BlackBerry PDA phones have become so synonymous with on-the-go email over that terms like "BlackBerry Thumb" (a form of Repetitive Stress Injury) and "BlackBerry Addiction" (a form of, well, addiction) are becoming part of our cultural lexicon. Ask around and odds are you know at least a few people who own BlackBerries, and at least one who feels utterly naked without theirs.
BlackBerry has recently introduced it's first "consumer model," the T-Mobile exclusive BlackBerry Pearl 8100. The Pearl is not only the smallest BlackBerry ever, but it's also the first to incorporate multimedia features generally deemed unnecessary by the traditionally corporate BlackBerry clientele.
With a 1.3 MP camera and media player in its corner, can the Pearl win the masses over to the BlackBerry way of life? Maybe. The Pearl is an eye-catching phone that packs a ton of functionality into its shiny little body. But it's half-dialing/half-typing keypad is tiny and evidence of BlackBerry's corporate roots abound in the Pearl's somewhat unfriendly user interface. Is that enough to sway would-be users towards towards other mobile messaging solutions?
At first glance, the Pearl looks like a cross between a Motorla SLVR and BlackBerry's 7100 series business phones. The SLVR part is due to the Pearl's wonderfully small form factor: at 107 x 51 x 14mm the phone is slimmer than a folded-shut RAZR, and at only 89g it's one of the lightest smartphones you'll ever hold.
The resemblance to the BB 7100 series is due in large part to the candybar form factor and SureType keyboard found on the Pearl. SureType is BlackBerry's predictive text solution that combines software that learns your favorite words with a keypad that spreads a QWERTY layout over an extended dialing keypad.
In the case of the Pearl, the keypad houses some 20 buttons is a space barely wider than that of an average candybar phone's 12-button dialing pad. The result are keys that are rather small - somewhat uncomfortably small, at least for my thumbs. The alphabet is spread over 15 keys, two letters per key save for "L" and "M," which get their own buttons. Unlike the two letter per button keypad on Sony's m600i, on which buttons can actually be pressed to the left or right to select different characters (i.e. left for E, right for R), the Pearl's buttons only press in one direction each. Which character a button activates is controlled by the SureType software or, in MultiTap mode, the number of times you press the button
A grey T-Mobile logo is centered below the keys, which are black with grey lettering and accents. Above the keypad is a row of four larger buttons - Call, Menu, Menu Return, and Hang Up/Power - flanking a center mounted, white, backlit pearl of a trackball. The clickable trackball is central to navigation on the Pearl, and is quite comfortable to use (even with my big thumb). Of minor note is that the trackball only moves the cursor in four directions, and not diagonally.
The 2.25" screen lies above the trackball and beneath a grey BlackBerry logo, and above that are the earphone and, in the right corner, a single LED indicator. The top panel is part black and part chrome and houses the Mute button, while the all-black bottom panel shows a single circular cutout for the microphone.
In a move meant to give the Pearl a hip, flashy look, the side panels are finished in mirror chrome plastic that wraps around to form slim vertical borders on the front and back of the device. The back panel around the camera housing is also mirrored silver plastic. Recent slider phones made by Samsung for T-Mobile have also featured this chrome accent. Many reviewers like the Pearl's "sleek, sexy" appearance. Personally, I find the fake chrome look rather cheap and not at all sporty or hip. On the Pearl, this is only exacerbated by the fact that the entire phone is obviously made from plastic; it's far too lightweight to have a metal frame.
A 2.5mm headphone jack, USB data/charger port, and single soft key adorn the left panel of the Pearl, while a rocker switch volume control and "camera/convenience key" are on the right. The back panel houses the camera sensor, flash, and self-portrait mirror and slides off to reveal the battery, SIM, and microSD memory card slots. The microSD slot is located beneath the battery, which makes it both non-hot swappable and difficult to access at all.
As you might guess from my comments on the chrome accents, I'm not entirely fond of the overall look and feel of the Pearl. On the one hand, the device packs quite a bit of functionality into a small package, and the trackball (like the one found on the Sharp Sidekick 3) is wonderfully functional. On the other hand, the Pearl's keypad is cramped and the plastic chrome makes the phone look and feel cheap ? at least to my tastes. Why an all-black plastic body might make the same device feel wonderfully lightweight instead, I have no rational justification for other to say that the chrome says "not metal" to me where solid black plastic on featherlight phones like the Samsung D900 says "so nice and light!"
BlackBerry phones have always been known first for their robust Email and organizer capabilities. The Pearl ups the ante by adding the aforementioned camera and a media player into the mix. Several types of audio files including MP3, AAC, and WAV are supported, as are AVI, MP4, MOV, 3GP, and other video files. Files may be stored on a microSD card or copied to the device's internal memory.
Playback of audio and video was excellent, though the included mono headset won't do much to satisfy users interested in listening to music (or watching music videos, for that matter) on the Pearl. Playlist support is limited, but the phone did a nice job of pausing playback for incoming phone calls and resuming once again upon disconnection of the call.
