BlackBerry's 8700 series has been a hit with power email users who want always-on, real-time access to their email on the go. Research In Motion initially released the 8700 in GSM-only configurations, but recently brought the handheld's roomy but compact form factor and big, bright display to EV-DO users.
The RIM BlackBerry 8703e for Sprint combines BlackBerry's beloved push email technology, QWERTY thumbboard and scroll wheel with Sprint's Power Vision high speed data network. The 8703e is also Sprint's first GPS-enabled BlackBerry.
While the 8703e doesn't have the consumer-directed flash or multimedia capabilities of the BlackBerry Pearl, it does do everything a business traveler would expect of a BlackBerry, and it does so with ease and comfort. Add the optional location-based services provided by the integrated GPS receiver and you've got a serious voice, email, and Internet client with the added ability to help you find your way to client sites, restaurants, and hotels when you're on the road.
Unlike the slimmer, sleeker Pearl, the 8703e looks like a BlackBerry. It's tall and wide and flat and finished in no-nonsense black. Measuring in at 4.3 x 2.7 x 0.8 inches and weighing 4.7 ounces, the 8703e is big for a phone but somewhat compact and light for a BlackBerry. BlackBerry users don't mind the size, though, since it affords them space for a nice, roomy display and thumbboard for all of that emailing.
The 2.5" display takes up the top half of the front panel, while the lower portion is given over to buttons: Talk and End buttons flank a programmable soft key in a row just below the display, and a 35-key QWERTY thumbboard lies beneath that. The QWERTY board was generally great to type on, with tall, slightly angled buttons that are backlit and provide good tactile feedback. My very minor complaint about the keyboard is that the buttons are a tiny bit slick to the touch, and not as "nice feeling" as the new soft-grip buttons employed by other handset makers as of late.
Along the right panel of the device you'll find the infamous BlackBerry scroll wheel and its companion, the Escape key. BlackBerry almost always positions these two controls in the optimal position for one-handed device navigation, and the 8703e is, in fact, a breeze to use with one hand (unless you have particularly small hands). On the left panel of the phone you'll find a 2.5mm headset jack, mini USB port, and a second programmable soft key.
A portion back panel of the 8703e slides off to reveal the battery slot, and the panel also houses a speakerphone grille framed by a silver plastic border. Since this is an EV-DO handset, there is no SIM card slot. The top panel of the phone features two silver buttons that control power and mute functions.
If the Pearl was BlackBerry's foray into multimedia on a handset, the 8703e is their return to communication and nothing but communication. There are virtually no multimedia features to be found on the 8703e, as music and video players are eschewed for a focus on flexible and speedy access to voice, email, messaging, and Web data. One game, BrickBreaker, does allow for breaks from all that high-powered productivity.
As mentioned, the 8703e is Sprint's first GPS-enabled BlackBerry. The TeleNav GPS system works on the 8703e and provides location-based services such as 2-D and 3-D maps, turn-by-turn driving directions, and information on local services and attractions. The software worked pretty well, though I must admit that I'm fairly new to GPS systems and my first instinct was to get similar information from Web-based services like Google Maps, MapQuest, and the like. Of course, with those you have to enter your location information manually; GPS systems like TeleNav take care of that part for you.
In addition to the 8703e's Email, Messaging, and Web capabilities (which we'll get to in a bit), the device also features integrated attachment viewers that can handle most office document formats. I was able to view PDF files and Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents on the device with success, though BlackBerry could learn a thing or two about user interfaces from a company like Apple. I'm not saying that business users need a fancy GUI on their BlackBerry, but it would be nice if intuitive actions like zooming in/out of a PDF using the scroll wheel were handled a bit more smoothly.
BlackBerry's PIM applications are also found on the 8703e. The calendar, contacts manager, to-do list, and alarm functions all work well. Each contact can accommodate multiple phone numbers and addresses in addition to email addresses, notes, and other pertinent information. The number of contacts is limited only by the handset's available memory.
There is no camera on the 8703e. RIM traditionally does not equip BlackBerry devices with cameras, true to their all-business design. The BlackBerry 8800 "Pearl" is the only BlackBerry to currently offer a camera.
