Reviewed March 28, 2008 by Lisa Gade, Editor
It might be said that the original Pearl marked when BlackBerry got its cool. The Pearl was slim, shiny and sexy yet smart. Gone were the days when RIM devices were wide-load, plasticy appendages found on a businessman's belt. This was the populist BlackBerry for teens, students, small business owners and anyone with a taste for portability and style. In fact, the Pearl helped bring the smartphone to the mainstream (quite a while before the iPhone was released), along with a handful of slim and affordable Windows Mobile smartphones. That was back in the Fall of 2006, and since its intro, every US carrier has picked up the Pearl and sold them in droves. With the Pearl 8120, we're happy that RIM kept all the good stuff-- that lovely design, supreme light weight, decent build quality, and wonderful trackball for navigation. The BlackBerry 8120 is available from both AT&T and T-Mobile.
A year and a half is a small eternity in the world of technology, and so the Pearl has undergone a transformation to the new 3.2 ounce Pearl 8120, currently offered by AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile in the US. Perhaps the most noted addition is WiFi, and T-Mobile puts it to good use with their Hotspot @ Home WiFi calling service. The T-Mobile version has UMA (conceptually similar to VoIP calling), while WiFi is used only for data services on the AT&T version. And there are plenty of other tweaks that make the 8120 (think of it as Pearl 2.0) a better and more fun phone.
The SureType keyboard layout remains the same: most keys are home to 2 letters and a number or symbol. This is not a full QWERTY keyboard, but as with the original Pearl, those who made do with T9 on a numeric keypad will find the 8120 a vast improvement. RIM, makers of the BlackBerry line, have improved SureType's predictive text methods and indeed it works even better than the original model (which was by no means poor). There's also multi-press for those times you're entering unpredictable text such as a URL or password. Though pretty and shiny, the keys are a bit slippery, making it hard to breeze through text entry. Keys that house numbers are silver and you can use the Alt key to switch to numeric input, though the 'Berry automatically does this for numeric fields such as phone numbers and zip codes. The Symbol key brings up a symbol picker and there's a single shift key, delete key and enter/carriage return key. The keyboard is backlit in white and is fairly readable in the dark. You can set the backlight timeout for the display and keyboard and control screen brightness (or let the automatic light sensor do it for you).
The microSD card slot is thankfully no longer under the battery and instead lives under a door on the phone's left side. The slot is SDHC compatible and accepts cards over 2 gigs in capacity-- given the nice media player, that's a definite plus for those who want to leave their iPod at home.
As with the original Pearl, the display resolution is 240 x 260 pixels, and web pages do feel cramped with the relative standardization of 240 x 320 QVGA on full QWERTY BlackBerry models like the Curve as well as Windows Mobile phones and Nokia S60 devices (N and E Series such as the E62 and N75 on AT&T). That said, the display is extremely bright, colorful and sharp-- really nice. And font size is adjustable on RIM devices, so you can squeeze more text in if the lesser resolution gets you down. Photos look brilliant on the BlackBerry 8120 and video looks very good, though the media players doesn't handle streaming media and there's no MediaNet streaming service since the phone lacks 3G. Unless you're into downloading or ripping your own content, the player is mostly useful for watching video taken with the camera.
Speaking of the camera, it now takes video, while the original Pearl only took still shots. And the resolution has been upped to 2 megapixels from 1.3. We were impressed with the life-like colors and good exposure on the 8120. Certainly it doesn't compete with the Sony Ericsson K850i or Nokia N95, but among 2 megapixel fixed focus cameras, it's quite good. Low light photos have noise, but no more than other camera phones, and the colors remain balanced.
Sample photo, taken on a cloudy day.
As BlackBerry smartphones have gotten more multimedia savvy, video capture on the camera-equipped versions, was mysteriously missing. The Pearl 8120 finally gives us video, and it can shoot video with audio at 240 x 180 (an uncommon resolution) and MMS-friendly 176 x144 at 15fps in 3GP format. Video on camera phones is rarely anything worthy of YouTube, but it's good enough to capture a special fleeting moment. Likewise, the Pearl's video is watchable, though small with good colors and not too much ghosting. But there's the usual camera phone blockiness and 15fps jerkiness.
The BlackBerry Pearl 8120 for AT&T (left) and T-Mobile.
WiFi is a nice addition, though we'd have appreciated a GPS more on the AT&T version since AT&T doesn't offer voice calls over WiFi (think of BlackBerry 8130 on Verizon, which loses WiFi while gaining the GPS). RIM's browser is optimized for the slower EDGE network, and web pages don't download significantly faster over WiFi, nor do applications whiz right down (the 990k TeleNav download took over a minute on our WiFi 802.11g network within 10 feet of the router). There's an icon for the WiFi wizard on the main level of icons (when using the BlackBerry Dimension theme rather than the AT&T theme). It walks you through connecting to an access point and can save those that you use frequently. When set to automatic, the 8120 connects to access points you've saved-- you need no do anything. This works smoothly and smartly. Should you not want the phone to search for and connect to access points you can set it to manual connection mode.
