The BlackBerry Pearl Flip 8220 marks RIM’s first foray into an uncharted form-factor: a flip phone.
While flip-phones have been considered fashionable since the RAZR to fame circa 2003, the Pearl Flip shakes up the status quo. The phone packs the same innovative features that BlackBerry has become synonymous with, but in a form factor that both protects the screen and preserves precious pocket real estate.
- On the Outside
- Keyboard and Trackball
- Wi-Fi Takes the Cake
- Web Browser Improvements
- Other New Features
- Performance Problems
- Call Quality
- Camera and Video Camera
- Battery Life
Though unusual, the design grew on me, and ultimately stands out among RIM’s standard fare. The Pearl Flip, currently offered in black with chrome trimmings, shares the same mature style that the much-touted BlackBerry Bold 9000 boasts.
With the clamshell closed, the front of the phone features a camera, camera flash, message indicator, and a small display screen.
The external default screen shows the battery status, alarm status, number of unread messages, signal type and strength, and an analog clock with the date. This also allows you to preview messages when they come in by clicking up or down on the right-hand volume buttons. By pressing the volume down button, the message sender and subject will be displayed, by then pressing the right convenience key, the message itself will be displayed.
This useful feature could be improved if it set the status of the viewed message as “read” instead of having to open up the device to remove the indicator.
Continuing with the external tour, the Pearl Flip has the volume keys and the two convenience keys I just mentioned. It also includes a mute key, an expandable miniSD memory card slot, standard headphone jack, and a charger jack.
Opening up the Pearl Flip, you’ll see the main screen above and behind the keyboard.
This display is about as large as the current Curve’s screen, but turned 90 degrees. My primary device before using the Pearl Flip was a BlackBerry 8700c; comparatively, the Pearl Flip’s screen seemed smaller than I liked. If you’re comparing the Pearl Flip to the original Pearl or another smaller-screen phone, you probably won’t have a problem. However, if you are accustomed to the standard size of other smartphones, the screen may seem too small in certain applications, such as browsing websites with horizontal scrolling.
With the T-Mobile version of this smartphone, when the phone is opened the screen defaults to displaying this carrier’s “My Faves” five circular icons. There’s also status information across the top of the screen, and five menu options at the bottom (see picture 3).
Pressing the BlackBerry key opens up the full menu. The Pearl Flip sports 5×5 menu items by default. Most of these applications are standard issue and pretty intuitive.
A small design concern is the actual quality of the hinge. It isn’t loose, but there is a concerning bit of horizontal play in the hinge. Given RIM’s reputation for making sturdy devices, this play lends itself to the “cheaper” stereotype of flip-phones.
The SureType keyboard, RIM’s half-QWERTY offering, is similar to the existing Pearl’s. The rows of keys are set up in a “wave” (see here), which makes typing slower than on traditional smartphone QWERTY keyboards.
For new users, the SureType keyboard will take some getting used to, but it’s intuitive, and usually accurate. Though there are occasional lag issues, and the keys aren’t as textured as I might like, the keyboard offers a pretty solid experience.
The trackball is slightly set into the device, so that it is flush with the rest of the keys and doesn’t get in the way of the screen when it’s closing. It rolls very nicely and there is plenty of space around it.
Though not exclusive to this device, perhaps the most valuable feature the Pearl Flip boasts is the integrated Wi-Fi that can be used to supplement T-Mobile’s service. Available at T-Mobile hotspots in addition to other Wi-Fi networks, this feature makes a huge impact on the usability and functionality of the device.
I was not able to use the 802.1x network available to me, but I was able to get on several 802.11g networks. If you start a call while connected to a Wi-Fi network, and then walk out of range, the cell network purportedly picks up the call without dropping it, though this wasn’t always the case in my experience. Additionally, surfing the Web while connected to Wi-Fi was faster than connecting via the network in my experience.
This feature hugely expands where and how the device can be used, and should be a standard on all forward-moving smartphones.
The browser on the Pearl Flip cannot compete with the functionality and features of the iPhone browser, but it provides an improved surfing experience in comparison to previous BlackBerry’s.
The Pearl Flip sports the new BlackBerry OS 4.6, same basic build as the new BlackBerry Bold.
The most obvious improvement about the OS is the new wire-frame default aesthetic theme. Though nice, the real benefits of the new OS lay elsewhere, though.
A quick jaunt to the Applications folder reveals a full suite of Microsoft Office-like applications, known as DataViz Documents To Go. The suite — comprised of Word To Go, Sheet to Go, and Slideshow to Go — is essentially mobile versions of their desktop counterparts which allow you to view, edit, save, and share documents of their respective types.
For most users, being able to edit and resend an incoming document will be all the functionality you’ll need, especially given the Pearl Flip’s smaller screen. However, if you want to create new documents and access more advanced editing options, you’ll need the upgraded premium version, which costs $70. As a bonus, this version comes with the PDF To Go viewer (see here).
