The BlackBerry Pearl 8100 smart phone is one of the world’s smallest smart phones and packs all of the power of BlackBerry. It comes complete with digital camera, multimedia capabilities and expandable memory. And it offers users everything else they would expect from a BlackBerry device – including phone, email, web browser, text messaging (SMS and MMS), instant messaging, organizer applications and more. The Blackberry provides quad-band network support on 850/900/1800/1900 MHz GSM/GPRS and EDGE networks to allow for international roaming between North America, Europe and Asia.
The Pearl is a very normal looking bar shaped phone if you overlook the two extra columns on the keypad and the trackball where the d-pad or joystick typically would be. The device is clad in a piano black gloss finish that appears to be pretty scratch resistant. The sides of the Pearl are covered in a dark silver/pewter colored metal finish, that is quite attractive and a bit less prone to fingerprints than the black surfaces. In spite of the two extra columns of keypad keys, the Pearl’s SureType keypad looks normal enough due to its color scheme. The number keys all have silver colored paint on them that makes it easy to see the keypad as a normal numeric keypad. Some people in the press have complained that the keypad feels cheap, owing partly to the fact that the keys are not separated at all by the front cover, and therefore float a bit. Located between the keypad and the display are the red and green call control keys, a back button, a menu button, and the trackball – the “pearl” that gives the device its name. The buttons are all reasonably normal and nice to use, but the trackball is something we’ve only seen before on the T-Mobile Sidekick III. The Pearl’s backlit trackball has a very nice feel to it, and is easily spun in any direction as needed. It can be pressed in for selecting menu items and the like, and seems to do so without moving off your intended target, as is sometimes the case with d-pads that don’t have separate select buttons. The back panel of the Pearl, that which covers the battery, is a bit too flexible for my liking, making the device feel a bit cheaper than it should. The back cover includes a self-portrait mirror for the camera, as well as protective covers for the camera itself and the flash. The right side of the Pearl is where you will find the volume control, a lanyard loop, and the first of two user configurable quick-access keys, which defaults to being the camera access/shutter button. The left side houses a miniUSB data/charging port, the 2.5mm stereo headset port, and the second quick-access key – which I use for voice dialing. The lone control on the top of the Pearl handles ring muting and putting the phone into standby mode.
One of the things that differentiates the BlackBerry UI from those of most other phones is the total lack of softkeys for commonly used functions. Instead, the Pearl requires constant use of the menu key or the generally briefer menus accessed by pressing on the trackball itself. The menus called with the menu key are often very, very long, requiring a decent amount of scrolling to see all of the available options. The trackball makes short work of the needed scrolling, but RIM really needs to added cascading menus and submenus to their system if it wants to attract mainstream users. In spite of its abilities to keep the user organized with its calendaring and email systems, the Pearl itself is not very well organized.
The Pearl 8100 user will enjoy a couple of options when it comes to accessing phone numbers quickly. For one, speed dials can be assigned to any of the number keys as well as the top two keys on each of the two extra columns on the keypad. Speed dials are accessed by long pressing the appropriate ky. The Pearl also offers a nice speaker-independent voice dialing application from VoiceSignal. Initially the voice dialing app would not recognize any of my contact names, as it had somehow failed to index them.
The BlackBerry Pearl comes loaded with a number of cool applications that we might not have expected normally. The big surprise, however, was the mapping software. The application lets you enter addresses for the start and end of your journey (or pull them from your contacts) and will give you turn by turn directions. It can also be used for seeing general maps of an area, allowing the user to zoom in and out as desired. When teamed up with a Bluetooth GPS device (not included), it can also track your location on the map as you move about. The map data is downloaded over the EDGE network as needed, so you don’t have to do manual updates yourself or waste precious storage space on the Pearl 8100 itself.
Unlike many of its sibling BlackBerry devices, the Pearl looks like a regular mobile phone and does a good job of acting like one. Even with its famous push email system active, the Pearl managed a respectable 5 hours of continuous talk time in our tests. It would likely have done a bit better if its internal antenna were a bit stronger. As is, the antenna works decently in most situations, but it can’t compete with the likes of Nokia’s best RF performers. 3 days of standby all the while monitoring your email accounts is certainly doable. You can get more out of the device by configuring it to turn off during the late night hours when you don’t use it, too. Audio quality was acceptably good on the Pearl, and the speakerphone in particular seemed quite good.
There is no denying that the BlackBerry Pearl 8100 is the most phone like BlackBerry device ever. It has the looks and size of a regular handset, yet offers smartphone functionality and has the best push email system. Its user interface might seem a bit vast and archaic to the uninitiated, but the typical road warrior user will manage to adapt to it very quickly. The issue is that the general consumer will be less willing, or capable, to deal with that learning curve. As such, RIM has a long way to go before it can expect mass acceptance of their phones by Joe Consumer.
But with that said, the Pearl 8100 is a fantastic phone. It has the basic multimedia capabilities that people want, it is small and compact, yet it offers great text input and a novel trackball for navigation.