Walt Mossberg

Pearl BlackBerry Offers Video, Camera, Music, As Well as Great Email

When you think of a BlackBerry phone, what usually comes to mind is a squat, bland, all-business device that is great at email and fair at phone calls, but does little else well. BlackBerry models have been mostly aimed at big businesses, and they have lacked cameras, multimedia capabilities and style. Even their model names have been boring designations like “8700c.”

But that image will change radically next week when the BlackBerry’s maker, Research in Motion, introduces a sleek but powerful model called simply the Pearl. It’s not only the smallest BlackBerry ever made. It’s also the smallest smart phone from any maker with a keyboard for typing emails and other text.

All shiny black and silver, the slender Pearl looks more like a fashion phone than a keyboard-equipped smart phone. It is shorter, narrower and lighter than the much-admired Motorola Q, though a bit thicker. And, like the Q, the Pearl, which is being launched next Tuesday by T-Mobile, costs $199 with a two-year contract. The Pearl is squarely aimed at consumers who need powerful email capabilities, but also want style and bells and whistles.

When it comes to email, the Pearl is a true BlackBerry. The email interface is essentially the same as on larger BlackBerrys. It can be used with a traditional corporate BlackBerry email system, and, for consumers, it works with the BlackBerry Internet Service offered by T-Mobile.

Still, for hard-core BlackBerry addicts, the Pearl is a shocking departure. The iconic side scroll wheel has been replaced by a tiny, light-up trackball beneath the large, bright color screen. It’s the first BlackBerry with a camera, the first with a memory card slot (though no card is included) and the first to play songs and videos.

New BlackBerry Pearl

And then there’s the keyboard, where the slim new design has required a major compromise. As on the older and bulkier BlackBerry 7100 series, the full keyboard has been replaced by a smaller version that squeezes two letters onto most keys. To avoid repetition and error, the Pearl uses smart software called SureType that has the uncanny ability to guess the word you meant to type in almost all cases. But it doesn’t work if you’re entering a new Web address or a person’s name that the phone hasn’t memorized.

To find out if RIM can actually be cool, I’ve been toting around a Pearl, testing all its functions. In general, I like it, and can recommend it to anyone who wants real BlackBerry email capabilities in a great-looking multimedia phone. Voice quality was excellent and the interface for making phone calls, once a big problem on BlackBerrys, is now decent. There’s even a Treo-like universal silencer button, and the speaker phone function turns on and off with a single key press.

Setting up an email account with the BlackBerry Internet Service is easily done, either on the phone or via a T-Mobile Web page. This service replaces a corporate email server with a Web-based email system that pushes messages to the phone from an existing email account or from a new one. T-Mobile plans to charge $19.99 a month for unlimited email and Web browsing on top of the price of an existing voice plan.

The Pearl pushed my normal email to the phone perfectly, and, in that respect, it acted just like every other BlackBerry I’ve used. Because of the different keyboard, some of the keyboard shortcuts for navigating in email and other applications differ from those on older models. If you change a couple of settings, you can delete an email with one click, and whole batches of emails can be deleted with two clicks.

Popular email attachment types, including Microsoft Word and Excel files, can be opened and read, but not edited. I was able to easily synchronize calendar and contact entries with Microsoft Outlook on a Windows PC, and to easily transfer songs, pictures and videos to the Pearl using RIM’s desktop software.

The Pearl’s music software correctly read the artist, album and song information on every track I loaded into the phone, and even displayed the album covers. The speaker on the Pearl sounds good, and music sounds even better with stereo headphones.

Photos also displayed well, and the Pearl can zoom in on them or show them as slideshows. Any song can be turned into your ring tone, and any picture can be used as your desktop wallpaper.

The Pearl really shone when playing video. Unfortunately, it accepts only a limited number of video file types, and even many of those I tested didn’t work. Some videos sucked up so much of the phone’s power that other functions, even pausing the playback, were very slow.

The Web browser is OK, but it’s hampered by what I consider the biggest drawback to the Pearl: the network on which it runs. T-Mobile uses a network technology called EDGE, which is much, much slower than the fastest networks offered by Verizon, Sprint and Cingular.

There’s another reason I’m not trading my Palm Treo 700p for a Pearl: the user interface. While RIM has jazzed up the hardware and feature set, there’s still way too much multiple clicking and menu opening for my taste.

But the Pearl is a beautiful piece of work, a very nice combination of hard-core email capability and fun features.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com.


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