HOME / PRINT
BlackBerry Pearl 8100
BlackBerry handhelds have always been targeted at business professionals who rely heavily on email. Features that made the BlackBerrys different from conventional phones were the focus on sending and receiving email, being called 'email phones', and the full QWERTY keyboard with the thumb wheel that has recently lead to a recognized condition at work, called the 'BlackBerry Thumb' for which a 'BlackBerry Balm' has also been developed.
But the BlackBerrys lacked more mainstream features that made it very unpopular amongst non-business consumers, such as a camera and a media player, along with a friendlier-to-use interface. Devices from other manufacturers have had all of these features, along with a workable email solution, so Research In Motion (RIM) has developed the latest BlackBerry 8100, a.k.a the Pearl.
Look and Feel
I must mention that I hated all the BlackBerrys in the past. I hated the fact that they were so expensive (in India, at least), and they didn’t provide the features that phones half that cost did provide. I hated the unergonomic keyboard arrangement, the monophonic ringtones, and the width of the devices. When I saw the Pearl, all of that was whisked away. The Pearl is beautiful.
The Pearl is not as wide as earlier BlackBerrys, making it look a bit more like a conventional mobile phone. It’s quite slim and compact, considering it’s a full featured Smartphone in there. The glossy black body coupled with the chrome trims on the side almost make it lustworthy. It was the first time I used the words "I like" and "BlackBerry" in the same sentence. And all this was before I even turned it on.
The display on the Pearl is a 2.5-inch, 65k color TFT LCD. The resolution is 240x260, which is the one used in the last 7100 series. The 8700s use a larger QVGA display, but 240x260 works for the small device that the Pearl is. The display is pretty bright and readable in sunlight as well. It also comes with a light sensor that adjusts the brightness of the device based on ambient lighting conditions.
The thumb wheel so congruous with the BlackBerrys, has been replaced by a glowing trackball in the center, hence the name 'Pearl'. I’ll make 6 million enemies by saying that I hated the thumb wheel and I’m glad to see it go, but the same 6 million would forget about it once they use the Pearl. For navigating through long pages and lists, the Pearl is the most convenient object. It is a little too sensitive at first, but that’s only because you’re not used to having such a high-resolution control mechanism on a handheld device. It is, however, a little difficult to perform short navigation—like moving one character forward or backward. For those who do that more often, the sensitivity of the Pearl can be adjusted. I’m just wondering what happens a few months down the line when the Pearl gets soiled.
The individual keys on the QWERTY keyboard on the older BlackBerrys have also been replaced by a smarter method of predictive text entry called 'SureType', which made it’s first appearance in the 7100 series. SureType is similar to T9, but instead of using 0-9 numeric keys, it offers the full QWERTY keypad, just with two keys on one. SureType detects key sequences and automatically types out words for you. It’s smart and very convenient, automatically extracting words from your emails and address books, but uncommon words that the technology doesn’t recognize are a little difficult to key in. The keys are also a little small, leaving no space between each other, so people with large fingers are likely to find it frustrating to use, but the device is so small, this is understandable. Numbers are available on the three columns in the center, and require a 'shift' modifier when typing them in text mode. At the home screen, these will start keying in numbers directly.
All the keys on the Pearl are small, including the call, end, menu and back keys. The call and end keys are still usable since they are on the top corners of the keypad, but the menu and back keys, which are used a little more in the BlackBerrys than the call and end keys, are inconvenient because of their size. In addition to the keypad, there are also two user-configurable shortcut keys on each side of the phone, a volume control on the left side and a mute button on the top, which can also be used to put the phone in to stand-by mode.
The user interface is one of the things that has remained largely unchanged in the Pearl. The home screen and main menu look refreshed with background wallpapers and redone icons, but beyond that, it’s back to the black-and-white mode with simple text lines. Entry fields are difficult to differentiate from regular text or other controls, which is a sure turn-off for non-BlackBerry users looking at the Pearl.
The Pearl offers several font options to choose from, but most of them look the same, only differing by width. Font smoothing gives a very subtle softness to font edges, but the fonts still look quite the same.
The Pearl clicks to act as a 'select' or 'ok' button, while the menu button brings up a context sensitive menu that changes contents depending on what you’re doing. This is better than the Nokia way of simply taking you to the main menu. The back button acts like an 'escape' key, but it doesn’t close the applications, for which you need to use the menu.
One thing that needs a mention is the speed of the UI. It doesn’t feel as sluggish as Series 60 Smartphones. On the contrary, the UI is fast and probably the only things that require waiting are the web browser loading and camera startup activities. A Xscale PXA901 processor running at 312MHz is making its presence felt out here.
