Blackberry Pearl Flip is well designed but flimsy: review

Research In Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerry Pearl smartphone isn’t new, but the flip, or clamshell, design of its BlackBerry Pearl 8220 from T-Mobile certainly represents a big change for the leading business smartphone maker, RIM.

Today, T-Mobile becomes the first U.S. carrier to sell the BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip, a consumer-minded phone that left me impressed with its design but displeased with a few durability issues, after a weekend of use for this hands-on review.

Make no mistake: The design of the new Pearl is significant news for RIM. The first iteration of the BlackBerry Pearl, the 8100, initially introduced in the United States by RIM and T-Mobile in September of 2006, featured candy-bar styling- like the vast majority of RIM’s devices before and since. Roughly a year later, RIM and Verizon Wireless announced a CDMA version of the device for U.S. customers, the Pearl 8130, with a slightly different design-most notably, a repositioned camera lens and an external memory card slot.

Since then, various carriers have released the device in custom colors, but everything else about the Pearl has largely remained the same. (A feature comparison between the entire Pearl lineup is available on RIM’s site.)

That all changes in a big way today with the BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip. The quad-band EDGE/GPRS/GSM (850/900/1800/1900MHz) device with Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g) was initially unveiled in September at the CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment event in San Francisco, but it should go on sale through T-Mobile on October 13. (The black version should be available immediately, but if you want a red Pearl flip, you’ll have to wait an extra week.)

RIM decided to stick with the Pearl name for its newest smartphone-I’m still not exactly sure why-as well as a similar-yet-larger SureType keyboard. But that’s where the similarities end. The new flip design features two high-resolution LCDs, one on the inside of the device when opened and another external display for when it’s closed, which lets you receive notifications, see caller/sender ID information, as well as scroll through and preview new messages.

The device runs on RIM’s latest handheld operating system, BlackBerry OS v4.6, which offers a wide variety of great new features, including the ability to receive HTML e-mail with images, create custom icon-screen folders for better organization, and even put the device into Safe Mode, which can help to identify and eliminate problem applications. And this phone has double the amount of flash memory of previous Pearls with 128MB, though the processor speed remains the same at 312MHz.

What we liked about the BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flipf

After spending a weekend with the new Pearl, I have some strong first impressions, starting with the eye candy factor. The BlackBerry Pearl 8220 is a great looking device; there’s no two ways about it. When closed, the sleek smartphone is only 3.9 inches long, 1.9 inches wide and 0.7 inches thick-easily small enough to fit comfortably in a shirt or pants pocket. Its external display is 128 x 160 pixels.

When opened, the flip Pearl is roughly 7 inches long and a bit thinner. It weighs just 3.6 ounces. The device also features a larger internal screen than previous Pearls; at 240 x 320 pixels, the Pearl 8220 display is exactly the same size as the screen on the BlackBerry Curve 83xx, but it’s rotated 90 degrees. When closed, the Pearl 8220 is shorter than its predecessor Pearls, but it’s also slightly thicker. Still, somehow it seems sleeker.

The device, designed to sit steadily in the palm of your hand when opened and comfortably cradle your face when in use, delivers on both accounts. The Pearl 8220’s volume and mute buttons are located high up on the right and left sides of the device, respectively, and they’re easy to access while the phone’s in use via thumb and middle finger.

I found the volume levels to be average compared with existing BlackBerry devices, and call quality over both EDGE and Wi-Fi was good, but not great.

The new Pearl also has an LED coverage/message indicator like all its elder BlackBerry brethren; however the device’s clever design has a circular LED positioned externally alongside two similarly-sized circles that are the camera lens and flash. All three sit just horizontally above the outer display when the device is closed.

One of the Pearl 8220’s coolest and most innovative new features: The phone lets you display and preview new messages and status information on the external screen when it’s closed. This does away with the need to constantly open the phone to check for messages. It also reduces unnecessary wear-and-tear on the flip hinge.

