We almost thought RIM had retired the Pearl, as the company had not released a new one for almost two years. But it turns out we were wrong; RIM announced its latest Pearl earlier this year. The RIM BlackBerry Pearl 3G 9100 looks very similar to its predecessors, but it carries a much more modern feature set that includes 3G support, GPS, Wi-Fi, and a 3.2-megapixel camera. Though it ships with OS 5, the Pearl 3G is also one of a few phones that are upgradable to OS 6. The BlackBerry Pearl 3G is available for $149.99 after a two-year service agreement with AT&T.
At first glance, the Pearl 3G has almost the same design as previous Pearl handsets, like that of the Pearl 8120, for example. But at 4.25 inches tall by 1.96 inches wide by 0.52 inch thick, the Pearl 3G feels just a touch slimmer and smoother. The subtle curves, rubberized sides, soft-touch back, and 3.3-ounce weight add up to a nice feel in the hand. The overall compact design of the Pearl compared with the larger BlackBerry models is definitely its strong point. The Pearl 3G for AT&T also has a gradient red color we find attractive--it starts out maroon at the bottom and finishes black at the top.
Of course, with such a small handset, you can't expect a huge display. Yet we found the 2.26-inch display big enough for our needs. It supports 65,536 colors with 360x400 pixel resolution, which results in rich and vibrant graphics and text. We also like the bold and colorful icons that come standard with OS 5. You can adjust the size, style, and family of the fonts, the brightness, the backlight timer, and the menu style.
The Pearl 3G's navigation array is a miniaturized version of the Curve 3G's controls. Gone is the roller ball "pearl," and in its place is a square optical touch pad. The Send and Menu keys are on its left, while the Back and End/Power keys are on the right. The navigation controls are not as flat as the ones on the Curve models, which we certainly appreciate. If you like, you can adjust the sensitivity of the touch pad, and you can also toggle on an audible roll sound effect.
Underneath the navigation array is the SureType keyboard, which is the Pearl's main identifying characteristic. It consists of 20 keys with two characters assigned to one button. The SureType software will present you a list of autocompleted words as you start to type out a text message, though you sometimes have to click on a key twice to get to the letter you want. We personally found it to be very usable, as the automatic word completion makes typing easy and fast. Still, this is a matter of personal preference--some people might hate it. Regardless, the keys are large, spacious, and have a raised angled texture so we can dial by feel.
On the left spine are a 3.5-millimeter headset jack, a Micro-USB charging jack, and a side key that you can map to any function. On the right are a volume rocker and another user-defined side key. Also like the Curve, the Pearl 3G has external media player keys on the top. Though they are flat to the surface, they are not touch-sensitive, and we found that we had to press rather hard on them. We like that you can control the music player without having to activate the phone, but we did wish the keys were easier to press. On the back are the camera lens and LED flash.
AT&T packages the RIM BlackBerry Pearl 3G 9100 with a USB cable, a wired headset, and an AC adapter with three different plug attachments for international travel.
The RIM BlackBerry Pearl 3G ships with BlackBerry OS 5, but it is upgradable to OS 6. BlackBerry OS 6 will bring a whole new interface to the Pearl, with a different home screen experience, a new WebKit browser, universal search, and more. As we've seen with the BlackBerry Style, the new OS works surprisingly well with the optical touch pad, and we felt like we didn't need a touch screen at all. Still, we look forward to testing out OS 6 on the Pearl to see if it works as well as we hope. For more information on BlackBerry OS 6, read our review of the BlackBerry Torch.
The Pearl 3G 9100 is a quad-band world phone, with quad-band 3G support, so you can theoretically use this anywhere in the world. It also has Bluetooth with A2DP streaming, Wi-Fi, and GPS. It has all the phone features you expect, like a speakerphone, voice dialing, conference calling, speed dial, visual voice mail, multitasking, and text and multimedia messaging. As the Pearl is part of the BlackBerry family, it also supports BlackBerry Messenger, and other IM clients like Windows Live, Yahoo, Google Talk, and AIM.
The BlackBerry is practically synonymous with e-mail, and it's no surprise that the Pearl 3G works great as a corporate e-mail device and is compatible with BlackBerry Enterprise Server, Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Domino, Novell GroupWise, and more. It is also compatible with BlackBerry Enterprise Server Express, which is tailored more for individuals and small businesses. You can sync up your calendars, contacts, and tasks as well. With BlackBerry Internet Service, you can also access up to 10 personal/business POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts.
Since the Pearl 3G has external media player keys, it only makes sense that it comes with a media player. The phone supports a range of music and video formats that include MP3, AAC, WMA, MPEG4, H.264, and WMV. You can drag and drop files to the phone via USB mass storage mode, or you can simply preload a microSD card with content--the phone accepts cards with capacities up to 32GB. Luckily, you can even sync with iTunes and Windows Media Player thanks to the new BlackBerry Desktop Software. As the Pearl 3G is an AT&T phone, it is also compatible with AT&T Radio, and you can purchase songs via AT&T Mobile Music.
Other AT&T services compatible with the Pearl 3G include GPS with AT&T Navigation, and AT&T Mobile Video, AT&T's streaming video service. If that's not enough, the Pearl 3G has plenty of other apps to keep you entertained. It comes with Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace for your social networking needs, MobiTV for on-demand television, My-Cast Weather, and 10 different games--Tetris, Scrabble, Bejeweled, Pac-Man, BrickBreaker, Word Mole, Texas Hold Em, Sudoku, Klondike, and Trooper Typing. Of course, it also has business-related apps like Documents To Go as well.
The Pearl 3G only has a 3.2-megapixel camera. It has 2.5x zoom, and there's an LED flash, but the overall picture quality wasn't so good. Images did look sharp, but lighting seemed dim, colors looked muted, and there was a slight orange tinge in indoor shots. You can geotag the photos, and after that you can send them via MMS or share them online on any of your social networks. There's also a video recording option.
We tested the RIM BlackBerry Pearl 3G in San Francisco using AT&T Wireless. Call quality was good on both sides. We enjoyed loud and clear audio with very little distortion or background noise. Our callers sounded natural, too.
On the other end, callers reported very good quality as well, though they said they detected a bit of an echo, as if our voice had deepened suddenly. It wasn't a deal breaker, however, as they had no problems otherwise. Speakerphone calls were also quite good. The echo effect did seem a bit more pronounced, but that's typical of most speakerphones.
General performance was great. The Pearl 3G felt responsive during our testing period, and we experienced no system crashes. There was an occasional delay when switching apps, but that happened rarely.
We did have problems with 3G coverage. It was very spotty in our area in San Francisco, pushing us down to EDGE more often than we wanted. Yet, when we did get 3G, the speeds were pretty good. We loaded the CNET mobile page in just 8 seconds, and downloading a 1.8MB app only took 34 seconds. Wi-Fi speeds were great, too; we loaded the same page in just 6 seconds. Music playback was decent through the phone's speakers, but we definitely recommend using a headset for better-quality sound.
The RIM BlackBerry Pearl 3G has a 1,150mAH battery and has a rated battery life of 5.5 hours talk time and 18 days standby time. It has a tested talk time of 5 hours and 48 minutes. According to the FCC, it has a digital SAR of 1.37 watts per kilogram.