As the first Blackberry clamshell phone ever, the Pearl Flip is designed for a specific cross-section of mobile users: Those who don’t really need a full QWERTY keyboard. Note that the original Pearl, still a viable alternative, started the trend of predictive type, where the truncated keypad automatically fills in words and letters as you enter them. The good news, of course, being that The Flip is just as useful. As long as, that is, you don’t mind a steep learning curve.
Features and Design
While it may seem strange to judge a phone by its keypad, the Flip is just begging for this kind of scrutiny. Closely resembling a Motorola RAZR, the keypad is the first thing you notice. For the most part, it has two letters per key. As you type, the Flip tries to predict what you want to say and fills in words automatically. Of course, you can disable this feature and just press a key twice to use the second letter. Predictive typing, which RIM calls Sure-Type (a chintzy marketing buzzword if there ever was one), does require patience to learn. But quite a few Pearl users have noted how Sure-Type is a godsend, and enjoy the smaller size and ability to type as fast as they could on a full QWERTY keyboard with the Blackberry Curve.
However, from our perspective, initial tests proved disappointing in this regard. We never really learned how to type fast using Sure-Type, and, in all honesty, it put a damper on the entire experience – frankly, if you can’t just let rip with your flying fingers of fate, all of the phone’s other features suddenly seem less useful. Our recommendation with the Flip is to test it first to make sure you can type fast enough, unless you are planning to use the phone mostly for voice calling. Mind you, the Flip does offer a typing tutor program to help you learn Sure-Type. But it’s revealing, because this kind of software add-on is unnecessary and superfluous on competing phones that offer more ergonomic full keyboards.
Thankfully, in every other way, the Pearl Flip is a stellar smartphone. It’s a Blackberry phone, first and foremost, but it also has a distinctive, unique design. The phone measures 4.0″ x 2.0″ x 0.7″ and weighs just 3.6 ounces. Units also have a microSD slot for extra storage and, thankfully, a full 3.5mm standard headphone jack. (We can all thank Apple for the standard headphone jack size, even if the T-Mobile G1 still lacks it…) However, the main screen is fairly small at just 240×320 pixels, and thumbnail size for the secondary display.
Most importantly though, the Flip is stylish in ways that you might not expect. For example, the flip-open screen slides back behind the keypad just slightly using larger-than-expected hinges. The all-black styling says trendy and sleek, not business phone practical as well. The kicker being that there’s actually a lot under the hood for such a style-conscious phone to boot. For example, if you’re a former Sprint user who was chagrined to find out that the last Curve model did not support Wi-Fi, the Flip thankfully does. (But, alas, not GPS…)
The 802.11g Wi-Fi will come in handy on the Pearl Flip because it is not a 3G phone, so it can’t connect to T-Mobile’s HSDPA network. In testing the Wi-Fi, the phone attached quickly and easily to a D-Link DIR-628 router and maintained the connection for several hours, allowing us to surf the Web and check e-mail. Now that Google has released the Gmail for Mobile client for Blackberry, checking e-mail is a lot easier, although the push features of the Blackberry client – if you use it with a corporate e-mail account, for example – are also noteworthy. (Push is additionally supported for Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail users.) The phone further lets you make voice annotations; supports instant messaging, SMS and MMS; and has a speedy browser that lets you zoom in on a page to read the text.
The Flip also offers a Google mapping feature that lets you find directions, check a map, and use text-based turn-by-turn directions based on addresses you type in manually. Once again, Sure-Type raises its ugly (or beautiful, depending on your perspective) head: Entering addresses can be a real pain if you don’t like to type on the phone. The Blackberry Curve is a much better phone for voice navigation using the built-in GPS chip and saves you time by not having to type in every address.