The up/down volume buttons scroll through new messages when the Pearl is closed. And the programmable “convenience keys” on each side of the device work to light the external display when it fades so you can check the time or device status without ever having to open the Pearl. (Both buttons can be customized by the user to launch various applications when the device is open.)

Perhaps the most notable difference between the Pearl 8220 and the 81xx series-besides the flip form factor-is its OS: BlackBerry handheld OS v4.6.0.151. (Previous Pearls ran on various versions of BlackBerry OS v4.2 and 4.3, though updates to v4.5 are expected from U.S. carriers in the near future.)

In fact, the new flip Pearl is the first U.S. BlackBerry to run on RIM’s latest OS.

I could write an entire review based on the new features available in BlackBerry OS v4.6, but I’ll only focus on the highlights here. First of all, you can now receive HTML e-mail, which means no more messy code scattered throughout messages.

It also means that images within mail can now be displayed, though you must choose to manually download pictures for each message. (HTML e-mail is available in BlackBerry OS V4.5.)

BlackBerry OS v4.6 also lets you create new folders on your home icon screens for enhanced organization. For example, you can now choose to create separate folders for different kinds of applications, i.e., one for games, one for search and navigation apps, and another for social networking programs. This helps to reduce clutter on the icon screen and makes applications easier to locate.

Previous versions of the BlackBerry OS provided one central folder into which all messages-e-mail, SMS and MMS-were delivered, making it difficult to fish through piles of mail to find one specific text or multimedia message. BlackBerry OS 4.6 offers a separate SMS/MMS-dedicated mailbox.
The new BlackBerry OS for the Pearl 8220 has a cool new feature called Safe Mode, as well, which can be activated by holding the device’s Escape key while it’s rebooting. Safe Mode is meant to help identify and remove problem applications that may be negatively affecting the health of the device.

DataViz’s Documents to Go ships with the Pearl 8220 so users can download and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files-there are also tricks to make the free standard edition of Docs to Go create new documents. And an entirely new set of games comes along with the Pearl 8220, including Word Mole, Texas Hold’Em King 2, Sudoku, Klondike and Trooper Typing.

Much improved clock/alarm features let you customize the external time display-digital, analog or flip-clock-style. With detailed alarm settings, you can disable the blinking LED coverage/message indicator during the evening and much more.

Instant messaging applications including BlackBerry Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk, ICQ and AIM, all come preinstalled. A better-though still lacking-media player lets you manage music and playlists on the handset and not through a desktop-based application.

The device features an external microSD memory slot that can accommodate media cards up to 16GB, and it ships with the new BlackBerry Media Sync software, which means you can sync non-DRM-protected iTunes tracks with the BlackBerry.

Finally, the device also sports some great T-Mobile-specific features, starting with the carrier’s MyFaves app, which works in conjunction with the T-Mobile Fave 5 program. Fave 5 lets T-Mobile customers place unlimited to calls to five specific numbers, in addition to their monthly allotment of minutes. The application also makes it easy to set custom notifications and alerts for calls and messages from users’ Fave 5 contacts.

Pearl 8220 users can also utilize T-Mobile’s HotSpot@Home plan, thanks to the device’s Wi-Fi and UMA support. HotSpot@Home enables T-Mobile customers to place unlimited calls via their home Wi-Fi networks for just $10 a month on top of their current bills.

I’ve been a T-Mobile customer for some time, and HotSpot@Home is my single favorite thing about the carrier. (For more on my experiences with HotSpot@Home and UMA, read “Pros and Cons of Dual-Mode Cellular/VoWi-Fi Mobile Phones.”)

And the Pearl 8220 even has a lanyard hook for all you fans of silly smartphones accessories.
That’s a lot to like. But on the flip side…

The Cons

Immediately after I picked up the BlackBerry Pearl 8220 for the first time at CTIA, I couldn’t help but notice how light and delicate it felt. Lightweight is a good thing. Flimsy? Not so much. Unfortunately, the BlackBerry Pearl Flip falls into both of these categories. RIM’s first clamshell phone is gorgeous, but may not be built to last.

