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Black Berry Buyer Guide: Why the BlackBerry Pearl is the smartphone of the future

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It’s a groundbreaking, genre-busting, trend-setting device

Like today’s best smartphones, the pocket communication device of the future will be a “jack of all trades”. At a minimum, it will perform the functions of a laptop, digital camera, video-enabled media player, voice recorder, handheld, speakerphone and more.

But unlike the bulky, boxy, bloated Treos, BlackBerries and Windows Mobile smartphones of today, the future offerings will be as tiny, thin, light and slim as the smallest of today’s non-smartphones.

Tomorrow’s smartphones will look more like a Hershey bar and less like a grilled cheese sandwich.

RIM’s BlackBerry 8100, the Pearl Don’t look now, but the smartphone of the future is here. RIM’s BlackBerry 8100, the Pearl, is the first of a radical new generation of smartphones.

The BlackBerry Pearl is revolutionary

blackberry pearl

The influence or importance of any groundbreaking device in the development of mobile electronics becomes clear only in retrospect. It’s hard to remember now, but when the radical, influential devices first shipped – the Sony Walkman, the Palm Pilot, the RIM BlackBerry Pearl, the Apple iPod – it wasn’t immediately clear that these products would dominate their markets and influence the direction of mobile electronics.

The Pearl is just such a groundbreaking, genre-killing, trend-setting device. And while the Pearl is getting rave reviews, its full impact hasn’t yet reached the professionals or the public. It will, though. This phone is destined for glory.

I’m the quintessential frequent flyer, and I’ve long used the behavior of business travelers on airplanes as a kind of field laboratory for observing trends in mobile computing.

That’s where I first observed people playing games on their laptops in the early 1990s, for example, and how people watched rented DVDs on their laptops in the early years of this decade. Here I discovered that people were actually watching movies and TV shows on their iPods.

What is currently heating up people’s minds is the BlackBerry Pearl. In the last two months, I’ve seen a noticeable number of impromptu “demos” of the Pearl on airplanes. Someone starts using it, then someone else nearby asks what it is and gets the demo. The person who owns the Pearl is always blown away. The other person is always blown away. I haven’t seen that kind of enthusiasm on an airplane since the iPod.

I see the BlackBerry Pearl, which launches on T-Mobile in October and on Cingular this month, as the first major fourth-generation cell phone. First generation: phones that didn’t feel at all like today’s small, slim, pocket-sized phones. Second generation: normal cell phones, but small and slim.

Third generation: “smart phones” that combined handheld functions with the cell phone, but felt like handhelds, not phones. The Pearl is the first major example of the fourth generation: full-featured smartphones that feel like small phones.

Measuring 4.2 x 2 x 0.6 inches and about 3.5 ounces, the Pearl is about the size of a closed Motorola Razr – a “dumb” phone known for how thin it is.

The BlackBerry Pearl is radical

The ongoing smartphone battle is largely between Palm and Research In Motion. For the past few years, both companies have offered a line of heavy, flat, wide, full-keyboard phone handheld devices. RIM has also sold a line of phone-like devices, but with limited functionality.

The current generation of devices shows a sudden differentiation between RIM and Palm. RIM’s new offering features bold innovations. Palm’s represents more of the same old thing.

The latest Palm Treos are great devices, with a number of “tweaks” that fix minor issues and annoyances with older models. But they don’t take risks or break new ground. They’re all the same old Treo, with minor improvements.

That’s not the case with the Pearl. I think three features made the BlackBerries famous: 1) pager-like email that notifies you when you’ve received a message, 2) RIM’s patented QWERTY keyboard design, and 3) scroll wheel navigation.

The Pearl is radical because the phone completely abandons two of those three features. That’s very brave.

The ‘BlackBerryPearl’ is the killer feature

Prediction: The trackball will become the dominant navigation device for mobile devices within two years. The hot new Sidekick III has one, and now the BlackBerry Pearl has one, too.

The Pearl’s size and sophistication are enough to set it apart from the crowd, but the namesake trackball is the piece de resistance. Think of the trackball as a 2-D scroll wheel on crack.

On the Pearl’s main screen, I can jump from one icon to another and select it instantly. Wherever you are in the Pearl’s menus, applications, or options, a simple press of the trackball almost always takes you to the option you want. The options evoked by the trackball are so incredibly contextual that a large number of multi-step tasks are accomplished by repeatedly pressing the trackball.

Press, press, press, and you’re done. It’s a strange kind of navigation without navigation. Alternative options are just a small thumb movement away.

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the Pearl’s menus and options, tasks can be accomplished in a flash with the trackball. It even controls the camera’s digital zoom.

Lefties can rejoice! This oppressed minority has long suffered from second-class status when it comes to gadget design. The placement of BlackBerry’s click wheels on the right side of older devices is an egregious example. The Pearl’s trackball is in the center and can be used equally smoothly with either hand.

