Katherine Boehret

Latest BlackBerry Is Flashy, Familiar

BlackBerry users are a stubborn bunch, almost as fond of their device’s familiar features — scroll wheel, full minikeyboard and big screen — as they are of constantly checking email. So when I directed all of my work and personal email from my current BlackBerry to the newest BlackBerry 8800 for this column’s testing, I did so with trepidation.

AT&T Inc. introduced Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry 8800 last week as a sort of grown-up version of the BlackBerry Pearl, released in September. The Pearl marked the hippest thing to come out of RIM, a slender model that used a pearl-like white trackball for navigation instead of the classic side scroll wheel. But devoted BlackBerry users admired its style only from afar, scoffing at its squished keyboard and smaller screen.

The BlackBerry 8800, $300 with a two-year AT&T contract, uses a trackball for navigation.

The BlackBerry 8800, $300 with a two-year AT&T contract, uses a trackball for navigation.

The 8800, which costs $300 with a two-year AT&T contract, meshes the newer Pearl features with the traditional traits of older, if duller, BlackBerrys. These improvements are well-done overall, producing the thinnest BlackBerry with the longest-lasting battery. Email menus were comfortingly familiar, and its phone worked well. I even surprised myself by adjusting to and liking the 8800’s most glaring change: its use of a trackball instead of a side scroll wheel.

But this device’s keyboard, a highly important feature, left me frustrated no matter how many emails I typed. Unlike the Pearl’s reduced keyboard, this one is full-size, with the traditional BlackBerry layout. But its keys are packed in, side-by-side, rather than spaced out. Instead of using essentially flat keys like those on older BlackBerrys, each key on the 8800 has a slight, distinguishing ridge that I found annoyingly restrictive; my thumbs had to be in exactly the right positions to type well. Keys on the older keyboards can be tapped from any direction or angle.

The BlackBerry 8800 is striking, with a bright screen and dark-blue coloring that looks closer to black. I dropped it by accident several times, and it seemed sturdy — a good sign for a device that will be used often. Shiny silver markings accent its sides, top edge and main navigational buttons. Its shape is a neat, thin rectangle, a welcome change from the bulgingly wide older devices. Even friends who don’t use BlackBerrys commented on its attractiveness when I pulled it out.

Setting up personal email accounts to work with the 8800 was easy on www.Cingular.com/BlackBerryStart or right on the device itself: I needed only to enter my Cingular account log-in and password, along with my personal email addresses and passwords. Personal email plans, including Web browsing, start at $30 a month, not including a voice contact; similar corporate accounts start at $45 monthly.

The trackball is better for navigating than the scroll wheel for a couple of reasons. Its location beneath the screen and above the keyboard makes it more accessible than the side-hugging scroll wheel, enabling navigation within an email as you type without moving your thumbs too far. The trackball also lets you move up or down and left to right, without having to press any other buttons to do the latter. This comes in handy when composing an email: If you make a mistake, you can simply scroll back or forward in a line; older BlackBerrys required holding the Alt key while using the scroll wheel.

But it took my thumbs quite a bit of retraining to be convinced of the trackball’s benefits. I was more familiar with my BlackBerry’s scroll wheel, and at first I kept touching the top right edge of the 8800 to find this and the Back button (volume buttons are positioned there instead).

In place of the traditional Escape button, which is below the scroll wheel on older BlackBerrys, an Escape button to the right of the trackball performs the same functions. A Menu key to the left of the trackball opened detailed options. The trackball can be pressed, too, to make selections.

I read and sent many emails on my corporate and personal accounts. Incoming emails were signaled with the device’s blinking red light — some things, thankfully, never change. But I just couldn’t get used to the keyboard. RIM claims that the 8800 keyboard’s keys are slightly wider than those of its predecessor, the 8700, but each key’s shape and raised ledge made it hard to use accurately. It takes time to adjust to any mobile keyboard, but this one seemed especially difficult.

The Web browser wasn’t bad, though it’s hampered by the fact that this new BlackBerry runs on AT&T’s pokey EDGE network, which is only one-seventh as fast as the speediest networks available. I found the 8800 easy to hold against my ear for phone calls due to its narrower width and slimmer thickness.

Media can be dragged and dropped onto your BlackBerry’s 64 megabytes of built-in memory or memory card (not included) using Media Manager, a program that comes with the device’s software. If you prefer taking your memory card out to load content, you’ll have a tougher time. I had to slide off the BlackBerry’s back panel, open a small metal flap and pull the microSD from its position. I did this a few different times and had a lot of trouble getting this card back in, making me hesitant to use it often.

Loading and transferring the actual data onto the 8800 worked without a hitch. I played Norah Jones tunes loud and clear on the relatively good speaker, watched a video on the screen and passed the BlackBerry around to show friends digital photos of me trying on a bridesmaid’s dress. I zoomed in on and rotated these photos using the trackball.

I wish the BlackBerry 8800 had a built-in camera and easy-access memory-card slot, two features that digitally savvy consumers will want to use often. The hip Pearl includes a built-in camera, but its memory-card slot is buried in an even more inconvenient place: beneath the battery.

A GPS system from TeleNav Inc. comes loaded on the 8800. When it worked, I saw detailed maps of my location. But it failed twice while driving along two different highways, saying that the GPS wasn’t able to pick up a clear signal.

Overall, the BlackBerry 8800 is a handsome device that looks good and functions well, as long as you rely on it for reading more and responding less. The keyboard has a steeper learning curve than the trackball — a useful new addition that you’ll learn quickly, forgetting the scroll wheel.

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