Research In Motion’s (RIM) first mobile-phone-style BlackBerry, the 7100v, was released by Vodafone back in October 2004. Now O2 has joined in, augmenting its existing range of BlackBerry devices with the 7100x, which shares a more phone-like design with its Vodafone-badged rival.
Like the 7100v from Vodafone, the 7100x is an attempt by RIM to get away from its handheld-style form factor and move closer to that of the mobile phone. Neither device disguises itself completely as a standard mobile, though, because of the keypad's dimensions.
The 7100x measures 56 by 114 by 20mm -- the same as the 7100v, although the hardware design is different. The 7100x's black plastic case has a single 'O2 blue' flash above the screen and a small branding plate beneath the keyboard. The colour combination is rather appealing.
There is a keyboard five keys wide by four keys deep beneath the screen. Most keys have three functions: two letters, selectable using RIM's predictive SureType system, and either a number or a symbol of some kind, selectable via the Shift key. Further symbols are accessible via an on-screen menu. The screen is not touch sensitive and the only other way of interacting with the device is to use the scroll wheel and back button on the right edge of the device.
As with other BlackBerry devices, remote email access is the priority. This can be delivered either via the corporate-focused BlackBerry Enterprise Server or using an Internet-based Wireless Email system that polls up to ten POP3 accounts and delivers copies of messages to the 7100x via GPRS. The Wireless Email service costs £15 a month for up to 5MB of data, with additional megabytes charged at £1 each.
With both email solutions, the 7100x will handle attachments in Microsoft Excel, Word and PowerPoint, and PDF formats, although graphics and formatting get lost along the way and larger or complex spreadsheets may prove difficult to view on the 240x260-pixel screen.
The 7100x comes with RIM’s SureType software, which is designed to make text entry fast and easy. It second guesses the words you are trying to type, and will learn any it does not already know.
O2 has customised the 7100x by replacing the standard icon-based BlackBerry main screen with one of its own. This attractive and usable interface divides the available applications and utilities into two text-based menus that you navigate using the scroll wheel.
The phone is quad band GSM/GPRS with Bluetooth built in, and the bundled applications include Address Book, Calendar, Tasks, Memo Pad, Alarm, Picture Viewer, Calculator, Web Browser and BrickBreaker (a game). You can add third-party software, but there is no support for expansion cards to augment the built-in memory.
As with Vodafone's 7100v, the theoretical appeal of having access to mobile email must be tempered with some practical observations. For example, the device's inability to show PDF documents with formatting or render PowerPoint Presentations may be irritating in some cases.
The Web browser works well enough. As before, we found that relatively simple Web sites were retrieved quickly and displayed well, but more complex graphics-rich sites were handled rather less successfully.
We again had difficulty getting used to the keyboard’s input system: it took us a long while to get accustomed to the locations of the QWERTY keys, so that typing out messages seemed to take a long time. However, the scroll wheel and button navigation system worked well, and battery life -- claimed at 4 hours talk and 192 hours standby -- was impressive.
O2 customers who are attracted by the BlackBerry concept but want a more phone-like device should find the 7100x appealing. Just don’t expect text input to be as fast as on the standard BlackBerry devices whose one-key-per-symbol QWERTY keypad is, we think, superior.