Computerworld

BlackBerry Pearl is the smartphone of the future

Here's a column written entirely on the Pearl: welcome to the future
  • Mike Elgan (Computerworld)
  • 15 December, 2006 12:00

Like today's best smart phones, the pocket communication gadget of the future will be an "everything device." At a minimum, it will function as a laptop, digital camera, video-capable media player, voice recorder, handheld, speakerphone and more. But unlike today's bulky, boxy, bloated Treos, BlackBerries and Windows Mobile smart phones, future offerings will be as tiny, thin, light and sleek as the smallest of today's not-so-smart phones.

Tomorrow's smart phones will be more like a Hershey bar and less like a grilled-cheese sandwich.

RIM's BlackBerry 8100, the PearlDon't look now, but the smart phone of the future has arrived. RIM's BlackBerry 8100, the Pearl, is the first of a radical new generation of smart phones.

The Pearl is revolutionary

The impact, or importance, of every groundbreaking device for shaping the direction of mobile electronics is clear only in hindsight. It's hard to remember now, but when the radical, influential devices first shipped -- the Sony Walkman, the Palm Pilot, the RIM BlackBerry, the Apple iPod -- it wasn't immediately clear that these products would dominate their markets and influence the direction of mobile electronics.

The Pearl is just such a groundbreaking, genre-killing, trendsetting device. And although the Pearl is getting rave reviews, its full impact has not yet registered with the pundits or the public. It will. This phone is destined for fame and glory.

I'm the quintessential frequent flier, and I've long used the behavior of business travelers on airplanes as a kind of field laboratory for monitoring trends in mobile computing. That's where, for example, I first witnessed in the early 1990s people playing games on their laptops, and in the early years of this decade, people watching rented DVDs on their laptops. It's where I discovered that people would actually watch movies and TV shows on their iPods.

What's currently turning heads aloft now is the BlackBerry Pearl. In the past two months, I've seen a conspicuously large number of impromptu "demos" of the Pearl taking place on airplanes. Someone starts using it, then someone else nearby asks what it is and gets the demo. The Pearl's owner is always rabidly enthusiastic. The other person is always blown away. I haven't seen this kind of enthusiasm on an airplane since the iPod.

I see the BlackBerry Pearl, released on T-Mobile in October and Cingular this month, as the first major fourth-generation mobile phone. First generation: cell phones that didn't feel anything like today's small, sleek, pocket-size cell phones. Second generation: regular cell phones, but small and sleek. Third generation: "smart phones" that combined handheld functionality with the cell phone, but felt like handhelds, not phones. The Pearl is the first major example of the fourth generation: full-featured smart phones that feel like tiny cell phones.

The Pearl, at 4.2 x 2 x 0.6 inches and about 3.5 ounces, is about the size of a closed Motorola Razr -- a "dumb" phone famous for how thin it is.

The Pearl is radical

The ongoing smart phone battle is largely waged between Palm and Research In Motion. For a few years, both companies have offered a range of heavy, flat, wide, large-screen, full-keyboard phone-handheld devices. RIM has also sold a line of phone-like devices, but with limited functionality.

The current crop of devices reveals a sudden differentiation between RIM and Palm. RIM's new offering features bold innovation. Palm's represents more of the same old thing.

The newest Palm Treos are great devices, with a host of "tweaks" that fix minor problems and annoyances with older models. But they're neither taking any risks nor breaking new ground. They're all the same old Treo, with small improvements.

That's not the case with the Pearl. I believe three features made BlackBerries famous: 1) pager-like e-mail that notifies you when you've got a message, 2) RIM's patented QWERTY keyboard design and 3) scroll-wheel navigation.

The Pearl is radical because the phone completely abandons two of these three features. That's very bold.

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The 'Pearl' is the killer feature

Prediction: The trackball will become the dominant navigational device for mobile devices within two years. The hot new Sidekick III has one, and now the BlackBerry Pearl has one.

The size and sophistication of the Pearl are enough to set it apart from the pack, but the namesake trackball is the piece de resistance. Think of the trackball as a 2-D scrollwheel on crack.

On the main Pearl screen, I can zip from one icon to any other and select it instantly. Wherever you are in the Pearl's menus, applications or options, simply pressing down on the trackball will present you with the option you want, almost every time. The trackball-conjured options are so incredibly context-sensitive that a huge number of multistep tasks are accomplished by repeated pressing of the trackball. Press, press, press, press and you're done. It's a weird kind of no-navigation navigation. Alternative options are just a small thumb movement away.

Once you familiarize yourself with the menus and options on the Pearl, ripping through tasks with the trackball is blindingly fast. It even controls the digital zoom on the camera.

Left-handed users can rejoice! This oppressed minority has long suffered from second-class status when it comes to gadget design. The placement of BlackBerry click wheels on the right side of older devices is one egregious example. The Pearl's trackball is in the middle and can be used with equal fluidity by either hand.

The Pearl trackball's combination of usability and coolness -- it glows bright white when you use it -- is comparable to the iPod click wheel. Using it feels that good.

After using the Pearl for a few days, I tried using a Treo again. What a let-down. My thumb instinctively reached for a trackball. Navigating with Treo's slow, dull, old-school rocker dial was like driving an old pickup truck after test-driving a Ferrari.

The Pearl is a better phone

For years, those of us wanting a full-featured smart phone had to make small sacrifices in cell phone functionality. Using a Treo or a Windows Mobile smart phone has meant fumbling through too many menus to use phone features, and holding an overly bulky device while we talked.

No such sacrifices are required with the Pearl. It's the most elegant, usable cell phone I've ever tried. The usability is due largely to the brilliant user interface design decisions made by RIM. For example, the default screen is the recent call log (most people are more likely to call those who they have called recently). Selecting a recently contacted person -- say, "Janet," from the recently called list brings up a menu with all the ways to call Janet (call home, call mobile, e-mail Janet, SMS Text Janet, MMS Janet) with the most recently used selected. If you don't want that menu, just press the phone button instead of the trackball, and the phone is dialing the default (recently used) number already.

If you call someone, and they don't answer, trying them at another number is breathtakingly simple. Press down on the Pearl's trackball to bring up the caller's menu, move the thumb a smidge to select another number (say, "mobile," rather than "office"), then press down again and the phone is dialing. Press, scoot, press. You can do it in half a second. The only thing quicker and easier would be thought-controlled dialing.

The Pearl's keyboard makes a huge differentiation between keys used as numeric keypad, and those that aren't -- the phone keys are white, the others, black. Plus, they're much bigger than, say, the Treo's buttons. The result is that when you're using the device in "phone mode," you forget it's a QWERTY keyboard. You just dial and call just like a regular cell phone.

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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 mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.