RIM is the last company you’d expect to produce a sexy mobile device when their large, utilitarian BlackBerry devices have filled their device portfolio for years and have earned them cult status and the “CrackBerry” name to go with it. As life would have it, RIM surprised us with the BlackBerry Pearl 8100 smartphone that’s not only smart but fashionable and flashy enough to compete in today’s mobile market where mobile phones also function as personal style accessories. Measuring 4.2 x. 1.97 x 0.57 inches with a shinny black plastic housing and gun-metal silver side accents, the BlackBerry Pearl can compete with the Nokia 8801 (OK, almost) or the Motorola SLVR L7 when it comes to fashion, yet it’s a phone with brains. And it’s a new trend for 2006 as we’ve seen with the slim and elegant Cingular 3125 and T-Mobile Dash. Looks + brains are a killer combination for a successful mobile device, but the question is can this smartphone attract new users who have never been in the BlackBerry camp while maintaining its appeal to the traditional “CrackBerry” users? Read on.
The BlackBerry Pearl (model number 8100 in RIM’s product portfolio) comes with BlackBerry Enterprise Server support for push email, a 1.3 megapixel camera, MicroSD expansion slot, integrated Bluetooth 2.0 and a newly updated SureType keyboard along with a large screen and BlackBerry Maps application.
The BlackBerry Pearl is a quad-band GSM world phone with EDGE support and it’s offered currently only by T-Mobile in the US. It will be coming to Cingular in the future.
Design and Ergonomics
Design is one of the highlights of the BlackBerry Pearl, and it should sell well just because it looks so darn cool and is so small and light. Besides the shinny black housing and the silver accents, the BlackBerry Pearl has all the right curves and feels very good in hand. Though shinny, the phone doesn’t feel very slippery and won’t slip out of your hand by accident. The 2.2” display takes up a good portion of the front face, and below it are the menus keys and keyboard which have white backlighting.
The BlackBerry Pearl has both SureType and multi-tap input methods. SureType technology is BlackBerry’s own version of predictive text that first appeared on the BlackBerry 7100 series which was the first RIM product line to have two letters on a key. The Pearl’s new keyboard design and SureType have been improved from the version on the 7100 series. The software works very well at predicting words and at learning new words. The multi-tap input works similar to multi-press/multi-tap on traditional phones. These input methods are good choices for the Pearl whose keyboard is in between a true QWERTY keyboard and a traditional phone keyboard. Some keys are dedicated to one letter (plus the higher ASCIIs such as numbers and symbols) while others are populated with 2 letter of the alphabet plus the higher ASCII symbols. If you are a traditional BlackBerry user, or even a Treo or keyboarded Windows Mobile user, this will feel awkward and your typing speed will be slow at first. Whether you’ll get used to this keyboard design will largely depend upon how much time you can spend on training yourself and your patience level. Those migrating from traditional phones (with just a number pad) should have a slightly easier time to get used to the BlackBerry Pearl keyboard as SureType will save you a few key presses and you will always have multi-tap to fall back on. The keys on the Pearl have more of a rocking motion than any other phone number pad or QWERTY keyboards we’ve seen and the keys are physically larger than those of the Treo or the BlackBerry 8700. The rocking motion does make one wonder if these keys are strong enough to last.
The Cingular version of the BlackBerry Pearl
Price after Sprint rebate
Gone is the beloved jog wheel found on the side of other of BlackBerries; the Pearl has a flat track ball sitting in the center of the front face just below the display and it’s touch sensitive control that allows you to scroll up/down and left/right by brushing your thumb or finger over it. The scrolling controls are quite responsive and easy to get used to. When pressed down, the track ball also acts like an Action button. On the left of the track ball is the Menu key that gives you a list of applications when no app is open or the menu list in an application when it is open. The Escape key has moved to the front and lives to the right of the track ball rather than on the right side of the phone as on other BlackBerries. The Call Send and End keys flank the menu and escape keys. The BlackBerry Pearl has a dedicated Mute button on top of the phone and a LED above the display to the right of the earpiece. The LED indicates network connection status, Bluetooth radio power and it will flash red when you get a new message.
You will find the volume up and down buttons on the right side of the Pearl along with a Right Convenience key; and the headset jack, USB-mini USB port (trickle charges the device when plugged in) and the Left Convenience key on the left side. The Right Convenience key launches the camera and the Left Convenience key launches the Voice dialing application by default, but you can configure them to launch any applications on the device in Options menu. The 1.3 megapixel camera along with the flash and self portrait mirror live on the back of the BlackBerry and the battery door is just below the camera. The SIM card and the MicroSD card live under the battery.
Phone Features and Data
The BlackBerry Pearl is a quad-band GSM phone that will work anywhere in the world GSM services are available. It operates on 850/900/1800/1900 MHz bands and it has good but not stellar RF. The Pearl gets about 75-80% of full signal strength in Dallas area where T-Mobile provides excellent coverage. In comparison, the Samsung D809 gets about 50%, the Samsung t519 gets close to 100% throughout the area and the Dash gets full bars on T-Mobile. The BlackBerry has average voice quality on both incoming and outgoing voice and the volume is loud. The speakerphone offers good voice quality when in a call and is loud enough for conference calls. The Pearl supports most of popular phone features such as conference calling, speed dialing (12 speed dials), call forwarding, call waiting, call blocking (handy when you don’t want to roam) and smart dialing (for country codes and area codes). You can choose from 6 profiles and switch between the current profile to vibrate mode by holding down the # key. If you need to type letters during a call, just hold the Alt key then press the letter key. The dedicated Mute key is decidedly handy, and when you need to swap calls, put a call on hold and other functions just press the Menu key to access these functions while in a call.
For the first time on a BlackBerry, the Pearl comes with VoiceSignal’s capable voice dialing software. The BlackBerry Pearl version of VoiceSignal includes voice dialing and checking network coverage, battery life and my number. While it doesn’t have as complete set of voice command features like Cyberon’s Voice Commander or Microsoft Voice Command, VoiceSignal does provide reliable speaker independent dialing, which means you don’t need to pre-record voice tags for voice dialing and anyone (who speaks English) can use voice dialing on the phone. It’s very accurate even through a Bluetooth headset.
Top to bottom: Pearl, HTC Excalibur (HTC S620, T-Mobile Dash) and the BlackBerry 8703e
BlackBerry Pearl, HTC Excalibur and the BlackBerry 8703e
Messaging and Security
Like all BlackBerries, the Pearl has the excellent BlackBerry push email client that will work with your existing BlackBerry Enterprise Server software and if you get the phone from a carrier you can use the BlackBerry services offered by the carrier. You can set up maximum 10 POP3 or IMAP4 email accounts and have email pushed to you along with attachments. RIM anticipates that the Pearl will bring new users to the BlackBerry family, so they included an email setup wizard which is a handy web-based email set up service. All you have to do is to type in your email address and password, the system will setup the mailbox for you. This is an essential service that takes the guesswork out of setting up multiple mailboxes and the fear of using a new kind of device. Please note, if you have the browser on certain page, when you launch the email setup, it will go back to the page that’s currently cached. All you have to do is get to the bookmarks page to access the email setup site.
For those who have used BlackBerries before, the Pearl’s email services and UI will look familiar to you, though without the jog wheel you will need to use a combination of the track ball (press for quick menu) and the Menu key. The extensive menu options in the BlackBerry email application make it a very powerful tool that includes not only support for Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Domino and Novell GroupWise to get and send email messages but also provides handy tools for responding, filtering and searching these messages. It’s also worth noting that RIM actually updated the BlackBerry Enterprise Server software (v4.0.6 and v4.1.2) to include security policies for the BlackBerry Pearl. These policies allow IT managers to disable the BlackBerry Pearl camera and memory slot in tight security environment. The BlackBerry Pearl can receive attachments with email messages. You won’t get the attachments automatically pushed to you, you will get a link to the attachment and can download them. The attachment formats that the Pearl can view are extensive including all Office application formats, pdf, jpg, wav and several more. You can view Office files but not edit them as no editing software is bundled. You will need to install 3rd party software for that function. In addition to email messages, you can also send and receive SMS and MMS messages. For IM fanatics, the BlackBerry Pearl has an Instant Messaging client that supports AOL, Yahoo, MSN and ICQ. The IM tool offers automatic sign-in, save conversations and settings for alerts for messages.
Horsepower and Performance
The BlackBerry Pearl runs on an Intel XScale processor running at 312 MHz which is the same as the BlackBerry 8700g, and it feels very zippy except the boot up time. All applications load fast and menu functions perform well without any delays. When you run multiple applications such as the media player, the web browser and email simultaneously, you will however experience short delays. In BlackBerry Maps you might see a slight delay in refreshing a map view.
