Review: BlackBerry Pearl is smooth, but no surefire winner

September 18, 2006: 10:00 AM ET

BlackBerry Pearl 8100

Research in Motion, through T-Mobile

$199 after rebates

5.1 x 2.3 x 0.9 inches

7 ounces

Utility Factor: Medium

Cool Factor: Medium

The Pearl is a great piece of jewelry, but the interface could use some work.

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The idea behind the BlackBerry Pearl 8100 is that RIM and T-Mobile want to bring the addictive "CrackBerry" experience of push-email out of the executive boardroom and out to the unwashed masses. (Or maybe the semi-washed; the unwashed will stick with free camera phones.) Since they've stated that ambitious goal, that's the standard they've got to meet. I can tell you right now: They fall a bit short.

Out of the box, the Pearl looks good: It's much lighter, thinner and more pocketable than my Treo. It has a clear, bright screen and an interface that, while not intuitive, is navigable within a few minutes.

From there, though, the utility breaks down. It has a half keyboard that's a bit better than a number-based keyboard but not as good as a full QWERTY keyboard. And the menus make it too much of a hassle to get where you want to go on the phone.

EMAIL

Okay, so clearly the draw with this phone – besides the fact that it's so darn sexy – is that you can get your e-mail on it. If you're a subscriber to Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail or any of the other free webmail providers, it's pretty easy to get all that on your phone. Once you find the appropriate menu in the Pearl (which isn't quite as easy as one would hope), just enter your e-mail address and password, and you're good to go.

This is where some of the old BlackBerry magic is lacking. Many of us get spam in our e-mail accounts, or we get a pretty large volume of e-mail. Well, it all ends up on the BlackBerry Pearl – and it stays there until you delete it from the phone, even if you've already deleted it from your webmail account. You can't really blame RIM for that, since most other devices that tap into webmail work the same way. But it doesn't make the experience any more pleasant.

UPDATE: Yeah, this e-mail thing is definitely a big, hairy pain. Every message just gets shoveled over to the Pearl and treated as an unread message, even if you've already seen it in a browser. So now I have 100 messages, just from today, sitting on the phone, and I really don't feel like dealing with them – mostly because I dealt with them once already in Firefox. A simple "Mark All As Read" option would be great, but I haven't found one yet on this device. I have a call in to the PR agency that sent me the device, asking if there's some function in the phone that solves this problem – I haven't heard back yet.

UPDATE (06.10.02): Recently heard back from RIM's folks. They say that if I were using Hotmail, Yahoo Mail or basically any popular webmail provider besides Gmail, the sync would work and I wouldn't have to deal with this annoying flood of messages I've already seen. I haven't had a chance to verify the accuracy of that statement; but if true, it would suddenly make the Pearl a lot cooler.

BROWSING

The browsing experience in this phone is better than e-mail; it's similar to what you'd get on a Sidekick III, albeit with a smaller screen. You can pull up whole webpages or just suck in RSS and Atom feeds. (The display on the feeds is often a heck of a lot cleaner, so I recommend getting content that way, as much as possible.)

So far, the BlackBerry Pearl gets a Medium in Utility because the e-mail function is terribly annoying, the personal information management (calendars and contacts) isn't quite at the level of Palm OS devices, and the interface is less than intuitive. It gets a Medium in Cool because, while it's a pretty and slim verson of the Blackberry, it doesn't have enough "wow" factor to feel as cool as, say, a RAZR did when it first came out.

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