Two issues with the media player, one pertaining only to video playback, are of note. First, there are no external playback controls. Play/Pause and scrolling through tracks are accomplished with the trackball and on screen icons. Mapping basic controls like play/pause and previous/next track to buttons would have been nice, especially given that the Pearl's processor is plenty robust to handle playing music in the background while other applications are active.
Second, while video playback looks great on the bright, sharp screen, no full-screen mode is available. This is a problem largely because the media player controls take up nearly a quarter of the screen, greatly reducing the available real estate free for the content itself. That's too bad because the Pearl exhibited smooth playback of every video I tried on it.
Actually, there's a third media-related issue but it's not with the phone itself. The included Media Manager software (PC only) isn't very good. Reformatting media for optimal playback is a pain, and the application is generally a little clunky. I'm all for open standards and competition, but I wonder if it wouldn't just be easier on consumers if multimedia phones just started shipping with iTunes drivers.
The Pearl also features a Maps application, another first on a BlackBerry. Maps is just what you might guess - a map program that allows for zooming and panning of maps, and retrieval of text-based driving directions. The latter feature is dependent on GPS functionality, and while the Pearl lacks this feature, it is capable of pairing with a Bluetooth GPS receiver.
Beyond these features, a standard set of organizer applications comes pre-installed. The calendar (with reminder alarms), tasks list, memo pad, calculator, alarm clock, and password keeper all work well, though they suffer from a rather cold user interface that reminds me of the VAX terminals I used in my high school computer lab back in the 1990s. I'm exaggerating somewhat here, but the bare bones menu and application interfaces did surprise me given how nicely the home screen and media players are rendered.
An attachment viewer allows for viewing of MS Word/Excel/Powerpoint, WordPerfect, PDF, JPEG, and GIF files on the go. While the viewer doesn't support document editing, third-party applications that do are available. Being that it's built on the very popular BlackBerry platform, the Pearl supports a wide array of aftermarket software applications.
I should also mention that the included Breakout-style game was utterly addicting. It wasn't the most beautiful, innovative, or interesting game I've ever played on a mobile phone. But it was totally addictive - like a cross between Super Breakout and Arakanois.
The Pearl is BlackBerry's first device to feature a built-in camera. Traditionally, BlackBerry users have been corporate employees with little need for cameras, let alone ones that their employers foot the bill for. Beyond that, more and more businesses are now banning cameraphones entirely from their premises for fear of corporate espionage (Fear not IT Managers: The camera and media player on the Pearl can be locked out by BlackBerry Enterprise Server owners). As such, the inclusion of a camera on the Pearl is another indication of its positioning of a consumer-friendly device.
The 1.3 megapixel camera built into the Pearl performs somewhere between "okay" and "not so great" depending on the subject matter and lighting conditions. In a nutshell (and this refrain should be familiar to most cameraphone users), pictures taken outdoors in good light look pretty good but those taken inside and/or in low lighting suffer from washed out colors and general graininess. The integrated flash light doesn't do much to help.
Camera settings are limited to a choice of three resolutions and white balance adjustment. Images may be saved to the phone's internal memory or a microSD card, and they can be used as your home screen, photo caller IDs, or sent in Email or MMS messages.
The BlackBerry Pearl's camera is not capable of video recording.
BlackBerry did a great job with the Pearl's screen. A candybar-style phone, the Pearl has a single front mounted screen that's 2.25" large and capable of rendering 240 x 260 pixels at 65,000 colors. The screen looks great, particularly when the phone is on the home screen or in media playback mode. As mentioned, videos render exceptionally well on the Pearl.
An icon-driven user interface powers the Pearl, and a home screen menu of application shortcuts is easily customizable. The dedicated menu key located to the left of the trackball calls up a context-sensitive menu from nearly every possible screen, which makes accessing features quite easy.
I do wish BlackBerry had spent a little more time "prettying up" the UI, as many of the menus and screens to be found on the Pearl have a cold, mechanical feel to them. Compared the top-notch interfaces found on Nokia's Series 60 phones or the Mac-like experience of UIQ 3.0 on Sony's m600i and p990i, the Pearl's UI looks dated. That being said, it is imminently functional and most features and commands are intuitively placed.
Call quality on the Pearl was generally excellent. The quad-band 850/900/1800/1900 MHz GSM radio performed well most of the time on T-Mobile's network in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had a couple of calling experiences that were exceptions to the rule, with voices sounding a little muffled to me while callers on the other end reported that my voice broke up a few times. I had no issues getting a signal nor with dropped calls.
Quality was so-so using the built-in speakerphone, as some echo problems surfaced. The Pearl also came with a wired earpiece with an inline microphone. As I mentioned, though the Pearl's multimedia features are being touted by Blackberry and T-Mobile, the included earpiece is not stereo and as such doesn't do justice to the phone's music capabilities. The Pearl has a 2.5mm headphone jack, so if you want to use your own stereo headphones with it you'll have to get a third-party 2.5-to-3.5mm adapter.
