Cingular Wireless recently began offering the BlackBerry 8800, RIM's latest cellular-wireless handheld, and only the second model from this company to offer support for playing video and MP3s.
Look and Feel
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The 8800 is a near lookalike to its older sibling, the BlackBerry Pearl. It sports the same dark navy blue with chrome highlights, and the same white directional controller, but swaps the Pearl's 20-key predictive input system for a full 35-key QWERTY layout.
The new model also drops the Pearl's camera in favor of an internal GPS receiver, and takes advantage of its own larger size to pack in a bigger screen and a higher capacity battery.
For the most part, what you see with the 8800 is what you get. No tricks, no hidden features, with the sole exception of the memory card slot, tucked under the battery cover.
Unlike the Pearl, you no longer have to remove the battery in order to access the memory card. The microSD slot is still stored in the battery compartment, but it now has a new location and swing-open latch to accommodate hot-swapping (click here for a picture).
Other than that, though, it's a perfectly straightforward design. Keyboard, buttons, screen. Dead simple.
What surprised me most about the 8800 is the relatively poor performance of the controls.
The keyboard, for starters, is adequate for typing, but nothing more. Rather than the full, firm click that one would expect from a device as keyboard dependent as the BlackBerry, it feels squishy, and the keys tend to wiggle a bit on their rubber mat. Consequently, it can be less than great for extended use.
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That, however, is a fairly minor frustration compared to the directional controller. The 8800 copies the trackball device from RIM's earlier BlackBerry Pearl device: a small, rubberized ball which rotates freely inside its socket to indicate direction, and can be clicked inward for a center action.
There are people who rave about the trackball as a pointing system. I'm emphatically not one of them. Despite practice, it's always harder to use than a simple directional pad, and responds to urgency or inexperience with wild inaccuracy.
Besides which, I can't seem to figure out what benefit it's supposed to provide over a more conventional directional device, besides seeming "cooler." Don't get me wrong, there is a positive in that the BlackBerry now has some kind of directional controls, but the trackball is not, to my mind, on par with a real D-pad.
I don't really have objections to most of the 8800's build quality--the control issues seem more a failure of engineering than manufacturing.
But at the same time, I personally find nothing really exciting about the 8800's physical design. It's appealing to look at, sure (though it doesn't photograph well), but it has no particular advantages that I can see over its competitors, and it doesn't feel as nice in the hand as, say, the Samsung BlackJack.
Compared solely to other BlackBerries, it does have a more appealing form-factor, the added directional controls, and some improvements to memory card access, but otherwise it has little to distinguish itself from the herd.
Performance & Software
It's hardly a surprise that the 8800 performs snappily, as the BlackBerry platform has such relatively little overhead that a 312 MHz processor is quite adequate to the tasks at hand.
The 8800 has the whole range of standard BlackBerry platform functionality, resting mostly around email, but also encompassing basic web browsing, limited third-party expandability, and a variety of functions like mapping that would be useful to the frequent traveler.
I do note that the standard web browser has improved somewhat since the BB 8700, but it still far behind its competitors, or even the freeware Opera Mini. The device also comes with VoiceSignal software built-in for voice-dialing.
Although RIM has designed its most recent models, including the 8800, with music and video in mind, it's pretty clear from the software implementation that these capabilities are as much proof-of-concept as anything else. The level of serious multimedia support is woefully inadequate, bringing to mind the audio/video "support" seen on the Palm devices of two or three years ago.
I can only conclude that RIM simply wants to brag in their promotional materials about having the ability, while knowing that anyone with more than a passing interest in mobile multimedia has already bought some other device. Don't get me wrong, you can certainly use it as an audio player if you want to, but it's not as good as most other devices, and pretty much hopeless for serious video.
The main user of the 8800's internal GPS receiver is the TeleNav service pushed by Cingular on most of its smartphone offerings. None of those, though, has gotten quite the amount of shove that this BlackBerry has gotten, due mostly to being the most recognizable brand of device to feature an internal GPS.
Having the receiver built in also allows for the use of the "TeleNav Track" service, which lets businesses monitor their employees' locations, as well as do a few other advanced tricks like automatic mileage tracking. None of this comes free, of course--the basic TeleNav mapping service is $10 per month, and the TeleNav Track options are additional on top of that.
Last but not least, this model supports Cingular's push-to-talk service, for those of you longing for that full Nextel feel in your devices. This too is an optional added-cost service, another $10 per month.
If you want to take advantage of all the capabilities of the 8800, you'd better be prepared to pay.
As with most built-in GPS receivers these days, the 8800's internal chipset is one of the SiRFstar III line, specifically the SiRFstarIII-LT. This was designed for a smaller footprint and lower power consumption than other SS3 receivers, and also supports the use of Assisted GPS from cellular towers to produce a faster location fix.
Make no mistake, though, you don't need to see a cellular tower in order to get a GPS lock--the LT is, like its bigger brothers, a fully independent receiver. Though in this case, it may not matter as much--without access to a cell tower for data service, there will be no maps from TeleNav, Google, or anything else but what's already on the device, and to my knowledge there aren't any cellular-independent mapping packages for the BlackBerry.
In actual use, the receiver proved every bit as reliable as is to be expected from the SiRFstar line, getting and holding a signal and tracking motion with aplomb. If the reduced size and power drain affect performance, it wasn't noticeable from my testing, though I have no urban canyons with which to stress test its reception capabilities.
While I didn't delve deeply into the TeleNav package, nor its positives and negatives, it does provide a more than adequate navigation system, allowing the user a full range of typical GPS options, including integration with the BlackBerry's contacts application.
This is one area where this device does quite well for itself.
The 1400 mAh battery, rated for some five hours of talk time or a completely insane 22 days of standby, manages to power the 8800 well past its smaller siblings, and also outpaces many other smartphone offerings such as the Blackjack, as well as the Treo 680 and 750 models.
The BlackBerry 8800 is a perfect device for those who liked the Pearl, but were turned off by the predictive text input. Otherwise, I find it hard to get excited about.
The internal GPS receiver is a pleasant boon, and the device itself is mostly well built, but the controls are marginal, and I continue to feel that the BlackBerry platform's main advantage is having been the first to get push email right.
While hard-core BlackBerry users may find it nearly perfect, I suspect platform switchers will be disappointed.
Appealing to a certain market, but not the best device in its class.
|Processor:||312 MHz Marvell XScale|
|Operating System:||BlackBerry 220.127.116.11|
|Display:||2.5 inch, 320 x 240 pixel transmissive/reflective LCD|
|Memory:||64 MB flash memory|
|Size & Weight:||4.49 inches long x 2.6 inches wide x 0.55 inches thick; 4.73 ounces|
|Expansion:||Single microSD slot|
|Docking:||Single mini-USB port|
|Communication:||Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE; Bluetooth 2.0|
|Audio:||2.5mm headphone jack; speakerphone; speaker & mouthpiece for phone|
|Battery:||1400 mAh replaceable Lithium Ion cell|
|Input:||35-key thumb keyboard; trackball with press-to-select|
|Other:||Push-to-talk functionality; SiRFstar III-LT GPS receiver|
Rear view, with battery cover
Left side: audio jack, mini-USB port, push-to-talk button.
Keyboard with backlighting active.
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