RIM's Blackberry Pearl 8100 leaves the traditional, professional Blackberry look behind, and aims itself squarely at consumers with its candybar format, sleek black and silver design and light weight. It's got plenty of features to keep a smart phone fan happy, however we're disappointed in the 1.3-megapixel camera and the lack of Wi-Fi
Think BlackBerry and you think scroll wheels, chunky hardware, built-in keyboards, show-off people in business suits and, of course, mobile email.
Some of that holds with the latest entrant to the BlackBerry family, the Pearl, but not all of it. The company behind the BlackBerry, Research in Motion, has decided to break the mould it made and produce something aimed much more at the average consumer. Even its name, the Pearl, is a step away from the number-based naming of the past.
Competition is tough, though. Does the Pearl do enough to bring the consumer into the BlackBerry fold? O2 thinks so -- it has announced it will be offering the handset.
There is no doubt that the Pearl's hardware design team has moved on from the earlier BlackBerry look -- the Pearl is thin, black and silver, and weighs a very pocket friendly 90g. Its overall size makes it on a par with thin candybar handsets, and we aren't used to seeing anything in the smart phone world that is quite so small and neat.
The BlackBerry scroll wheel has gone and has been replaced by a miniature white trackball located where you'd expect to see a navigation button. You can rotate and press this to get around and make selections. It took us a little time to get used to, but it is a very clever system, and we far prefer it to the old scroll wheel.
On its left and right are back and menu buttons, which allow you to move around well -- vitally important as the BlackBerry Pearl does not have a touchscreen.
The screen itself is a mere 240x260 pixels, which we found a bit small, but the light sensor meant we stood a good chance of reading it even when outdoors. O2 provided our review unit and it has added two home screen themes to the three that BlackBerry provides. You can preview them before choosing, which is a nice touch.
No BlackBerry is complete without a keyboard, and in this case it is pretty small thanks to the Pearl's mere 50mm width. The individual keys are wide, though, as the SureType system is used for text entry, and this means most keys house two Qwerty letters and a number. The numbers 0-9 sit on the centre section of keys, and are picked out with a silver surround so that they are easy to find.
The left and right edges of the Pearl each have a 'convenience key', which can be programmed as you wish. Out of the box the right key runs the built-in camera, the left lets you use voice dialling. On the right edge there is also a volume key, which only works when there is sound coming from the Pearl, for example when you are on a call or listening to music.
There is a mute key on the top edge, which among other things acts as a pause button for music playback and puts the Pearl into standby mode. Meanwhile on the left edge is the mini USB mains power connector and a headset jack (unfortunately 2.5mm).
The BlackBerry Pearl is a quad-band handset with GPRS and EDGE (O2 doesn't support EDGE in the UK). There are three firsts for BlackBerry in terms of features -- memory expansion, MP3 player and camera. These have been around in other smart phones for ages, but for BlackBerry their inclusion is something of a major move.
The memory expansion is welcome, but not so wonderful is the fact that the slot -- it is for microSD cards -- sits under the battery, so if you want to change cards you have to power the Pearl down. At least the Pearl automatically switches itself on when you reinsert the battery.
The music player is reasonably good, and you can play tracks from a memory card. We like that you can easily set any track as your ringtone. Music carries on playing while you do other stuff, such as check your diary, and if a call comes in playback will pause and then resume when you are done.
We are less happy with the camera -- its 1.3 megapixels are only average -- and while we are pleased that both a flash and self-portrait mirror are included, we are very disappointed that you can't record video. There aren't any filters, such as sepia or greyscale, but there are some white balance settings -- sunny, cloudy, night and indoor -- and an automatic setting for this.
You can synchronise diary and tasks with the Pearl using the provided PC software, and of course you can send emails, either via your company's network if it supports BlackBerry or by using the Internet Email service offered through your network operator.
The Pearl uses the SureType system for writing emails and other text entry. Two letters share a single key and, as you type, software in the Pearl has a guess at the word you want -- when you spot it among those suggested you can use the trackball to pick it out.
This was just too slow for us and we found ourselves typing complete words as a faster option. The small size of the keyboard means you need to use fingertips and it is quite akin to texting -- but with a different key layout to that on other mobiles it could really annoy frequent texters.
Wi-Fi is a notable absence, but you will find Bluetooth.
The Pearl gets immediate plus points because it feels a lot more like a phone in the hand than we are used to with BlackBerry devices. The only other candybar format device from the company, the 7100, is a lot chunkier.
A key consequence of its size is that making and receiving voice calls is unproblematic and you don't feel like an idiot holding a PDA-sized device to your ear. On the other hand, the main reason for the BlackBerrys' existence, mobile email, does suffer slightly for being delivered into a tall format screen that is a lot smaller than those on PDA-sized BlackBerry devices.
The battery delivered well, giving us 9.75 hours of continuous music playback -- but note that the screen turns itself off after 2 minutes of non-use, so this isn't directly comparable with other tests where we can force the screen to stay on.
Call quality on our review handset from O2 was very good -- loud and clear both through the handset and on loudspeaker.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield