Three weeks ago, I ordered my new phone to replace the Motorola Razr V3C that I’ve had for the last two years: The BlackBerry Pearl 8130. It arrived via FedEx a couple of Tuesdays ago, and I’ve been using it ever since. What follows is my review of the Pearl and my thoughts on it so far. In short, it’s an awesome smartphone, and the best phone I’ve owned so far.
The BlackBerry Pearl 8130
The 8130 is BlackBerry’s smallest phone, sort of a cross between a regular handset and a smartphone with a full QWERTY keyboard. It’s also the first consumer-oriented BlackBerry to be available for Verizon Wireless, including a camera, GPS, and a media player application. Don’t let its small size fool you though: This thing is every bit as powerful as phones twice its size.
The Pearl is surprisingly small. To give you an idea of its size, I placed it next to my old Razr and took a couple of pictures:
As you can see, the 8130 is just slightly longer than a closed Razr. It’s also just a bit bigger than the Razr in terms of thickness.
The other two notable hardware design items are the trackball and the keyboard. The trackball, directly below the screen, replaces the thumb scroller used on previous BlackBerries. It is used everywhere for navigation, and can be pushed down to “click” on an icon, link, etc. The keyboard is not a regular numeric keypad or a full QWERTY setup. Instead, it places two letters to a key and uses the built-in SureType software to predict the words you’re typing based on a built-in dictionary and common words it learns from you over time. More on this later.
Call Quality & Reception
First, I’ll admit that I haven’t had a chance to do any traveling with the Pearl yet. All of my use so far has been limited to the Grand Forks/Thompson area. Having said that, the Pearl’s radio reception has been as good, if not better, than what I got with the Razr. The real test will be the next time we drive out west through rural North Dakota – there are a couple of notorious dead spots in the middle of the state that will give me a good idea of how this phone works in low signal areas.
As for call quality, this too seems to be better than the Motorola Razr. Voices on the other end are loud and very crisp.
Email and Text Messaging
Email is what originally put the BlackBerry on the map, and the Pearl doesn’t disappoint here either. You can set up to something like 10 different email accounts to be delivered to your phone via the BlackBerry Internet Service. Messages from most POP3 and IMAP email servers usually arrive within 10 to 15 minutes. In a very cool move, users of Gmail and Yahoo! Mail actually get their email pushed to them as soon as it arrives. Several times, I’ve had messages show up on my phone before seeing them in my Gmail inbox.
Text messaging works pretty much the way you would expect. One nice addition is the ability to view a history of the conversation below the text of new messages. This lets you quickly get the context of what’s being said.
It took me a couple of days to get used to typing with the assistance of the SureType software. At first, I did a lot of letter-by-letter correcting and backtracking, which is just about as slow as typing on a regular phone keypad. However, I quickly learned to trust the software to pick right word for me automatically. I’m still a little surprised at how well it works for typing.
The Pearl 8130 has a number of built-in applications besides email and phone:
- A very capable mobile web browser
- BlackBerry Maps
- An audio/video media player
- Organizer functionality (calendar, address book, to-do list, memos, voice memos)
- The BrickBreaker game
Plenty of 3rd Party Applications
Because the Pearl is based on the BlackBerry OS and not Verizon’s normal/crappy custom interface, it is capable of running a number of Java applications designed to work on the platform. Installation is usually just a matter of visiting a webpage using the built-in browser and clicking a download/install button. Here are the 3rd party apps I currently have installed:
- Opera Mini: An awesome mobile version of the Opera web browser that acts as a great companion to the built-in browser. Much like Safari on the iPhone, it offers a mode for viewing full size pages instead of the typical stripped-down mobile versions.
- Gmail: Even though my Gmail gets pushed to my phone automatically, it’s nice to have this app when I need to do some inbox cleanup or mark a message as spam.
- Google Maps: A mobile version of Google’s famous mapping software, complete with satellite view. Due to Verizon’s heavy hand though, the built-in GPS won’t work with it. More on this later.
- Google Talk: Although I don’t use GTalk on a daily basis, it does come in handy on occasion.
- Facebook: The Facebook application for BlackBerry gives you the ability to do common tasks while away from your computer.
- TwitterBerry: A mobile client for Twitter.
- MidpSSH Mobile SSH Client: This one is loaded on for the inevitable situation when I’m miles away from a computer, but absolutely need to log into one of my web servers to fix a problem.
I’m really hoping that Google will release some new applications to fill in a few gaps. For people like me who use a lot of web applications, there currently isn’t an easy way to sync my Gmail Address Book and Google Calendar to their BlackBerry equivalents. I’d rather not have to resort to a complicated hack to get this data synchronized.
A Great 2 Megapixel Camera
There is really no comparison between the Pearl’s 2 Megapixel camera and the 1.3 Megapixel one on the Razr. The higher pixel count helps, for sure, but RIM must be using a much higher quality lens than Motorola, because the quality is so much better. Here is a photo I took with my Pearl while driving down the interstate:
The camera also features a 5x zoom that actually does a decent job:
If you have a MicroSD card, you can also use the built-in camera to take videos. I believe their length is limited only by the amount of available space on the memory card. Video quality is decent, considering it’s not this devices primary function. Here’s an example I took on the Pearl and uploaded to Vimeo:
Crippled GPS & Bluetooth: You’re Killing Me, Verizon.
The BlackBerry Pearl is almost the perfect smartphone, but Verizon had to go and intentionally cripple a couple of its features, all in the name of money. While the built-in GPS could work with the BlackBerry Maps and Google Maps applications, Verizon has locked down that hardware so that it only functions with its $10/month VZ Navigator service.
Separately, Verizon has also severely locked-down the available Bluetooth profiles (PDF), for no apparent reason. I at least understand their reason for doing this on their regular handsets, where they want you to purchase ringtones, songs, and wallpaper. But on a smartphone that doesn’t tie into any of these Verizon services? There’s no reason they can’t allow full desktop syncing and file transfer.