Bluetooth 2.0 on the Pearl includes support for headsets, and I was able to easily pair and use a mono headset for calls. Stereo over Bluetooth is not supported.
BlackBerry devices are known for their robust messaging capabilities, with enterprise Email integration at the top of the list. Don't let the Pearl's compact size and multimedia features fool you: This is a BlackBerry through and through, meaning it's a top-notch email device.Top-notch with one hitch: I found the SureType keypad uncomfortably small for extended use. Bear in mind that my hands (and thumbs) are slightly larger than average, but I have no problem typing on other QWERTY phones like the Sidekick 3 or Sony m600i. While something had to give to make the Pearl as small as it is, I fear that the cramped keypad might put off some potential users.
To be fair, the keypad wasn't designed for regular typing. The software side of SureType is an advanced predictive text system that's really quite good at learning your most frequently used vocabulary and suggesting words as you type. Perhaps I'm an old dog fearing a new trick, but years and years of typing on computer keyboards have predisposed me towards full-on typing when I see a QWERTY layout. SureType bridges the gap between predictive text on a dialing keypad and direct typing on a QWERTY board, and no doubt many users will herald it a triumph on BlackBerry's part. While I can't argue against that, it just didn't work that well for me, especially with those tiny buttons.
Enterprise users would likely stick with a full-sized BB like the 8700 series or even the larger SureType keypad on the 8100 and 8130 models. Consumers in search of a messaging-centric device will likely be more forgiving given the Pearl's other features, but getting the Pearl on the Net requires a $19.99 or $29.99 BlackBerry data plan from T-Mobile while other handhelds can get by on cheaper Messaging or Internet packages. And there's always the Sidekick 3 clamoring for the IM set's dollars.
Keypad aside, the Pearl's messaging capabilities are second to none. The device is compatible with BlackBerry Enterprise email as well Microsoft Exchange, Novell GroupWise, and IBM Lotus Domino servers. You can also configure up to ten POP3/IMAP email accounts on the device, and the server-based Email configuration process is the easiest I've used on a mobile phone. Pre-installed software also provides support for instant messaging. Popular IM clients supported by the Pearl include Yahoo!, AIM, MSN, and ICQ. SMS and MMS messaging are also supported.
Either of T-Mobile's BlackBerry data plans includes Web access, and the Pearl is ready for out-of-the-box surfing with a pre-installed Web browser. The browser generally worked well, and most sites loaded quickly over T-Mobile's EDGE network. While the Pearl lacks Wi-Fi and EDGE is slower than EV-DO or 3G networks, I really didn't encounter any frustration due to slow data speeds.
There was some minor frustration with the way the Pearl rendered certain Websites, as it tended to move elements around quite a bit to fit the vertically oriented display. RIM (makers of the BlackBerry) could learn a lot from Symbian OS phones when it comes to mobile Web browsers. Still, Web on the Pearl is functional enough and perfectly useable for browsing WAP sites and relatively quick information retrieval.
The Pearl is a quad-band GSM phone well suited for global use. Though it lacks Wi-Fi connectivity, it does support EDGE packet data transfer. As mentioned previously, Email and Web access is dependent on activation of a BlackBerry data plan through T-Mobile.Bluetooth 2.0 includes support for mono audio devices as well as file transfer and syncing with other devices. The Pearl can also be paired to a Bluetooth GPS receiver. I had no trouble pairing the Pearl with a mono headset or my computer.
The Pearl also has a microSD removable memory card slot behind the back panel and underneath the battery should you wish to expand the 64MB of onboard memory. A mini-USB port is used to connect the phone to a computer data cable and an AC charger, both of which are included
BlackBerry's first foray into the mainstream consumer market has certainly made a splash in the few months that its been available. The T-Mobile exclusive Pearl (8100) is the smallest, lightest BlackBerry yet, and also the first BB phone to include a camera and media player. With its flashy styling and media features, the phone is already opening up a new market for BlackBerry - the young, messaging-centric set who don't necessarily need a BlackBerry for corporate email access.
My overall take on the Pearl is mixed. A tremendous amount of functionality has been packed into a small, light handheld without sacrificing BlackBerry's trademark robust Email capabilities. The camera is decent, and the music and video players work very well despite some interface weaknesses. On paper this could be the ultimate smartphone for the sleek, sophisticated set.
However, I don't particularly like the black and chrome, all plastic look and feel of the Pearl and found the SureType keyboard to be too small for regular use. The user interface is also not quite "fun" enough to compete with the Sidekicks and Symbians of the world, and the Web browser needs some work, too.
I guess you can't have it all. If you've got small fingers and don't mind spending $20/month on Email and Web access via EDGE, the Pearl certainly is the most functional device out there for its size. But if you're willing to carry something just a little bigger and heavier, several other smartphones offer more features in easier to use packages. Still, the Pearl is an important step for RIM towards opening up the BlackBerry experience to the masses. I look forward to seeing what they do next.