RIM's Pearl reinvents the BlackBerry

The BlackBerry has always been a status symbol as much as a technological innovation. "I'm a business person, with business needs. I need to know immediately when trouble's brewing," your typical business user might say.

That's not to say that the BlackBerry hasn't evolved over time. Gone are the days of the black and white LCD, which was replaced with a handheld-like color screen and increasingly smaller sizes. Research In Motion, which makes the BlackBerry, has even made some forays away from its traditional square packaging, which forced the company to abandon the full QWERTY keyboard layout for an abbreviated 20-key system.

But RIM's latest product, the BlackBerry Pearl, represents a wholesale break from everything we've seen from RIM. This is its first offering that will appeal as much to consumers looking for a smart phone as to CEOs looking for a smaller BlackBerry.

The first and most obvious difference is the size and shape. The Pearl is tiny, even by cell phone standards. It measures just over 4 in. long by 2 in. wide, and is half an inch thick. It's also extremely light, tipping in at a smidge over 3 oz. But battery life hasn't been sacrificed in the name of weight. The phone specifications claim 15 days of standby and 3.5 hours of talk time. In testing, it lasted a week in the dash of my car without sputtering out, even though I spent three days in a very weak signal coverage area.

Like the other phone-style BlackBerries, the Pearl needs to double up on keys to fit in everything by using SuperType intelligent predictive typing software. For example, if I want to type the word "dear," I type the keys that have the d, e, a and r letters on them. The software figures out that I probably meant "dear," and displays that word as the entered text. But it also offers "fear" as an alternative, and I can select it if that's what I really meant. I found the software was pretty good at figuring out the right words in the right context so that the same keystrokes may result in a different default word depending on where you are in a sentence.

The predictive typing is less intuitive when entering things like Web addresses, and you have to steer it in the right direction, sometimes midword. For example, when entering "Derry" into the mapping application, I could only get it right if I picked "Derr" from the selections before typing the "y." But all in all, I was able to type at a fairly impressive rate.

The biggest difference most traditional BlackBerry users will notice is the lack of a thumb wheel. Instead, there's a small iPod-like scroll wheel in the center of the keyboard with a white center-button (hence the "Pearl" moniker). Don't be fooled though, it doesn't behave like an iPod. If you make a circle with your finger around the wheel, you'll make the menu you're viewing go up, down, up and down again. That's because you use this wheel more like a trackball. To go left or right, stroke the top or bottom of the wheel in the appropriate direction. Sometimes it takes a second with a menu to figure out which pair of motions will navigate appropriately, and some menus will accept either axis. The wheel is a bit touchy to operate until you get used to it. It takes a light finger.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find any obvious way to scroll in a given direction continually; you have to keep stroking. This is especially bad in the browser, because the way many Web sites (like CNN.com and AccuWeather.com) render by default, you end up with a lot of material to scroll through to get to the real meat of the page. AccuWeather took dozens of downstrokes on the wheel until I got past what would have been side menus on a normally rendered page.

The phone has a full Bluetooth profile, including serial capability. I wasn't able to test it as a modem, but presumably it would work as such. It also interacts well with Bluetooth speakerphones, including the ability to voice dial from a Bluetooth device.

The phone is also very media-friendly. It can operate as an MP3 player, using mini-SD cards to hold the songs. It also has a 1.3-megapixel camera with a built-in flash, which was weak and ineffective for photos in dark interiors. The 240-by-260-pixel screen can also play video in most popular formats. The quality was excellent, rivaling what I've seen on the video iPod and much better than most video on other handheld devices. Unfortunately, you can't shoot video with the phone, only view it.

Along with e-mail integration (and Exchange integration for the enterprise users), the Pearl also has an integrated instant messaging client that works with most common IM services. There is also a nice mapping application, a Breakout game and the usual personal information manager functions such as calendar, address book and to-do list.

The phone still has a few quirks and bugs. I was about to get the phone to enter its version of the Blue Screen of Death by hitting the mute button while in the setup menu. It also hung up a few times (as in became unresponsive) while browsing Web sites. The version of the Pearl that I used had T-Mobile service, and it performed admirably both for voice and data in my testing.

With T-Mobile offering the Pearl at just under US$200 (after US$150 rebate from T-Mobile and with the usual service commitments), it's is going to give the new Palm Treos a run for their money in the handheld laptop replacement market. While Windows Mobile and Palm OS devices may have a larger range of software available to them, the Pearl has a killer price and enough functionality out of the box to keep most users happy.

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James Turner

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