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BlackBerry 7290

Editor's rating (1-5):
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Where to Buy: Cingular
Where to Buy: T-Mobile

Review posted September 2, 2005 by Michael Thwaite

Add Bluetooth and an extra radio band to an established line up of solid corporate messaging device and you have the Blackberry 7290 from Research in Motion. For those who missed the Blackberry mobile revolution, the Blackberry is the quintessential mobile messenger. Long before Microsoft, Nokia et al dreamt of combining phone and PDA RIM was peddling their own unique blend of PDA coupled to an always on data connection over the air-waves. The early units, in the late 80's, relied on the slower paging networks but still created the same always-on email experience that the newer phone-based units offer.

RIM BlackBerry 7290

This Blackberry comes from T-Mobile at a cost of $349 plus $30-80 per month for the plan, the 7290 adds $50 to the previous non-Bluetooth model. The 7290 is also available from Cingular with similar pricing. Is it worth the extra cash? That depends one whether you use the phone features. Read on…

Design and Ergonomics

Today's Blackberry owes its design more to a long and proven linage of screen and keyboard combo than any new-age art inspired design; it's a corporate device and as I'll say a few times in this review is born of that goal; to be a mobile messenger in a corporate world. Its high points are that it's been refined and refined to such a height that it's no surprise that it works so well ergonomically. Every button has its purpose, there are no extra buttons, switches, dials or 'flappy' bits to break off. This year's model features a lighter smarter metallic blue-grey color finish than the Black and Blue models of last year. It retains a smooth curved form that fits the pocket far better than many 'stylish' phones and PDA's that feature sharp squared off edges. It spreads its weight out evenly over its size to ensure that no part presses into you; a neat trick that hides its 139g/4.9oz weight giving the impression of a much lighter unit.

side view of BlackBerry 7290

 

The Blackberry 7290 works well in both the left and right hands; navigation is via a side mounted scroll-wheel and most operations can be completed single-handedly; the optionally backlit screen is just enough at 240x160 (65mm diagonal) resolution but there's no touch screen so many operations require a few intuitive pushes of the wheel to get the desired action. Heavy users may develop a small callous on the wheel finger!

The keyboard is great, it has a responsive enough feel without too much resistance and flat keys that allow the thumbs to slide from key to key; not as fancy as Palm or HP keyboards but more efficient for it.

 

 

 

 

 

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The plastic construction is tight and solid, the door to the removable battery fits closely and the lack of touch screen frees the 7290 from that fragile, 'don't scratch my screen!' feel that Pocket PC's have and lends to the units overall 'pocket-ability'.

On the side you'll find a nice standard mini-USB connector for charging, upgrades and desktop sync; There's also a compact charger complete with US, Euro and UK adapters reinforcing the world-phone feel.

The kit includes a 'desktop stand', this isn't a docking station but incorporates a inset where you can press in the included USB sync cord. It's decidedly low rent.

Also of questionable need is the belt holster; it features a magnet and switch that causes the Blackberry to switch modes for Ringer and notification when holstered. However, in the holster on your hip I don't think that you're necessarily making the right fashion statement.

Phone Features and Reception

The difference between this model and the previous is all in the radio department; Quad-band GSM ensures better coverage across both of the US GSM frequencies; 850 and the older 1900Mhz plus full coverage in Europe on the 900 and 1800Mhz bands, but here is where later Blackberry's had a chance to win the Phone/PDA combo battle… but lost. There are a couple of problems with the Blackberry's Phone feature, the first is a weak radio and the second a poor phone user interface. It's a shame as I'd consider the Blackberry my only device if it were stronger in this area. In the US where GSM coverage is still light there are areas where I can pull in enough of a signal on most phones and PDA/Phones to hold on but the Blackberry is noticeably weak. I've tried a few units so don't feel this to be mine alone. The problem is that it's too far under the bar to rely on, it doesn't handle calls in the car and at home where I have usually one to two bars the Blackberry is 'Searching…'. Careful positioning gives me a bar to receive my email with but that's no use for calling. Unless you're in a great area and don't plan to take calls whilst traveling this isn't a device that you can conduct telephone business on.

