Editor's note: Ratings have been adjusted with respect to newer devices that have entered the market.T-Mobile Sidekick 3 and the more corporate-oriented RIM BlackBerry 8700g. The price is also right at $149.99 with a two-year contract. The RIM BlackBerry Pearl is available in two colors, black or white. For our review, we took a look at the black version. We don't think we're going too far when we say that the RIM BlackBerry Pearl is the sexiest BlackBerry to date--it even gives the Motorola Q some stiff competition. It sports a supersleek form factor (4.2 by 2.0 by 0.5 inches; 3.1 ounces) and a polished look with its glossy black-and-chrome finish. It actually reminds us of the Motorola Slvr L7, and its more cell phone-like appearance will go a long way toward attracting a broader audience rather than just business users. Also, with its slimmed-down profile, we had no problems slipping it into a purse or pants pocket, and it felt solid and comfortable to hold up to our ear for phone calls.
The BlackBerry Pearl rocks a 2.25-inch TFT screen that displays 65,000 colors at a 240x260-pixel resolution. Like the rest of the company's devices, it's not a touch screen, but it offers a sharp, clear display with vibrant colors and is great for viewing e-mail, images, and Web sites. It also features light-sensing technology, so it will automatically adjust the screen and keyboard depending on your environment; true enough, it adjusted the display's light so that we could still read it in direct sunlight. You can change the screen's theme; backlight time; and font size, style, and family. A small LED above the screen illuminates different colors for different status messages: green for wireless, blue for Bluetooth, red for new messages, and amber for low battery. There's also a mute button on top of the device.
Just below the screen, you'll find the reason why RIM decided to name this BlackBerry after a gemstone: the pearl-like trackball. It's reminiscent of the one found on the T-Mobile Sidekick 3 and allows for four-way scrolling; pressing it down acts as a select button. (You can adjust the trackball's sensitivity under the Options, Screen/keyboard menu if you need to change its responsiveness.) The trackball, along with the Menu and Escape buttons that surround it, replace the trackwheel and Escape key that have been mainstays of BlackBerrys past. Having grown accustomed to these controls, we missed having these buttons on the right side for easy one-handed use, and we suspect other BlackBerry users might feel the same way. It's not that the new setup doesn't allow for one-handed operation; it's just different and takes some acclimation.
With the jog dial and Escape key relocated, you'll now find volume up/down buttons and a customizable convenience key on the right spine, while a 2.5mm headset jack, a mini USB port, and another user-defined shortcut key are on the left side. By default, the right shortcut key was assigned to be the camera activation button, and we found that to be quite convenient, especially if you want to take a horizontal picture, as it mimics the feel of a stand-alone digital camera. The Pearl's camera lens is located on the back along with a flash and a small self-portrait mirror.
We've never been big fans of the SureType keyboard, and we're still not. For the uninitiated, this modified keyboard features a traditional QWERTY layout, but two letters are assigned to one key. As you start to enter the letters of a word, SureType technology will present you with a list of possible letter combinations or words based on context. Great in theory, but we've found that it can be slow and frustrating because you have to type the letters, scroll to the correct word, then select it. That said, we understand that some concessions have to be made in order to keep a handset like this small, so we're willing to cut RIM some slack here. We're a little less forgiving, however, about the fact that the microSD card slot is located behind the battery. It's a pain to have to take the battery out every time you want to access it, and even Nokia, which has been notorious for this design quirk, has found a way to make it so that at least you don't have to remove the whole battery, just the cover. Given that this is the first BlackBerry to even offer an expansion slot, you may be thinking we're nitpicking at this point, but it's still an inconvenience.
Finally, RIM packages the device with a travel charger, a pair of earbuds, a USB cable, and a desktop companion software CD. There's no belt holster included with the Pearl, but RIM said this is because it's such a slim device that it doesn't warrant one, which we find agreeable. There are, however, belt clips and cases for purchase. The RIM BlackBerry Pearl has generated so much buzz because it represents several firsts for the company. As we mentioned in the design section, the Pearl is the first BlackBerry to offer expandable media, but it's also the first to have a camera and an integrated media player. Though revolutionary for the product line, these new multimedia features are pretty basic compared to those of other smart phones on the market. Still, we'll take it over nothing, and we certainly think it's a step in the right direction and a sign of good things to come from BlackBerry.