Editor's note: Ratings have been adjusted with respect to newer devices that have entered the market.
When the RIM BlackBerry Pearl debuted back in September 2006, T-Mobile had an exclusive on the phone for a few months. However, Cingular/AT&T wasn't too far behind to snatch up the sexy Pearl, and we don't blame them. It's the first BlackBerry to offer a built-in camera, video and music playback, and expandable media. And while we certainly welcome these additions, we should note that the Pearl isn't offering anything revolutionary; most smart phones today have the same capabilities and offer more functionality, such as video recording. That said, we think the Pearl's sleek design and new features, coupled with the BlackBerry's heralded e-mail capabilities, will be a draw for business users and consumers alike.
Cingular/AT&T's version of the Pearl does offer a couple of extra capabilities that the T-Mobile version does not, most notably push-to-talk and location-based services. It's also available in black or ruby red, while T-Mobile has a black and a white model. Though we did not test the Cingular/AT&T Pearl, you can read more about its design and feature set below and check out our review of the T-Mobile Pearl for more on its general performance. The RIM BlackBerry Pearl (black and ruby red) is available now through Cingular/AT&T for $199.99 with a two-year contract and after rebates.
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 design (4.2 by 2.0 by 0.5 inches; 3.1 ounces) and a polished look with its glossy black-and-chrome finish (also available in dark ruby red). It actually reminds us of the Motorola Slvr L7, and its more cell phone-like appearance will go a long way to attract 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 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 in the 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 standalone 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 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 some concessions have to be made to keep a handset like this small, so we're willing to cut RIM some slack here. We're a bit 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, only the cover. Given 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 it doesn't warrant one, which we find agreeable. There are, however, belt clips and cases for purchase.