TECH & YOU PODCAST
When Research In Motion (RIMM) introduced the handsome BlackBerry Pearl last fall, it instantly created Pearl envy among users of the highly competent, though definitely unstylish, standard BlackBerrys. But many users resisted the tiny Pearl, mainly because they liked the full-size keyboard on the old models. The new Blackberry 8800 may prove much harder to resist.
Priced at $295 with a two-year service contract from Cingular (T), the 8800 retains most of the Pearl's features, including a shiny black-and-chrome finish and a Pearl-like roller ball for navigation in place of the traditional BlackBerry scroll wheel on the right side of the unit. I found the ball a bit over-sensitive, but its central position ends the chronic right-handed bias of older BlackBerrys.
Functionally, the 8800 is an updated version of the current BlackBerry flagship, the full-size 8700. It's about the same width as the 8700 and a smidgen longer, but a noticeable 5 mm thinner. Despite getting skinnier, the 8800 has a larger battery than the 8700, so it runs longer.
THE PEARL WAS THE FIRST BlackBerry with a camera, which made sense because RIM was going for the consumer market. But in response to corporate and government customers, who are likely to buy the bulk of the 8800s and are either indifferent or hostile to multimedia, RIM skipped the camera. Instead it included a feature most business customers will find a lot more useful: a global positioning satellite receiver with TeleNav navigation software. Maps are much easier to read on the 8800's big, high-resolution display than on most wireless phones.
There are a few problems. Unlike Sprint and Verizon Wireless, Cingular doesn't provide network data to help the BlackBerry's gps do its job. This means it can take the 8800 a couple of minutes to figure out where it is. In general, the navigation software was less accurate and more easily confused by deviations in route than other software I have tried, though TeleNav says improvements are in the works. Minor glitches aside, navigation is a welcome addition.
The BlackBerry 8800 includes the music player and video player from the Pearl, but they are nowhere near as good as the media players found in most cellular handsets. The 8800 also features Cingular's walkie-talkie-like push-to-talk service, though this is useful only if you communicate regularly with a group of Cingular push-to-talk customers. The Web browser is adequate, but I wish the 8800 would run on Cingular's fast 3G network rather than its medium-speed service, called EDGE. One other gripe: If you want to add your own applications to your BlackBerry, there are far fewer options than on a Palm (PALM) or Windows Mobile (MSFT) device.
This brings us to e-mail. In an increasingly crowded field of e-mail-capable smartphones, outstanding messaging abilities remain the compelling reason for choosing a BlackBerry over the competition. Like all BlackBerrys, the 8800 is at its best in a business environment where a BlackBerry Enterprise Server is part of the setup. This lets the BlackBerry become a true extension of your desktop, with messages delivered nearly instantaneously, and calendar and contact changes synchronized between the device and the server as they are made.
There are other routes to e-mail if you can't use the Enterprise service. You can connect directly to most Internet service provider accounts and some corporate systems. If your corporate system is blocked by a firewall, you can run BlackBerry Mail Connector software on your desktop to redirect mail to your handheld, though you can't delete mail from the server or sync calendar items and contacts this way.
The 8800's keyboard, with just one letter per key vs. two on most Pearl keys, is easier to use. This and a wide range of one-key shortcuts that work only on full-size BlackBerry keyboards will lead a lot of buyers to conclude that bigger is better.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/
By Stephen H. Wildstrom