The BlackBerry Pearl 3G - or 9105 on trial here - is RIM's latest model to hit the streets, revising the Pearl 8100 series of devices. It's a revision that BlackBerry fans are now familiar with: whipping out the trackball - the namesake "pearl" - and slotting in the optical trackpad, and making the handset look a little more futuristic, and in our opinion, a little more solid in its construction.
The 9105 also trumps the 8100 series in doing away with hardware differentiation… to a point. Previously RIM made you choose between Wi-Fi or GPS, a choice that in modern terms can't exist if you want to be competitive. The oddity perhaps, is that the 9100 variant isn't currently slated for a UK release. To clarify, the Pearl 9100 has a 20-key keyboard in a QWERTY layout, whilst the Pearl 9105 has T9 layout. So those that had the QWERTY version of the Pearl previously will either have to look at importing, or wait until one of the carriers changes their mind. Or, more likely, pick the Curve 8520 or the Bold 9700.
The new design gives the appearance of a smaller device than before, but in terms of dimensions (108 x 50 x 13.3mm) there is little difference. The curved edges do make it look like a more professional and elegant device, and it feels good in the hand. The construction is generally solid, although there was a noticeable creak from the back panel - with some movement over where the 1150mAh battery lies.
In terms of specs the 9105 is decked out with all the things you'd expect from a smartphone in terms of connectivity: you have HSDPA, Wi-Fi b/g/n, GPS and Bluetooth 2.1. Around the back is the typical 3.2-megapixel camera with LED "flash", also offering you video capture up to a maximum 640 x 480 pixel resolution which doesn't really push the envelope, other than straight down the line.
The 9105 is a slim candybar handset, so as a result, you only get a 2.2-inch display, but it does pack in a sharp 360 x 400 pixel resolution, so you get all the definition that the BlackBerry OS needs and you can get away with smaller font sizes whilst the characters still remain sharp. It is a wonderfully vibrant screen too and we were impressed with the colours and brightness.
Sitting below the display is the normal belt of control keys centred around the optical trackpad. Here you'll find the calling buttons, menu/options and back. It's the same layout as other devices in the company's range and here the keys are packed in a little tighter, but we didn't have any problem hitting the right button when we wanted it.
Then we arrive at the keyboard. RIM have done something a little different here, putting the four lines of keys into a slight wave. This gives space for the trackpad above, and also follows the design of the previous versions of this phone. Using a T9 layout, it actually composes 14 keys, although for the top three lines, the keys lie under a single bar. At first it might look as though getting the response you want might cause a problem, but within minutes we found that we were getting fast predictive text out of the keyboard, with very few mistakes.
The bottom line of the keyboard is broken into three pieces, the centre housing the important space key and flanked by delete and symbol on the left and shift and return on the right. It takes a little while for the delete key to become second nature to use as you'd normally expect to find it somewhere on the right, but it works well enough once familiar.
Those familiar with the SureType system (predictive text to you and me) will be instantly at home, and the 9105's dictionary is large and in normal use we rarely had to enter a new word. It isn't totally au fait with some more colourful language, so expect a shiv aunt collocks before you get to what you actually mean. But it is smart at learning new words: simply delete and try again, and it will try something new - other phones will just repeat the same shiv to you over and over. And yes, we've illustrated this with profanity, but it's equally adept at picking up the words you really need.
The first thing you'll notice about the 9105 is that it is ideal for using one-handed. Using it with two thumbs isn't impossible, but is a little cramped. If there is one area that the 9105 wins over the large format of the likes of the Curve and Bold, it is that you can very easily fly through text entry with one thumb where the large handsets are a little slower. We imagine a skilled texting fiend would beat a two-thumbed average QWERTY user.
Except in one area and that is special characters and caps: you have to tap another key to get caps rather than pressing and holding. Instead, pressing and holding throws up the numeric character on that key, which is an acceptable trade-off. Symbols, however, leave you having to open a grid and navigate it with the trackpad, which is much slower than the solution offered by the larger models.
You also get the same sense of slowdown with regular punctuation. If you are throwing in a full stop, then a single press of the 1 key is no problem, but if you want something else, again you have to scroll down the characters offered by that key, which is a little slow.
That, in a broad sense, is the trade-off made from opting for a T9 device over the normal QWERTY we are familiar with from BlackBerry. But for anyone who is used to using T9, or is moving over from rival candybar or slider devices, perhaps for their first BlackBerry, they'll find that the experience is surprisingly good.
And text entry is something that needs to be good on the BlackBerry, because this is all about that excellent push email service. You can setup your accounts in seconds and enjoy solid email performance, and we've found that this email service works well with low latency and is equally impressive in areas that don't have the greatest reception. Lacking 3G is no barrier at all (as 8900 owners will tell you), meaning you still get a relatively good data experience on GPRS networks.
Behind that the BlackBerry Pearl 3G offers you access to BlackBerry's App World, and there is a good selection of applications you can add to the standard offering. Most of the big names are present here, so you'll be able to get your Facebook app, Twitter for BlackBerry and so on. The range isn't as extensive or as interesting as Apple's App Store or the Android Market so the BlackBerry isn't as accomplished as an all-singing, all-dancing smartphone as some rivals, but it is an accomplished communicator.
Around the sides of the 9105 are a range of other controls, mirroring the layout on other devices in the range. On the left-hand side you'll find a shortcut key which can be reassigned from the default voice command - we use it for Twitter. The Micro-USB and 3.5mm headphone jack also lie on the left.
