That is quite a bold statement that I just made. I have used pretty much every Palm OS and Windows Mobile Smartphone out there over the past few years. If I haven’t tested and reviewed them, I have played with them in the stores. There are some SmartPhones I have loved and some I have hated, but none than I craved more than the one I have been testing for the past three weeks – The BlackBerry Pearl.
This is, hands down, the most amazing piece of SmartPhone hardware (with very capable software) that I have ever used. Read on to see why this little ‘Gem’ of a Phone is so incredibly cool.
My SmartPhone of choice over the last several years has been the tried and true Treo 650 with the old, but stable Palm OS. Recently, I felt that both the Motorola Q and, even more impressively, the Samsung blackjack had eclipsed the Treo for the title ‘Best Smartphones’ available.
I had certainly played with a BlackBerry or two over the years – but I never actually had one in my hands to configure and really learn about. A brand spanking new White BlackBerry Pearl showed up three weeks ago and it has been an eye-opening experience for me.
I was, admittedly, skeptical of the BlackBerry experience and the BlackBerry user. I never did understand the ‘CrackBerry’ label applied to its users. Now I do.
If first impressions are made on looks – this was love at first sight. This thing is just beautiful to look at and to hold and use. Chrome accents, a rich White Metallic luster and the little ‘Pearl’ – a small trackball that sits front and center (more on that later.)
My Test unit is a T-Mobile branded White BlackBerry Pearl. The ‘Pearl’ is also available in ‘Black’ on both T-Mobile and Cingular.
OK – let’s get started. Here is a little background on Research In Motion.
Research In Motion is a leading designer, manufacturer and marketer of innovative wireless solutions for the worldwide mobile communications market. Through the development of integrated hardware, software and services that support multiple wireless network standards, RIM provides platforms and solutions for seamless access to time-sensitive information including e-mail, phone, SMS messaging, Internet and intranet-based applications. RIM technology also enables a broad array of third party developers and manufacturers to enhance their products and services with wireless connectivity to data. RIM’s portfolio of award-winning products, services and embedded technologies are used by thousands of organizations around the world and include the BlackBerry(r) wireless platform, software development tools, radio-modems and software/hardware licensing agreements. Founded in 1984 and based in Waterloo, Ontario, RIM operates offices in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific. RIM is listed on the Nasdaq Stock Market (Nasdaq: RIMM) and the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX: RIM).
Here is the ‘Official’ line on the ‘Pearl’ from Rim’s Web site:
The BlackBerry Pearl At A Glance
Size (LxWxD) 4.2′ x 2′ x .57’/107 mm x 50 mm x 14.5 mm
Weight (battery included) 3.16 oz/89.5g
Memory 64 MB flash memory Expandable memory Micro SD (amount of storage is determined by card capacity)
Display High resolution (240×260) portrait TFT color display Supports over 65,000 colors
Camera Snap and send with a 1.3 MP camera with flash, self portrait mirror, zoom
Keyboard SureType QWERTY keyboard with SureType software Dedicated Keys Send key, End/Power key, Mute key, Left programmable convenience key (Preprogrammed as VAD), Right programmable convenience key (Preprogrammed as Camera), Volume/Zoom key
Navigation Trackball, ESC key, Menu key User Interface Intuitive icons, menus and flow
Notification Tone, vibrate, on-screen or LED indicator Notification options are user configurable
Ringtones Polyphonic – MP3, MIDI
Voice Input/Output Integrated earpiece and microphone, hands-free headset, integrated speakerphone
Bluetooth(r) Bluetooth v2.0; headset, hands-free and serial port profiles supported
Headset Stereo headset capable
Battery Life 15 days standby and 3.5 hours talk time
Quad-Band 850/900/1800/1900 Mhz GSM/GPRS and EDGE networks
Media Player Supported audio formats: MP3, MIDI, AMR-NB, AAC/AAC+/eACC+. Supported video formats: MPEG4 Part 2 Simple Profile, H.263 Attachment Viewing Full HTML Web browsing
It’s a first-rate phone with Voice Activated Dialing (VAD), polyphonic, mp3 and MIDI ring tones, speakerphone, smart dialing, conference calling, speed dial, call forwarding and Bluetooth(r) support for hands-free use with headsets and car kits.
