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BlackBerry Pearl review: BlackBerry Pearl

BlackBerry Pearl

Bonnie Cha Former Editor
Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.
Bonnie Cha
8 min read

Everyone say it with me now: "It's about flippin' time." The CDMA version of the RIM BlackBerry Pearl is finally out, and though it's been a long wait (the original, GSM version debuted more than a year ago), we have to say it was worth the extra time.


BlackBerry Pearl

The Good

The RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8130 keeps the same sleek design of its predecessor but adds built-in GPS, EV-DO support, and video-recording capabilities. The smartphone's Web browser is also improved, and it has a 2-megapixel camera. The device's messaging functions remain strong.

The Bad

The SureType keyboard takes some acclimation, and call quality could be slightly better.

The Bottom Line

The RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8130 improves on an already-impressive smartphone with the addition of GPS, video recording, and 3G support.

You see, the RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8130 keeps the same compact and sexy design of its predecessor yet manages to pack in even more features. There's built-in GPS, added video-recording capabilities, and an improved Web browser. In addition, you get EV-DO support and a 2-megapixel camera.

We had some minor complaints, namely that the SureType keyboard requires a learning curve and that call quality can be slightly spotty at times. However, the new additions, coupled with the tried-and-true BlackBerry messaging functions, make the RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8130 an attractive choice for consumers and professionals looking for a sleek all-in-one device. The silver model is available now through Verizon Wireless for $199.99 with a two-year contract and after rebates.

The hardware on the RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8130 hasn't changed much from the original Pearl, but that's not a bad thing, since we're fans of the Pearl's overall look. However, there are some slight tweaks, which we'll note as we talk about the smartphone's design.

Thankfully, the BlackBerry 8130 still keeps a slim profile, measuring a slight 4.2 inches long by 1.9 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep, and weighing 3.4 ounces. You'll have no problem slipping this handset into your pants pocket, and it feels comfortable and natural to hold during phone calls. The silver chassis may seem ordinary to some, but we think it's sleek and attractive. For the moment, Verizon Wireless will not offer the amethyst color, but it may decide to add it in the future.

The RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8130 retains the sleek design of its predecessor, and you'll have no problems slipping it into a pants pocket.

Front and center, you have a 2.25-inch non-touch screen that displays 65,536 colors at a 260x240 pixel resolution. Text and images look sharp and vibrant, and the display features a light-sensing technology that will automatically adjust the backlighting, depending on your environment.

You can choose different font styles, as well as customize the home screen to your liking with various themes, background images, and menu styles. There's also a small LED in the upper-right corner of the Pearl that illuminates various colors for different status alerts, such as new messages, low battery, and so forth.

Below the display, you'll find the same navigation array and SureType keyboard of past BlackBerry Pearls. You get Talk and End keys, a shortcut to the main menu page, a back button and, of course, the pearl-like trackball navigator that started the whole Pearl revolution. All the controls are easy to use, and you can adjust the trackball's vertical and horizontal sensitivity under Options > Screen/keyboard.

Not everyone will be a fan of the SureType keyboard, but it can be mastered with a bit of practice.

And then there's the SureType keyboard. I've made it no secret that I'm not a fan of the modified keyboard. For those who are unfamiliar with SureType, there are two letters assigned to one key. As you start to enter the letters of a word, the SureType software will present you with a list of possible letter combinations or words, based on context.

Personally, I found it irritating, but I also know plenty of Pearl users who don't mind it and have no complaints. As with anything new, it just takes some time to acclimate to, and it's a trade-off for the smaller design. One other minor observation: the keyboard's backlighting is a bit uneven and gives the buttons a cheap, plasticky look. It's definitely not a deal breaker, but just something we couldn't help but notice.

The most notable differences between the Pearl 8130 and the original GSM version are found on the side controls--all welcome additions. On the left spine, you'll now find a 3.5mm headphone jack, so you can plug in decent headphones, and the microSD expansion slot has been relocated from behind the battery to the exterior of the phone for easy access.

There's also a mini USB port and a customizable quick-launch button on the left, while there's another convenience key and the volume rocker on the right. The top of the device has a Mute button, and the camera lens, the flash, and the self-portrait mirror are located on the back.

In addition to the 3.5mm headphone jack, we're glad RIM moved the microSD expansion slot from behind the battery to the exterior of the phone.

Verizon Wireless packages the RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8130 with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a wired headset, a soft protective pouch, a BlackBerry Desktop software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.

The RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8130 is noteworthy for more than just the fact that it's the first CDMA Pearl. It's also the first device from RIM to offer video-recording capabilities and the first Pearl to have built-in GPS, not to mention the EV-DO support and improved Web browser. But first things first: Let's discuss the phone capabilities.

Voice features on the BlackBerry Pearl 8130 include a speakerphone, voice dialing and commands, conference calling, text and multimedia messaging, and call-audio enhancement, which lets you boost the bass or treble. The address book is limited only by the available memory (64MB flash), and each entry can hold up to eight numbers, work and home addresses, e-mail and Web addresses, company information, and notes. For caller ID purposes, you can assign a photo to a contact as well as a group category--business or personal--or one of 45 polyphonic ringtones. The Pearl also supports MP3 and MIDI ringtones.