On the right-hand side you'll find another shortcut key, assigned to the camera as standard and a volume controller above this. The 9105, like the Curve 8520, has three media keys across the top of the handset. These offer play/pause and track skip functions, with the play/pause also doubling as the keylock button.
That doubling up does throw a slight oddity into the works. You can't just open the media player by pressing this shortcut button. You actually have to open the media player first before you get control. You can then lock the keys with a long press, however, you then can't use the shortcut keys, or the volume adjuster, so the 9105 isn't especially good as a music phone, because you'll have to keep fishing it out of your pocket and unlocking the keys before you can change anything.
In terms of memory you'll want to slip in a microSD card as you only get 256MB of internal memory. Many operators will supply a microSD in the box and it will accept cards up to 32GB.
As for the operating system itself, the 9105 runs version v5 of the OS, so there are no great changes from other current devices. It is a slightly later version than we've seen before, offering quick access to connection settings from the home page by scrolling up to the top right-hand corner over the icons. It makes it easy to change these settings, without diving into the menus.
Otherwise the OS is what you'd expect and if you've had a v5 device you'll find everything where you expect to find it. The icon-based main menu will let you rearrange icons so the top row of five icons form shortcuts across the bottom of the homepage. It's simple to do and means you can get to your essentials, be that business functions or social networking.
Recent releases have seen growing integration of applications and the native OS. Facebook has been well integrated for some time, for example adding calendar entries and pictures to your contacts. Twitter is also integrated, so you'll be able to easily share pictures, as well as being able to opt for a unified inbox, which will present all your correspondence (SMS, e-mail, Twitter and Facebook notifications) in the one place, as well as being able to reply directly from these notifications in the respective application.
We've said before that we didn't think that a BlackBerry would fare so well without making drastic changes to the OS. Ironically, if this was another QWERTY device we'd probably be saying that it was a little conservative, but as a T9 device and pitched towards the entry-level, they might be onto a winner, especially if the contract price plans are right. While business types have been swapping their BlackBerrys for the iPhone, we've seen plenty of teenagers opting for a BlackBerry. The Pearl 3G in this sense makes a great crossover device.
Navigation is generally fast, with a 624MHz processor at the core. We found it to open and close applications without a problem and didn't notice some of the occasional thinking time that our regular Bold 9700 sometimes shows, although with prolonged use this may change. But you'll also find a dizzying array of settings lurking behind the surface, so there is the potential to confuse, a problem that something like the iPhone doesn't have.
The 3.2-megapixel camera on the back offers up average performance. Daylight shots are ideal for sharing online, but suffer from many of the quality problems that mobile phone cameras do, displaying plenty of fringing along edges and colours that are a little flat. In low light the camera will grab shots at a slower shutter speed, often leading to blurring of moving subjects or showing hand shake. The LED illuminator gives a yellow cast to images, so is only really good for candid shots. However, there is no sign of shutter lag and the autofocusing is fast and accurate, so it’s a good experience overall.
The video camera offers 640 x 480 pixel resolution at 24fps. Again, this gives you average results - clear enough to see what you are filming, but nothing to get excited about and there isn't an integrated sharing option for video, for example to YouTube.
Browsing the Internet is something of a weakness given the screen size on offer here. The BlackBerry browser is a little slow as well, sometimes giving up on loading page elements and needing a refresh. It will, however, get you access to full webpages without too much trouble. The useful column view will make reading pages easier, but it can't compete with other smartphones, so if internet browsing is a core priority, this probably isn't the device for you.
We found the onboard GPS to be relatively swift at finding our location. BlackBerry Maps comes installed as standard, but we've always found that Google Maps offers a better alternative. Geotagging is also an option for your images.
Battery life gives you a distinct advantage over touchscreen smartphones. We managed to get a couple of days from the battery, receiving updates and in general use. Heavy use will drain it in the day, especially if you are doing a lot of calling. BlackBerry tells us that you'll get 30 hours of music listening from a single charge, but that doesn’t include general use too, but generally you'll only need to charge it every couple of days.
As a phone for calling it is great to use. Small and comfortable against your ear, we found that callers sounded good, with volume easily adjusted using the buttons on the side. The speaker phone is also pretty good.
The BlackBerry Pearl 3G 9105 is a great handset overall. It gives you the benefits of BlackBerry's connectivity, the great e-mail service and mainstream applications to give you a social mobile with communication at its core. This is packaged into a slim and elegant device that will be as at home in the hands of a texting teenager as it will in the pocket of your finest business suit. It comes in a range of colours too, as recent handsets have.
RIM are playing it safe with the Pearl 3G and the decision to offer the T9 version might help it appeal to those familiar with candybar phones from the likes of Nokia and Sony Ericsson, who want to take the BlackBerry step. You still get a great keypad and a great handset design, which is capable in most areas.
Battery life is an obvious advantage here, pairing it with the full functionality you expect from a smartphone. The downside is that this isn't such a capable device when it comes to media. Obviously the screen size plays a part in this, but despite the addition of media shortcut keys, it isn't as music friendly as some rivals offering distinct music control.
A large part of success will come down to price. The Curve 8520 can be had for £15 a month and we'd hope the Pearl 3G to be a similar sort of price. As a T9 candybar phone, on a cheap contract, we'd rate the Pearl 3G highly. As a fully-fledged smartphone there are obvious shortcomings, so to a certain extent you'll be choosing size over the complete experience.