Blackberry 8100 Pearl: Ready for primetime?

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Chicago (IL) - Research in Motion's new Blackberry Pearl went on sale yesterday and we were lucky enough to pick up one of the much praised devices at a local T-Mobile store. Read our first impressions during the first hours with the new jewel, which aims to push RIM into the consumer market.

Click to start the Blackberry 8100 Pearl video ...

Yes, I admit, technology journalists have a certain advantage to get early access to new hardware and software and are often the first ones, outside the manufacturer, to play with gadgets. The Blackberry 8100 is an attarctive gadget and if it wasn't a phone, we probably would have already had a look at the device, given the attention it got during its official announcement.

But we typically write very little about cellphones. In this case, I'll make an exception. It just happened that my personal Treo 600 phone simply died last week and I needed a replacement for a smartphone I loved (the keyboard and address book) and hated (its reliability). Since the newer Treos are either not available anymore (T-Mobile) or ridiculously priced (Cingular), I decided it was time to depart from my habit to use outdated phones and get something that is more appropriate for a tech journalist.

The decision what to get wasn't that difficult. One could hardly have missed all the praises published about RIM's new Blackberry last week. So I took my chances and bought a Blackberry 8100 Pearl at a local T-Mobile store for $250.

The first impression

Holding the Pearl in your hands for the first time is an impressive experience, at least if you are coming from a Treo 600. Encased in piano black and shiny silver plastic, the phone looks as expensive: Slightly larger than a first-generation Ipod nano, sleek design, a thin and light (3.1 ounces) form factor and a very solid, high-quality feel.

Turn it on and you'll be greeted by a color screen with clean user interface. The resolution of the display is crisp enough to allow the use of a unique serif font without impacting the readability of content. The keyboard layout is similar to the preceding 7130-series Blackberries and is easy to understand.

If you have wondered why the 8100 is named "Pearl" and whether it's just another far-fetched brand just like "Blackberry", then you are wrong. There's an actual pearl-like trackball integrated into the keyboard. It serves as the main navigation device and - thanks to a bright white LED located right behind it - lights up the simple, translucent ball. The result is a unique, pearl-like look that nicely complements the stylish appearance of the device.

There's an actual "pearl": The 8100's trackball is illuminated by a white LED

Spec sheet

The 8100 is a dramatically different than previous Blackberry devices. The phone packs a complex feature set that includes SMS and MMS support, a 1.3 megapixel camera, audio and video playback, Bluetooth connectivity, integration of RIM's map service (which requires a connection to a GPS-enabled device) and a slot for a micro SD flash card. Typical Blackberry features such as corporate data access and wireless email and instant messaging are present and appear to be rather add-ons than key characteristics of the device.

The Pearl is equipped with 64 MB of memory, promises a 15-day standby battery time and a 3.5-hour talk time and has the previously mentioned 65K color, 240x260 pixel display. Included with the phone are a USB cable and a simple wire-based headset, which doesn't quite fit to the Pearl's overall high-end look and feel.


What works

The phone's unique features turn out to be its greatest advantages. While it needs time to get used to, the trackball is one of the most efficient navigation devices in the cellphone market today. Forget your trackpoint, scrollwheels or navigation buttons - the little pearl is faster and more convenient to handle than anything else you have used before.

The display is crisp and shows clear images both in full and in reduced size. Video quality is equally impressive. The trackball helps to adjust the size and zoom factor of the image and scroll to areas that cannot be displayed on the current screen. Data access from the NOR flash memory chip is unusually slow.

The Pearl's media player

Applications that stand out are "Maps" that provides directions as long as there is a Bluetooth connection to an external GPS device, an excellent voice dialing feature and a media player and speaker that may not be the best the market has seen to date, but are a decent first try and are certainly good enough for listening to audio memos and music, if your expectations aren't too high.

The basic phone features, such as audio quality and speakerphone are on par with other phones in the smartphone category.

What needs work

As pretty as the Pearl is, there's quite a bit to do for RIM to either convince Treo users like me to switch or to attract users who may be upgrading from their mainstream phone.

On the consumer side, the 1.3-megapixel camera isn't quite up to date and was not able to deliver any shots that I would have considered to print. Don't be fooled by the high resolution - the first 640x480 pixel digital cameras that were released over a decade ago deliver similar if not better image quality than the CMOS-chip in the Pearl. The image quality may be enough for MMS-messages, but it's no replacement for a digital snapshot camera.

Despite the integrated 64 MB flash memory, there's only 19 MB available to the user. You can use the space to store up to 250 pictures taken with the camera, but the use of other media such as audio and video is very limited without an extra micro SD card. The desktop manager software, which provides an interface to the Pearl, limits the maximum transferable file size - according to the manual - to 3 MB, but my device declines the transfer of even smaller files (2.7 MB). On the other side, I have already learned not to use the internal memory for media storage: NOR flash isn't suited for writing data, so it's no surprise that the transfer of MP3 file can take some time: Sample MP3 files with sizes between 2 and 2.2 MB took between 35 and 45 seconds to transfer via the USB cable.

Simple tasks made complex: 7 clicks are necessary to reach a menu to change the ring tone

RIM should be considering to upgrade its support options, if it is heading deeper into the consumer space. Leaving the way too complex menu structures aside - seven clicks are required to reach the menu to change the Pearl's ringtone - the included manual covers only the very basic features of the phone. I found myself often in time-consuming trial-and-error scenarios, when a few more chapters in the included manual could have provided quick assistance. At the time of this writing, documentation and FAQ about the 8100 were not available on RIM's website.

While the import of PIM data from several formats, including Outlook, Lotus and ASCII sources is supported, the Pearl refused to import the CSV and TXT files generated by Palm's desktop manager software.

Conclusion

Sometimes, a great first impression is all that it takes to draw us into making a decision. And there is no doubt that the Pearl will excel in this discipline through its attention-getter design. Apple, take notice, this is what the Ipod phone should look like.

The problem with the Pearl really is that it's neither a mainstream consumer phone nor a hardcore business device. RIM tries to bridge the gap between both worlds and presents an interesting first try, but the Pearl isn't quite the gem I was hoping for. While I am still confident that my Palm database will find its way into the Blackberry somehow, the Pearl is a complex, perhaps too complex, phone for a user group outside its traditional focus.

Besides streamlining the menus, RIM may have to add consumer- and multimedia-focused desktop applications and find new ways to provide adequate tech support for mainstream users. Corporate tech support may have answered all user questions up until now, but consumers that are upgrading to a Pearl smartphone will expect a more detailed manual and a knowledge base that is tailored to consumer phone issues.

Video of BlackBerry representatives showing off the Pearl phone at CTIA:
Click to start the Blackberry 8100 Pearl video ...