BlackBerry's First Stab At Fun


For all the success Research In Motion's BlackBerry handhelds have enjoyed, no one has ever accused them of being either stylish or fun. The new BlackBerry Pearl ($199 with a two-year contract from T-Mobile) aims to change that. The sleek black Pearl is by far the most attractive design to come from RIM. But it falls short in the fun department.

The Pearl creates a new product category by cramming an alphanumeric keyboard, albeit a cramped and somewhat unusual one, into an amazingly small package. This gives it many of the capabilities of a larger PDA phone, such as a BlackBerry 8700 or Treo 650. At 4 inches long, 2 inches wide, and just over a half-inch thick, the Pearl is substantially smaller than the Motorola Q, which made a splash earlier this year as the most diminutive keyboard-equipped handset, and just a whisker bigger than the Motorola slvr.

BlackBerrys are basically about e-mail, which is reasonably priced at $20 a month for unlimited data, in addition to what you pay for your voice plan. But the size of the device forces significant compromises. The right-side scroll wheel that has been a defining characteristic of BlackBerrys has been replaced by a little pearl-like trackball centered below the screen. It took some getting used to, and I found it a bit oversensitive. The 20-key keyboard exploits the SureType system first used on the BlackBerry 7100 series, which means most keys carry two letters. That may sound confusing, but the software predicts with pleasing agility which letter you actually want. The system now imports information from your address book into its dictionary, greatly improving its ability to nail the correct spelling of names.

STILL, IT'S A CHALLENGE to type quickly or accurately on a keyboard that is barely 1 3/4 in. wide. In terms of comfort and ease, the Pearl does not compare favorably with the larger Palm Treo, Q, full-size BlackBerry, or BlackBerry 7100. But even a tiny keyboard seems wonderful for entering text when you compare the Pearl to smart phones closer to its size, such as the T-Mobile SDA, equipped only with a 12-button dialpad.

Inside the shiny black and chrome Pearl beats the heart of a BlackBerry. It runs the same basic software as its bigger siblings. And it can sync e-mail, contacts, calendar, and corporate data to the software on your desktop (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) with the reliability and security that companies and governments have come to know and trust. RIM also gives managers back at the office the option of disabling features they dislike, such as the camera and the ability to store files on removable memory cards. (Both of these may introduce security risks.) In addition, the Pearl can get mail delivered from all manner of standard e-mail accounts, browse the Web, and do everything we expect of a BlackBerry. Battery life is excellent, good enough to get you through at least a couple days of heavy e-mail and moderate phone use.

In short, the business features are strong. The Pearl's weakness is in the bells and whistles designed to appeal to consumers. This is the first BlackBerry to incorporate either a camera or a media player. The 1.3-megapixel camera compares favorably with those on most high-end handsets. But the kinds of photo-sharing applications showing up on camera phones of all sorts are not available for BlackBerry.

The media player is ugly, with an antiquated system for loading music: You drag music files stored in folders on your computer over to a BlackBerry list--a process that makes you wonder if its designers have ever seen an iPod. The software lacks such basic features as playlists and shuffle and doesn't integrate with iTunes or other such systems. RIM needs to rethink this.

The Pearl is clearly an effort by RIM to make the corporate-oriented BlackBerry more attractive to consumers. I suspect, however, that its main appeal will be to folks in traditional BlackBerry markets who are willing to sacrifice ease of typing for a phone that is smaller, cooler, and more versatile. For them, the Pearl should be an easy winner.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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