The Business-Savvy Smartphone Review: Nokia E62, BlackBerry Pearl, T-Mobile Dash, Palm Treo 750

CIO compares four of the hottest smartphones available, from the perspective of four experienced IT executives.

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RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8100: What We Liked

For Roche, e-mail functionality is a key feature in a business smartphone, along with voice quality and keyboard. High on the list of the BlackBerry Pearl's most valuable business features is its tried-and-true BlackBerry "push" e-mail service. Messages are "pushed" from users' inboxes immediately upon receipt, instead of having to be retrieved manually at the expense of users' time and a portion of device battery life.

The Pearl's home screen is icon-based—as opposed to the menu-based navigation in smartphones running Windows Mobile—and there are separate icons for each e-mail account linked to the device (up to 10 accounts, as with other BlackBerrys). It's simple to tell how many messages are waiting in each mailbox. Roche identified this icon-based navigation of e-mail accounts and other programs as his favorite Pearl feature.

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Whenever the Pearl is mentioned, one of the first things you hear is how small the candy bar-style phone is, especially since the majority of RIM's handhelds more often resemble bricks than they do Hershey bars. At just 4.2 inches long, 2 inches wide and .57 inches deep, the Pearl's size is a bane or boon depending how it's put to work. If you're looking to do away with that funky holster latched to your belt and to stuff the handheld comfortably into a pants pocket, the Pearl is one of your best options. According to Roche, the Pearl's display is roughly 25 percent smaller than his Palm Treo 650's display; he missed the extra space, but also appreciated the Pearl's 1.65-by-1.5-inch (260-by-240-pixel) LCD screen as notably clear and bright.

A primary reason BlackBerrys have found their way into so many enterprises is the level of security they offer users and IT administrators. A wide array of security policies help IT departments using BlackBerrys and BlackBerry Enterprise Servers (BES) apply rules to set content encryption, limit installation and use of third-party applications, implement various virus-protection measures and more. IT administrators can also remotely wipe all data from the Pearl should it be lost or stolen.

The Pearl itself offers a number of unique security features, beyond the typical password lock, and the ability to lock a SIM card. The Pearl can limit the number of times a user can attempt to enter a password after an incorrect entry is logged, to reduce the chance of an unauthorized person accessing the device by trial and error. A "password keeper" application stores users' various passwords.

Finally, to mitigate the new risk introduced by including a camera, media player and microSD slot for expandable memory, RIM includes a new set of IT policies for the Pearl. IT administrators can remotely disable the device's camera function, disable expandable memory and keep it from being used as a USB mass storage unit. IT administrators can also control data encryption on the microSD memory card. Data encryption can be disabled, or content can be encrypted to the user password, device key or both. Each of these safeguards, as well as all BES IT policies, can be applied to an individual user, a set of users or the complete smartphone deployment.

Roche saw no particular business value to the Pearl's consumer features, but he did say he and his organization would deploy a phone with such features—as long as they come at no additional charge.

At Network Services, Roche has smartphones issued to 10 executives, 10 sales representatives and 10 IT staffers, five of whom travel regularly to Europe and China. Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) phones are a necessity. Network Services staffers with corporate-issued smartphones all use Treos, the majority of which are Sprint phones, except for the traveling executives, who use Cingular-based Treos. (International calling functionality is not available on the Sprint Treos.)

The Pearl's impressive battery life also makes it a viable business tool. In CIO.com's tests, it had a little less than eight and a half hours of talk time, and multiple days of standby time. RIM estimates the device's standby time to be roughly 15 days. "I can't go 24 hours without recharging [my Treo], even if I'm not using it," Roche said.

The Pearl's icon-driven navigation makes it easy to find your way around whether you're a "CrackBerry" addict or a new, casual user. The lack of extraneous buttons also simplifies navigation. In addition to the keyboard keys and trackball, there are only four buttons on the Pearl's face: Send, End, Menu and Escape/Back.

Before deploying Treos across Network Services, the firm used BlackBerrys, so Roche had personal experiences with the devices, and was therefore somewhat familiar with the user interface (UI). He had to refer to the instruction manual only twice to discover how to use a new function, and called the overall UI "very intuitive." On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the highest rank, Roche gave the Pearl's UI an 8.

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Many organizations already have a BES in place. In such cases, linking a new BlackBerry to the network is typically a breeze (once licensing issues are resolved, that is). Setting up personal e-mail, such as an AOL, Hotmail or Gmail account, is even simpler, and both can be done wirelessly without a PC. To access a corporate e-mail account via a BES, an activation password from a systems administrator is required. As mentioned previously, Roche recently linked his CEO's Pearl to Network Service's network; after the BES server was up and running, it took him only a half-hour to link the device.

Those are the features most valuable to business users. But there are others that particularly appealed to us.

The Pearl's LED indicator can be set to flash green whenever network service is available, red when a new message arrives or when a call is being received, blue when paired with a Bluetooth device and amber when the battery level is low. (The Nokia E62 has a similar e-mail indicator light.) All we had to do to see if a new message had been received was look at the device. The LED functions without any sort of audible message alert, so we could use the Pearl during a meeting and keep track of messages without worrying about noisy notification—or even having to touch the device. Our one complaint is that the red message-received light blinks for only 15 minutes, and we couldn't find a way to change the setting for the length of time it blinked.

