RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip Hands-On Review: The Pearl, Reborn

RIM today debuts its first clamshell BlackBerry, the Pearl 8220 Flip, and we've got a hands-on review. This sexy-looking Pearl is aimed at the consumer market—and it shows. As a great entry-level device the Pearl could also cater to businesspeople. But it's not ideal for power users.

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Another downside: The device doesn't have GPS. Whether or not satellite positioning functionality is a necessity largely depends on the individual user, but I suspect the lack of GPS will turn some folks away from the Pearl 8220—perhaps towards the 8210, which will reportedly have GPS, but no Wi-Fi. I will say, however, that if I had to pick between GPS and Wi-Fi, I'd go Wi-Fi all the way. You can always pick up an external GPS puck, but there's no such thing as a Wi-Fi puck.

The Pearl 8220's two LCD displays also don't look as vibrant or sharp as some of the screens found on its BlackBerry counterparts, including the high-end Bold 9000, or even the Curve 83xx and Pearl 81xx series. The external display looks particularly pixilated.

Since I'm a T-Mobile customer and employ both its HotSpot@Home and Fave 5 plans, I'm very familiar with each offering. Shortly after transferring device information from my Curve to the Pearl Flip, I attempted to place a call to one of my Fave 5 contacts, but got an application error. I closed the dialogue box and tried to access the application again, but nothing happened; the app wouldn't launch. After I pulled the battery to reboot the device, the Fave 5 app worked fine, but the same thing happened a day later when I removed and inserted a microSD memory card. I've never come across such an error using the Fave 5 app on my Curve, and the fact that it happened twice in as many days on the Pearl 8220 tells me there could be a problem there.

Though the keyboard on the Pearl Flip is much improved over the earlier Pearl keyboards due to its significantly larger size—each button is literally twice as big as the earlier buttons—it's still not a full QWERTY keyboard. That means there are multiple characters on each key. Despite the use of RIM's SureType technology, which makes typing on such a keyboard simpler and more efficient, I've never been able to type as fast or without as many errors on a Pearl keyboard as I can with a full QWERTY. That hasn't changed with the Pearl 8220. The new guitar-fret-inspired plastic spacers between rows of keys do help to guide users' fingers, and the slightly indented numeral keys make it easy to dial phone numbers without paying much attention to the buttons, but power users will want to stick with a full QWERTY device. (Check out our Pearl 8130/8220 Flip image gallery for keyboard comparison shots.)

At $149.99 along with a two-year T-Mobile service contract, the BlackBerry Pearl 8220 is a bit pricey—especially since early rumors had suggested the carrier might offer the device for as little at $49.99. It makes sense to put a premium on a brand new device, with the holiday season on the horizon and all. And it's likely that T-Mobile will drop the price slightly in early 2009—but I still think $149.99 is too expensive. In my opinion, $99 with a two-year contract is just about right.

RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip battery door hinge
RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip battery door hinge

Another compliant: The browser still needs work. Experienced BlackBerry users have long complained about the default BlackBerry browser, and though the browser that ships along with BlackBerry handheld OS 4.6 is much improved over previous versions—zooming in and out is easier and more intuitive, for example—the application's still not up to snuff when compared to other mobile browsers on the market; in particular, the iPhone's Safari browser.

The Pearl Flip also comes with only two themes, one of which is the boring default T-Mobile theme. BlackBerry themes reflect how icons and data are presented on the home screen. Every other BlackBerry device I've used in the past came with at least a couple more themes.

My final gripe relates to the new micro USB port that's used for charging and syncing data on the Pearl Flip. All of the additional 8000 series BlackBerrys have slightly-larger mini USB ports. When I asked a RIM representative at CTIA why the company switched from mini to micro USB for the Pearl 8220—and the as-of-yet unannounced Curve 8900—he replied, "For form factor." In other words, so they could make the device thinner. That's all fine and good, expect for the fact that the Pearl Flip isn't too thin for a mini USB port; I've held it up to a number of other devices with mini USB to check. I understand that the "guts" inside the device might make it simpler to use a smaller USB port, but I have a number of spare mini USB sync cables and chargers from my various devices, and I don't have a single mini USB accessory. That means I'd have to go out and buy an extra charger or sync cable for the Pearl 8220, even though I've got plenty of mini USB cables lying around. I suppose I could just pick up an adapter, but still...

And now, to sum up a long review in a short space:

  Conclusion: To Flip or Not to Flip? >>

Conclusion: To Flip or Not to Flip?

The BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip is a truly sexy smartphone. Its modern, minimalist design is sure to draw stares—from men and women alike. But it also feels light and flimsy and the shiny black external display panel, the real focal point of its design, scratches easily.

The Pearl Flip also features a larger version of the SureType keyboard found on existing BlackBerry Pearl devices, and while the keyboard is admittedly better than those on older Pearls, it's still not as efficient as many of the full QWERTY keyboards found on RIM devices like the Curve 83xx and Bold 9000. Many tried and true shortcuts for BlackBerrys with full QWERTYs also don't work on the Pearl.

And the lack of a full keyboard and questionable durability mean the Pearl 8220's not an ideal smartphone for demanding businesspeople or power users.

But that's okay, because RIM has clearly shifted its enterprise-specific focus toward consumers over the past couple of years, and the BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip is the company's latest attempt to woo the non-business-oriented masses. And it's a valiant effort.

The current price of $150 with a two-year T-Mobile contract is a bit steep, but that cost may fall closer to $100 after the holidays. So while the most demanding businesspeople and advanced users won't likely want to rush to the mall to pick up RIM's latest gadget, you can bet lots of feature-phone-users looking to make the transition to a smartphone will. The flashy device might even steal away some would-be iPhone buyers.

BBPearlAboutBoxImage.gif

  BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Unboxing Image Gallery >>

RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Unboxing Image Gallery

RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8220 unboxing image of box
The box our BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip shipped in isn't T-Mobile branded
Plastic-wrapped BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip in box next to review materials disc
Plastic-wrapped BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip in box next to review materials disc
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip (closed) with protective plastic wrap
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip (closed) with protective plastic wrap
Peeling the plastic cover off one of the BlackBerry Pearl 8220's LCD screens
Peeling the plastic cover off one of the BlackBerry Pearl 8220's LCD screens
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip and all the accessories that ship along with it
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip and all the accessories that ship along with it (Travel charger, international adapters, USB data/power cable, earphones)

  Pearl 8130/Pearl 8220 Comparison Image Gallery >>

Pearl 8130/Pearl 8220 Comparison Image Gallery

BlackBerry Pearl 8220 and Pearl 8130 side by side
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 (closed) and Pearl 8130 side by side
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 (open) and Pearl 8130 side by side
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 (open) and Pearl 8130 side by side
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 (closed) and Pearl 8130 (rear)
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 (closed) and Pearl 8130 (rear)
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 and Pearl 8130 left side comparison
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 and Pearl 8130 left side comparison
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 (open) and Pearl 8130 right side comparison
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 (open) and Pearl 8130 right side comparison
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 (closed) and Pearl 8130 right side comparison
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 (closed) and Pearl 8130 right side comparison
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 (closed) and Pearl 8130 top comparison
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 (closed) and Pearl 8130 top comparison
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 (closed) and Pearl 8130 bottom comparison
BlackBerry Pearl 8220 (closed) and Pearl 8130 bottom comparison

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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