On a recent trip to the UK, where five bars are the norm, the Blackberry made the grade with call quality on a par with most phones and better than some; the larger case affords a reasonable speaker giving depth and volume. No speaker phone though. So if you plan a trip around Europe, you could get away with packing only one device… along with your tooth-brush.

The user interface for the phone is not strong; it is, like the rest of the software a bit, well, 'agricultural'. In a world of icons and animation the Blackberry is a little 'MSDOS' for want of a better term. I don't mean to say that I don't like it, it's actually a little retro but its heavy text based displays and its limited navigation options leave it bereft of the now expected neat features like T9 dialing and an easily accessible speed-dial. I do believe that these features could be implemented.

BlackBerry 7290 and HP iPAQ 6515

The BlackBerry 7290 and HP iPAQ 6515 Mobile Messenger

Where the interface claws back some ground is that you can call contacts from the Contacts feature as well as from email and web pages. Once on a call an optional Bluetooth headset works well allowing you to hold the unit either in front of you so that you can tap in notes about the call, or in my case above your head at a 73.5 degree angle by the back window where I get a signal.

The GSM phone also hosts the GPRS data connection required to receive email; at fast modem speeds it's not EDGE, EVDO or Wi-Fi throughput but that doesn't matter as the email flows in continuously and is very compressed. Web pages on the integrated browser strain the bandwidth the most but again they're compressed and well, you're on a tiny pocket device; it's good enough!

Horsepower and Performance

Want to know why the battery life is so good? A. The CPU is as fast as a Tortoise… but, that's ok, it is, as Rolls-Royce would say when asked about the horsepower from their engines "sufficient". The only time I could outrun it was whilst carrying out a full re-sync of all my mail, contacts and calendar, only then where key presses unresponsive. In day-to-day operation it does make very good use of the CPU, one thing that you don't immediately notice is that it is always on, the display never goes off, the CPU is always running, constantly receiving messages, something that you just can't do with a fast and power hungry processor. When needed the operating system has its priorities right too, when a call comes in the unit instantly comes alive and switches to the Phone application, something that some other Phone/PDA's struggle with.

Storage is integrated only (no expansion slot); 32Mb of usable memory for emails (plain-text), calendar and contact information. It is, 'sufficient' for thousands or contacts and a month of emails.

Display, Gaming and Multimedia

Gaming? The Blackberry comes with a whole host of games; 'Email', 'Calendar', 'Contacts' to name but a few. Each one performs very well and, they even throw in a Tetris type game for when you've finished emailing… oh wait a minute no, how about we SMS a few more times? One thing the Blackberry doesn't need is a suite of games; it hasn't the CPU or display to keep up. I was pleasantly surprised though to discover just how much extra business software titles you can get for the Blackberry; there are RSS readers, enhanced word processors and even financial charting packages. One of my favorite add-ons is the Instant Messenger application from RIM themselves; the always-on GPRS connection really makes IM work on a mobile device.

Guess what software you can't get for the Blackberry? Answer: anything multimedia. As there is no storage option there is no where to store MP3's and video so the hardware has never supported it. It's a shame as a little mini-SD slot and a nice music player would be a great touch.

The screen is 65mm (2.5") diagonal and has a resolution of 240x160; it's just enough for emails and the built in fonts make good use of that modest resolution. The strong point for the display is that it can operate without its backlight in all but the dimmest light. This adds battery life and simplifies use; you don't have to press a button to read email, you just glance at it.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth support in the 7290 is new to this form factor Blackberry having first seen the light of day in the more phone like 71xx series. It's again a bit of a text based implementation but, it works and works well. Support for Headset and Hands-Free is good… it works which is more than can be said of the Microsoft Stack in the PocketPC and Smartphone. It has an odd additional switch for each paired device; 'Trust' that set to the default 'No' requires user confirmation when any device tries to attach, a small problem.

The Bluetooth implementation doesn't support OBEX so we can't send contacts yet. Nor does it offer itself as a Dial-up device so it won't add GPRS to your laptop.