The Pearl trackball’s combination of usability and coolness – it glows bright white when you use it – is comparable to the iPod clickwheel. That’s how good it feels to use.

After using the Pearl for a few days, I tried again with a Treo. What a disappointment. My thumb instinctively reached for a trackball. Navigating the Treo’s slow, dull, old-fashioned rocker wheel was like driving an old pickup truck after test-driving a Ferrari.

The BlackBerry Pearl is a better phone

For years, those of us who wanted a full-featured smartphone had to make small sacrifices in phone functionality. Using a Treo or Windows Mobile smartphone meant shuffling through too many menus to use the phone features, and holding an overly bulky device while we talked.

With the Pearl, no such sacrifices are necessary. It’s the most elegant and user-friendly phone I’ve ever tried. The ease of use is largely due to the brilliant user interface design decisions that RIM has made. For example, the default screen is the recent calls log (most people tend to call those who have called them recently).

If you select a recently contacted person – say “Janet” – from the recent calls list, a menu appears with all the ways to call Janet (call home, call mobile, email Janet, SMS text Janet, MMS Janet) with the most recently used one selected. If you don’t want this menu, just press the phone key instead of the trackball and the phone will dial the default number (the last one used).

If you call someone and don’t get an answer, it’s breathtakingly easy to try another number. Press the Pearl’s trackball to bring up the caller menu, move your thumb a bit to select a different number (e.g., “cell phone” instead of “office”), then press again and the phone dials. Push, push, push. You can do this in half a second. The only way to do it faster and easier is with mind-controlled dialing.

The Pearl’s keypad makes a big distinction between keys that are used as a numeric keypad and those that aren’t – the phone keys are white, the others black. They’re also much larger than, say, the keys on the Treo. The result is that when you use the device in “phone mode”, you forget that it’s a QWERTY keyboard. You simply dial and make calls as you would with a regular cell phone.

The BlackBerry Pearl isn’t perfect

Don’t get me wrong: If you’re looking for a mature, ultra-solid, well-integrated device for business, newer Treos and older BlackBerries are still your best bet. The Pearl is great for early adopters and avid gadget freaks, but it’s not for everyone. The surfaces are a little too slippery, including the buttons.

It can’t record video. Some don’t like that the MicroSD card is buried under the battery and hard to remove. The camera is of low quality. It does have an LED flash, but one so weak that it is almost useless. The “Maps” application is inferior in every way to Google’s mobile Maps application. In short, the Pearl is a 1.0 device.

The Black Berry Pearl’s keyboard is better than you think

Almost all the reviews I’ve read about the Pearl describe the keyboard as a necessary evil. Its unconventional format is a bit difficult to use at first, and it relies on a RIM software application called SureType.

RIM introduced the SureType technology with the 7100 series. The Pearl features an improved version of SureType.

The keyboard of the Pearl is a kind of QWERTY keyboard. The letters are arranged in the same order as on a normal QWERTY keyboard, but two letters per key (plus in most cases an icon that is called up by pressing the ALT key).

SureType predicts what you want to type in five ways:

SureType predicts what you want to type in five ways

  1. It comes with a database of more than 35,000 words.
  2. It scans your address book and grabs the names you’re likely to type.
  3. It knows likely letter sequences that appear in the English language. For example, if you hit the WQ key, it assumes at first that you want W. But when you follow that with a U, it changes the W to a Q.
  4. 4. Whenever you type a word or a name not in its dictionary, it adds the word as soon as you press the space key.
  5. 5. And finally, SureType scans incoming e-mail for new words to add.

The words in the database are not treated equally. The ones you use most often are preferred as the default selection. In short, SureType “learns” and improves over time.

You can also switch to “multitap” mode at any time by holding down the asterisk key. Multitap mode means that you select the second letter on a key by pressing that key twice, just like on an old-fashioned cell phone keypad. Password entry fields on the Pearl are set to multitap by default.

As you type, the options appear below where you type. If you want to select just one, you can use the trackball to scroll to it. A “symbol” key brings up a screen full of punctuation marks, special characters, and symbols. If you hold down a key for more than half a second, it will be capitalized.

These are just some of the keyboard shortcuts and features SureType uses to make typing faster, easier, and more accurate.

The bad news about SureType is that it requires some training. And no one wants to learn a proprietary system for text entry. But the good news is that the Pearl keyboard system is quick and easy to use once you get the hang of it.

When I started researching this column, I assumed I would join the critics who bad-mouthed the keyboard. But after less than a week of use, I can type faster and more accurately with the Pearl than with a Treo, and I’ve been using Treos for years.

So a Computerworld columnist likes the Pearl keyboard. The real question is, will the great mass of smartphone buyers accept it?

I think they will. SureType takes a little getting used to. But the phone’s tiny size is a worthwhile trade-off. Once you master the keyboard, it’s pretty fast and very usable.

How usable? I wrote this column on a Pearl. Welcome to the future.

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