Katherine Boehret

New BlackBerry Offers Versatility in Flip Form

Smartphones are masters of multitasking. They email, browse the Web, instant message, take pictures, run applications or play videos and music. So it’s easy to forget how uncomfortable they are to use as phones. Most are rectangular slabs that are awkward to hold against the ear, causing many smartphone users to also carry a basic cellphone just for calls.

At least one smartphone manufacturer is doing something about this. This week, Research In Motion (RIMM) introduced the BlackBerry Pearl Flip 8220, available for $150 with a two-year contract from T-Mobile (DT). This device is the first BlackBerry in a flip phone, or clamshell, form. Like RIM’s mainstream, candy-bar-shaped BlackBerry Pearl, the Flip uses a SureType keyboard, which has condensed keys and relies on predictive text software.

Pearl Flip
The Pearl Flip uses a SureType keyboard, which takes up less space.

After using the Pearl Flip for a week, I’ve found it to be a stylish messaging device that works well as a comfortable phone. I really liked its exterior screen, which is designed to show previews of incoming messages, saving people the trouble of flipping open the device. It runs on T-Mobile’s slow EDGE network, but has built-in Wi-Fi and the ability to automatically connect to saved, nearby wireless networks.

First-time smartphone buyers will likely find the Pearl Flip to be a good fit. When it flips open, a special hinge drops the top half of the device slightly behind the bottom half, and a handy trackball makes navigation easy. The Flip’s Web browser enables streaming videos that look sharp on its interior screen, and a microSD card slot supports up to 16 gigabytes of memory.

But current BlackBerry owners who want to switch to a device with a more comfortable phone may have trouble adjusting to the Pearl Flip’s SureType keyboard — especially if they’re used to a device with a full QWERTY keyboard. Though the Pearl Flip’s keyboard is a generous size and its keys are flat and easy to press, its SureType design assigns two letters to almost every key, which can be frustrating to use when predictive text guesses a different word than that which is intended.

Pearl Flip
The Pearl Flip 8220 is RIM’s first flip phone BlackBerry.

The Pearl Flip supports T-Mobile’s Unlimited HotSpot Calling, a service that doesn’t use any minutes on phone calls begun in Wi-Fi zones. Even if a user leaves the Wi-Fi zone in which he or she started a phone conversation, the call passes over to the T-Mobile cellular network without dropping out. This service costs $10 monthly in addition to regular service charges.

When I made calls on the Pearl Flip, friends on the other line noted how crisp and clear our connection sounded. And best of all, the Pearl Flip’s long, clamshell profile was easy to hold and fit snugly and comfortably between my ear and shoulder when I needed two hands to carry things.

BlackBerry’s signature red light blinks in this device’s top corner to indicate new messages. The 1.6-inch exterior screen displays about 25 words (give or take) from newly received emails, instant messages, SMS, MMS, calendar notifications and task reminders. If a message is received from a contact to whom a photo is assigned, that photo also shows up on the external screen to identify the sender. Side buttons let users scroll up or down through these previews.

This display is designed so that the same message being previewed externally will appear on the internal screen as soon as the Pearl Flip is opened. This makes sense because people will want to reply to some emails or read their entire contents after seeing a short preview. But my device didn’t do this at first; instead, the internal screen seemed completely unrelated to the external screen. I finally got this feature to work after my external screen froze and I rebooted the Pearl Flip. RIM said it hadn’t seen this behavior before, and wasn’t sure what had caused it.

The interior screen measures 2.4 inches diagonally and has a resolution of 240×320 pixels, which is a larger, higher resolution screen than most basic cellphones. While using Wi-Fi, I pulled up YouTube.com and watched a video. It played without skipping or stopping while streaming directly from the Web. A higher-resolution video, which was saved to my device, automatically played in horizontal mode so as to take up the entire screen; YouTube videos play vertically, without using the full screen.

Up to 10 email accounts can be set up on the Pearl Flip; I had no problems using Hotmail, .Mac and Gmail accounts. I also signed into AOL Instant Messenger and Google Talk on the Pearl Flip. Along with these messaging programs, ICQ, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and BlackBerry Messenger also come pre-installed and ready to use.

If my Pearl Flip was closed and I remained signed into an instant-messaging client, notifications appeared on the external screen telling me who was sending an IM and what it said. When I opened the device, I was automatically directed to the screen where I could reply to the instant message.

I tested the T-Mobile Unlimited HotSpot Calling feature by starting calls using a Wi-Fi network and then leaving the network’s range. The calls remained steady without dropping or fading, and if I were a paying customer, I wouldn’t have been charged minutes for those calls. Calls that start out of Wi-Fi zones and end in Wi-Fi zones do deduct minutes. My Pearl Flip had no trouble automatically moving from the cellular network to a Wi-Fi network.

All T-Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, such as at airports or in Starbucks (SBUX), automatically work with the Pearl Flip if you’re registered for the $10 monthly Unlimited Hotspot Calling.

If you’re considering taking the plunge into the always-connected world of smartphones, or if you want a more comfortable phone in your smartphone and don’t mind the quirks of SureType, the Pearl Flip 8220 may be the BlackBerry for you.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg


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