It delivers the popular and proven BlackBerry experience that users have come to know and love. It is incredibly sleek and exceptionally powerful – small enough to take anywhere and powerful enough to handle all of your communication and information needs. It’s the ultimate combination of brains and beauty. It is incredibly easy-to-navigate with a new and intuitive trackball navigation system. It is the first BlackBerry to offer a camera with built-in flash and zoom – just snap and send. It’s easier than ever to share pictures with your friends and family right away via email, MMS and BlackBerry Messenger. It features a large, ultra-bright 240×260 color display that brings images to life Its innovative light sensing technology automatically adjusts screen and keyboard lighting for indoor, outdoor and dark environments.
Enjoy all the power of BlackBerry and the convenience of a built-in media player – now you can listen to your favorite songs while browsing the web or reading an email, all from a single (small) device. It supports a micro SD card allowing lots of storage space for pictures, ringtones, audio and video files, and other third party data. It supports EDGE and features the highly optimized BlackBerry wireless platform, allowing fast performance for web browsing and other applications. It features RIM’s popular SureType(tm) keyboard technology that makes typing amazingly quick and easy on such a small handset It’s easy to stay on top of important personal and work communications with the ability to access up to ten personal or work email accounts such as Yahoo!(r) and Microsoft(r) Exchange.
On to the Review.
The BlackBerry Pearl is incredibly small and thin. When I put it side by side with the Motorola Q, the Pearl is maybe 1mm thicker, but it is at least 1/3 smaller in over all size – just amazing! The screen in large for its size – it is Portrait in orientation with a 240 x 260 resolution.
Compared to the Treo, the Pearl feels and look to be maybe 1/3 the overall size and weight of the bulky Treo.
Images were incredibly bright and clear. One amazing feature of this phone is that it automatically senses the lighting conditions of the room you are in and brightens or darkens the screen accordingly. Why don’t all phones do that?
Above the screen is the Earpiece and an LED in the upper right hand corner. One neat thing about the LED is that is changes in color depending on the function. It flashes blue when you are connected via bluetooth and it flashes red when email comes in.
Centered, below the screen is the ‘Pearl’ a small, white trackball which handles all the navigation on this BlackBerry. There is no jog-dial on the side like all previous BlackBerries. I found the trackball incredibly intuitive to use. It was quick and easy to scroll through applications, appointments or whatever. The trackball can also be ‘clicked’ to select most features. It lights up a bright white color when in use.
To the right of the ‘Pearl’ is the ‘back’ button and the red ‘end’ button. To the left is the ‘menu’ button and the ‘green’ send key. Below these is the keyboard. BlackBerry chose to use their SureType Keyboard with the Pearl. Here is how this technology is described on the BlackBerry site:
The BlackBerry Pearl features RIM’s popular SureType(tm) keyboard technology that makes typing amazingly quick and easy on such a small handset.
SureType is an innovative technology that enables a QWERTY keyboard to be integrated into a narrower handset and allows users to easily, quickly and accurately thumb-type messages Users maintain the look and feel of their traditional phone, but also gain an easy-to-use QWERTY keyboard for typing email more naturally instead of the ‘hunt-and-peck’ effect caused by the cumbersome ‘abc’ layout and multi-tap process used on traditional phones As a result, users can concentrate more on their message and less on the typing process And SureType even learns new words, including the names, cities and streets that you type.
How to Type Using SureType
To type using SureType technology, press each letter only once until you have typed an entire word. The letter combinations will change automatically – by the time you have finished typing the word, SureType has typically already figured out the word you want. The SureType software has a word list of over 35,000 of the most common words. And it will also pull new words from the address book and learn new words as you type.
