Product review: BlackBerry Pearl

1 Nov 2006

The first time I ever saw a Blackberry email device was around 2001 on a bus in Orlando. A bunch of journalists were returning from a baudy dinner and at that time there was a conceit amongst Europeans that we were ahead of the Yanks by miles when it came to mobile.

The corporate diva that was our guide for the night was using this ugly, bulky black box to figure out a meeting schedule for the next day and somebody joked that she was looking for the ‘on’ button on her pager. When she confidently rattled off dates, times and names in an authoritative tone our suspicions were aroused.

The next day revealed that these devices, curiously entitled BlackBerrys and made by a company we never heard of called Research in Motion (RIM), were everywhere in use amongst the business elite.

This experience proved once more the sleeping giant that America can be. Europeans raved about ‘connectedness’ and how ‘connected’ we were because everyone had a mobile and we could send just about two sentences of information to each other. The Americans, on the other hand, were already figuring out how to send and open vast attachments of PowerPoint and Adobe Acrobat.

RIM’s BlackBerry never really took off in Europe to the same extent as in North America but the evidence is that this trend is changing and more people want push email in their hands.

Until recently the devices themselves never really evolved in appearance except to include colour screens and boast some media functionality. They generally were big and black, except for a few cases where individual mobile operators had silver versions custom-made for their user bases.

Well, the BlackBerry has had a makeover and the result is the Pearl (pictured) – named presumably because of the little glowing mouse wheel in the middle of the device that replaces the scrolling dial on the side of the original BlackBerry devices. This little ‘tracker ball’, as I call it, is almost exactly the same as the new feature on the latest mice for Apple Mac machines.

The Pearl looks less like a traditional BlackBerry and more like a mobile phone. However, in usability it is BlackBerry through and through. Having automatically switched from its predecessor, the 8700g, I was delighted to find that the operating system was identical, albeit different in a few respects. The device comes with a home screen that allows you to keep the most important applications within easy reach as opposed to scrolling past every application.

There is evidence of a war brewing in the push email space, where both RIM and arch-rival Microsoft believe getting email into the hands of the ordinary user is the next big market. Slick mobile manufacturers like Palm and Nokia have already pledged their allegiance to the Microsoft flag and you can bet that the Pearl is RIM’s sublime response.

The Pearl has plenty of style and elegance and is perhaps the lightest RIM device ever made. It is also the most feature-rich, coming with a digital camera with built-in flash, expandable memory, a media player and voice dialling capabilities. It also comes with Bluetooth connectivity.

To squeeze the device from being a palm-wide machine to something resembling a candy-bar-sized mobile phone, RIM effectively doubled up the letters on the typepad. On first perusal this can be a little disconcerting but once you send your first message you know where you stand. The company developed its own Suretype keyboard technology that allows users to type quickly and accurately.

The Pearl to my mind is RIM’s opening move in the battle for push email and its main adversary at this point would be Palm’s 750v device.

The device will appeal to hard-working executives who want style without surrendering any of the functions of the original BlackBerrys. Looks-wise it is slick but also discreet. Its colour LCD screen is very impressive and although it is smaller than the traditional BlackBerry screens, it loses none of the impact, presenting information crisp and clear.

To my mind RIM has upped the stakes and have made a deft opening move before any of its rivals can field their troops. At €199 (including Vat) the device is at a price point its strongest advocates can easily afford.

In terms of data costs, O2 offers unlimited email access for €40 a month for mobile email users who want to access the company server and their corporate email account or €20 a month for those who want to send and receive emails on the move from internet hosted email accounts (prices exclude Vat).


Handling: ****
Features: ****
Performance: ****
Value for Money: ****

By John Kennedy