capsule review

RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8100

At a Glance
  • BlackBerry Pearl

    PCWorld Rating

    This sleek cell phone adds a serviceable camera and multimedia features to BlackBerry's already terrific e-mail capabilities.

The BlackBerry has long been synonymous with business. Known best as an addictive corporate tool for professionals who need always-on access to e-mail, Research In Motion's device has had something of a staid image compared with today's multimedia-savvy phones.But that's about to change. With the BlackBerry Pearl 8100--the first BlackBerry to offer a camera, an audio player, and a video player--the BlackBerry loosens up and sheds its business-only image. In my tests of a shipping version, I found the makeover mostly successful.

Available now from T-Mobile (for $350 with a two-year contract), the candy bar-style Pearl has a pleasingly shiny black-and-silver finish. It is noticeably lighter and more petite than its predecessors, and--unlike most BlackBerry devices--it looks remarkably like an ordinary cell phone. The small size comes with a trade-off, however: The Pearl's keys are tiny, and, thanks to the slick finish, slippery--two traits that make the keys difficult to push. The keys are so small that pressing them with a finger is nearly impossible; even dialing with a fingernail is difficult.

Like the BlackBerry 7100 series, the Pearl features a SureType keyboard--a modified QWERTY keyboard that saves space by combining two letters on most keys. Once you start to type, the SureType system suggests words based on the letters you've entered. When SureType guesses correctly, this system is a huge time-saver; when it doesn't (which happens often), typing is a time-consuming chore.

The SureType keyboard is not the Pearl's only departure from typical BlackBerry navigation tools. The jog wheel typically found on the right-hand side of the device has been replaced with a white trackball that sits on the face of the phone, directly below the display. The trackball turns an incandescent white when the phone is active, making it look like--you guessed it--a pearl. While the effect is aesthetically pleasing, it's not a functional improvement. I found the trackwheel harder to use than the jog wheel on other BlackBerrys; it also makes one-handed operation more difficult.

In my use of the phone, I found call quality a mixed bag. On some calls, voices sounded loud and clear, but on others I noticed an echo or muffled voices. Talk-time battery life was excellent, however: the Pearl last 8 hours, 34 minutes in our tests, earning a score of Very Good.

One of the big attractions of the Pearl is its multimedia capabilities. The Pearl's 1.3-megapixel camera is easy to access, though it lacks a dedicated shutter control (you press the trackball to capture shots). You use the 2.25-inch screen to frame photos, and roll the trackball to zoom in or out. While the controls make operating the 5X digital zoom easy, I also found them frustrating: Occasionally, I accidentally rolled the trackball instead of pressing it, causing me to zoom in and miss a moment I had hoped to capture. If you're shooting in dark environments, the built-in flash can help illuminate your scene.

Picture quality was about what you'd expect from a camera phone. Bright colors often looked washed out, and the snapshots sometimes lacked crispness. Unfortunately, the Pearl doesn't capture video; but it will play back video clips, which look fantastic, if small, on its 240-by-260 TFT display.

In addition to sporting a camera, the Pearl is also the first BlackBerry to include a music player. You can transfer AAC, MP3, and WAV files to the device via the included Desktop Manager software, which is easy to install and use. You can also store music files on a microSD Card (not included). While this is the first BlackBerry to support an expandable media card, the card slot's location behind the battery is as inconvenient as it gets. To add or remove the card, you need to first slide the back off of the phone and then remove the battery.

Like the camera, the media player lacks dedicated controls. Nonetheless, I found the Pearl easy to use for playing music. The player itself features a nice, clean interface. I found it a breeze to scroll through my music collection, as well as select tunes and pause them.

Die-hard BlackBerry fans will be glad to hear that the addition of all these consumer-friendly features hasn't lessened the device's prowess as a stellar messaging device. The Pearl supports the RIM push e-mail technology that has made the BlackBerry so popular, and adding a POP3 e-mail account is a snap. You enter your e-mail address and password, and within minutes your messages will be delivered to the device. It also supports AOL, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo instant messaging networks.

None of the new features on the Pearl are earth-shattering; most smart phones have offered music players and cameras for some time. And the phone has rough spots in audio quality and key design. Nonetheless, when you combine its well-executed features with RIM's messaging capabilities and the Pearl's sleek look, this device is a winner.

Liane Cassavoy

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    This sleek cell phone adds a serviceable camera and multimedia features to BlackBerry's already terrific e-mail capabilities.

    Pros

    • Stellar messaging capabilities
    • Adds a camera

    Cons

    • Lacks a full QWERTY keyboard
    • Keys can be difficult to press
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