All I can say is that it works like a charm. The keys are a little cramped for big fingers, but they have a great tactile feel that was easy to use. Most times I found SureType to be dead on accurate. On a few occasions, when a wrong letter was chosen, I could just scroll the trackball to other ‘options’ and select the letter combination I was looking for.
Rim had to sacrifice something to make this thing so small. In my experience, the use of the SureType system was more than a fair compromise to keep the size so small.
On the left side of the Pearl there is a mini-USB charging port, a 2.5 mm headphone jack and a dedicated key that is by default for voice dialing. On the right hand side there is another dedicated button that is pre-programmed for the camera, but is user changeable. There are also volume up and down buttons along the right hand side.
The BlackBerry Peal does accommodate a mini-SD card for expansion and if you use any of the media features you will certainly want at least a 1GB card. Getting to and installing the card requires a little excavation – another compromise to keep the size so small. You need to first slide off the back and then take out the battery and then pop up the Card holder slot – insert the card and then put everything together. My suggestion is to get a 2GB card, install it and leave it alone – it should meet all your needs.
The Pearl as an Email Device:
RIM is known as a maker of business-centric emailing devices. The Pearl takes advantage of the RIM BlackBerry Connect software and server for handing email needs. Here is the official line from RIM on the email features of the Pearl:
BlackBerry Internet Service BlackBerry Internet Email(tm), part of BlackBerry Internet Service(tm), allows users to access up to ten personal and corporate email accounts (such as Yahoo!(r) and Microsoft(r) Exchange) from a single device Wireless synchronization (optional setting)
With BlackBerry Internet Service you can also create a special BlackBerry email address just for your device The device you are using has already been set up with a special address that looks like this: (name)@tmo.blackberry.net.
BlackBerry Enterprise Server
Users can also select the BlackBerry Enterpriser Server option Users can use this option to associate the BlackBerry Pearl with a Microsoft(r) Outlook, IBM(r) Lotus(r) Notes(r) or Novell(r) GroupWise(r) work email account and to take advantage of advanced wireless data synchronization capabilities If a system administrator has provided an enterprise activation password, users can set up email using this option by selecting the I want to use a work email account with a BlackBerry Enterprise Server option in the setup wizard of the handset If the user does not have an enterprise activation password, contact the system administrator.
All that being said, setting up email was the easiest experience on any PDA or Smartphone that I have ever used. I just put in my email address and password for four different email accounts and they were all configure automatically with the exception of one IMAP account. For that account I had to input the settings like I would have to do for every account on a Windows Mobile or Palm OS SmartPhone.
The Beauty of the BlackBerry email system is that email is just automatically ‘pushed’ to the device effortlessly. No more going on line to check for email. The other fabulous thing is that for the most part, email was formatted perfectly.
I have always run into problems when it came to sending email from my Treo or Windows Mobile smartphones – something invariably would go wrong with the SMTP settings. With the Pearl it was truly effortless to click ‘reply’ and just compose and send mail. When in the email program, a click on the menu key brings up a plethora of email options and other messaging options.
Sending text messages was as easy as looking for a contact, hitting the menu key and selecting send SMS message. Discussions are threaded which is great.
The Pearl as a Phone:
I was skeptical about a T-Mobile phone since normally T-Mobile has little to no coverage where I live – or so I thought. I knew that T-Mobile was expanding their service but I was pleasantly surprised that I had stronger service nearly everywhere I went than I did on my Sprint Treo. I think the antenna of the Pearl is an engineering marvel for its ability to lock in and hold a signal.
Voice quality was excellent – much better than the Treo and on par with the Motorola Q. Callers felt that the sound quality was on par with land lines. The Pearl is plenty loud.
Dialing contacts was very easy. Either click the call log on the home screen or move the trackball to address book and type a few letters. Once a contact is selected, there are a plethora of options – just select call and you’re done. If your contact has a picture stored, that will show on the screen during the call.