The Pearl comes with the TeleNav Maps 1.0 application installed for free, easy access to maps and driving directions. The TeleNav GPS Navigator is also available ($9.99 a month for unlimited use), which provides turn-by-turn driving directions and location of nearby businesses by name or by type. Roche often uses MapQuest via his Treo, but felt the TeleNav service was a valuable business feature.

Cingular's Push to Talk service ($9.99 a month for individual plans) lets users connect instantly with up to five people whom they communicate with frequently, on an individual or group call. On the Pearl, Push to Talk lets users see contact availability status via four icons, such as a yellow smiley face to indicate the contact is available. The service is available on a number of Cingular phones besides the BlackBerry Pearl.

For Roche's sales team, the Push to Talk service could be particularly valuable. Ten members have company-issued Treo 650 smartphones, and as they're frequently communicating, the instant connectivity and ability to view availability before making a call would come in handy.

<< RIM BlackBerry Pearl: Bottom Line    |   RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8100: What We Didn't Like >>

RIM BlackBerry Pearl: What We Didn't Like

A major drawback of the Pearl's tiny package is that it lacks a full qwerty keyboard. With the exception of two buttons, there are two characters on each of the phone's letter keys. Its built-in software does help. The SureType system helps users identify which letter is intended, and attempts to save time by identifying or guessing at words being spelled out before the user is finished. It also builds an ongoing custom list of words it doesn't recognize, to quickly find the word next time a user attempts to enter it.

In Roche's estimation, the Pearl's keyboard is its worst feature, and would keep him from deploying the device across his enterprise. Though Network Services doesn't have official criteria to determine which smartphones can be used throughout the organization, a full qwerty is a necessity, he said.

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Paul Roche, Network Services CIO

Roche didn't find the SureType system particularly effective in selecting the words he wanted. Forget messages that require in-depth responses or those that consist of more than a few sentences. "Even typing an e-mail address is extremely painful," he said. It also doesn't seem to have any sort of "smart recognition" system to select frequently typed entries over other less-used words or addresses. In defense of SureType, we did find that it becomes easier to use as one gets accustomed to it, and it can be quite accurate in recognizing words being typed if the user ignores all of the potential suggestions and types in the appropriate letters.

Roche placed calls from various locales in the Chicago area, and found the Pearl's call quality "somewhat spotty," even when his device showed the maximum number of reception bars. We placed calls from central Boston and New York City, and consistently heard small bursts of static, in some cases every few minutes. Roche noted that the device's volume doesn't go quite as high as he'd prefer; a problem that he also experiences with his Treo. Even with the hands-free headset that's included, which is meant to partially increase sound quality and volume, the Pearl's volume level still seemed a bit low.

Another drawback of the Pearl's tiny size and light weight is how these specifications affect its durability. Older BlackBerrys were known for their strength, largely because many were bigger, bulky devices. This BlackBerry is made of thin, silver and gray plastic; it instantly feels very delicate, at least in comparison to older models. And weighing in at just 3.16 ounces with the battery, the Pearl is somewhat fragile to users' perceptions. We didn't test how many times we could drop the device without it breaking into pieces (the company does want the device back, after all, and it'd be a bit rude to return it in a baggie), but it's fairly obvious that Pearl users would be wise to minimize such occurrences.

The Cingular BlackBerry Pearl uses Cingular's GSM/EDGE network, which offers average download speeds of 100Kbps to 160Kbps; however, it cannot currently access Cingular's 3G/UMTS network or its faster HSDPA network. In other words, it is not a true 3G phone. Cingular's 3G HSDPA network offers average download speeds of 400Kbps to 700Kbps, according to the company. Though Roche said the 2.5G Pearl's download speeds are fast enough for his needs, users who frequently download large files, such as media files or PDFs, may want to think twice about selecting a phone without 3G support. Also, because the Pearl runs on Cingular's GSM/EDGE network, it can't transfer both voice and data simultaneously; users cannot access the Web while on a phone call or vice versa.

Though the Pearl lets users view Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and PDF documents, the BlackBerry does not allow you to edit documents. If that functionality is important to you, you may want to eliminate the Pearl from your consideration.

If your organization doesn't already have a BES, you may need to include the cost of adding one in the budget spreadsheet. All BlackBerrys are designed to function best with a BES. Unless you want to use a BlackBerry Desktop Redirector—which means you must keep corporate PCs connected to the Internet at all times so you can consistently receive messages—you may want to steer clear of the Pearl or any other RIM handheld. Or, of course, spring for the cost of RIM's BES.

To take advantage of the Pearl's camera disablement and remote memory control IT policies, you need to upgrade BES to v4.0.6 or v4.1.2. Figure that into the budget as well. The Pearl can still link to corporate networks via older versions of the BES, but the new IT policies aren't available to administrators.

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