BlackBerry's latest smartphone in the UK is an update to its BlackBerry Pearl range, bringing 3G connectivity and "more" computing power to the entry-level smartphone than ever before. But what is it like? We managed to get a brief hands-on with the new phone following the global announcement on Monday.
Measuring 107 x 49.7 x 13.2mm, the candy bar design is as quaint as it is small. The design ethos, which has drawn heavily from the current flagship, the BlackBerry Bold 9700, sees a more curved and tactile approach to previous outings of the Pearl.
Coming only in black for the time being (our BlackBerry spokesmen wouldn't be drawn on further colours, but we'd bet on a special edition pink or purple) the front sports a 360 x 400-pixel resolution display that is incredibly crisp and beneath it, a standard numberpad.
In a strange move, and one to appeal to "consumers" rather than regular business folk, RIM have decided not to offer a QWERTY variant in Europe. Instead they insist that new Pearl users use a standard predictive text input instead. In an even stranger move, that same decision hasn't been made in the US, where operators will be left to decide themselves whether or not they offer a Surepad (i.e., QWERTY keyboard) or numberpad.
Predictive text is of course very easy to use on the phone, learning as it goes. Like T9 text input you only have to press the key once to get it to start spelling your word. Press A + A + A gives you Abacus for example.
Because the handset lacks a touchscreen - and to be honest there is no real need here - RIM have installed their newer optical trackpad as found on the Bold. In use it's incredibly responsive to use allowing you to whizz around the grid interface or scroll through emails with ease.
We liked the trackpad when we played with it on the Bold and it's a thumbs up again here, with the added bonus that 18-months into your contract, you will find there trackpad still works, where the namesake pearl trackball would often give up the ghost.
Get past the inputs and the phone offers a number of other "consumer ready" features. The top of the phone now sports media keys that allow you quick access to your music. Where you used to just get a mute key, you now get rewind, play/pause and fastforward as well, meaning media playback is much more friendly.
The sides too have changed with buttons hidden beneath a rubberised finish we've seen on the latest handsets. There's volume up and down, a dedicated camera button and a customisable key that is initially set up for voice commands, as with other BlackBerry handsets.
Those hoping to snap while they are out and about will get a 3.2-megapixel camera with zoom, autofocus, flash and video recording - standard BlackBerry stuff.
Images are saved on to a microSD/SDHD memory card and the phone will support cards up to 32GB, handy as RIM promise 30 hours of playback if you're just using the Pearl as a media player (something we were unable to test, naturally).
The phone runs BlackBerry OS 5.0 meaning you'll get exactly the same functionality from a software point of view as the Bold. RIM wouldn't confirm whether the handset would be upgradeable to the rumoured OS 6.0.
Inside you'll get GPS for guidance, all three wireless standards (802.11 b/g/n) built-in and the ability to connect Bluetooth headsets, speakers and anything else you can find via its Bluetooth 2.1 connection.
Everything is powered via a 624 MHz processor with 256MB Flash memory. Considering this is still classed, certainly by RIM, as an entry-level phone, that's pretty nippy. And zipping through menus, loading apps and generally messing around with the phone as much as you can in a briefing, showed that it should be more than capable enough.
On the battery front, RIM have included a rechargeable 1150mAhr battery that promises approximately 5.5 hours of talk time on 3G networks (again something at this time we were unable to test). We'd expect this to handset to outlast its touchscreen rivals fairly easily.
The decision to make this predictive only rather than yet another QWERTY smartphone is an interesting move. It one that clearly shows they are hoping will entice non-smartphone users, perhaps upgrading from Nokia or Sony Ericsson into the BlackBerry eco system.
It's a bold move and one that we would have preferred to see done through the operating system (i.e., the ability to set up different keyboard configurations) rather than forcing it on customers from the outset via the hardware. Our time was brief with the BlackBerry Pearl 3G (9105), but this is RIM playing it safe while trying to lure those using a standard T9 handset into the world of BlackBerry.
To many that will appeal, but our fear, certainly at this stage, is that once you start to use the email service you'll want to upgrade to another BlackBerry with a QWERTY very quickly. If you've signed a 2-year contract you might not be able to wait that long.
The BlackBerry Pearl 3G (9105) is expected to be available on most networks from late May.