The 2.5" TFT display on the 8703e is capable of 320x240 resolution at 65,000 colors. While this isn't quite state of the art compared to high-end multimedia phones, it's more than capable for everything the 8703e is meant to do. The screen looks great in most lighting conditions, and an configurable backlight makes for easy adjustments.
BlackBerry's user interface isn't going to win any awards, but it's not as bad as I always fear it will be before picking up one of their devices. The icon-driven menu system is straightforward and looks pretty nice on the 8703e's screen, either in list or grid view.
Text and graphics render nicely on the screen, and it's got plenty of room for viewing email attachments, composing and reading messages and Web browsing. Menu items are customizable so individual users can have quick access to email accounts and most-used applications; BlackBerry is all about on-the-go productivity.
Call quality on the 8703e was very good. The dual-band CDMA (1900mHz and 800 MHz) CDMA radio performed well most of the time on Sprint's network in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had a few "bad connections" that resulted in broken-up voices on one end or the other, but a quick hang-up and redial fixed the problem in every case. I had no issues getting a signal nor with dropped calls.
Quality was good using the built-in speakerphone, and the 24 pre-installed ringtones played loud and clear through the speaker. Some of them were capable of getting quite loud, as a matter of fact. The phone supports MIDI, wav, and mp3 ringtones.
Bluetooth 2.0 on the 8703e 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's push email system is legendary, and the 8703e delivers on the BlackBerry email promise with the added benefit of Sprint's high speed EV-DO data network. Push email automatically retrieves your messages from the server without the need for manual connection/disconnection refreshes. The 8703e can handle connections to BlackBerry Enterprise servers 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.
The 8703e supports SMS text messaging out of the box, though no Instant Messaging client comes pre-installed. Blackberry Connect and other IM clients are available for download, however.
Messaging was easy with the 8703e's roomy thumbboard. The keys are large and well-spaced, and I much prefered them to the Sure Type keypad found on smaller BlackBerry handsets like the Pearl.
Sprint's Power Vision Network EV-DO data service power's the 8703e's speedy Web browsing capabilities. BlackBerry's Web Browser isn't the slick mobile Web experience that Series 60 and UIQ users are used to, but it's not bad, and coupled with the 8703e's speedy Intel processor and Sprint's speedy download speeds, mobile Web browsing on the device is quite a nice experience.
The 8703e also can be tethered to a laptop for use as a cellular modem. While I wouldn't advise such a feat on a slower GSM network unless you're in a real pinch, if you're paying for Sprint's Power Vision Network service you might as well use those near-broadband data speeds for your laptop, too.
The 8703e is a dual-band GCDMASM phone that only functions on Sprint's network. Though it lacks Wi-Fi connectivity, it does support EV-DO and 1xRTT CDMA data transfer. Email and Web access are dependent on activation of a data plan through T-Sprint.
Bluetooth 2.0 on the 8703e includes support for mono audio devices as well as file transfer and laptop "tethering" for use of the device as a cellular modem. As mentioned, the 8703e has built-in GPS capabilities for location-based services. I had no trouble pairing the Pearl with a mono headset or my computer.
There is no expandable memory card slot on the 8703e, so you're limited to 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.
RIM's BlackBerry 8703e brings the latest in a basically unchanged line of mobile communication devices to Sprint's Power Vision Network, with the notable addition of integrated GPS capabilities. While RIM now offers a plethora of BlackBerry models, with the exception of the Pearl (and, to a lesser extent, the other SureType-equipped models), the core functionality of the company's push email technology hasn't really changed over the years.
The 8703e makes the BlackBerry experience comfortable, thanks to a crisp QVGA display, capable processor, and roomy, easy-to-use QWERTY thumbboard. Sprint makes the BlackBerry experience faster thanks to its EV-DO data network. There are no frills here - save for the GPS features - it's voice, messaging, email, and Web, and all as efficiently as possible.
That being said, as a business device the 8703e is top-notch. The handset is comfortable to hold and use and relatively lightweight considering the room its QWERTY board takes up. If you're already on the BlackBerry platform and use or are considering Sprint, the 8703e is well worth a look. It's bigger than the Pearl, but much more comfortable for long-term messaging use, and coupled with EV-DO data speeds it really just might unchain you from that office chair at long last.