At a time when business phones have become synonymous with full-sized QWERTY keypads, trendsetter BlackBerry has come up with a pair of new compact candybar-style handphones.
Will BlackBerry's latest Pearl 3G-enabled, new-age smartphones keep consumers happy despite the company being in the news recently for all the wrong reasons?
Branded their smallest smartphone yet, the Pearl 3G doesn't have the usual BlackBerry form factor that you associate with the company's handhelds. In a slim candybar design, the BlackBerry Pearl 3G is available in two versions, the Pearl 9100 featuring a 20-key, condensed QWERTY keypad, and Pearl 9105, featuring a traditional, alpha-numeric one. We tested both the handsets for this review.
After ‘unboxing' the BlackBerry Pearls, we noticed that the handsets are much smaller than a conventional BlackBerry and much lighter too. Only the icons and the menu remind you that you are holding a BlackBerry. The small size also is a huge turn on for those who always wanted a BlackBerry, but were put off by the bulky-looking form factor.
The body does feel a little ‘plasticky'. I wondered if it will survive an accidental drop. However, I didn't put it through a drop test. Lodged between four keys right at the centre, is the black, optical trackpad (the first model in the Pearl series was called so because of a white translucent trackpad) and is surprisingly smooth and responsive.
The part-rubber, grip-friendly bezel running along both sides of the body has customisable ‘Convenience buttons' on either side apart from the volume buttons on the right. The left side of the rubberised bezel has charging slot and a 3.5 mm jack. The top panel of the phone is made of plastic and houses dedicated touch buttons to control media, mute an incoming call and unlock the screen.
The screen is a rather small one at 2.6-inches across. This strikes you especially since there are so many handsets that have now adopted the big-screen and / or touch-screen formula. The 360x400 LCD display is bright, with brilliant colour reproduction, but you can't help but sigh at not having been given the joy of a bigger screen for browsing the internet or watching videos.
The home screen has five icons in a row at the bottom by default — Messages (BlackBerry), SMS and MMS, Contacts, Calendar and the Browser – which you can change to a vertically stacked-up display. Scroll up to an icon and press the trackpad to open any of these functions.
Scrolling up the home screen, you have a shortcut to the ‘Sound Profiles' icon on the left, which is a convenient key to have to switch to the silent mode while in a meeting or swap back to the general profile once you are done. You can also tweak settings to ring an alert to ‘Only Phone Calls', or those from specific contacts.
At the top right, all your network activity is displayed. Scrolling to this area highlights the icons and a press of the trackpad gives you access to all your network options. If you are on roaming, then you can also choose to turn off your mobile network services at the click of a button. You can also set up Wi-Fi networks and add Bluetooth devices with this shortcut.
The BlackBerry logo key to the left of the trackpad takes you to the Main Menu on the handheld where you have 20 plus default icons.
The keypad is one modified feature on the BlackBerry Pearl 3G handsets that really stand out. The keypads on both the Pearl 9100 as well as the Pearl 9105 (first released in the UK) are contoured similarly, almost in a flattened, wavy, ‘V' shape. It definitely feels different to type on but we aren't sure whether it is supposed to help us type faster or more efficiently or if it is just a design element.
Those who have used the BlackBerrys with the conventional keypad may find it difficult to type in the half-QWERTY keypad. Each key has two letters instead of the conventional one except for a couple of letters like M and L. This would definitely take some getting used to but ‘SureType' makes it easy to type and you might tend to forget that you are working on a slightly different type of keypad.
Both variants of the BlackBerry Pearl 3G employ the SureType technology while typing messages or composing mails. SureType is, to put it simply, BlackBerry's proprietary counterpart of the T9 predictive text where the software ‘intelligently' picks up on the words you type and prioritises and suggests those words to you as and when you type the next time.
With SMSs and MMS, the messages are threaded in chronological order by default. A special BlackBerry touch to make life easier for businessmen on the move is the option to configure up to 10 different e-mail accounts on your BlackBerry Pearl 3G and customise them to have all your new messages, drafts and sent messages ready at one glance.
The BlackBerry Pearl 3G has a 3.2-meg camera with a 2.5x zoom and Auto-focus. The camera displays crisp images.
However, there are no picture editing options once you've shot them, unlike a bouquet of options that are available in some of the other current day business and multimedia phones. The camera settings are limited to setting the options to clicking your photograph in either black and white or sepia apart from the regular mode.
Music playback on the Pearl 3G was loud and clear with the video quality also being quite sharp and bright. However, the lack of a big screen can keep you from watching movies or slightly lengthy videos while on the move.
Sliding your thumb up the trackpad zooms in on the map on your screen and the image zooms out on sliding down.
There's virtual dashboard at the bottom of the map which shows the status of your satellite connection and GPS navigation. You can tuck this away to make the most of the not-exactly-overwhelming screen space by pressing the space bar to retract it and bring it up again when you want to.
You can also add a specific address as your favourite location to be able to quickly access routes and get turn-by-turn navigations to and from that place.
The Wi-Fi connectivity on the BlackBerry Pearl 3G (802.11 b/g/n) was very efficient and easily detected and connected to networks in the vicinity.
With the Wi-Fi on and occasional Bluetooth pairing, the battery lasts almost two working days on a full charge, which is pretty impressive. You can choose to store your multimedia with the 2GB memory that comes bundled with the phone but you can also use a memory card (microSD) to add another 32GB of memory to your phone.
This option from BlackBerry's stable isn't your conventional business phone, it doesn't look like one and it doesn't feel like one. But the fact remains that it still is a BlackBerry and offers all the features you would need and look for in a smartphone to satisfy your productivity and multimedia needs.
If you are looking for a handheld without a touch screen (yes, there are still a lot of us who have chosen not to take to the touch experience), don't mind the lack of a big screen, and want to make the most of BlackBerry's services, then one of these Pearls will be the right fit for you.
Dimensions: 108mm x 50 mm x 13.3 mm
Weight: 93 grams
Processor: 624 MHz processor with 256MB Flash memory
Display: 360x400 pixel colour display
Camera & Video Recording:
2.5x digital zoom
Voice Input & Output: 3.5mm stereo headset capable
Integrated speaker and microphone
Memory: 256MB flash memory/256MB SDRAM, 2GB media card included
Expandable memory — support for microSD card up to 32GB
Tri-band UMTS networks: (800/850)/1900/2100 MHz and 900/1700/2100 MHz
Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE networks: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz
Wi-Fi: 802.11 b/g/n enabled
Battery: 1150 mAHr removable/rechargeable lithium-ion battery
Standby Time: GSM-up to 18 days/432 hours, UMTS-up to 13 days/312 hours
Talk Time: GSM - up to 5 hours, UMTS - up to 5.5 hours
Music playtime: up to 30 hours
User Interface: 3/5
Value For Money: 3/5
(With inputs from R. Dinakaran)