The BlackBerry Pearl has 64MB of flash memory and after loading an impressive number of applications including BlackBerry Maps, an Instant Messaging app along with all the other bundled applications, the device had about 28MB to store additional programs and data. If you need more storage space to store photos or other documents, get a MicroSD memory card.
The BlackBerry Pearl has a MicroSD card slot that lives under the phone’s battery. Though it’s inconvenient to remove the battery to access the MicroSD card, at least the card slot itself is well designed. You all know, if you have used recent devices with ever-smaller expansion slots, that your fingernails are at the mercy of the device designers. The BlackBerry Pearl’s expansion slot has a slider spring so you can easily slide open the cardholder and slide the card in and out of it. Well done!
Display, Gaming and Multimedia
The Pearl has a 2.2” bright LCD that’s capable of displaying 65K colors. The resolution of the display is 240 x 260, which is less than the BlackBerry 8700 series (there’s less room for a large display on the Pearl). The screen has a built-in light sensor that will help automatically adjust the screen brightness and the keyboard backlight brightness. The screen looks bright and sharp, and is very color saturated.
The biggest draw of the Pearl over previous BlackBerry devices is the bundled Media Play that brings music play, photo viewing and movie playback to the BlackBerry platfrom. The Pearl supports ACC, MIDI and MP3 music formats. Check your manual for a complete list of supported formats and the version of the BlackBerry server that supports them. Music playback through the built-in speaker is decent, though not as full as a dedicated multimedia phone like the LG Chocolate. But it doesn’t sound bad even when the volume is turned to maximum. The sound through a stereo headset is much fuller and has good channel separation. The music player is a basic one, offering playback, set the tune as ringer and replay. The video formats supported by the BlackBerry Pearl includes MPEG-4 Part 2 - Simple Profile + bvops (including DivX files in that format) and H.263 Profile 0 and Profile 3. The device played .avi files that came with the device fine, but when we tested a couple of our own .avi movies that played on other PDA phones and smartphones the Pearl couldn’t play them.
The Pearl comes with the usual BlackBerry game, BrickBreaker. The track ball actually makes for pretty good game control, compared to the old side jog wheel. We just wish that there were more games bundled with the device.
The Pearl is the first BlackBerry to have a built-in digital camera. The Pearl, with its new multimedia focus, comes with a 1.3 megapixel camera with 5x digital zoom that takes good pictures by camera phone standards. Of course, there are still some security requirements and RIM has addressed them by providing security policies in the server for IT managers to disable the camera. The Pearl’s camera can take still photos in three resolutions (1280 x 1024, 640 x 480, 320 x 240) at one of three quality levels. You can set flash options, white balance and picture storage locations in the menu. You can also use the track ball to zoom in and out. The pictures are reasonably sharp; colors are fairly accurate with a slight purple tint in some shots. It takes better picture indoors with good lighting than it does outdoor shots with strong sunlight which results in white out. The photo quality can’t compete with very high end cameras phones like the Nokia N73 or the Samsung a990 of course, but it’s on par with 1.3 MP cameras on current mobile phones. The flash helps a little for close up shots. You can save the photos to internal memory or to a MicroSD card. The Pearl cannot shoot video.
The Pearl has integrated Bluetooth v2.0 and supports Headset, Hands-Free and Serial Port profiles. We tested the BlackBerry Pearl with Cardo’s scala 700 Bluetooth headset and it paired with the headset easily. Incoming call quality is good with good volume, but our call recipients reported hearing feedback from their own voices echoed back. The phone and headset managed a range of 20 feet which is average among phones. Voice dialing through the scala headset worked like a charm. File transfer on the Pearl is limited to address book contacts. The Pearl’s Bluetooth v2.0 radio does have very good speed when transferring address book entries though these are very small files unlike multimedia files or large PDF documents. The Bluetooth radio does drain the battery power noticeably.
The BlackBerry Pearl comes with a 900 mAh rechargeable Lithium Ion battery (BlackBerry C-M2 model) that’s user replaceable. The claimed talk time is 3.5 hours which is an under-estimation in our tests; we got 4.5-5 hours of talk time. The Pearl has a long claimed standby time of 15 days. Bluetooth, accessing the EDGE network and shooting photos with the flash drains the battery more than messaging and music playback.
The Pearl departs from the icon based menu screen (similar to the application launcher screen on Palm and Programs window in Window Mobile) that most BlackBerry users love. Instead, you get a list-based menu that you’ll bring up by pressing the Menu button and scroll through using the trackball.
