TODO alt text

BlackBerry Pearl 8100 review

Having second thoughts before you shell out for an iPhone?

Jump to Section:

Our Verdict

Nice, but the iPhone would eat it for breakfast

For

  • Small and light

    Great email handling

    Free PocketMac software

Against

  • Clumsy menus

    Slow web browsing

    Poor storage capacity

With racks and racks of iPhone boxes sitting on the shelves of our local Carphone Warehouse, casting "come hither" looks in our general direction, we thought we'd be wise to check out the competition first. So, here it is in the form of the rival smartphone, the BlackBerry Pearl 8100.

The Pearl is BlackBerry's latest incarnation. It's smaller, sleeker and sexier than its predecessors, looking more like a conventional mobile phone than the previous models. Unlike a normal phone, however, there are five columns of keys under the display window, which have letters laid out in QWERTY keyboard arrangement.

It's also the first BlackBerry to feature a trackball to help you navigate its menus, which works quite well. Unlike the iPhone, however, there's no touchscreen action to be had here at all. For some users a physical keyboard is something of a must-have feature for a smartphone.

We don't agree, though - we found it much more difficult to type using the Pearl's small keys than we did using the iPhone's on-screen keyboard.

The first hurdle a Mac owner is going to find with the Pearl is that there's no Mac compatibility out of the box.

Luckily, BlackBerry does want your custom, so it provides a free download program called PocketMac from its website, which enables you to sync your BlackBerry with most popular Mac applications like Mail, Entourage, Address Book, iCal and DayLite. We're impressed that PocketMac is now free, since we were expecting to have to dig into our pockets for it.

Like the iPhone, the BlackBerry can also handle your media files - it can play MP3s, display photos and play video. Unfortunately the built-in flash memory is a paltry 64MB, although this can be expanded courtesy of a microSD slot. Sadly this is located behind the battery, which isn't a great design feature if you need to keep accessing it all the time.

Playing movies and videos involves clumsily navigating files and folders, and the Pearl doesn't hold a candle to the iPhone's interface, but it's with web browsing that the Pearl really looks archaic. Browsing is slow and painful.

The Pearl works on the GPRS network, which offers speeds of about 2.5G (which is roughly equivalent to a 56k modem). It's a lot stronger as a portable email client rather than a browser, particularly if your business runs a BlackBerry mail server.

As with most new mobile phones, there's a built-in camera, and despite being just 1.3 megapixels, we were impressed with the quality of the snaps it produced. Apple's mantra that megapixels don't matter as much as lens quality when it comes to a phone's camera is proved wrong here.

It's easy to get distracted with all the extras, but the Pearl's main purpose, of course, is as a phone. The calls we made on the device sounded great and the volume controls can be conveniently accessed with your thumb as you talk.

The thing you really notice when using the BlackBerry is that it lacks the iPhone's simplicity. Compared to the iPhone you never quite feel like you're in control of the phone, but rather the phone is in control of you.

There are too many options in the menus and the screens looks cluttered. You start to panic and hit the wrong key on the slightly too small keyboard and end up deleting an email you've been tortuously tapping out for the last five minutes.

The end result is that the Pearl doesn't give you that calm feeling of being in control that you get with the iPhone. Everything you do starts to feel like a battle, but to be fair the same criticism can be levelled at just about every other smartphone in the market.

The Pearl looks nice, is rich in features and it's fine for email use, but really it's aimed at business users looking for simple portable email, and it's not a patch on the all-round iPhone experience.