Update (4/08/06): RIM has just released an incremental upgrade to the 8700, dubbed the 8707. It's identical to the model reviewed here, with the exception of added 3G network support.
Despite the ominous lawsuit that loomed over RIM's US operations for what seemed like an eternity, the company unabashedly continued to refresh its BlackBerry line with new products. Its most recent offering is the 8700 series, which consists of two handhelds: the 8700g and 8700v. The only tangible difference between the two models is that the former will run on the Optus and Telstra networks, while the latter is designed for Vodafone. They also differ slightly in aesthetics, with the 8700g offering up a navy blue chassis, while the 8700v is mostly silver.
We took a look at the 8700v model, which in typical Vodafone style is branded with a silver and red software colour scheme, as well as a company logo just above the keyboard that stands out more than the BlackBerry logo itself!
Head out to buy a BlackBerry and you'll be confronted with two distinct types of design. The first is the slim phone-oriented shape (as seen on the 7130e), which is less dorky to hold up to your ear for calls but at the same time is less suited to rapid-fire emailing since two letters share each key.
Conversely, the data-oriented design used by the 8700v is wider and flatter, and offers a full 35-key QWERTY keyboard. We've tested both, and can confirm that the 8700v is significantly faster for data entry. We found that the same e-mail typed out on the 7130e and the 8700v takes roughly half the time on the latter.
The device measures 6.95 x 1.95 x 11.0 cm and weighs in at 134g, which makes it only 4 grams heavier than the phone-shaped 7130e. It's noticeably wider, but this is a necessary evil given the inclusion of a 35-key keyboard. If the 8700v doubles as your regular mobile phone, the fashion conscious will undoubtedly want to purchase a Bluetooth headset, as this is far from a glamour device.
Unlike a conventional smart phone or PDA, the BlackBerry's navigation keys are located on the right-hand edge of the chassis. First there's the thumbwheel which is used to traverse the menu system and doubles as an "enter" key when depressed. Just below it is a second button which functions as an "escape" or "back" key. This combination works quite well -- as long as you're right handed. If you operate the device with your left-hand, your middle finger, rather than your thumb, falls on the scroll wheel which can prove uncomfortable.
The power button is located in a familiar spot on the top of the phone, and nearby is a handy LED that flashes red when you've got unread e-mail and green otherwise. The left-hand side offers up a mini-USB port for connection to a PC, as well as a headphone jack and a button for profile selection.
The only design qualm we had was that left-handed users will find it difficult to navigate the menu system using the scroll wheel, which is located on the right-hand side of the device. That said, lefties shouldn't have a problem adapting to using their right hand -- we didn't.
The big hoo-ha surrounding the 8700 series results from RIM's switch to an Intel-based architecture. It uses the Intel PCA901 cellular processor, and boasts 64MB flash memory as well as 16MB SDRAM. This provides a significant speed boost, with applications loading virtually instantaneously. RIM also promises an increased battery life of up to 16 days standby and four hours talk time.
At its core the BlackBerry is designed for mobile business users, with its primary function being "push e-mail". Put simply, e-mails automatically get "pushed" directly to the handset, much like regular SMS text messages. The device allows for up to ten e-mail accounts to be running simultaneously, and supports Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Domino and most popular ISP e-mail accounts. More specific information regarding how the Blackberry service works can be found in our review of the 7250 model.
Naturally, having convenient access to e-mail wherever you are is a boon for workers who spend much of their time on the road. It's also great for home office users who require some flexibility in where and how they work.
In addition to e-mail, the BlackBerry 8700 also offers full phone functionality. It supports quad-band GSM/GPRS networks, therefore allowing for seamless international roaming provided your carrier supports this function. Of course, speakerphone, smart dialling, conference calling, speed dialling and call forwarding features are all included.
Browsing the Web is painless thanks to the integrated full HTML Web browser and bright QVGA (320x240) LCD display. One would think that such a display would cannibalise battery life, but RIM has attempted to minimise this by adopting "intelligent auto-sensing technology", which automatically adjusts the LCD and keyboard lighting to suit the environment. It sounds like a marketing ploy, but it actually works quite well.
Unlike the 7130e, this BlackBerry can't be connected to a notebook for use as an EV-DO modem. Its GPRS connection was suitably speedy in our tests, however.
Finally, many typical PDA functions are present -- such as a calendar, address book, alarm clock and To-Do list -- but there's nowhere near as many third-party BlackBerry applications as there are for Pocket PC devices.
We tested the 8700 in the Sydney metropolitan area using the Vodafone network. Call quality -- both regular and speakerphone -- was superb and e-mail delivery was lightning fast. We often received e-mails on the BlackBerry faster than they hit our desktop inbox.
Unlike most mobile devices, e-mailing on the BlackBerry is far from cumbersome, thanks to the full 35-key QWERTY keyboard. What's more, the slim, ergonomic design allows the unit to be operated single-handedly.
The shape and feel of the keys is satisfying and they're a pleasure to type on, albeit those with larger than average fingers may run into issues -- it's not difficult to accidentally hit two keys at a time.
The device's battery life beats out almost every other PDA/smartphone we've tested. We used it fairly heavily over two weeks and only needed to charge it every three days or so.
If you're not a business user, the BlackBerry probably isn't for you. This is because it lacks many of the features found on consumer-targeted smart phones such as music/video playback support and an integrated camera.
It's also fairly expensive. The handset alone will cost you AU$799, while monthly access fees range from around AU$50 to in excess of AU$100. Once you factor in the cost of your regular mobile phone service on top of this, it's clear that only avid mobile business users need apply.
The BlackBerry 8700 series is ideal for mobile professionals who equire always-on e-mail access, but its cost and functionality won't be attractive to most non-business users.