The BlackBerry Pearl is the latest model from Research in Motion (RIM). Even though this is a smartphone, not one of RIM's larger cellular-wireless handhelds, it still breaks new ground for this company, as it is its first model of any kind with support for playing music and displaying video.
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Currently it's available only from a few carriers, including T-Mobile USA, but I expect it to be much more widely distributed in short order.
There's no doubt about it, the Pearl is tiny. It's one of the smallest smartphones I've ever used. It makes RIM's typical devices look positively gargantuan in comparison. If you love your BlackBerry but would like something smaller, this might be the way to go.
However, there is a major trade-off. Instead of having a regular QWERTY keyboard, the Pearl uses RIM's SureType system, in which each key handles two letters. I'll talk more about SureType later.
That's really the only drawback, though. This model offers all kinds of features no BlackBerry ever has before.
One of the most significant of these is a trackball. Instead of using a D-pad like virtually every over handheld and smartphone, you move around and select things on the Pearl's screen with a small roller-ball. RIM's implementation of this is well done, and I found it very easy to use. I'm not sure it's superior to a D-pad, but it's at least as good, and it's definitely better than just a scroll-wheel..
Aside from its keyboard, the Pearl is well supplied with additional buttons. On both the left and right side are what's called "Convenience Keys." By default the one on the left side lets you do voice dialing, while the one on the right opens the camera application, but these can be changed to whatever applications you prefer.
Also on the right side are a pair of buttons to increase or decrease call volume.
On the left side of the Pearl is the headphone socket and the device's mini-USB port. I'm not happy about the location of either one of these. If you're carrying this smartphone in your pocket with the headphones plugged in, you really want the socket to be on the top of the device. And the fact that the Pearl's mini-USB port is on its side means that no company is going to be able to create a cradle for it.
One of the biggest adjustments long-time BlackBerry users are going to have to make if they switch to a Pearl is getting used to the SureType system.
This has been created to let RIM squeeze a keyboard into a device as small as this one. To accomplish this, each key has to do double- or even triple-duty.
Here's how it works. To type the word "cat" you hit the C-V key, then the A-S key, then the T-Y key. The Pearl will then display a list of possible words that can be spelled with that key combination.
I know this sounds incredibly cumbersome, but really it isn't. At the end of every word you don't have to manually pick one of the options if the first option is the correct one, and SureType does an amazingly good job of picking the correct one. So all you have to do is type along and let your smartphone take care of the job of ensuring that what you meant to type is really what shows up on the screen.
If you're trying out a Pearl, the best advice I can give you is don't get frustrated in 5 minutes and give up. It's going to take a bit of practice to get comfortable with the new system.
As good as SureType is, it can only partially make up for the fact that the Pearl's keyboard is more than a bit cramped. This is an inevitable side-effect of using such a small smartphone, but it makes typing less than ideal.
Whether it's the keyboard or SureType, I find that typing the same sentence on the Pearl takes about 30 percent longer than it does on a smartphone with a regular QWERTY keyboard.
If you're a long-term BlackBerry user, you should be very familiar with the scroll-wheel, the little gizmo on the side of your device you use to move around on the screen. The Pearl drops this in favor of a much more flexible trackball.
This allows you to move up and down, left and right, with just small movements of your thumb. This makes selecting items much quicker.
And, in my opinion anyway, putting my thumb on the front of a device this small to move a trackball is more comfortable than putting my thumb on the side of the device to use a scroll-wheel.
And the fact that the whole thing glows in low-light situations is a nice touch, too.
It's important that the trackball be easy to use, as the Pearl doesn't have a touchscreen. The only way to select different words or icons on the screen is with the trackball.
Easily the most significant new feature in the Pearl is its support for playing audio and video, something no BlackBerry has ever been able to do before.
Audio: I'm perfectly satisfied with the audio player on the Pearl. It can play music in the background and pretty much do everything I want an MP3 player to do.
