There are times when smaller is not necessarily better, such as when cell phone makers try to shoehorn every conceivable technology into their cell phone despite all of the restrictive geographic logic. Not only are ergonomics compromised but trying to locate, program, and control all of the varying features becomes a nightmare, to say nothing of the pinhead-sized buttons. While the BlackBerry “Pearl” 8100 — available from T-Mobile for $349.99 or Cingular for $399.99 ($199.99, with the usual contract stipulations from both) — makes a noble effort to implement the BlackBerry service including a QWERTY keypad, camera, and music and video playback into a device about the size of a business card holder, finding, programming, and operating both simple and advanced functions can be headache- inducing.
Features and Design
First and foremost, this is a quad-band (850/900/1800/1900 MHz) EDGE/GPS world phone, usable wherever GSM service is available (all of Europe, for example). It’s also a BlackBerry, with full push/pull enterprise and POP email services, along with Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, or ICQ instant messaging.
As noted, the Pearl offers both a music player compatible with AAC, AAC+, MP3, MIDI, and WAV files and a video player compatible with most MPEG-4 Part 2 formats such as DivX, AVI and QuickTime, and stereo Bluetooth (Bluetooth 2.0). There’s a 1.3 MP digital camera with flash, support for real music ring tones, HTML Web browsing, voice dialing, and the usual array of PIM functions. The T-Mobile version also supports the carrier’s myFaves feature.
Aside from these sterile specifications, the petite Pearl (4.2” x 2.0” x 0.6”, a bit wider than Motorola’s KRZR) is a pretty polished phone. It has shiny jet black plastic with metallic silver highlights, smooth lines, and a Zippo lighter-like gestalt. And at 3.1 ounces, it’s surprisingly lightweight. Pearl’s 2.2-inch screen is bright, with better blacks and contrast than the BlackBerry 8700c.
To accommodate its restrictive screen real estate, however, BlackBerry’s multitudes of options are listed, requiring lengthy scrolls. There’s an “organize applications” option that lets you re-sequence the list and determine which five options appear on the home screen. One option you’ll need at the top of your list is the otherwise buried keypad lock, especially if you plan on carrying the Pearl in your pants pocket.
The BlackBerry Pearl
Features and Design Cont’d
Pearl’s primary input method is its SureType QWERTY keypad, laid across 20 buttons (usually with two letters), punctuation or action keys (i.e. shift, alt, return, delete, etc.) per key, in a four-by-five key array. The 10 two-tone numeric keys are centered in this key field array.
While Pearl’s individual rectangular keys are approximately the same size as the BlackBerry 8700’s square buttons, the Pearl keypad is so packed that accidental adjacent key hits are far more common, especially if your thumbs are bigger than dainty. And the single, all-black, vertical rows of keys bracketing the white-black alphanumeric keys, combined with the multi-characters-per-key layout, is disconcerting to say the least and really slows down typing, as does the necessity of two-thumbing words with consecutive letters that are on the same key, such as words with “er” or “as,” both common combinations.
Above the keypad are four function keys — send, menu, back, and end — with a “trackball” controller, which is not really a trackball at all (it doesn’t move), but more like a joy nipple. You simply rub your thumb over it to move the cursor up, down, left, and right. It’s quite sensitive and takes a bit of practice to get precise results. Once we got used to it we were able to control it easily, but we still missed BlackBerry’s familiar spine jog shuttle wheel, with its tactile clicking feedback.
With no experience to draw on for multimedia functionality, it’s no small wonder that BlackBerry’s music operations are so poorly implemented. Getting music into the phone is a dream, especially using Windows Media Player 11, which immediately recognizes the Pearl and lets you sync as if it were any other WMA music player (a USB data cable is included). But there is no direct music player to access on the Pearl. You have to go to the multimedia app folder and click on a folder to play the contents of that folder.
Also, Pearl offers no direct music transport keys — play, pause, and skip commands are all in a pop-up menu. And BlackBerry’s “shuffle” mode plays the contents of a music folder in the same exact sequence each time.
While we could pair stereo Bluetooth headphones with the Pearl, we could not get the music to play through them; we even tried multiple other headphone models. This may be a problem with our test device rather than a systemic issue, however. But thankfully, Pearl is equipped with a standard 2.5mm headphone jack and comes with a mono wired headset. Any standard 2.5mm wired stereo headset will work fine if Bluetooth is a problem.
Like all BlackBerry phones, accessing and programming the varying ring-tone and alert options requires unnecessary digital spelunking.
For storage, Pearl includes 64MB of built-in memory and a microSD card slot, regrettably located behind the battery in a fragile metal pop-up slip.
Image Courtesy of RIM
Performance and Use
As a phone, the Pearl performs like a jewel. While awkward for prose, Pearl’s two-tone, backlit, numeric keypad makes dialing easier than standard QWERTY BlackBerry’s. Signal strength and volume were solid and loud at both ends, with only, “I know it’s a cell phone” quality comments from co-conversationalists. Rings and vibrations were both loud and violent enough to be heard and felt from a jeans pocket.
EDGE Web access in Manhattan was fast, with pages starting to draw in five seconds and requiring another 10 seconds or so to load completely. Your network results, of course, may differ.
Pearl’s 1.3 MP photos are predictably mediocre anywhere but outdoors in bright sunlight; the flash throws only a foot or so. You do get a self-portrait mirror, though.
Pearl’s primary function is composing prose, and SureType, a predictive text technology, is simply not as efficient as a standard QWERTY keyboard. As you type, word choices are arraigned across a pop-up window. Hitting the space bar affirms the word choice. While test typing both mundane and ludicrous sentences, the Pearl never failed in guessing the right word. We accumulated enough trust in SureType’s reliability that we stopped checking the list of guessed words, speeding up the proceedings immensely.
But SureType has problems with any name that isn’t Anglo-popular. Ringo Starr was drummed out as “rungo stare” and Barbra Streisand was garbled as “barbea ateusabd.” While Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton were not compromised, Mitt Romney ran as “mitt rpmnet” and Barak Obama contended as “barsk onsma.” Massachusetts wasn’t an issue, but Connecticut was stated as “connectiviy.” Of political interest, SureType got “Jerusalem” correct, but mistranslated Damascus and Baghdad as “damsavia” and “baggdad. You get the idea. You have to switch to multi-tap not only for proper names, but when inputting an email address that’s not on your contact list, and then switch back to SureType for the rest of your missive. None of this is an issue, of course, with a standard one-key/one-letter QWERTY keypad.
Rated battery life is a surprisingly short 3.5 hours for talking; the BlackBerry 8700c, with its bigger screen, goes for a rated 4 hours.
While it looks sleek and fancy, there is no reason for a shrunken BlackBerry if it means shrunken text-input functionality. Still, if you don’t plan to compose long responses, but rather seek a little entertainment and have a desire to snap a candid picture to accompany your e-mail without looking like a hip-holster geek then you qualify as a Pearl diver.
• Sleek and sexy looks
• Pocket-sized and lightweight
• 1.3 MP camera
• Digital music player
• Loud and clear conversations
• Awkward QWERTY keyboard
• Poorly-designed multimedia options and playback
• Poorly positioned microSD slot