearl, I found typing on the SureType keyboard a bit frustrating, though I was better able to manage it this time around.  The system itself works quite well, using a combination of single and double taps on keys and a good predictive text system to mimic a QWERTY experience with fewer buttons. 

My problem with using Pearl for heavy Emailing and messaging was that the whole thing, device and keyboard, simply proved too small for two-thumb typing — at least for my hands.  I couldn’t really find a way to comfortably hold the device and navigate the keys with both thumbs at the same time, and wanted the keys themselves to be just a bit bigger. I think someone with smaller hands and/or thumbs than me wouldn’t have this trouble, which may explain why most Pearl owners I know are women.  It’s a good system if it works for you — if you’re considering buying a Pearl, definitely go spend some time typing on it before you place your order.

BlackBerry’s OS is functional, if not always the prettiest consumer experience.  It’s menus and fonts are dated and the OS itself wasn’t as responsive as the fastest Nokia and Apple smartphones I’ve tried.  The Web browser is decent, but also feels pretty long in the tooth compared to the current state of the art.  Pearl’s trackball is the best navigation device this side of a touchscreen (even better for some tasks), however, and the BlackBerry menu key made it easy to drill down to advanced features and options.  As such, using Pearl for everything from voice calling to texting to Web browsing was pretty straightforward.  It’s just that the device doesn’t offer the kind of fun, aesthetically pleasing experience that an iPhone or Sony Ericsson phone does.  Corporate users likely won’t care since BB’s Email service is so good, but Pearl is aimed at consumers who typically like eye candy.  Then again, Pearl’s so small and cute, plenty of consumers will get over the non-Apple-like experience of navigating the 8210’s menus.

Pearl’s music player worked quite well, sorting songs according to artist, album, and playlist, and displaying album art during playback.  I was able to listen to music while performing other tasks, which is a nice feature, and video playback was generally smooth, though Pearl’s 240 x 260 display isn’t idea for watching movies.  Pearl’s 2MP camera took surprisingly good still photos, and the flash was quite useful in low light situations.  But the camera’s video capture mode yielded lackluster results.  Music, photos and video clips were easily transferred to and from a computer by way of the included USB cable or using a microSD card, popping it out of the phone and into a memory card reader.  I was able to manage Pearl’s media without problems using both PC and Mac computers.

 


Conclusion

RIM did a lot to bring the smartphone to a mass market with the introduction of the BlackBerry Pearl a few years ago.  Combining their legendary Email support with trackball navigation, a media player and camera, and a compact form factor made the Pearl an instant success and spawned its big brother, the Curve, for those who needed a bigger keyboard along with all those consumer-friendly goodies.

This latest wave of Pearls improves upon the originals in small but meaningful ways, and T-Mobile’s 8120 might be the most appealing of the bunch to mainstream consumers.  Beyond the improved keyboard, camera, and headphone jack, T-Mob added WiFi support for data services and HotSpot@Home calling, and made the Pearl perhaps the best H@H handset in their current lineup.  T-Mob’s Pearl gives you all of the features you want in your BlackBerry along with the carrier’s unique money-saving features: HotSpot and myFaves.  The only thing this Pearl lacks is 3G support - but it does have WiFi.

So if you’re looking for your first smartphone, or already own a Pearl but thinking of upgrading, T-Mobile’s 8120 is worth taking for a spin.  Personally I’d opt for the Curve instead because my hands are just too big to comfortably use the 8120 for any length of time.  But if you like the size, feel good on the keyboard, and can get past RIM’s somewhat outdated menus, fonts, and Web browser, the Pearl 8120 packs a lot of functionality and value into an incredibly small, pocketable device.  It’s well worth a look.

Blackberry Pearl 8120


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