RIM's Sweet New BlackBerry
The Good: Bright screen, fast e-mail, much-improved Web browsing experience
The Bad: Keyboard takes some time and patience to adapt to
The Bottom Line: Thumbs up. The best BlackBerry yet
My BlackBerry is very often the first thing I read in the morning before the newspapers. I check it before I go to bed each night. I check it on the subway on my way to work. I carry it with me to lunch in case I get an important message while I'm standing in line waiting for a sandwich.
It carries my daily schedule, plus a list of everyone I know and correspond with on a regular basis and their addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses.
I receive news headlines included with my e-mail. I often correspond with editors and make changes to stories on my BlackBerry. From remote locations, I've even been known to tap out entire stories using the BlackBerry's tiny keyboard.
FORGET THE OLD.
My personal BlackBerry is a relatively dated 7230, which first hit the U.S. market during the summer of 2003. It's great for e-mail and for the standard PDA-like applications. I've even installed an instant-messenger client on it, so I can chat in more or less real time with friends from wherever I happen to be. But using the Web in any meaningful way is so unruly as to be a nonstarter.
But so much has transpired in the BlackBerry universe in the years since the launch of the 7230. Wireless networks handle the data more speedily, and the capabilities of the devices themselves have improved substantially. As a result, your average BlackBerry user can get a great deal more done while sitting at the breakfast table or from the back of a taxicab than ever before.
The latest BlackBerry from Research In Motion (RIMM) is the 8700, and I've been testing it now for the better part of two months. It's the subject of the first in a series of BusinessWeek Online reviews of high-end handheld-communications devices -- and I have to say it made my older model look downright antique in comparison.
This was clear to me upon my first glance at its display screen, which in the back of a darkened taxi automatically lit up brightly. I didn't have to touch a button, thanks to a sensor that detects ambient light and adjusts screen brightness accordingly. Icons, text, and pictures look great on the screen, which boasts a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels, and a display supporting 65,000 colors.
The 8700c is the model available from Cingular Wireless for $300 with a wireless-service plan. Deutsche Telekom's (DK) T-Mobile unit in Britain just launched its own version, the 8700g. Rogers Wireless in Canada carries the 8700r, and France's Orange has the 8700f.
Unlike another popular BlackBerry variant, the 7100 series, which combines two characters on a single key to make the device narrower across, the 8700 sticks with the traditional Qwerty keyboard, with 10 keys across. However, even at 2.6 inches wide, it's narrower than my 7230 by about a third of an inch. That may sound like a minor difference, but if your hands have become accustomed to the feel of the older device like mine, you're in for a bit of an adjustment.
The main difference has to do with the shape of and space between the keys. The 8700's keys are flatter, and shaped like a parallelogram, vs. the more oval-shaped and less-crowded keys on the 7230. The end result in my case: My thumbs wore out more easily. Hitting each key accurately required typing at a sharper, more awkward angle than with the 7230. Ultimately, I typed more accurately, but since I needed to exert more effort, I ended up composing shorter messages.
Enough on the physical attributes. This puppy is fast. The Cingular Wireless EDGE network -- EDGE stands for enhanced data rates for GSM Evolution -- has made the BlackBerry a speed demon when downloading e-mail messages, and even doing simple Google (GOOG) searches from its HTML-based Web browser.
I especially loved the ability to open e-mail attachments, including Microsoft Office (MSFT) documents, right on the screen.
The 8700 even has a smart way of dealing with PowerPoint slides -- it displays the slide and then the text contained in the slide right below it.
I tested the e-mail features primarily by creating an auto-forward rule on my personal and work mail directly to the device. But the faster wireless network enables some really cool "push" features, if you like using Microsoft Outlook, IBM's (IBM) Lotus Domino, or Novell's (NOVL) GroupWise.
Here's how it works. The majority of BlackBerry devotees are corporate workers and professionals who use the device for mobile access to e-mail and other important types of data, such as calendar items and contacts. But so-called push e-mail eliminates the need to synch the device with the laptop or forward your e-mail. Users have real-time, simultaneous access to e-mail and other pieces of data from their organizer at work. When they receive an e-mail, it shows up on the BlackBerry at nearly the same time that it appears on the corporate desktop. Sometimes it even appears on the BlackBerry sooner.
The BlackBerry software integrates quite nicely with the Microsoft Outlook program used at BusinessWeek. But you'll need to adjust to a new interface. Outlook and other popular e-mail programs have separate boxes for incoming mail, sent messages, drafts, and the like. For the sake of efficiency, BlackBerry dumps all these messages into a single box, which can be quickly scrolled with the flywheel on the right side of the device.
USEFUL AND FUN.
The system works flawlessly, although it would be nice if BlackBerry added a reading pane to give readers the option to see the first few lines of messages without opening them. The trade-off: users wouldn't be able to see as many subject lines at once.
The BlackBerry 8700c does a fine job of reading attachments. It makes reading Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides, and Word documents a snap. And they downloaded quickly, thanks to the relatively speedy Cingular EDGE network. The documents looked good, thanks to the improved screen.
The review device also came loaded with some useful applications. The Quotestream Wireless service can be used to check stock quotes and other financial data. The 8700c came loaded with several games, including the Texas Hold 'em King 2, Bass Assassin, and the classic Brick Breaker. A new feature called "AskMeNow" lets you use the Internet to obtain an answer to almost any question.
GET THE PICTURE.
The BlackBerry 8700c has improved the phone as well. Users no longer need a headset to make a phone call, as they did with earlier PDA-style BlackBerry models. Thanks to the slimmer profile, it doesn't feel like you are holding a brick to your ear when you make a phone call. These are basic, but important and welcome changes that callers will appreciate. Moreover, voice quality was excellent, and RIM's designers added strategically located buttons -- just above the keyboard -- to make calls and end them.
Although many, including RIM Co-CEO Jim Balsillie, disagree with me on this point, I believe there's one thing missing: a camera. I've long dismissed the wireless-phone camera feature as a fad. But since I've had one on my Motorola wireless phone, I've come to appreciate it.
Now that the BlackBerry can so readily display pictures on its bright, gorgeous screen, I'd encourage RIM to build one or two models that at least match Palm's (PALM) Treo family of smart phones as an optional feature. Adding a camera, I think, would widen its appeal outside of its usual pinstripe-wearing demographic.