Research in Motion's latest BlackBerry Pearl handset, the 8120, sets a new cell-phone standard for delivering business-class e-mail and great multimedia in a small, sleek package.
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It's the first Pearl with Wi-Fi support, which speeds up Web surfing and e-mail access. It's also the first with memory expandability via a MicroSD slot. The Pearl 8120 improves on its predecessors with outstanding software for multimedia management and a better camera that captures video and stills.
The 8120 makes its debut Thursday--but only to AT&T Wireless corporate customers (via its enterprise channels and its Premier business portal). Pricing for these customers is US$200 with a two-year contract, or $350 unlocked.
I spent a couple of days testing this svelte candy-bar-style handset and came away highly impressed. Voice calls sounded loud and clear, and recipients were able to hear me even while I was walking along a busy city street. We have not yet lab-tested the phone's battery life. Check back for test results--and a PC World Test Center rating--when those tests are complete.
Although the 8120 doesn't support AT&T's fastest data network (HSDPA), its 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi capability certainly compensated in many locations. And its quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE support means you can use it for voice calls throughout most of the world, with data coming in at roughly dial-up speed in locations where Wi-Fi isn't an option.
An Elegant Phone
Like earlier Pearls, the 8120 is petite and elegant, yet solidly crafted. It weighs in at a featherweight 3.2 ounces, and measures 4.2 inches in length, a hair less than 2 inches wide, and slightly more than half an inch thick. The glossy black casing looks classy.
The Pearl uses RIM's unique SureType keyboard, which lays out letters in QWERTY position but places two letters each on most of its 20 keys. The keypad is laid out in five columns of four keys each. The keys in the three central columns, which also contain the numerals, as on a traditional phone keypad, are colored silver; they're flanked by a single column of black keys on each side.
But unlike most non-QWERTY keypads, the Pearl doesn't make you choose between the two letters on a key (by double-tapping for the second) when typing most words: You simply type as though the letter you want were on its own key, and the device's SureType software almost always figures out what word you had in mind by the time you press the space key.
When SureType can't guess correctly--perhaps you're typing in an unusual name--you can override the incorrect choices. Doing so does take some getting used to, and it also slows you down a bit. It's admittedly not a perfect solution, but it's a lot better than other typing options I've seen on handsets that don't have QWERTY hardware keyboards, and it makes messaging and e-mail eminently feasible. (You can also opt for more traditional keypad typing in the device's preferences menu.)
The 240-by-260 display is small, yet very crisp and clear. On-screen colors dimmed in bright sunlight, but the content was always readable. Navigation was straightforward using the swiveling Pearl trackball, the menu button, and the back buttons on either side of it. The device has volume controls and a camera button on the right side; on the left is a port for charging and USB connections, and a rubbery Push-to-Talk button.
BlackBerrys are known for their excellent support of corporate e-mail platforms, and the Pearl 8120 is no exception. It took only a few minutes to sync my Lotus Notes address book, calendar, and to-do list via the included USB cable. Users with access to push mail via a BlackBerry Enterprise Server will be up and running in a few moments more; otherwise, the 8120 can set up accounts with popular Web, POP3, and IMAP servers very quickly.
The 8120 does an admirable job with all routines for enabling its features--I found its Wi-Fi setup, for instance, a snap, simple and straightforward. However, I had mixed feelings about RIM's super-minimalist Web browser. It strips out almost all formatting but headlines, text, and a few images. I loved that it appears to get rid of ads; and the pages came in superfast and were easy to read. But without layout and images, all of the sites started to look the same.
The 8120's two-megapixel still camera took pretty good photos, especially in low-light situations where its built-in flash really made a difference. And the device's software made it easy to crop a portrait for use as a thumbnail that appears on the screen when that person calls.
The camera's 5X digital zoom was not impressive, though, and while this is the first Pearl to capture video, the clip I shot was rather grainy when I played it back on my PC.
However, the 8120's other multimedia features were outstanding, especially for a handset this small. My favorite feature wasn't even on the handset: The bundled Music Manager application went well beyond the usual PC-to-handset copying capabilities of these types of programs. It figured out which tunes were DRM-free and therefore worth transferring (most other apps can't tell the difference, and I've wound up with many unplayable files).
Music Manager also offered to optimize the media I selected before transferring the files to the handset. I was impressed, for example, by its ability to reformat a video clip that I'd had trouble playing on a portable media player a week earlier.
The quality of the audio was first-rate, both through the device's own stereo speakers and the bundled earbud headset. And while I wouldn't want to watch a full-length film on such a small screen, the converted video clip looked surprisingly good.
Given its chic design and multimedia chops, it's a pity that AT&T has chosen to make the Pearl 8120 available only to corporate buyers. But I wouldn't be surprised to see a consumer model appear soon, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Pearl to someone seeking an e-mail-friendly handset that's no slouch in the multimedia department.
This story, "Review: RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8120 Smartphone" was originally published by PCWorld.
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