The BlackBerry is to email what the iPod is to music – an iconic device that sets you free from the computer and the wired world so that, in the case of the BlackBerry, you can receive and send email on the move.
But while the BlackBerry rules the business roost, a wave of email-friendly smartphones has begun to bring mobile mail to the masses. Now BlackBerry’s parent company RIM is after a piece of the action, and the Pearl is its secret weapon. However, while the BlackBerry’s traditional strengths remain on solid ground, it falls short of equalling the most feature-packed mobiles.
Officially known as the BlackBerry 8100, the Pearl’s name (along with the glossy black fascia and silver fairings) is one of several concessions to the consumer market. It boasts all the email smarts of every BlackBerry that’s gone before it, but adds mainstream features such as a digital camera and support for music and video playback.
The Pearl’s design follows the elongated ‘candy bar’ shape rather than the squared-off form of its more conventional built-for-business brethren. This means there’s no room for a miniature QWERTY keypad, which is best suited to intensive email.
The Pearl opts for the same integrated keyboard approach of earlier models such as the 7100. This puts two letters on each numeric or symbol key, which follows the traditional QWERTY layout but places more reliance on the BlackBerry’s SureType ‘predictive text’ software being smart enough to determine what words you’re attempting to type.
Like SMSing on a mobile phone, this dictionary-based software suggests words in a pop-up box. It also learns particular words that you often use, including ‘shorthand’ abbreviations and email addresses. It also recognises names in your address book and can extract new terms from incoming emails.
Sandwiched between the tightly-grouped keys and the vivid 2.2 inch screen is the pea-sized white trackball from which the Pearl gets its name. This rolls in four directions to navigate your way around the screen, with a somewhat fiddly button underneath that is pressed to make a selection.
The 1.3 megapixel digital camera is on par with an average camera-equipped mobile phone, but there’s no video recording. Nor does the media player software try to dazzle you with frills – it’s a simple applet to browse images, manage ringtones and, of course, play music and video.
With only 28MB of RAM available to the user, a microSD card is essential for music and video, but the Pearl doesn’t come with one of those fingernail-sized wafers. It’s up to you to choose the capacity you want and the price you’re willing to pay, but allow around $50 for a 512MB card and $100 for 1GB. Unfortunately, like the SIM card, the memory card is wedged under the battery – so you’ll end up relying on the BlackBerry Desktop Manager software to move images, music and video files between the Pearl and your PC.
The Pearl boasts the same solid email features as any BlackBerry with its ability to receive and send email through a secure company email system or an ISP-based account. There’s also support for viewing common attachments such as images, Microsoft Office documents (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) and Adobe Acrobat PDFs, although the fidelity of these attachments rarely makes a perfect transition onto the device and its small screen.
The Pearl’s organiser functions are standard issue for any PDA, with synchronisation against Microsoft Outlook when connected to a PC via the device’s mini-USB port. Mac synchronisation software isn’t included but there several options available for download, including the free PocketMac 4 for BlackBerry (www.pocketmac.net), which works with programs ranging from Apple’s own Address Book and iCal calendar to Microsoft’s Entourage.
Overall response from the Pearl was as snappy as its Intel-powered siblings from the 8700 series. Likewise, the display was crisp and showed the colourful icons of the interface very effectively.
The Pearl makes a decent fist as a quad-band GSM phone, although the audio consistently leant slightly to the hollow side. The voice-recognition for both names and numbers proved quite accurate.
We found typing on the unique keypad to be surprisingly accurate, especially if you don’t look at the screen whilst tapping away – the SureType software gets things right most of the time. The only difficulty that the alphabet keys are coloured silver on black while our eyes were drawn more to the black-on-silver rows of the numeric keypad. This required a surprising degree of conscious effort to stay focussed on the alphabet keys while composing a message.
The 1.3MP digital camera is fine for quick snaps, although the built-in flash made little difference except to wash out the image. But disable the automatic flash and you’ll find the camera acquits itself quite well in what you’d otherwise consider to be low light situations.
The digital zoom has steppings to 3x and 5x but tends to make the image rather grainy and blurred.
When it came to playing MP3 tracks, we were stunned by the punch and clarity of the Pearl’s tiny inbuilt speaker compared to other mobiles. Plugging in the supplied earbuds (which double as a hands-free kit) delivered privacy but also revealed that the audio plug is a size smaller than that used by average headphones such as those of the iPod.
While the Pearl’s support for MP3 music is to be expected, video clips won’t enjoy such as easy ride. RIM claims that the Peal supports AVI and MOV files created with MPEG4 and DivX, but we had little success getting even a simple movie trailer to play, let alone DivX-encoded videos. The pre-loaded demo clip showed how smooth and stutter-free the video playback could be, but you’ll need to experiment with different video formats and perhaps even format conversion software in order to turn the Pearl into your pocket cinema.
The BlackBerry Pearl may be the ultimate cross-over device for business users at the top end of town, but its consumer features are a little on the light side to win over the average mainstream user.