Battery Life

With a modest battery that looks about 750mAh you'll get a good 4 hours talk time and a week on standby, and remember that standby includes receiving emails… Now do you want that fast processor? No, I didn't think so. It's quite liberating to know that I can take a two day trip over the weekend without taking the charger. A spare battery will not break the bank and nor would a simple 5-volt car charger.

In typical day-to-day use the Blackberry should see the charger every couple of days, more to avoid disappointment should that disaster occur that keeps you on the phone for hours than for the Blackberry's benefit. If you don't use the phone feature, you could probably charge it at weekends only!

Software

As shipped the unit came with an older OS, a free update to Blackberry firmware 4.0.2.32 can be downloaded and applied.

The Blackberry works by connecting to the Blackberry Servers, not, as is often thought, your server. To get email, contacts, calendar and tasks to the handheld you have to send them to Blackberry for onward transmission. Out of the box, the included desktop software allows you to synchronize with most desktop PIMs though only email is synchronized over the air, calendar, contacts and tasks require that you sync with the included USB cable. Don't forget though that to sync email your PC must be left on and logged in so it's no good for laptop users! In this mode, a Blackberry can be used by anyone but really, the Blackberry was groomed for the corporate world and whilst you can use web mail and sync from your desktop, an investment in Blackberry Enterprise server is the way to go. Using software that runs on a Windows Server, the Enterprise software will collect mail, calendar, tasks and contacts from Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes and deliver it to the Blackberry system for delivery to your handheld. In this mode the Blackberry works; as an IT manager you can add a user to the Enterprise server, have them pick up a Blackberry where ever they are and simply enter email address and password and they're off, there's little in IT that's simpler than that. A home user is not going to get that level of simplicity and convenience, another area in which I feel that Blackberry sell themselves short.

Always-on Push Email

Blackberry make a lot of their always-on push email service and it is neat to watch email arriving in real-time but, it's only 'neat' I'm not totally sold on it's advantages, my Pocket PC devices check each hour during the day and with time flying by I seem to have new messages each time I look so I wouldn't rule anything out that didn't do 'Push' email.

Other than PIM functionality the Blackberry doesn't include any additional software, however look outside and you'll find a whole raft of business oriented applications to boost functionality.

Conclusion

If you're looking to loose your phone and PocketPC or Palm powered PDA in exchange for a Blackberry, you may be disappointed, especially if you're any kind of power user; you'll miss the MP3 player, the word processor and the ability to load up fancy GPS software. If you plan to keep your mobile phone but need to add remote email and calendaring to your life and especially if you're the type that buys technology for the job rather than for fashion then you're in luck; the Blackberry offers strong email, calendar and contact management in a tough and pocket-able form that doesn't need a tech-head in tow to keep it running and, having recently seen them in the hands of the FAB-5 and George Clooney you might hit the fashion note too.

Price: ~ $349 with contract with T-Mobile and $249 to $299 with Cingular

Web Site: www.blackberry.com , www.tmobile.com, www.cingular.com

Shopping: Where to Buy: Cingular or T-Mobile

 

Specs:

Display: 2.5" 65k color display. Resolution: 240 x 160 pixels.

Battery: Lithium Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable. 900 mA. Claimed talk time: 4 hours. Claimed standby: 9 days.

Performance: 32 MB Flash ROM and 4 megs RAM.

Size: 4.5 x 2.9 x 0.9 inches. Weight: 4.9 ounces.

Phone: Quad-band: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz GSM for voice and GPRS for data.

Audio: Built in speaker and mic (for phone use) and 2.5mm standard headset jack. Supports vibrating alerts, on-screen notifications and LED flashing.

Networking: Bluetooth, supporting headset and hands free profiles.

Software: RIM's own operating system and basic application suite including messaging/email, PIM applications and web browser. Push email requires BlackBerry Enterprise Server or BlackBerry desktop software.

Expansion: None.

Input and Navigational Aids: Backlit 33-key QWERTY thumb keyboard and thumb operated trackwheel and escape key on right side of unit.

 

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