Video: I had a less positive experience with the Pearl's video player. No surprise, it easily handled the small AVI file that came pre-installed on the smartphone, so I threw a 71 MB MPEG-4 video at it. It choked. It choked badly. The audio skipped every few seconds and, within a minute, the audio was several seconds behind the video. Before someone says this was an unfair test, I play similar videos on Palm OS and Windows Media devices regularly without a hitch.
This device comes with a pair of headphones for use with both music and video.
Images: The Pearl allows you to store a bunch of images and display them. This smartphone's screen isn't very large so you're not going to be making any serious slideshow presentations from it, but the application RIM has written to handle this job works well. It didn't choke on a 2.3 MB JPEG, and it lets you pan and zoom.
Ringtones: I have to admit, I have no interest in ringtones, but I know plenty of other people like them, so I'll point out that this smartphone supports polyphonic, MP3, and MIDI ones.
To take advantage of the multimedia capabilities of the Pearl, you're really going to need to get a microSD card, as you can only store images and ringtones in this device's internal memory.
The last really important new feature in this device is its 1.3 megapixel camera, a feature that's become pretty much a requirement for smartphones.
The Pearl's is fairly average, which means it's good enough to take casual pictures, but don't expect these to be really high quality.
Sorry, I don't mean to sound so critical. I really like having a camera with me all the time. It's great in those situations where your child/pet/drunk friend is doing something funny and you want to take a picture before the moment has passed.
The Pearl is one of the few cameraphones with a built-in flash, but this isn't very bright. The picture above was taken in near complete darkness with it and you can see that it didn't do a very good job of lighting up my subject.
On the other hand, this camera does a nice job of adapting to relatively low-light situations without the flash. There's only one light on in this room when I took this picture, but I think it looks fairly good, if a bit grainy.
Even more useless than the flash, though, is the digital zoom. I can't tell that it's enlarging anything, just cropping the picture smaller. Here's an example. What I asked for was a 640-by-480-pixel image at 5x zoom, what I got was a 240-by-192-pixel, rather blurry, image.
Surprisingly, the Pearl's camera is missing an important feature: video support. It can take still images but not record movies.
Email and Messaging
RIM made its reputation on "push" email, and of course the Pearl offers this.
If you don't understand what all the hoopla is about, RIM has a system that immediately sends each email to a BlackBerry handheld or smartphone as soon as it arrives on the mail server. This means that there's little or no delay between a message being sent and it arriving on the mobile device.
For this to work, though, your company has to either have a BlackBerry Enterprise Server set up, or you need to subscribe to the BlackBerry service through your carrier. Fortunately, most carriers offer this, and certainly any one that is selling the Pearl does, including T-Mobile USA.
But keep in mind, RIM isn't the only company offering push email anymore. Several others do, most notably Microsoft.
The Pearl has other messaging options beyond email. It supports SMS, which means you can send short messages to other mobile phones.
However, when I sent a message with an image attached -- that I though was an MMS message -- all that arrived was a note with a web address and instructions to log onto a T-Mobile site to see the picture.
One important area RIM has not made any significant progress in is allowing users to work with Microsoft Office documents.
For the past few years, BlackBerries have been able to view Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Acrobat documents that come in as email attachments, and the Pearl can do that too. But that's as far as it goes.
You can't load documents onto a folder on this device and view them later. You also can't edit them.
What you can do is see the contents of these files, without much formatting. Essentially, if someone sends you an important document, you'll be able to read it, but that's all.
There are a couple of exceptions. The image that was embedded in my Word document came through fine. And I could see the actual slides on one of the PowerPoint documents that I tested, but for some reason I couldn't do this with the other.
You can also see images that come in as attachments. And, alone of all the attachment types I tried, you can save images to your device.
As far as support for attachments goes, the Pearl does better than Windows Mobile Smartphone, which has no support for opening Microsoft Office documents without a third-party application, but it's behind both Pocket PC Phone and Palm OS devices, which allow both opening and editing of these files.