The Pearl heralded in multimedia to the BlackBerry portfolio, and the 8120 really starts to add some meat to media playback. The new Pearl has A2DP for stereo Bluetooth headsets and headphones, and it certainly sounded great when we tested it with the Plantronics Pulsar 590. Bass is beefy, there's good separation and clear highs. AT&T and RIM include a wired stereo headset (a relative rarity these days) and the 8120 has a standard 3.5mm jack so you can use your favorite headphones for music playback. The music player supports unprotected MP3, AAC and WMA files.
The video player handles MPEG4, WMV and H.264 files and we found it less picky about video codecs when testing MP4 files compared prior BlackBerry phones. RIM includes Windows desktop software that will convert video into Pearl-friendly format, which greatly simplifies things. Video playback is OK, though files encoded higher than 350kbps dropped frames.
For those of you who are into AT&T's Push to Talk service (are there any of you out there?), the BlackBerry 8120 for AT&T supports PTT and has a dedicated button on the left side for PTT calls.
T-Mobile's HotSpot @Home WiFi Calling
What is UMA? It's a technology that allows you to make voice calls over WiFi and switch fairly seamlessly between GSM and WiFi calls. No need for a separate VoIP account and application on the phone (i.e.: Skype). Simply use your phone number and your phone as if it were a normal cell phone. T-Mobile offers their $9.99/month Hotspot@Home service as a separate feature that you can add to your account. Even if you want to use the service on your home WiFi network and not a T-Mobile hotspot, you'll have to pay the $10/month, because T-Mobile provides the back end services that handle tunneling GSM calls though IP networks and they provide the transition between WiFi and GSM calls. But that's not a bad deal for unlimited domestic WiFi calls. Calls that originate on UMA (WiFi) are billed as unlimited Hotspot@Home accounts, even if you walk away from the access point or hotspot and the phone switches to GSM. Likewise if you make or receive a call while on GSM, you'll be billed for the entire duration of that call using your regular plan minutes, even if you get in range of a hotspot and the phone switches to UMA. If you have weak cell phone service at home, make a lot of calls when in range of a home/work WiFi access points, the service makes a great deal of sense. You can use T-Mobile's WiFi router (sold separately) or your own (most home WiFi routers are compatible).
The BlackBerry Pearl 8120 for T-Mobile.
Call quality over UMA is excellent (better than GSM), just as it is on the BlackBerry Curve 8320. And we didn't have a single dropped call when the phone transitioned back and forth between UMA and GSM, but our call recipients could occasionally here a few warbly syllables just before the call transitioned to GSM. We tested the BlackBerry with our office D-Link draft N router and at T-Mobile hotspots. The BlackBerry home screen shows "UMA" in the top right corner when the phone is connected to a WiFi network and UMA services are active. When not in range of an access point, the phone displays the usual EDGE signal information. Connecting to a WiFi network is quite easy using the wizard, and if you have a T-Mobile data plan that includes T-Mobile hotspots, you need to do nothing to connect to a T-Mobile hotspot, the BlackBerry does it automatically.
Phone Features and Internet
Like the first Pearl, we found the 8120's reception to be middle of the road, getting one to two less bars than the strongest AT&T non-3G phones. Call quality is superb and the volume is very loud by GSM standards. We tested the phone inside a busy big box store and had no trouble hearing our caller with the phone's volume set midway. Our caller reported that we sounded very good and clear, with relatively little of the noisy environment transmitted. The Pearl 8120 comes with Voice Signal's excellent speaker independent voice dialing software that requires no voice tags and works well when speaking directly to the phone or through a Bluetooth headset. The 8120 is a quad band world phone that works anywhere GSM service is available and it's sold locked to AT&T (that means you'll need to use an AT&T SIM card when traveling abroad or contact AT&T customer service to get it unlocked for use with other carriers' SIM cards).
The BlackBerry's strong point has always been push email delivery, and it works as well as ever on the new Pearl. The 8120 does push email via BIS (BlackBerry Internet Server) provided by AT&T or T-Mobile depending on which version of the smartphone you have. Like all BlackBerry phones, it also supports BES for those whose companies run BlackBerry Enterprise Servers. BIS users can set up a dedicated BlackBerry email address which you'll manage on BlackBerry.com, and you can setup POP3 and IMAP accounts from personal and non-BlackBerry server work email accounts. Enterprise users can manage (or have their IT folks manage) their accounts as per usual. In addition, RIM offers their desktop redirector software, a Windows-based application that redirects mail from your PC's inbox to your BlackBerry. The phone can sync PIM data to Outlook using the included desktop software for Windows and Mac users can download PocketMac for BlackBerry syncing free of charge.
The BlackBerry Pearl 8120 for AT&T.
The Pearl comes with BlackBerry Messenger, an easy to use BlackBerry-to-BlackBerry threaded IM client but AT&T and RIM haven't included instant messaging clients for other services, alas. If you visit the BlackBerry messaging web page, you can download IM clients for other services such as Yahoo and GoogleTalk (you must use Internet Explorer on the desktop to download the software-- sorry Mac users). Like most mobile phones, the BlackBerry 8120 supports SMS text messages and MMS messages. The T-Mobile version of the 8120 has the IM clients pre-installed.
