Note: the BlackBerry 7130e is also available on Verizon, and as the 7130c on Cingular (no 3G)
Review posted July 6, 2006 by Michael Thwaite
Sprint together with Nextel has added the BlackBerry 7130e to its latest mobile lineup. The new BlackBerry sports the companies recent change to black and silver as a style to replace the perhaps dated black and blue plain plastic cases that adorned the older familiar Blackberries that we grew to like so much, I know we liked them because we bought them in droves; over four million in service worldwide.
In addition to new overalls the 7130e boasts access to Sprint's (not Nextel really) CDMA powered EV-DO data network; what does that mean? Access to downloads at speeds of over 700Kbps; that’s broadband territory… on a phone… but what’s better than that? Sprint will happily let you use that with your laptop as long as you get their USB connecting cable (no Bluetooth) and that’s rather nice.
To buy the unit from Sprint, you’ll only need $199 as they’re doing a special at the moment – Ends July 29th 2006. They’re $480 without a plan but a basic plan starts at just $30 plus $40 if you’d like to use the data features on the BlackBerry (and you do, so) that’s a total monthly payment starting at $70. This is ok, not the cheapest but not the most expensive either.
Research In Motion (RIM) maintains their successful business class product line with the BlackBerry communication devices, as we've written before these devices excel in the area of instant e-mail and contact management, they are usually tough and workmanlike but most importantly they are dependable. What they lack is the pizzazz and fun factor that you get from a Microsoft or a Palm OS device, there are no fun games or fancy movie players and they'll never replace your iPod but they will sit in your pocket and fetch each and every e-mail that you need.
Design and Ergonomics
The 7130e is a ‘Candy-bar’ BlackBerry; it doesn’t have the full sized keyboard of the typical models but has instead exactly half the number of keys so it doubles up on entry, i.e. if you press the first and second buttons “QW” and “ER” it enters the word “we” as it figures that was most likely what you were trying to write; but what if I were writing about the sea going vessel the “QE II”? In that case I’d have to manually edit the result and allow it to learn my writing style. In use, it takes time to get familiar with the layout; especially if, after three years practice you’ve become proficient with the T9 input used in a similar way on regular mobile phones. Using the BlackBerry feels counter-intuitive compared to either T9 or QWERTY but you’ll get used to it.
To describe the rest of the 7130e I could just cut-n-paste the text from my last BlackBerry review; the one thing the BlackBerry does and its customers seem to like is consistency so, the design is not ergonomically different from its parents. The new styling however is, and I really don’t like it. In the box the unit looks cool; black case, shiny silver edging around the screen; nice. It’s when you pick it up though that the disappointment begins… It is so cheaply constructed you think you’re picking up a shop ‘mock-up model’; it’s nasty, hard plastic, with edges that don’t meet and seams that flex and grate if you apply any pressure to the unit at all, even dialing. I described the 7100g that I reviewed a while ago by comparing it to a cheap toy that you might find in a McDonald's happy meal. It sounds cruel but picture a typical plastic toy from the happy meal, look at the plastic and you see that it's very hard and quite shiny; you're looking at the new model BlackBerry. This is a shame and a dangerous direction for RIM to take; they have or had a reputation of solidity in the past; the things that business buyers look for; their largest customers most likely.
The reduction in BlackBerry quality might be explained away by light weight, no; at just 4.7 ounces the new BlackBerry has actually gained 0.2 ounces from the previous 7105t model (now available for $99 from T-Mobile). The weight gain probably comes from adding a little size, now at 4.6” x 2.2” x 0.9” (fractions of an inch up from the 7105t model but up nonetheless). The unit does look and feel a little portly.
Size comparison: the Qtek 8100, BlackBerry 7130e and the Qtek S200.
Once you've picked up the BlackBerry in your hand and you've got over the fact that it feels like it just came out of a machine at the fairground, it does work, the thumbwheel works well, once you get the hang of the double press to get things done, you'll be navigating between e-mails, calendar, contacts and the phone application with ease.
This model has skipped over the new Intel Processor that the 8700g has gained; that’s a shame as the performance hike that Intel endowed is sadly missed. It’s not that the thing is really slow but, I’ve seen that it can do better.
The 20-key keyboard plus dedicated pickup/hang-up/mute buttons is still good, it has a responsive enough feel. However, the weak case construction often induces a ‘creak’ with each key press.
n the side can be found a nice standard mini-USB connector for charging, upgrades and desktop sync; There’s also a compact charger that is US only; normally BlackBerry would ship US, Euro and UK adapters reinforcing the world-traveler feel but since this is CDMA that’s out of the question.
The kit includes a familiar belt holster for the device, still just as functional and still just as unfashionable as ever.
