BlackBerry Pearl is the smartphone of the future

Here's a column written entirely on the Pearl: welcome to the future

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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