Can your BlackBerry replace your laptop?

Portable yet powerful, the laptop has become the machine of choice for the modern business user. But for anyone with extensive experience pushing the limits of its portability (in coach, on the bus, anywhere power outlets come at a premium), the lure of the laptop may be losing its luster — especially in light of recent advances in netbooks.

And while the wise foresee ARM-based netbooks running some flavor of Linux as the long-term solution for business users’ portable computing fix, the (arguably) foolish among us hunger for even smaller devices. After all, today’s smartphones look more and more like computers, with keyboards, browsers, storage, pointing devices, and even applications.

Not one to steer clear of a challenge or the chance to be labeled “crazy” by colleagues, I decided to spend a month seeing how far I could go toward replacing my laptop with one of the two more popular smartphones on the market, the BlackBerry 9000 (Bold) and the iPhone 3G. It seems as if everywhere I go people are constantly immersed in their BlackBerrys and iPhones. Surely, there’s more to them than e-mail and phone calls. I quickly learned the addiction of always-accessible e-mail, but even though the BlackBerry won’t replace my laptop any time soon, I can see the pocket-based revolution coming where a device like it will edge aside a laptop for much of my day. (As for my month-long experience on the iPhone, stay tuned for that tomorrow.)

E-mail: BlackBerry’s key business benefit

Research in Motion’s premier executive BlackBerry, the BlackBerry 9000 (Bold), offers a full QWERTY keyboard, midsize screen, built-in browser, the ability to run apps, and both 3G and Wi-Fi networking. In other words, there’s enough on paper to entice you to ditch your laptop, but not enough in practice to keep you from regretting it.

If anything, the BlackBerry is designed primarily as a messaging device, and it’s amazing how addictive messaging on a BlackBerry can be. Too addicting, in fact — over the course of the month, I had to develop a certain inner fortitude to consciously stop checking for messages and attend to other concerns, like my family.

Downtime on my train-and-bus commute, where I normally catch up on magazines, was no longer downtime. Neither were rides to and from the airport. Nor many moments standing in line for coffee, groceries, and so on. “Going smartphone” kept me up with everything that was happening at the office and with colleagues, no matter the time zone difference between us.

Well, usually. Train tunnels between stations had me riding out five-minute connectivity gaps, thumbs poised on the keyboard itching to reconnect to outside world. And a trip to New York found me without data service from Wall Street to Chelsea, reminding me just how dependent on AT&T — the Bold’s exclusive U.S. carrier, and one notorious for inadequate coastal coverage — my always-on connectivity addiction had become.

I became proficient at two-thumb typing in a matter of days, although numerals never came easy due to the Alt key’s too-close placement, meaning that anything that required numbers or symbols had me going at a snail’s pace. Still, sending and replying to messages was a breeze, and I can see why so many businesspeople can’t stop typing on their BlackBerrys.

Addressing messages, however, exposed my first frustrations in forgoing my laptop in favor of the BlackBerry. For example, you can select someone from your address book as you type in an address, but the BlackBerry doesn’t look up addresses of people you’ve received messages from or previously responded to, so you have to type those in completely. Those of us for whom collaboration is key depend on expediency of communication, and this kind of extra labor adds up fast.

Also labor-intensive was keeping my inbox free of unnecessary e-mail. Deleting messages is easy, but having to confirm whether you want to keep a deleted message on the server each time is a real slowdown. Fortunately, there’s an option to stop that. What I couldn’t do was multiple-delete messages unless they were contiguous, making it hard to get rid of the endless junk that streamed into my inbox.

In fact, managing e-mails on the Bold proved to be more of a pain than expected. The lack of options for mail filtering or blocking spam on the BlackBerry is to be expected for a mobile device, but time-stamping messages based on when the BlackBerry downloads them, not when they arrived at the server, wreaked havoc on my message order any time I was not connected to the Internet, such as when the battery died or I was on a plane. Choosing the Reconcile option compounded the problem, loading six months’ worth of archived e-mail onto the BlackBerry — even though I had set a 30-day mail retention limit on the Bold — all with the current date and time, burying real mail from that day beneath 9,000 “new” messages.

For many business users, organizing e-mail into folders is essential to remaining productive, as is the ability to sort e-mail based on rules — functionality BlackBerry lacks. Using a BlackBerry Exchange Server to connect to my Exchange e-mail account for work meant my folder structure was replicated on the BlackBerry, and I could move messages to the folders without much trouble. But without Exchange mirroring the move on the server, I had to repeat that work back at my laptop. And once I moved messages on the laptop, they remained in the BlackBerry’s top-level index, keeping it cluttered. There is an option to actually move the mail, not jusy copy it — the BlackBerry is full of such options that are hard to know exist, much less fine, even if you peruse the various setup options.

Navigating folders on the BlackBerry was also painful. Getting to the folders requires several steps in the BlackBerry’s menu system (most things do, unfortunately), and once I was in a folder to see messages, I had to start at the top again to switch folders. Soon enough, I stopped using e-mail folders on the BlackBerry altogether.

But the BlackBerry does offer worthwhile e-mail navigation. Press T to go to the top of your message list, B to move to the bottom, or U for the first unread message. Using a menu option, you can also search your messages by name, subject, message body, and e-mail account.

I also set up my personal e-mail account on the BlackBerry, which provides a separate e-mail icon for each account so that you can switch back and forth easily. That said, if you’ve set up multiple e-mail accounts, the folders created for each share the same name, so you can’t really tell what e-mail folder you’re opening. That confused me every time. The exception is an e-mail account set up through the BlackBerry Exchange Server, which establishes a root folder with a unique name.

All in all, the BlackBerry sufficed for on-the-go e-mail. But its poor organizational capabilities for e-mail (particularly around folders) made it unsuitable as a

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