Phone Features and Reception
This is the first CDMA BlackBerry that I’ve used and I have to report that it’s really rather good. Despite only showing one to two bars of signal wherever I go the call quality is great; really deep and rich bass with clear and crisp treble. Traveling through New Jersey and into New York on a weekend the signal remained clear and strong; nice.
The unit has the EV-DO radio offering typical transfer rates on 400-700Kbps; broadband connectivity in a phone. What’s really icing on the EV-DO cake though is the option to use that connection with your laptop for no extra cost (if you have Sprint's $39.99/month BlackBerry data plan). The connection has to be made through a USB cable which is a shame as using Bluetooth would have made it even more useful.
Having a phone combined with your daily organizer and e-mail always means that there is less stuff to carry around and that’s a good thing, with such great radio performance I think that you can really replace your mobile/PDA combo with this one device.
The phone interface in this model is visually pleasing to the eye. You can easily place calls from e-mails or from contacts directly. The speakerphone on this model worked well, a little crackly at times but not bad, it's okay for occasional use.
Horsepower and Performance
If only they’d dropped in the new Intel Processor, it really kicked up the performance of the other Blackberries I’ve tested. With this processor the unit feels average; it’s reasonably responsive with menus and icons being drawn quickly. You do spend time waiting for it though, especially if you transfer large quantities of contacts – 500+.
The storage on this unit might seem a bit small compared to Pocket PC devices however, for storage of e-mail, calendar and contacts it is more than sufficient, there is even a little spare for the odd extra application that you might have.
There’s no external storage option, no memory cards here.
Display, Gaming and Multimedia
I joked that on the previous version of the BlackBerry the only games it came with were e-mail, calendar and contacts! Unfortunately, this is pretty much still the case.
The good news is that the Free IM client from RIM is now included in the base software plus there is a game in there too; another Tetris like clone.
There’s a good selection of business apps out there if you take the time to look.
The big let-down is that this machine is still strictly business; there’s still no media player; the closest we get is the MP3 ring tones that it now supports. The 65k color display has a 240 x 260 resolution which is less than Pocket PC phones (240 x 320) and the Treo 650 / Treo 700p (320 x 320) but more than the 240 x 240 square-screened Windows Mobile Pocket PC phones such as the Treo 700w, HP iPAQ 6515 and iPAQ 6915. The screen is bright and colorful but not as pretty as the Windows Mobile and Palm competitors' displays.
Multimedia: I think that RIM falls short here; with Pocket PC and Smartphone vendors circling around the Push-Email that RIM used to hold exclusively it won’t be long before RIM has nothing extra or interesting to put in the sales brochure. While companies are happy that they can hand out devices with little distraction value, individual buyers will be tempted to look elsewhere.
Bluetooth support is included but only for Headset and Handset services. It paired quickly and easily to headsets and to the car. They’ve retained the old and odd ‘I trust this device’ feature that had to be selected in order for the device to pair without interruption as soon as you switched on your headset. It's a small thing and easy to get around.
Battery life is not great; three hours talk time and eight days on standby. I could not match that standby time, talk time maybe but synchronizing email saw the unit dead in a few days. A daily charge would not see you stranded but it’s not up to what we expect these days.
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 wherever they are and simply enter their 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
The one thing that people know about Research in Motion is their always-on push e-mail service; most people also know that Research in Motion recently had to take drastic measures to fight off a patent battle that threatened their business. The good news is that they won and rightfully so in my opinion.
It is neat to watch email arriving in real-time but, it’s only ‘neat’ I’m not totally sold on its real 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. However, for those of you who live and die by email, the BlackBerry push email experience and solid reliability has its appeal.
Other than PIM functionality , a web browser and a few utilities such as a calculator, the BlackBerry doesn’t include any additional software, however look outside to 3rd parties and you’ll find a whole raft of business oriented applications to boost functionality.
As I pack away the 7130e ready to send it back to the good people of Sprint, I’m not completely negative about this device. It has poor battery life and dreadful build quality but I can’t say that I disliked using it; perhaps that says more about the general state of the genre as today they’re all good up to a point. The trick is making your product stand out in the crowd and I’m afraid that the BlackBerry simply doesn’t. It lacks a great screen, has a so-so processor and no media support. Where’s the ‘Wow factor’? RIM: show us something new; innovate, we know you can we’ve seen you do it before.
But for those who are BlackBerry service users, the 7130e, with its broadband-like EVDO connection and more sexy, phone-like design compared to the traditional brick-ish BlackBerry, the 7130e is a strong contender. And we're sure that the businesses who are married to BlackBerry service and make these devices standard issue are pleased that the 7130e isn't a multimedia fun house. Sprint's plan pricing, included tethering and EVDO speeds are enticing.
Pros: Push email
Familiar user interface
Permits tethering to a laptop over USB to use the 7130e as a high speed wireless modem
Cons: Disposable toy feel
No Multimedia or Storage
No ‘Wow’ factor