Unlike the 3G-deprived GSM Pearls, the Pearl 8130 works on Verizon's EV-DO network, bringing data speeds of about 300Kbps to 600Kbps, though they could potentially hit 2.4Mbps. This means you should enjoy a faster Web-surfing experience, and it should also be more enjoyable, thanks to the improved browser.

Compared with Windows Mobile, Symbian, or Palm devices, the BlackBerry Web browser has always been kludgy and laborious for viewing sites; it requires a lot of scrolling up and down with the trackball or scroll wheel. However, now you get an onscreen cursor that you can move in any direction and place on any part of the page where you can click a link. In addition, there's a Page View option that enables you to easily zoom in on part of a page. It's definitely a huge improvement, and the boost of EV-DO speeds is heaven-sent. Disappointingly, the Pearl 8130 does not support any of Verizon's V Cast services.

Other wireless options on the BlackBerry Pearl 8130 include Bluetooth 2.0 and GPS. You can use Bluetooth to connect to mono and stereo Bluetooth headsets, hands-free kits, and dial-up networking. To use the Pearl as a modem for your laptop, you will need to purchase a Broadband Access Plan from Verizon, which starts at $15 per month. It does not, however, support the object exchange profile.

The built-in GPS enables you to use the Pearl as a handheld navigation device. The device comes preloaded with the BlackBerry maps application that can provide text-based driving directions and search for local businesses. However, you can also get more robust programs, such as Google Maps for Mobile or Verizon's VZ Navigator, which can provide real-time tracking, text- and voice-guided directions, points of interest, traffic data, and more. Be aware that the latter is an add-on service and costs $9.99 per month or $2.99 for 24-hour access.

The Pearl 8130 is equipped with a 2-megapixel camera, but the bigger news is that it can now record video.

The camera also gets an upgrade to a 2-megapixel lens (from 1.3 megapixels), but more importantly, you can now record video--a first for a BlackBerry. For still images, there's a 5x zoom and flash, as well as three picture sizes and three quality options. You also get white-balance settings and several color effects you can add to the photo.

Video options are limited with just two video formats (normal or multimedia message), three color effects, and a video light. Picture quality was pretty good for a camera phone. Objects were sharply defined, but we wish there was a bit more brightness to the colors. Meanwhile, video quality was subpar, as our recorded clips looked dim and jerky.

Overall, picture quality was decent, although we wish for a bit more brightness.

Other than these new capabilities, the BlackBerry Pearl retains many of the same features that has made BlackBerrys popular, such as e-mail. The smartphone can sync with your company's BlackBerry Enterprise server, with support for Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Domino, or Novell GroupWise, to deliver corporate e-mail in real time. It also supports up to 10 personal/business POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts. Instant messaging is limited to the proprietary BlackBerry Messenger client.

For mobile professionals, an attachment viewer opens popular file formats, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Corel WordPerfect, PDF, JPEG, GIF, and more. You can also view tracked changes and embedded images and zoom, and rotate documents, but you can't edit documents out of the box, though third-party software is available that allows this functionality.

The built-in media player remains pretty much the same. You can listen to MP3, WMA, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR-NB, and MIDI music files, and MPEG4, WMV, and H.263 video clips. For music, you can create playlists as "folders," and shuffle and repeat songs within a certain folder. It also displays song titles, the artist, and album art, if available.

In video mode, you get the option of full screen, replay, and repeat. Other applications on the Pearl include a calendar, a task list, a memo pad, an alarm clock, a password keeper, a calculator, a Brickbreaker game, and a voice recorder.

We tested the dual-band (CDMA 850/1900; EV-DO) RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8130 in San Francisco using Verizon Wireless service, and call quality was OK. On our end, we could hear a slight background hiss, but there was clear audio and plenty of volume. In other words, it wasn't anything that prevented us from carrying on a conversation or interacting with our bank's voice-automated system.

Meanwhile, our friends said we sounded fine, albeit a bit hollow. Activating the speakerphone didn't diminish the call quality too much. Finally, we had no problems pairing the Pearl 8130 with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset, or the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.

Overall, the Pearl 8130 was a responsive device with minimal performance lags. We tried out the GPS capabilities with VZ Navigator, and it took about 3 minutes for the Pearl to get a fix on our location--pretty impressive for a cell phone.

Once locked on, it did a good job of tracking our position and offered accurate driving directions, though we think in-car use is a bit limited, given the smaller screen size. Multimedia performance was OK. There was a bit of hollowness to songs, and we craved more bass.

We are glad to see the inclusion of the 3.5mm jack, since plugging in some decent headphones improved the sound. We got the usual pixelation when watching video clips, but at least the audio and images synced up.

The BlackBerry Pearl 8130 is rated 3.6 hours of talk time and up to 9 days of standby time. We are still conducting our battery drain tests but will update this section as soon as we have final results. According to FCC radiation tests, the Pearl 8130 has a digital SAR rating of 1.48 watts per kilogram.


BlackBerry Pearl

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8