Blackberry's dominance in the push-email arena seems to be not letting up one bit, and its popular 7230 Qwerty keyboard based handset also seems to be finding its way onto the belts of business users around the world.
So when Research in Motion, Blackberry's manufacturers, announced an exclusive Vodafone handset that shrunk the keyboard into half the size we must admit we were sceptical. We are big fans of the original unit and wondered how the chaps over at RIM would be able to pull this one off.
Still on the large size, at least for a mobile phone, the unit comes in silver and sports a large bright and clear screen. The Qwerty keyboard has been shrunk to fit across five columns of keys four rows deep. The standard ten-key number pad sits in the middle and is differentiated with darker keys.
RIM has managed to get the number of keys down to only 20 on the new unit by forcing, in most cases, two characters on each key instead of one. What this has created is not only a smaller keyboard than the traditional more familiar Blackberry model, but a unit that looks like a bugger to use.
Other than the 20 keys on the front of the unit the main control mechanism is a jog wheel and additional escape button on the side of the unit. Synchronisation and charging is done via a USB socket.
When it came to using the 7100v and in particular actually typing on it, we must admit that we took a couple of attempts to master it. Once we had got past the notion that it wasn't a mobile phone keypad, even though it looks like one, and that we should type like it's a keyboard albeit using our thumb instead of our index finger, then things became a lot easier.
With two characters per key the software is a big factor in making this unit work and here the 9000 word predictive text dictionary, as long as you spell the word right in the beginning, works very well in understanding what you are trying to say. Where there are multiple options, you use the scroll wheel to select the correct word and continue typing.
Emails, SMS, contacts and calendar entries are all short enough for this to work. However, unlike the larger version we don't think that you'll be typing out long essays anytime soon.
Email is sent to you phone from a Vodafone mobile email account, which you can set up via your PC (there is currently no Mac support).
You can also specify up to ten email accounts for the device to poll. The unit will then pull in those emails and allow you to reply to them, Although it's pulled in via the Vodafone email account you can set it so that it replies from your own account, however rather than using the push solution of pushing the emails directly as in the enterprise edition to you when they are received, Vodafone has implemented a 3- to 15-minute cycle for this consumer friendly version.
The system works by checking for mail every 15 minutes, if it receives mail within this time period, then it will check again after only three minutes. If it receives mail in this time period then it will check again after another three minutes has passed. If however the 7100v doesn't receive any mail it reverts back to the 15 minutes and continues like this.
Either way, three minutes isn't that long, until you are waiting for an important email, after all you could boil an egg in the same time and that takes forever. What makes this slightly worse is that annoyingly you can't force push the email, something which we think undermines the usability of the ideology.
Pitching itself as a business tool rather than an entertainment device, and rightly so, the unit doesn't include a digital camera or the ability to play MP3s. However, what it does offer is Quad-Band support for worldwide coverage and Bluetooth, albeit not data so you'll only be able to connect to headsets or car-kits.
As a unit for checking your emails on the road the Blackberry is a good unit. However, we have to admit we prefer the 7230 even though it lacks the Bluetooth and Quad band support. The keyboard is easier, the internet browser a definite plus and overall, you are more likely to be happier replying to an email. It's a shame, because we were hoping for so much more from the 7100v. The size is obviously a definite plus, as is the clear screen. Perhaps if we hadn't used the original, then the story would be different. For now, we want our 7230.