Email and Web
A device with a seven-year legacy built on email functionality cannot fail and the BlackBerry Pearl continues the tradition. Email on the BlackBerry Pearl works flawlessly. It took around 15 minutes for the activation to take place with the BlackBerry-ready Airtel SIM card, but it was an effortless exercise and I was online with my office’s BlackBerry Enterprise Server, sending and receiving emails within no time. I was able to view attachments and forward emails, just as I would on my computer.
At times, the EDGE connectivity did slow down to a crawl, mainly in the evenings, but during the day it was pretty fast. This, however, isn’t the same with web browsing, which was slow throughout the day. The web browser isn’t as effective as the one found on recent Nokia phones. It reformats the pages to fit the small screen size and while all links and objects are viewable, the web is just not going to look as pretty.
The Pearl can also sync with Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes and Novell GroupWise, exchanging email, calendar, tasks and other details. For chat, the Pearl (in India) also comes bundled with Google Talk and Yahoo! Messenger.
Camera and Multimedia
The first BlackBerry to include a camera, the Pearl packs in a 1.3 megapixel shooter with a flash as well. While the flash is relatively powerful, sometimes it's a little too powerful. The sensor quality itself is below average. When still, the pictures taken are acceptable, but a slight jerk during the click can cause the taken picture to come out warped. It’s like looking at a reflection of something or someone in flowing, liquid mercury. Colors also seem quite washed out and edges are very blurry.
The Pearl zooms in and out (digitally) during camera preview, and also clicks the picture, but its high sensitivity can cause you to zoom in accidentally when you want to click. This can cause you to miss a moment because the device requires you to be very careful when clicking a picture. It does offer a convenient crop feature right after you take the picture to instantly remove unnecessary elements from it.
There is no video recording capability in the Pearl, which is disappointing since the device has almost everything else. The Pearl can, however, play back videos in 3GP, AVI and even MOV formats provided the video is MPEG-4 / H.263.
The music player on the Pearl is capable of MP3 and AAC playback with ID3 tags support. There seems to be no support for creating playlists. The loudspeaker on the Pearl sounds good and loud, but the headset is best used at low to moderate volumes. Cheap-sounding monophonic ringtones have been done away with—now you can use MP3s as ringtones!
The Pearl doesn’t include an FM radio, which isn’t a necessity in a business device, but the Pearl is a consumer targeted BlackBerry, so it’s worth a mention.
The Pearl has around 64MB of phone memory and also provides a MicroSD/TransFlash memory card slot for expansion. The card slot isn’t hot-swap, however, requiring you to remove the battery in order to add, change or remove the card.
Network and Connectivity
The BlackBerry Pearl is a tri-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE phone. Provided by Airtel, it uses its EDGE network to offer the BlackBerry email services.
The Pearl also has Bluetooth 2.0 and USB support, providing a standard mini-USB jack on the side that doesn’t require any special cabling. The device identifies itself to the computer as a mass storage device, so you can drag and drop files such as music and documents, but software installation is still necessary.
The absence of WiFi can be discussed because BlackBerrys are primarily email devices meant for business professionals, but email is so tightly integrated, you won’t miss it. Besides, the Pearl is supposed to be a common man’s device, remember?
Battery life is what BlackBerrys are known for, after the whole deal about real-time email connectivity. The last BlackBerry I used—the 7730—went on for almost 5 to 6 days on a single charge. That’s probably because it didn’t have any camera or multimedia features, but it’s mostly because I hated the device and didn’t use it much.
The Pearl goes on for just around 3 to 3.5 days on a charge when Bluetooth is mostly enabled and the camera is used to take a few pictures a day. Turning off Bluetooth and not using the camera may stretch it to around four or five days, but then what’s the point of paying so much for those features?
The Pearl seems to recharge via USB using a standard cable, but this didn't work for us with any PC or Mac, front or rear port. Even the included original USB cable didn't work—we had to use the AC adapter to recharge it.
The BlackBerry Pearl is an effort to make headway into the mainstream consumer market, and while it is a very good phone that offers the trademark BlackBerry email functionality, with new features such as a camera and media playback, it doesn’t have a very friendly user interface to make a non-BlackBerry user switch. The Pearl does, however, offer great incentive for the existing multimedia-deprived BlackBerry user to upgrade to.
Considering the likely audience (as opposed to the target audience), the high-sounding price tag of Rs. 24,990 is passable. If you did pay Rs. 18,990 for a black-and-white phone just one year ago (the BlackBerry 6230) or Rs. 32,990 for a color device with no multimedia features or camera (the BlackBerry 7730), then Rs. 24,990 for the Pearl does seem like the right price.
By itself, not considering the BlackBerry legacy, the Pearl is a little expensive. Had it been under Rs. 20,000, perhaps it would have been a great deal.