Like all good smartphones, the Pearl comes with with a suite of Personal Information Management (PIM) applications. That's a fancy way of saying that it includes an address book, calendar, and to-do list.
These are pretty good applications. For example, you can add a picture to an address book entry, which is becoming a pretty common feature these days, but you can also have the Pearl automatically display a contact's address on a map, which is something very few devices offer right out of the box.
The calendar handles re-occurring events, and you can edit one member of a series of events without having to change them all. You can also hit a "snooze" button when alarms go off so you can be re-reminded of them later.
You have a couple of options for synchronizing the PIM applications. If your company uses the BlackBerry Enterprise Server you can, of course, wirelessly synchronize your Pearl with that. If your company uses Microsoft Outlook, you can synchronize with that application, too.
This BlackBerry comes with a fairly decent Web browser. It's not the best one around, but it's functional.
It does a good job of taking regular Web pages and reformatting them for the Pearl's 240-by-260-pixel screen. What irritates me about it is that's its only display option. There's no way to have it display pages in their original wide formatting and scroll around on them.
Still, it has just about everything else I expect in a mobile browser.
This is probably the application where the Pearl's support for EDGE comes most in handy. This isn't the fastest cellular-wireless networking standard around by a long shot, but it's good enough for light web browsing, at least in my book.
You'll also be glad to know that the Pearl supports multi-tasking, so you can tell it to open a big page, then go off and do something else while it's downloading. Invoking this is more than a bit clumsy, though. By default, leaving an application closes it. You have to open a drop-down box of options and choose "Switch Applications" to keep one open while you use another.
An application that I wish came with this smartphone is a file browser. As it is, if you want to see a list of the photos you have stored on your Pearl, you have to open the photo viewer. The same is true of music files, and so on.
This device requires you to put each types of file in a specific folder. Yeah, you can put an image in the Videos folder, but the image viewer won't be able to find or display it.
Fortunately, it supports sub-folders, so you can organize your files.
The BlackBerry Desktop Manager -- a PC application that handles the interaction between your smartphone and your PC -- includes a component called Media Manager that lets you move music, pictures, ringtones, and videos onto your device or back onto your PC.
But you don't have to have this installed on a PC in order to be able to move files around. One of my favorite features on the Pearl is its support for mass storage mode. Plug it into the USB port on any computer (Mac or Windows), and it appears as a removable drive. You can then copy files back and forth. (You can also recharge the device this way, albeit somewhat slowly.)
For all of this smartphone's functionality, let's not forget that this is, at heart, a phone. And it's a pretty good one.
You have several options for making voice calls. Naturally, you can use the Pearl like any phone and hold it to your ear. You can also put it into speakerphone mode if you want to have several people talk at once. Or you can use a wired or wireless headset (more about this later).
Looking up phone numbers is a breeze. From the main screen all you have to do is start typing a name and this smartphone will pull up a list of people in your address book that you can choose from.
You can also call people with Voice Commends. All you have to do is push a button on the side of the Pearl, wait for the prompt, and say the name of the person you want to call. This is incredibly convenient when driving.
The model offers Bluetooth, which lets you wirelessly connect to a variety of accessories.
Far and away the most common of these is a headset, and there are a ton of Bluetooth headsets on the market. If you get one, you'll be able to talk on your phone while your device is still in your pocket. Most of these even let you answer the phone without touching your Pearl at all.
Of course, you don't have to buy a wireless headset. The Pearl comes with a wired one.
There's no doubt about it, the Pearl is a huge step forward for RIM. This smartphone offers features that many current and potential BlackBerry users have been wanting for years.
But, for all its progress, I think this company still has a ways to go. Its implementation of some of the new multimedia features in the Pearl is a bit clumsy and are in real need of polish. And it still lacks features business users want, like better and easier access to Microsoft Office files.
At the same time, the feature that was RIM's biggest advantage for many years--push email--is available now on many other devices.
All in all, I think this is a decent smartphone, and certainly better RIM's first one, the BlackBerry 7100 series. But it still needs some work if it's going to stand up to the competition.
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