BlackBerry Pearl – It isn’t perfect, but it comes close


Like today’s best smart phones, the pocket communication gadget of the future will be an “everything device.” At a minimum, it will function as a laptop, digital camera, video-capable media player, voice recorder, handheld, speakerphone and more. But unlike today’s bulky, boxy, bloated Treos, BlackBerries and Windows Mobile smart phones, future offerings will be as tiny, thin, light and sleek as the smallest of today’s not-so-smart phones.

Tomorrow’s smart phones will be more like a Hershey bar and less like a grilled-cheese sandwich.

RIM’s BlackBerry 8100, the Pearl. Don’t look now, but the smart phone of the future has arrived. RIM’s BlackBerry 8100, the Pearl, is the first of a radical new generation of smart phones.

The Pearl is revolutionary

The impact, or importance, of every groundbreaking device for shaping the direction of mobile electronics is clear only in hindsight. It’s hard to remember now, but when the radical, influential devices first shipped — the Sony Walkman, the Palm Pilot, the RIM BlackBerry, 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, trendsetting device. And although the Pearl is getting rave reviews, its full impact has not yet registered with the pundits or the public. It will. This phone is destined for fame and glory.

I’m the quintessential frequent flier, and I’ve long used the behavior of business travelers on airplanes as a kind of field laboratory for monitoring trends in mobile computing. That’s where, for example, I first witnessed in the early 1990s people playing games on their laptops, and in the early years of this decade, people watching rented DVDs on their laptops. It’s where I discovered that people would actually watch movies and TV shows on their iPods.

What’s currently turning heads aloft now is the BlackBerry Pearl. In the past two months, I’ve seen a conspicuously large number of impromptu “demos” of the Pearl taking place on airplanes. Someone starts using it, then someone else nearby asks what it is and gets the demo. The Pearl’s owner is always rabidly enthusiastic. The other person is always blown away. I haven’t seen this kind of enthusiasm on an airplane since the iPod.

I see the BlackBerry Pearl, released on T-Mobile in October and Cingular this month, as the first major fourth-generation mobile phone. First generation: cell phones that didn’t feel anything like today’s small, sleek, pocket-size cell phones. Second generation: regular cell phones, but small and sleek. Third generation: “smart phones” that combined handheld functionality with the cell phone, but felt like handhelds, not phones.

The Pearl is the first major example of the fourth generation: full-featured smart phones that feel like tiny cell phones.

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

The Pearl is radical

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

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

The newest Palm Treos are great devices, with a host of “tweaks” that fix minor problems and annoyances with older models. But they’re neither taking any risks nor breaking new ground. They’re all the same old Treo, with small improvements.

That’s not the case with the Pearl. I believe three features made BlackBerries famous: 1) pager-like e-mail that notifies you when you’ve got 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 these three features. That’s very bold.

The ‘Pearl’ is the killer feature

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

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

On the main Pearl screen, I can zip from one icon to any other and select it instantly. Wherever you are in the Pearl’s menus, applications or options, simply pressing down on the trackball will present you with the option you want, almost every time. The trackball-conjured options are so incredibly context-sensitive that a huge number of multistep tasks are accomplished by repeated pressing of the trackball. Press, press, press, press and you’re done. It’s a weird kind of no-navigation navigation. Alternative options are just a small thumb movement away.

Once you familiarize yourself with the menus and options on the Pearl, ripping through tasks with the trackball is blindingly fast. It even controls the digital zoom on the camera.

Left-handed users can rejoice! This oppressed minority has long suffered from second-class status when it comes to gadget design. The placement of BlackBerry click wheels on the right side of older devices is one egregious example. The Pearl’s trackball is in the middle and can be used with equal fluidity by either hand. The Pearl trackball’s combination of usability and coolness — it glows bright white when you use it — is comparable to the iPod click wheel. Using it feels that good.

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

The Pearl is a better phone

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

No such sacrifices are required with the Pearl. It’s the most elegant, usable cell phone I’ve ever tried. The usability is due largely to the brilliant user interface design decisions made by RIM. For example, the default screen is the recent call log (most people are more likely to call those who they have called recently). Selecting a recently contacted person — say, “Janet,” from the recently called list brings up a menu with all the ways to call Janet (call home, call mobile, e-mail Janet, SMS Text Janet, MMS Janet) with the most recently used selected. If you don’t want that menu, just press the phone button instead of the trackball, and the phone is dialing the default (recently used) number already.

If you call someone, and they don’t answer, trying them at another number is breathtakingly simple. Press down on the Pearl’s trackball to bring up the caller’s menu, move the thumb a smidge to select another number (say, “mobile,” rather than “office”), then press down again and the phone is dialing. Press, scoot, press. You can do it in half a second. The only thing quicker and easier woul

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