After just a few days with the Pearl 8220, its external display is noticeably scratched from hitching rides in pockets along with my keys, iPhone and various other Levi’s debris. The scratches aren’t so significant as to be noticed while the outer display is illuminated, but if you hold the device up to the light, they’re clear as day and won’t just wipe away.

A case or holster would’ve at least reduced the damage, but the Pearl Flip shipped naked. This is uncommon, as most RIM devices, including previous versions of the Pearl, shipped with some form of leather carrying case from RIM.

The rear battery door is also loose, the color slightly wearing off around the edge, after only a couple of days of use. Unlike previous Pearls and other RIM smartphones, the new Pearl has a small metal latch at the base of the battery door that can be pulled down to release the cover. The latch itself makes it easy to access the battery, but it doesn’t stop the battery door from sliding side to side slightly.

Granted, I removed and replaced the battery upwards of 20 times during the review period, so users who rarely tinker with their batteries may not experience the same issue. Still, most BlackBerry users know that hard resets are often necessary, and that means pulling the battery.

Speaking of batteries, the BlackBerry Pearl 8220 had roughly seven hours of talk time in my tests. That’s not bad, but considering the fact that the original Pearl 8100 that I reviewed back in the spring of 2007 had about eight and half hours of talk time, and both devices access 2.5G EDGE networks, the Pearl 8220’s battery life does not particularly impress.

On the subject of wireless network speed, remember the BlackBerry Flip runs on T-Mobile’s EDGE network, which means it isn’t a 3G device. That’s not such a big deal for me personally-I own a BlackBerry Curve 8320 (EDGE) and an iPhone 3G and don’t ever see much of a difference because I’m frequently using Wi-Fi on both-but with all the hype around 3G in recent days, it could be a deal breaker for some folks.

Another downside: The device doesn’t have GPS. Whether or not satellite positioning functionality is a necessity largely depends on the individual user, but I suspect the lack of GPS will turn some folks away from the Pearl 8220-perhaps towards the 8210, which will reportedly have GPS, but no Wi-Fi. I will say, however, that if I had to pick between GPS and Wi-Fi, I’d go Wi-Fi all the way. You can always pick up an external GPS puck, but there’s no such thing as a Wi-Fi puck.

The Pearl 8220’s two LCD displays also don’t look as vibrant or sharp as some of the screens found on its BlackBerry counterparts, including the high-end Bold 9000, or even the Curve 83xx and Pearl 81xx series. The external display looks particularly pixilated.

Since I’m a T-Mobile customer and employ both its HotSpot@Home and Fave 5 plans, I’m very familiar with each offering. Shortly after transferring device information from my Curve to the Pearl Flip, I attempted to place a call to one of my Fave 5 contacts, but got an application error.

I closed the dialogue box and tried to access the application again, but nothing happened; the app wouldn’t launch. After I pulled the battery to reboot the device, the Fave 5 app worked fine, but the same thing happened a day later when I removed and inserted a microSD memory card. I’ve never come across such an error using the Fave 5 app on my Curve, and the fact that it happened twice in as many days on the Pearl 8220 tells me there could be a problem there.
Though the keyboard on the Pearl Flip is much improved over the earlier Pearl keyboards due to its significantly larger size-each button is literally twice as big as the earlier buttons-it’s still not a full QWERTY keyboard. That means there are multiple characters on each key. Despite the use of RIM’s SureType technology, which makes typing on such a keyboard simpler and more efficient, I’ve never been able to type as fast or without as many errors on a Pearl keyboard as I can with a full QWERTY.

That hasn’t changed with the Pearl 8220. The new guitar-fret-inspired plastic spacers between rows of keys do help to guide users’ fingers, and the slightly indented numeral keys make it easy to dial phone numbers without paying much attention to the buttons, but power users will want to stick with a full QWERTY device. (Check out our Pearl 8130/8220 Flip image gallery for keyboard comparison shots.)

