The Pearl isn't perfect
Don't get me wrong: If you're looking for a mature, ultrasolid, well-integrated device for business, newer Treos and older BlackBerries are still your best bet. The Pearl is great for early adopters and rabid gadget freaks, but it's not for everyone. The surfaces are a little too slippery, including the keys. It can't record video. Some don't like the fact that the MicroSD card is buried under the battery and hard to remove. The camera is low quality. It has an LED flash, but one so dim to be nearly useless. The "Maps" application is inferior in every way to Google's mobile Maps application. In short, the Pearl is a 1.0 device.
The Pearl's keyboard is better than you think
Almost all the reviews I've read on the Pearl slam the keyboard as a necessary evil. Its unconventional format is a little hard to use at first, and it relies on a RIM software application called SureType.
RIM first introduced its predictive-typing technology SureType in the 7100 line. The Pearl sports an improved version of SureType.
The Pearl keyboard is a QWERTY keyboard, of sorts. The letters are arranged in the same order as a regular QWERTY keyboard, but two letters per key (plus in most cases a symbol access by typing the ALT key).
SureType predicts what you want to type in five ways:
1. It comes with a database of more than 35,000 words.
2. It scans your address book and grabs the names you're likely to type.
3. It knows likely letter sequences that appear in the English language. For example, if you hit the WQ key, it assumes at first that you want W. But when you follow that with a U, it changes the W to a Q.
4. Whenever you type a word or a name not in its dictionary, it adds the word as soon as you press the space key.
5. And finally, SureType scans incoming e-mail for new words to add.
Words in the database aren't treated equally. Those you use most frequently are favored as the default choice. In short, SureType "learns" and improves over time.
You can also switch at any time to the "multitap" mode by pressing and holding the asterisk key. Multitap mode means you choose the second letter on a key by pressing that key twice, just like on an old-fashioned cell phone keypad. Password entry fields on the Pearl default to multitap.
As you type, the possibilities appear below the place where you're typing. If you want to just select one, you can use the trackball to scroll over to it. A "Symbol" key brings up a screen full of punctuation marks, special characters and symbols. Lingering on a key -- pressing it and holding for a half second or so -- capitalizes it.
These are just a few of the shortcuts and features SureType uses to make typing fast, easier and more accurate.
The bad news about SureType is that it requires some learning. And nobody wants to learn some proprietary system for text entry. But the good news is that once you spend some time with it, the Pearl's keyboard system is fast and easy.
When I started researching this column, I assumed I would join the reviewers who slammed the keyboard. But after less than one week of use, I can type faster and more accurately using the Pearl than I can with a Treo, and I've been using Treos for years.
So one Computerworld columnist likes the Pearl keyboard. The real question is, will the great masses of smart phone buyers accept it?
I think they will. SureType takes some getting used to. But the phone's tiny size is a worthwhile trade-off. Once mastered, the keyboard is pretty fast and very usable.
How usable? I wrote this column on a Pearl. Welcome to the future.
Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.