The Pearl Flip also features a voice recorder and video recorder, in addition to the standard memo pad, task list, calculator, calendar, voice dialing, and password keeper.
Continuing through the Applications folder, you are treated to a selection of games. The old standby, Brick Breaker, gets some aesthetic makeovers, but remains largely unchanged and largely unbeatable beyond the 30th level (amateur, I know). To enhance your leisure time/procrastination experience is Word Mole, an interactive search game, Texas Hold’Em, Sudoku, Klondike Solitaire, and Typer Trooper, which makes learning to type as much fun as it was in junior high.
Although OS 4.6 is a welcome upgrade, both in terms of aesthetics and features, it’s not as solid and reliable as previous versions.
Often, there is a bit of delay when navigating menu screens, or typing. This issue becomes most relevant when trying to dial from the home screen. If you start typing a contact’s name, the lag may cause the device to pick up letters later in the name rather than the first ones. For example, if you are calling “John Smith,” due to delay, the Pearl Flip might pick up the “O, H” and bring you to the O-H area of your phone book. This proved to be a consistent annoyance.
On several occasions while playing World Mole, the Pearl Flip displayed a white screen and was completely unresponsive, requiring a battery reset. Additionally, when ending a phone call by closing the flip screen, the external screen occasionally gets confused. Most of the time it displays a standard call-ended message, but occasionally it displays the wrong information. For example, if you talked to Mary Doe and then John Smith, after ending John’s call the phone sometimes displays “Mary Doe, Disconnected, 0:33, etc” instead of “John Smith, Disconnected, 0:33 etc,.”
Strangely, despite repeatedly selecting a background image from the camera, the device would restore the background to the default image after a while.
Though these issues aren’t deal-breakers, they may indicate that the OS needs some tweaking or a firmware update.
The call quality on the Pearl Flip was consistently satisfactory. A nice feature that this device incorporates is the ability to enhance the call quality by adjusting/enhancing the bass and treble during calls. The user’s selection will be saved and applied to subsequent calls. While making calls over Wi-Fi, the calls seemed to have a slightly higher quality; it seemed easier to hear the other caller. Callers reported the device delivered good, consistent, clear sound quality as well.
The in-call features such as conferencing etc. are arranged differently than in other BlackBerry’s, so there is a little bit of re-learning for you power-users to do, though nothing too distracting.
The built-in camera takes decent pictures and video. They both make use of an optional flash, but they’re no replacement for your standard digital camera.
Here are some examples:
I’ve had positive battery-life experiences with RIM in the past, and the the Pearl Flip doesn’t disappoint. Its battery lasted for a touch over two days; this while holding several phone conversations, frequent messaging, with Wi-Fi on. I don’t have T-Mobile coverage or Wi-Fi in my room (archaic, I know), so undoubtedly more battery than normal was lost while searching for service.
This device ships with a USB cable, as well as an AC adapter with folding prongs. The inclusion of the USB cable makes it easy to charge on-the-run via a USB port on your laptop. However, the Pearl Flip features a different type of mini-USB slot than previous BlackBerry’s, so your current BlackBerry chargers or other cables will not work with this device. For some, like me, this is a major turn-off and a potential deal-breaker. Not being able to use a friend’s charger or a mini-USB cable is profoundly annoying, and buying multiple chargers is impractical. (Just to note, the Bold uses a standard mini-USB port, so this is a device-specific issue).
I have a spare BlackBerry battery from Amazon.com that I keep charged up in my bag. Although I can use the Pearl Flip’s battery in my BlackBerry 8700, the opposite is not true; the Pearl Flip” battery compartment was just too tight to accommodate my 8700’s battery. When I was able to get the battery in, a battery warning sign flashed. I suspect there are relatively few users out there that carry extra batteries with them for fun, but if you’re one of them beware, the Flip might give you problems.
The Pearl Flip would be a great introduction to the world of smartphones for occasional users. It offers an experience that can’t be replicated by a regular phone, and is competitive with most other smartphones.
Although the full BlackBerry experience is somewhat lost on the smaller device, it definitely outperforms the original Pearl by virtue of having Wi-Fi and the updated OS. To check mail, access the Web, listen to music, and shoot occasional pictures and videos, this phone is a winner. However, power-users may want to skip out, or pick this up only for the weekends.
Overall, the Pearl Flip not only offers excellent value given its rich features and compact flip form, but it comes backed with a reputable name and is competitively priced. The inclusion of GPS would have make this device hard to pass up, but generally speaking it isn’t lacking in software. For those pining for a smaller, powerful smartphone for everyday use, the Pearl Flip should be on your short list!
This product is available now from T-Mobile USA. It has a $350 base price, but that drops to $150 with a qualifying service plan and a mail-in rebate.