Research In Motion's Blackberry email devices are enjoying quite the boom these days, on par with Palm's Treo smartphones. So what's the big deal? We took a look at the Blackberry 8700, RIM's latest cellular-wireless handheld, to see how it stacks up against the competition.
This device is available in several minor revisions and carrier versions. The model we tested was the Blackberry 8700g on T-Mobile U.S.A.
Design & Construction
The 8700 uses the "classic" Blackberry form factor: a relatively thin but broad device with a large landscape screen, ideal for having a larger keyboard and longer lines of text.
It's considerably larger than the average phone, explaining why some people prefer to use it exclusively as a data device, maintaining a "normal" phone for voice. Conversing on it directly might be uncomfortable if you're sensitive to the size of your phone.
On the other hand, it makes for a very decent keyboard, though not quite as large as the slide-out keyboards on some smartphones made by HTC, like the T-Mobile MDA.
On the left side of the 8700 is a mini USB port which handles both sync and charge duties.
The right side features a 3-way jog dial and back button, which are the primary navigational controls for the device.
Build quality was a little shaky. The buttons for the keyboard had quite a lot of play, with the entire panel that they were attached to rattling around. Also, the casing felt like it could have been more durable. I would worry more about dropping the Blackberry than I would most other devices, as it feels a little cheap.
Even so, entering text on the keyboard is quite comfortable and speedy once you get used to it. As with most thumb keyboards, a section on the left doubles as a numeric keypad when you press the appropriate shift button.
The overall design of the 8700g is ultra-simple, with a minimum of connectors and buttons. No mistaking, this is a business device, with the no-frills attitude to go with it.
|Processor:||312 MHz Intel PXA901 Hermon processor|
|Operating System:||Blackberry 4.1.0 with Java support|
|Display:||320 x 240 transmissive/reflective LCD|
|Memory:||16 MB RAM; 64 MB flash|
|Size & Weight:|| |
4.3 inches long x 2.7 inches wide x 0.77 inches thick; 4.7 ounces
|Communication:||Quad-band GSM/EDGE; Bluetooth|
Earpiece; microphone; speakerphone; 2.5 MM headset jack
|Battery:||3.7 volt, 1000 milliamp-hour Lithium Ion replaceable, rechargeable battery|
35-key thumb keyboard; 3-way scroll wheel; Back button
The 8700 uses a 312 MHz Intel processor, but not the PXA270 that's so common in other handhelds. Instead, it uses a PXA901 "Hermon" processor, one of a line developed by Intel specifically for use in cellular phones and related devices. With the relative lack of heavy lifting it has to do on the Blackberry, it keeps the system moving along at a very nice clip.
After a few minutes of playing with the Blackberry, I was thoroughly bumfuzzled. I've always heard that these things are supposed to be simpler and easier to use than a full-scale handheld. But what I got didn't seem all that simple.
For starters, you're only allowed to navigate by way of the scroll wheel. While there's a certain logic to this, it becomes annoying when you're trying to navigate and work with the keyboard at the same time. It would be nice to have a directional pad of some kind, even just arrow keys, so that you didn't have to readjust your grip when switching from inputting text to moving around. This further means that when you have an application that needs left and right input -- for instance, the Google Maps application pre-installed on the device -- you need to use unlabeled keyboard buttons, which can be quite frustrating.
The BlackBerry's web browser can only be described as a travesty. It's vaguely reminiscent of the Blazer web browser for Palm OS, but even more limited and ugly. It's not rendering web pages so much as it's rending them, piece by piece, and jamming the result together like a particularly bad crossword puzzle. I can only suspect that it's really only intended to be used on mobile device-oriented websites, which admittedly look much better on it.
I will say this for the browser, it's fast. You can grab a page with relative ease, although that's less impressive when the result doesn't look much of anything like what the page was originally designed to.
Unfortunately, while the screen is quite nice, the system doesn't use it to the full potential. Witness the difference between the lush, graphical wonder that is the main system screen, and a pull from the email client.
Blackberry main system screen
Blackberry email client
I've never seen a more wild variance in font usage. On the main menu screen, you have sleek, modern looking smooth fonts. Open up the web browser, email, whatever, and you're confronted with primitive, blocky fonts which look like refugees from 1996.
If you ignore the way that the system sometimes abuses it, the display still looks quite good. It's a full QVGA resolution, providing a lot of space for the applications that run well, like Google Local.
The 8700 comes with 64 MB of internal flash memory which serves as the complete repository of all user information on the device. The machine's ROM is separate, so you're given more or less the full measure of memory for your discretionary use.
Size & Weight
The 8700 is surprisingly light, more so than most of the smartphone devices I've used. Its broad, thin form-factor doesn't exactly lend itself to holding it to your ear. For voice use, you'll want a Bluetooth headset, though most users probably would anyway.
Zilch, nada, nothing. The Blackberry comes with no expansion slots, no add-ons possible. That includes no additional memory. Of course, due to the lack of available software, you're not terribly likely to find enough stuff to fill up the device's internal memory, so expansion becomes less important.
The 8700 features a simple mini-USB plug for charging and data connectivity, located on the upper left edge of the case.
The 8700 comes with Bluetooth 1.2 for short-range wireless connectivity. It does not, however, support the Dial-Up Networking profile, so it cannot be used as a modem for a laptop PC. Just about the only thing that it can be used for is to connect a Bluetooth wireless headset.
Unlike most other similar devices, the Blackberry is more strictly phone oriented, and doesn't have the same kind of digital audio capabilities as a more typical handheld. As such, its external audio jack is just for a headset, not for stereo headphones.
There's also no media player included with the machine -- but given the fact that you don't have a memory card slot, do you really care?
The 1000 mAh battery in the 8700 is rated for about 4 hours of talk time, or 16 days of standby. Yes, that is as strange a combination as it sounds -- usually devices with such a high standby have more talk time. But the Blackberry manages it somehow. Testing shows that these figures are more or less accurate, though obviously actual times will vary according to usage.
While it wasn't a terrible experience, overall I didn't find the Blackberry to be that much easier to use than any of the Pocket PC phones or Treos I've used. I can only conclude that the big draw of the Blackberry platform was and is the fact that it was the first to do mobile and "push" email well. Otherwise, there's not a huge amount to recommend it over the alternatives. Most of the things it does well are primarily the result of having software pre-loaded, while the deficiencies can't be corrected at all. Perhaps it's just me, but I'd rather have a Treo, or a Wizard, or a Windows Mobile Smartphone over the Blackberry. T-Mobile's own MDA strongly outclasses the Blackberry in most uses, including web browsing, document editing, and voice. That's not to say that the Blackberry is necessarily a bad device, but it's hamstrung in a few critical areas, making it a better candidate for email and simple web use than as a full-scale data terminal.
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