At $149.99 along with a two-year T-Mobile service contract, the BlackBerry Pearl 8220 is a bit pricey-especially since early rumors had suggested the carrier might offer the device for as little at $49.99. It makes sense to put a premium on a brand new device, with the holiday season on the horizon and all. And it’s likely that T-Mobile will drop the price slightly in early 2009-but I still think $149.99 is too expensive. In my opinion, $99 with a two-year contract is just about right.
RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip battery door hinge

Another compliant: The browser still needs work. Experienced BlackBerry users have long complained about the default BlackBerry browser, and though the browser that ships along with BlackBerry handheld OS 4.6 is much improved over previous versions-zooming in and out is easier and more intuitive, for example-the application’s still not up to snuff when compared to other mobile browsers on the market; in particular, the iPhone’s Safari browser.

The Pearl Flip also comes with only two themes, one of which is the boring default T-Mobile theme. BlackBerry themes reflect how icons and data are presented on the home screen. Every other BlackBerry device I’ve used in the past came with at least a couple more themes.

My final gripe relates to the new micro USB port that’s used for charging and syncing data on the Pearl Flip. All of the additional 8000 series BlackBerrys have slightly-larger mini USB ports. When I asked a RIM representative at CTIA why the company switched from mini to micro USB for the Pearl 8220-and the as-of-yet unannounced Curve 8900-he replied, “For form factor.” In other words, so they could make the device thinner.

That’s all fine and good, expect for the fact that the Pearl Flip isn’t too thin for a mini USB port; I’ve held it up to a number of other devices with mini USB to check. I understand that the “guts” inside the device might make it simpler to use a smaller USB port, but I have a number of spare mini USB sync cables and chargers from my various devices, and I don’t have a single mini USB accessory.

That means I’d have to go out and buy an extra charger or sync cable for the Pearl 8220, even though I’ve got plenty of mini USB cables lying around. I suppose I could just pick up an adapter, but still…

And now, to sum up a long review in a short space:

Conclusion: To Flip or not to Flip?

The BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip is a truly sexy smartphone. Its modern, minimalist design is sure to draw stares-from men and women alike. But it also feels light and flimsy and the shiny black external display panel, the real focal point of its design, scratches easily.

The Pearl Flip also features a larger version of the SureType keyboard found on existing BlackBerry Pearl devices, and while the keyboard is admittedly better than those on older Pearls, it’s still not as efficient as many of the full QWERTY keyboards found on RIM devices like the Curve 83xx and Bold 9000. Many tried and true shortcuts for BlackBerrys with full QWERTYs also don’t work on the Pearl.

And the lack of a full keyboard and questionable durability mean the Pearl 8220’s not an ideal smartphone for demanding businesspeople or power users.

But that’s okay, because RIM has clearly shifted its enterprise-specific focus toward consumers over the past couple of years, and the BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip is the company’s latest attempt to woo the non-business-oriented masses. And it’s a valiant effort.

The current price of $150 with a two-year T-Mobile contract is a bit steep, but that cost may fall closer to $100 after the holidays. So while the most demanding businesspeople and advanced users won’t likely want to rush to the mall to pick up RIM’s latest gadget, you can bet lots of feature-phone-users looking to make the transition to a smartphone will. The flashy device might even steal away some would-be iPhone buyers.

BlackBerry Pearl 8220 Flip Research In Motion (RIM) Price:$149.99 with two-year T-Mobile voice and data contract Pros:Beautiful design and form factor; compact; runs new BlackBerry OS v4.6; external display lets you view new messages without opening the device; microSD slot supports up to 16GB external memory; Double the amount of flash memory as earlier Pearls; T-Mobile Fave 5 Plan and HotSpot@Home save valuable wireless minutes.

Cons:Feels somewhat flimsy and breakable; external display scratches easily; at $149.99 with two-year service contract, a bit pricey; no full QWERTY keyboard; no 3G; no GPS; LCD screens are noticeably pixilated; doesn’t come with carrying case/holster; micro USB cord renders mini USB cords from older BlackBerrys useless; ships with only two themes.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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