The phone has an average-quality 2 megapixel (MP) camera that has no extra features – suffice it to say that this is not exactly a Nokia N96, which has all the camera frills such as white balance and full zoom control. Several outdoor shots on a bright sunny day looked clear and clean, but indoor shots were predictably muddy. This is basically the same 2MP camera that Blackberry has included on many of their recent smartphones, and in no way matches the quality and resolution of the upcoming Blackberry Storm. We’d still like to see a phone that easily and quickly re-transmits photos to a Flickr account, although the Flip at least supports the service (and Facebook) for sending photos, albeit not as smoothly as we’d like.
Bluetooth support gets a leg up on the T-Mobile G1 – it encompasses stereo Bluetooth (A2DP) instead of mono playback to supported Bluetooth headsets, such as recent Jabra and Plantronics models. In English, this means that, from about 30 feet from the phone, you can listen to your music over a wireless connection.
By now, you may be asking yourself, though: With no 3G support, an average-quality camera, and no GPS, why do we still recommend the Flip? For starters, calls over the handset were crisp and clear on the T-Mobile network, making the Flip an ideal phone for those who need to talk to business clients, family members, or chatty friends. It’s surprising because, with the clamshell design, you can actually hear the other person at a decent volume level. If you are used to a phone such as the Motorola Q, which emphasizes typing over calling, it will be like you just re-discovered your cell phone. Beyond this, the Flip is small and portable, and slides comfortably into a shirt pocket. It’s also rugged too – the flip open cover feels rugged and secure, capable of withstanding some abuse.
Images Courtesy of Blackberry
Software and extras
From an aesthetic standpoint, the phone is a stark departure from the business-centric look and feel of previous Blackberry models. The Blackberry OS looks just as stylish as the hardware design too, with very cool buttons that you’ll want to click and experiment with. Most of the tools here are standard -issue: Contacts, e-mail, web browser, etc. However, there’s also a voice dialing app called Nuance that worked well, and a handful of so-so games. For example: Sudoku is always a treat, and there’s a poker simulation that worked well for long car trips.
Testing and Performance
The typical Blackberry device is not known for amazing music and video support, and the Pearl Flip is no exception. Built-in memory allows only about 50MB of internal storage, and the test phone we used came with a 1GB microSD card. We loaded it up with new Coldplay tracks, an MPEG-4 movie we recorded off of a DVD using a program called HandBrake, and a bunch of photos. There’s no comparison here with multimedia leaders, though. The Apple iPhone is a true multimedia device – your files pop up on screen quickly. The Flip operates more like a Motorola Q or Palm Treo in that there is a slight delay with media and playback can be a bit jerky at times.
We used Denon’s AH-C551K earbud set, and music playback, when it wasn’t pausing slightly, was exceptionally good. (The Flip includes earbuds that are just passable in quality, but not the best for long listening sessions.) Still, there’s no way to easily add new songs – we missed the G1’s ability to quickly access the Amazon MP3 store and play tunes on internal memory. Meanwhile, the fact that you can download movies in iTunes and sync them to an iPhone makes the Pearl Flip’s more clunky manual file transfer process not really worth the effort. Another way of stating this is simply that playback quality is decent, even if enhanced ease-of-use is something that RIM is still trying to figure out. Bear in mind too: RIM includes a media manager client for PC (sorry, Mac users) that works reasonably well for converting some material for support on the Flip, but is no match for more robust players such as iTunes or the Zune client.
Battery life for all features – including screening multimedia, making phone calls, snapping photos and surfing the Web – is actually pretty good compared to more modern phones, such as the HTC Touch Pro and the G1. Our Flip lasted for about two days of occasional use without needing a charge – it’s rated for four hours of constant use.
The whole point of the Flip is this: You get all the features of a Blackberry minus the full keyboard. As such, it proves an excellent phone for those either willing to learn how to use the two-character key typing or who probably won’t be writing any novellas over e-mail anyway. As such, we heartily recommend the Pearl Flip as a stylish phone with ready Wi-Fi connectivity and good battery life. But, to be fair, we would also recommend steering clear of the handset if you need a great camera, tend to type a lot, and/or are worried about getting lost in a big city.
• Very trendy design
• High-quality voice calls
• Cool user interface
• No GPS
• Average quality photos
• Predictive type requires learning