Besides the messaging, browser and media applications, the BlackBerry Pearl also comes with PIM apps including Address Book, Calendar, Tasks and Memo, BlackBerry Maps software on the device and desktop syncing software on the CD-ROM.
The address book supports groups, search and sort functions. You can put 8 numbers plus a PIN (for other BlackBerrry users), two street addresses, URL, email, picture caller ID, notes and 4 user definable fields for each contact entry. The Calendar app offers a good selection of views including month, week, day, appointments, next week, previous week, Today and more. The appointment entries support the usual fields and offers time zone, recurrence, alert options and more. Both Tasks and Memo applications offer simple tools for keeping a to-do list and short text notes. They are integrated with the messaging app and allow you to send the Tasks items or memos as SMS, MMS, and email or to another PIN number.
The Pearl is the first BlackBerry to come with a navigation package, and RIM is hoping to offer it in future BlackBerry devices. RIM has built a LBS (location based services) platform for BlackBerry developers. BlackBerry Maps is a full navigation application that allows you to route your trips on the device and gives you turn-by-turn directions. The navigation software is developed by RIM and the map data is provided by Tele Atlas which is currently available only in North America. BlackBerry server hosts the map data, routing service and turn-by-turn guidance system. The maps are dynamically drawn and load quite fast with a slight delay in refreshing the map view when you zoom in and out. The address search is super fast and pinpointing an address on the map is very speedy. The only control obstacle you might find is the track ball: it’s too responsive and hard to accurately control when moving up and down in maps. There is nice integration between the BlackBerry Maps and other applications; this allows you to send maps via email or view maps in the address book. This is a part of the RIM’s LBS platform and we hope to see more features and integration with more applications in future versions. There is no POI database integrated with the map data at the moment and there is no voice guidance for your turn-by-turn driving directions.
Tele Atlas map data is quite impressive. Their data generally excels in freshness and accuracy. They have map coverage in 52 countries and they have 7 million miles of road coverage with 11 million POIs (Points of Interest) in North America alone. The live data they maintain usually gets 100,000 updates per day and they have 43 million out of 300 plus million street addresses mapped so accurately that they can pinpoint the front door of a building.
The BlackBerry Pearl is RIM’s ideal device to bring fresh recruits to the “CrackBerry” camp with its sleek style and new-user friendly features. In this fashion conscious mobile market, looks alone will sell quite a few Pearls. While traditional BlackBerry users will need some time to get used to the new keyboard and form factor, the updated software bundle including the media player, voice dialing software and Maps will surely move some of them forward. Now BlackBerry is finally starting to compete with feature-rich PDA phones and smartphones, though they still have a way go to.
Pro: Great looking device that’s not just flashy by BlackBerry standards but good looking compared to any other phone on the market. The bright display is impressive. The email setup wizard enhances the tried and true BlackBerry push email experience, especially for new users and those whose devices aren’t configured by an IT department. The security updates in the server to work with the Pearl will put IT managers at ease. We’re glad that RIM included an IM client for popular IM accounts. VoiceDialing software works on the phone and via Bluetooth headset. BlackBerry Maps application does a good job of mapping routes and giving turn-by-turn directions.
Con: MicroSD slot is under the battery. Camera can’t shoot video. Bluetooth profiles are limited. The video player supports a small set of formats.
Price: $349.99 without a contract; $199 with 2 year contract. The phone supports T-Mobile’s myFaves plans.
Phone:Quad-band GSM operating on 850/900/1800/1900 MHz. GPRS and EDGE for data.
Camera:1.3 megapixel camera with built-in flash and 5x digital zoom.
Audio:Integrated mic, earpiece and stereo headset jack. Polyphonic, MP3 and MIDI ringtones, supports vibrate alerts.
Networking:Bluetooth v2.0. Supports Headset, Hands-free and Serial Port Profiles.
Software:List-based menu with four shortcut menus on the default screen. BlackBerry push email client. BlackBerry IM client. VoiceSignal voice dialing software, BlackBerry Maps (North America only), media player for your MP3 pleasure and video playback. PIM apps include address book, calendar, tasks and memo. Also Alarm, voice note, calculator, Password Keeper included. BrickBreaker game is bundled. BlackBerry Desktop software for PC included for syncing and software installation.
In the Box:The BlackBerry Pearl with battery, an AC adapter, a pair of earbud headset, USB cable, BlackBerry Desktop software for PC and printed reference guide and Tips and Tricks cheat sheet.