BlackBerry 8800 gives Pearl design business-style twist

The BlackBerry has come a long way since its rather clunky, utilitarian beginnings.Research in Motion‘s newest release, the BlackBerry 8800, from Rogers Wireless, is a slim, sleek extension of the streamlined form factor RIM adopted with the BlackBerry Pearl, but with a business twist.

Launched at the 3GSM show in Barcelona earlier this year, the 8800 fits comfortably in the hand, measuring 4.5 x 2.6 x .55 inches, and weighing a mere 4.73 oz. Like the Pearl, it replaces the side scroll wheel with a little trackball on the front.

While I’m not too fond of trackballs, it certainly does make horizontal scrolling much easier. The “ESC” button that sat below the scroll wheel has moved to the right of the trackball. A Menu button sits to the left of the trackball. Volume controls occupy the scroll wheel’s old spot, and a configurable “convenience key” sits on the left edge of the unit (it came preprogrammed for Voice Dial).

Watch that button
You can still operate the unit one-handed, though experienced BlackBerry users will find their thumbs straying to the volume buttons as they search for the missing thumb wheel.

I also kept accidentally pressing the convenience button and hearing a friendly voice asking me for the number to dial; I’d be inclined to disable that button, or set it to initiate something more benign.

The 2.5-inch colour screen is clear and bright, with light-sensing technology that adjusts the illumination, although the bifocal crowd may find the icons a bit small. The text fonts are a reasonable size. Unfortunately, one cannot say the same thing about the keys on the full QWERTY keyboard. The compact form factor of the device means the keys are small and snuggled together. Male testers in particular found the 8800 difficult to type on.

Funky features
The feature set is impressive. The phone offers voice-activated dialing, either from the address book or by dictating the digits of the phone number. There’s a decent quality speakerphone (once you find the button to turn it on). In fact, voice quality is very good through both handset and speaker (the speaker is on top, not the back, so it’s not muffled).

Bluetooth support permits use of handsfree headsets. And of course you get all of the funky features such as ringtones (and thank you RIM, there’s one that actually sounds like a telephone – what a concept!).

The unit also has a built-in GPS that ties into maps from Tele Atlas. It usually showed me where I was (if it could find some satellites – indoors, it was iffy), although when I asked it for directions from my current location to an address in Eastern Ontario (via its Web-based service), it couldn’t find it and instead offered directions to Massena, NY.

When I arrived at my correct destination, however, it was able to show it on a map. For an additional monthly fee, you can access TeleNav’s GPS Navigator, which provides voice guided turn-by-turn directions.

The integrated media player can handle MP3, MIDI, AMR-NB, AAC and its variants and WMA audio, and MPEG2 Part 2 Simple Profile, H.263 and WMV video. Obviously, the quality is limited by the small screen and speakers, but it’s quite respectable, and RIM includes a set of stereo earbuds in the box. The 8800 supports microSD cards so you can load up on as much music as you like. Unlike on the Pearl, whose card slot is buried under the battery, you can insert and remove cards without shutting the device down.

Rock-solid
The integrated personal information manager includes the usual calendar, address book, memo pad and task list, and a BlackBerry wouldn’t be a BlackBerry without rock solid e-mail support. The 8800 integrates up to 10 e-mail accounts, and will, of course, interface with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server. The BlackBerry instant messenger application is supplemented with clients for Yahoo! Messenger and Google Talk. Password Keeper provides an encrypted repository for all of those hard-to-remember passwords.

The only thing that’s missing from the 8800 that would make a business user smile is Wi-Fi. Aside from that, the unit provides the functionality to keep one happily and stylishly connected, on or off the road.

The BlackBerry 8800 is available from Rogers for $499 on a three-year plan ($649 on a one-year plan) and according to RIM the devices can be centrally managed and supported by IT departments when used with BlackBerry Enterprise Server.

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