A Shiny BlackBerry Pearl

A trackball, a camera, and an MP3 player are among the handy additions that make this Research In Motion's best BlackBerry yet

I can't count how many times I told Jim Balsillie, one of the two chief executives of Research In Motion (RIMM), that his company's popular BlackBerry wireless calling and paging device was missing one crucial feature: a camera.

The BlackBerry has evolved from a simple e-mail-pager to a wireless personal digital assistant to a smartphone over the course of six years (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/26/06 "RIM's Sweet New BlackBerry"). All the while, the BlackBerry has lacked a picture-taking capability—practically standard issue on every consumer-friendly wireless phone since about 2003. Palm's (PALM) Treo 600 debuted with a camera. Nokia (NOK), Motorola (MOT), LG Electronics, and Samsung all make smartphones with cameras.

So I was rather surprised when in more than a few meetings, Balsillie always seemed a tad dismissive of the suggestion that RIM needed a BlackBerry with a camera, as though such a thing were superfluous—even useless—compared to the serious features aimed squarely at its core target demographic: the corporate managerial class.

Heeding the Call

But a funny thing happened on the path to popularity at RIM. The BlackBerry found its way into the hands of regular people who just liked it because it made wireless e-mail easy. And celebrities started adopting it. Paris Hilton had one. Brad Pitt had one. Lindsay Lohan is famous for typing long missives to her publicist on one. I started seeing lots of BlackBerrys on the subway, not always in the hands of suited execs or lawyers, but often in the hands of young up-and-comers eager to stay in touch with both office and posse.

Well, RIM finally heeded the urgings of the camera-craving class. And the embedded camera is one of the best things about the latest addition to the BlackBerry family, the Pearl, which I have been testing for a few weeks. Like the BlackBerry 7100 series before it, the Pearl aims to bridge the industrial design gap between devices boasting a necessarily wide body to accommodate a full QWERTY keyboard and those thinner but harder-to-use devices that put multiple characters on a single key.

It does that by placing two characters per key, and by using a technology called Suretype that guesses—usually correctly—what word you mean to type while you're typing it. Vexing when you're first entering a name or e-mail address, it will save you and your thumbs precious minutes when you're earnestly e-mailing your publicist with ideas for saving the world.

Salvation Has Arrived

But the Pearl is also thinner and lighter than the 7100, which is surprising when you consider everything it does: all the e-mail and wireless phone functions that you've come to expect from previous recent models of the BlackBerry, along with the camera and all that implies. The Pearl also packs the ability to play MP3 music files. On features alone, this is the best BlackBerry yet.

What else is new with this device is a curious-looking globe on the front that explains the Pearl moniker. This trackball essentially replaces the navigation click wheel that has been a mainstay on previous models. New users will take to it right away, though experienced BlackBerry users will no doubt squeal for the wheel before getting accustomed to the ball.

If like me you're tired of what I like to call "gadgetary overflow"—finding pockets or compartments to carry an Apple (AAPL) iPod, a wireless phone or two, and various and sundry other devices—you'll quickly look upon the Pearl as bringing salvation. The Pearl fits so neatly into a pocket you'll forget it's there.

No Drain on Battery Life

The camera takes pretty good pictures for a phone. It even sports a flash and a zoom function, and you can share pictures easily in messages with friends and family. They show up great on what turns out to be a nice little display.

Here's a downside: You can watch video, but can't shoot your own. Add that to the list for the Pearl 2, I suppose. But hey, there's music to listen to. It will play MP3, AAC, WAV, and MIDI files. The problem with playing those music files is that you can't use the physical buttons on the device. Instead, you have to scroll through software menus to do what you want, using the menu button and then the trackball.

None of the new features seem to hurt battery life. RIM says users should expect about three hours and change of talk time. Mine did better than that, and generally got through a full day of delivering e-mail and making calls before needing a charge.

If my hands were just a bit smaller I'd dump my BlackBerry 8700 and switch to the Pearl full time. Alas, my thumbs aren't exactly ideally suited for the Pearl's keyboard. Some with thumbs more dexterous than mine and more patience to boot will have fewer complaints.

I'd like to take a little credit for ultimately winning my argument with Balsillie over adding a camera to the BlackBerry. Then again, he probably knew the Pearl was on the drawing board, and secretly agreed with me all along.