The Pearl as a Web Browser:
BlackBerry uses its own OS and Web Browser which is Java based. The speed of the internet service was dependent on whether I was in a GPRS or EDGE area. Most of the time at m home I was in the slower GPRS and when I went closer to Boston I picked up the EDGE service. Both were faster at loading web pages than my Treo. When using GPRS, the Pearl loaded graphics faster than my ‘Q’ which was on Sprint’s EVDO system. When connected via EDGE, internet service was the fastest I have experienced on a SmartPhone.
Web pages also looked beautiful. Pictures were clear and crisp and formatting was usually perfect on the Portrait screen. Navigation was simple using the Track Ball.
The Pearl as a PIM (Personal Information Manager.)
The Pearl comes with a robust Address Book, Calendar, memo, Task, memo pad, voice note, password holder and more pre-installed. The calendar and address book will import you information from Outlook using the desktop manager software. Unfortunately, you are tied to Outlook as your desktop PIM – but importing was smooth and synchronization was very easy.
The calendar did all I needed it to do. It was very easy to navigate with the trackball to input date for appointments. There are all the usual features – recurring events, alarms, inserting contact info from the address book and so on.
I found that navigating the calendar and address book was as easy as the Palm OS and required far fewer clicks and hunts through menus than Windows Mobile.
The Pearl cannot do some of the things I love to do on my ‘Q.’ I can’t access my SlingBox (at least, not yet) and I can’t stream Satellite Radio. The Pearl also does not support A2DP – streaming Bluetooth Stereo. However, the bundled media player is very capable. It was easy enough to navigate to where I put some MP3 files and have them play. The on board speaker is nothing to write home about, but music sounded fine when earphones (included) were plugged in. This will not be an iPod replacement – but it is a nice media player for music.
Video looked great on the Pearl. The screen was really beautiful and frame rates were acceptable.
Likewise, picture quality – at least viewing pictures – was very good. Images were sharp and clear. The camera has a built in flash that is adjustable and a 5X zoom which is controlled by simply moving the trackball. Picture quality was just fair for a 1.3 mega pixel camera – but certainly acceptable for a camera phone. It should be noted that this is RIM’s first foray into the world of camera phones and it was a pretty good first effort.
Bundled software and accessories:
I cannot tell you how refreshing it was to open up a SmartPhone box and see a full reference guide (written beautifully with lots of good illustrations and tips) as well as a CD, Quick set-up guide, AC charger, and included headset.
The software that was pre-loaded was so much more plentiful than the latest Windows Mobile offerings and the links in the web browser took me to lots more free add-ons. One piece of software that was a free download was a great RSS news reader called Newsclip. I could also get ‘push’ content right on the home screen like updated weather and Reuters’ News headlines. For an information junkie – it doesn’t get any better than this.
I was also able to easily download free games, game demos, rigtones and other goodies from the T-Zones on the handset.
So, what’s not to love?
For some, the keyboard will seem cramped – at least initially. Getting to the Mini SD card is not for the faint of heart. There is also no reset button. To reset the device (which occurs far less frequently with this OS than any other I have tested) you have to take off the battery cover and remove the battery.
This is the finest SmartPhone I have every used. Period. It is a great phone, an amazing email device, a capable media player and a wonderful web surfer. The screen is beautiful, the Trackball is a joy to use (much better than a jog dial or D-Pad) and the Suretype keyboard works great.
If you want all the multi-media features available – this might not be the best choice. If you want a great phone with the industries best email function, a terrific web experience and a capable media player and camera all bundled in an incredibly sexy package – this is the phone for you.
I should also mention that with heavy usage, I was able to get two to three days of solid use before needing a charge. As good or better than the Treo and way beyond the Blackjack and the Q.
Now, I don’t often gush like this and I have never been tempted to actually eat the early cancellation fee of my carrier and switch for a device – but I am very tempted. The White BlackBerry Pearl is truly a diamond in the rough world of today’s SmartPhones.