Nothing new here-- the usual XScale 312MHz processor with 64 megs of Flash memory for storage. There are approximately 17 megs of storage free for your use and you can expand that using microSD cards. New is support for SDHC cards greater than 2 gigs in capacity and RIM has tested the device with cards up to 8 gigs (the largest commonly available capacity) and we tested it with a 4 gig card. The Pearl 8120 is responsive and quick as are most BlackBerry smartphones.
Just as with the original Pearl, the 8120 has a 900mAh Lithium Ion battery. That's a little low for a device with WiFi and push email, and when we left WiFi on and connected to an access point while in the office during the day, battery drain was significant. With a few short calls, 10 minutes of video playback, 30 minutes of music playback over Bluetooth stereo headphones, 30 minutes of web access and BlackBerry BIS email on, the battery was down to 50% by day's end. AT&T claims 4 hours of talk time which seems on target if WiFi isn't active.
The Pearl 8120 has the usual assortment of BlackBerry software including a very capable PIM suite with calendar, contacts, notes and tasks, web browser, email, SMS/MMS, BlackBerry Messaging, an alarm clock, calculator, extensive online help, password keeper, voice recorder, Voice Signal voice dialing, Brick Breaker (the usual BlackBerry game) and the media player. AT&T adds their usual assortment of applications, though some are new to the BlackBerry. These are Music ID (recognizes songs and tells you the title and artist for a monthly fee), TeleNav (free maps and directions, GPS voice guidance costs $9.99/month and requires an external Bluetooth GPS), Streaming Music (XM Radio Mobile from MobiTV which requires a monthly fee) and apps to purchase and download applications and music.
A nice update to the wildly popular Pearl that should extend the line's life another year. RIM fixed the niggles we had with the first version-- namely moving the microSD card slot out from under the battery, tweaking SureType prediction, enhancing the web browser and adding WiFi. We'd have loved a GPS inside but given the Pearl's very small size, there may well be a limit to how many features RIM can squeeze in. For those who aren't wed to full QWERTY keyboards and prefer a small, sexy device for serious messaging, the new Pearl is an excellent choice. It's fast, stable and easy to use. The multimedia features are growing up, and the once all-business BlackBerry can now ID songs, play XM Radio, act as in iPod stand-in and take quite good photos.
Pro: Great looks, incredibly light and quite small. Responsive and stable. The usual excellent push email is compelling if you're an email addict or messaging type. Bright and sharp display, excellent sound quality in call and for music playback through wired and Bluetooth stereo headphones. Has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack for music playback and the included headset is quite good too. Has WiFi, though the web browser isn't hugely faster when using WiFi (it probably helps XM Radio though). AT&T's BlackBerry Personal plan is reasonably priced at $35 for unlimited data and email.
Con: Battery life could be better. Media player doesn't handle higher quality encoded video easily. Still no 3G. SureType may be hard to adjust to if you've been a full-QWERTY keyboard phone user.
Price: $149 with 2 year contact after rebates from T-Mobile, $199 with 2 year contract after rebates from AT&T.
Display:65K color color LCD, resolution:
240 x 260 pixels.
Battery:900 mAh Lithium
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable. Claimed talk time: 4 hours, claimed standby: up to 15 days. Battery model C-M2.
XScale processor. 64 MB built-in flash ROM memory with ~17 megs free.
Size:4.2” x 1.97” x 0.55”. Weight: 3.2 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad band world phone, 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands, locked to the carrier (you can use the phone anywhere in the world, but must use your carrier's SIM). EDGE for data. AT&T version supports PTT (Push to Talk).
Camera:2.0MP camera with LED flash, can shoot still photos and video. Max photo resolution 1600 x 1200 pixels, with several smaller resolutions available. 5x digital zoom, full screen viewfinder. Can take video with audio at 240 x 180 and 176 x 144 with audio at ~15 fps (3GP format).
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Voice Recorder and Media player included for video/photo/music playback and ringtone management.
WiFi 802.11b/g and Bluetooth 2.0 with A2DP stereo, headset/handsfree and serial port profiles. T-Mobile version supports UMA calling over WiFi (HotSpot @Home service).
Software:System software 4.3. BlackBerry push email client. BlackBerry IM client. VoiceSignal voice dialing software, media player. PIM apps include contacts, calendar, tasks and memo. Also Alarm clock, voice recorder, calculator, Password Keeper and BrickBreaker. TeleNav, XM Radio (requires subscription) and Music ID (requires subscription). BlackBerry Desktop software for PC included for syncing, software installation and media conversion. Mac users can download PocketMac for BlackBerry at no charge. T-Mobile version adds My Faves software, pre-installed IM Client, RepliGo (office document viewer), Asphalt 3 and Golden Tee Golf Mobile.
microSD card slot, supporting SDHC high capacity cards over 2 gigs.
In the Box:Phone, battery, charger, USB cable, stereo headset, slip case with belt clip, software CD and documentation.