Mobile Computing: BlackBerry as Notebook Alternative, Part 1

Despite Research In Motion's recent patent disputes, its BlackBerry is still the most sought-after handheld communications device for mobile professionals. And if I had to roll the dice, I'd bet the BlackBerry will continue to be popular for the foreseeable future.

But how does a BlackBerry fare as a notebook alternative? Can you comfortably leave the laptop at home and take only your BlackBerry on a business trip?

Using a BlackBerry 7520 on the Sprint/Nextel wireless network, plus the BlackBerry Internet Service (which forwards e-mail from your ISP to your BlackBerry), I did the types of things I'd normally do with a notebook while traveling: Send and receive e-mail, with and without attachments; create and edit Office documents; and browse Web sites.

Here's part one of my report; part two will appear next week.

Handling E-Mail

The BlackBerry's biggest advantage has always been its e-mail prowess. A BlackBerry checks your enterprise or ISP mail server for new messages multiple times per minute. Whenever a new message is pushed to your BlackBerry, the device alerts you with a blinking red light.

BlackBerrys feature built-in support for viewing many types of e-mail attachments, including Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents; Adobe PDF files; JPEG and other common image files; and HTML attachments. Fonts and formatting are usually preserved, and documents are compressed to speed up delivery.

However, images I received as attachments often looked blurry on the BlackBerry 7520 I tested--especially when the images were enlarged. Also, the BlackBerry couldn't handle an e-mail with multiple attachments that I received from a client. The message was sent with four Word documents and one 6MB PowerPoint presentation. On the BlackBerry, the attachments didn't come through, nor did the text of the client's message. All I received was a message that read, "Message truncated due to size."

A RIM spokesperson explained that the BlackBerry Internet Service, which I used, can forward messages of up to 8MB in size; my message slightly exceeded that limit. However, there are no size limits if you receive e-mail through the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which is typical of corporate users, the spokesperson said.

Typing on a Mini-Keyboard

With the built-in QWERTY keyboard, typing is fairly easy on most BlackBerrys.

The BlackBerry 7100 series is designed to be more phone-like in shape than other models. To save space, the keys have two letters, such as Q and W, instead of one. To compensate, RIM includes SureType, auto-completion technology that goes a long way toward making it easier to type on the BlackBerry's limited keyboard, says PC World reviewer Yardena Adar in her review of the BlackBerry 7100t.

For more extensive typing, consider purchasing Think Outside's Stowaway Shasta, a full-sized, fold-out Bluetooth keyboard for the BlackBerry 7100, 7250, 7290, and 7520 models. In my experience, the keyboard easily paired and later reconnected with the BlackBerry 7520. Unlike some other external PDA keyboards, the Stowaway Shasta includes dedicated number keys, as well as hot keys to make and end voice calls and perform other BlackBerry functions. The keyboard, which requires its own batteries, retails for $100 at Think Outside.

Next week: Creating and editing Office files and browsing the Web on a BlackBerry, plus the bottom line on when a BlackBerry is--and is not--a worthwhile notebook alternative.

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