The jewel in the crown of the BlackBerry empire

If success were based on looks alone, Canada’s Research in Motion would have a knockout winner with its latest device, the BlackBerry Pearl. In terms of “wow”, the Pearl is tough to beat (www.blackberry.com).

Sleek and slim with a piano-black and silver case, the BlackBerry 8100 (aka Blackberry Pearl) looks more like LG’s new Chocolate smartphone than RIM’s usual more boxy and functional designs.

The 8100 is also the Canadian manufacturer’s first multimedia-enabled BlackBerry with built-in digital zoom camera and full MP3 music and video playback capabilities.

The Pearl is RIM’s answer to critics – including many loyal BlackBerry users such as me – who love BlackBerry’s easy, secure and reliable wireless e-mail capabilities but feel compelled to carry a separate camera phone and/or digital music player.

Measuring 2in wide, 4.2in long and 0.6in thick and weighing just 3.2oz, this device looks, feels and handles like a high-end, Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone with good reception and excellent sound quality, 20-plus hours of battery talk-time and lots of bonus features.

As a long-time BlackBerry user (my wife says “addict”) I was keen to judge how the Pearl stacks up against the increasingly sophisticated competition – including Motorola’s Q, Nokia’s E61/E62 and Palm’s Treo 750 series. I also wanted to assess whether RIM had been forced to sacrifice any of the features that have made its products the must-have device for politicians, business leaders and celebrities.

At the outset, I had doubts. Two of my favourite BlackBerry features are the side scroll wheel that lets me do most things with one hand and the mini thumb- operated Qwerty keyboard that RIM pioneered.

The BlackBerry Pearl has neither. The scroll wheel is replaced by the pearly navigation “tracker ball” that gives the 8100 its popular moniker.

Once I had adjusted the tracker ball’s sensitivity I quickly got used to it and began to appreciate the extra speed and flexibility of moving the cursor horizontally as well as up and down.

The other big and obvious change – previewed in the 7100 and 7130 series – is the replacement of the mini keyboard with SureType predictive text technology that combines a traditional phone keypad and familiar Qwerty keyboard spread over just 20 keys.

Having found the 7100’s rocker-style multi-letter keys and SureType technology hard to master, I was pleasantly surprised not to have the same problems with the Pearl keyboard. It is laid out in the familiar Qwerty style and no key has more than two letters associated with it. Also, the latest version of SureType is eerily accurate – in a month of testing I have rarely had to correct a word manually, apart from some names.

The keyboard operates in two modes – SureType and Multi-tap, which involves hitting a two-letter key once for the first letter and twice for the second. SureType is the default for most applications and fields and Multi-tap is the default for phone numbers and password fields. Both work remarkably well.

Other distinctive physical features include a super-bright, 2in, 240x260 pixel colour screen with excellent text readability and backlit keyboard that both adjust automatically to ambient lighting levels, dedicated “menu” and “back step” keys, and twin user-definable keys on either side of the device.

Inside, the Pearl is powered by a fairly fast Strong ARM microprocessor, 64Mb of flash memory, removable lithium battery pack and the latest version of RIM’s proprietary multi-tasking operating system, which lets users run multiple applications simultaneously and switch between them quickly and easily.

My Pearl, running on T-Mobile USA’s GSM/GPRS/Edge wireless network, came with a full complement of software applications including standard e-mail, calendar, address book and web browser.

Like other BlackBerries, the Pearl supports both desktop wireless e-mail for individual users and business e-mail for companies running RIM’s BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) software. It also comes with a vector-based map utility, desktop search, password keeper, IM (Instant Messaging) software that supports AOL, ICQ, MSN and Yahoo services, and one game – the BlackBerry classic BrickBreaker.

The big surprise is probably the multimedia capabilities. The built-in 1.3Mp (megapixel) digital camera takes reasonable images and comes with a 5x digital zoom, built-in flash and superbly simple software that lets users delete, store, e-mail or name a new image with just one tracker ball press.

The built-in media player provides access to stored music, video, still images and ringtones. The Pearl comes with a mini-SD card slot for additional storage, although one of my few complaints about the device is that the slot is hidden under the battery compartment.

While media playback controls are limited, sound quality is on a par with most standalone MP3 players. Sadly, like other wireless handsets, the Pearl comes with a 2.5mm phone-style headset socket rather than the standard 3.5mm stereo jack needed to plug in a set of higher-quality audio headphones, but adapters are available.

These are relatively small niggles. Overall, the BlackBerry Pearl delivers pretty much everything existing BlackBerry users might want and potential BlackBerry users might hanker after – without serious compromises.

At $199 (with a two-year service contract) from T-Mobile USA, the new BlackBerry is competitively priced and a worthy standard-bearer for RIM. RIM says the Pearl should be available in other markets, including the UK, shortly.

THE BREAKDOWN

BLACKBERRY 8100

Pros: It’s a BlackBerry with multimedia support.

Cons: Keyboard and tracker ball take a little getting used to, especially for long-time BlackBerry users

Paul Taylor tackles your high-tech problems and queries

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