RIM gets smart

The BlackBerry Pearl appeals to more than just business nerds.

Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry personal digital assistant and the jewel in Canada's high-tech crown, finally gets the consumer market. Hallelujah! After years of exclusively targeting business nerds, RIM, based in Waterloo, Ont., has broken through this month with the release of its elegant new BlackBerry Pearl smart phone, a quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE phone that works exclusively on the Rogers Wireless network in Canada and allows international roaming across North America, Europe and the Asia Pacific.

Not only is the Pearl tiny and sleek, but it has a built-in camera, something RIM swore it would never do, because business users supposedly didn't want camera phones. Even more surprising, the Pearl can show digital photos on its colour screen and play MP3 music and digital videos. Corporate IT managers will shudder.

Yet for all the pandering to consumer desires, the new BlackBerry continues to offer an unsurpassed e-mail experience. Messages are automatically sent to the device over the wireless network. Using RIM's BlackBerry Internet Service, the Pearl can monitor up to 10 e-mail accounts, including corporate, ISP and web accounts. Setting up the device to receive messages is simple enough that anyone who uses e-mail on a computer can do it.

RIM's initial success with the BlackBerry hinged on the device's innovative user interface, which included a full — if tiny — QWERTY keyboard that made it surprisingly easy to type messages using two thumbs, and a versatile wheel for scrolling menus and message lists and making selections. Design, however, was not RIM's strong suit. The first BlackBerries were squat and ugly. Later smart-phone models — PDAs that doubled as cellphones — were marginally more attractive but still clunky. The Pearl, though, is a masterpiece of industrial design.

It's not quite a Motorola RAZR, the wafer-thin benchmark for cellphone chic, but the Pearl does measure just 107 by 50 by 14 mm and weighs only 88 grams, small enough to slip in a shirt pocket. It's a marvel of miniaturization when you consider it includes a QWERTY keyboard — of sorts — and a big, bright LCD screen (38 by 40 mm, 240 by 260 pixels, 65,000 colours). It also has 64 megabytes of onboard Flash memory and a slot for a micro SD memory card to add more — plus all the PDA and multimedia applications, including e-mail and organizer (synchronizable with Outlook), web browser, instant messenger, photo viewer, MP3, video player, maps, etc.

Key to the Pearl's success are two innovations in user interface design. Gone is the thumb wheel, replaced by a tiny white trackball, which apparently gives the device its name. Brushing your thumb over it lightly moves the cursor across or up and down a web page, menu or list. Pressing it makes a selection. It works better than the old thumb wheel. RIM's SureType keypad puts an entire QWERTY keyboard on 20 keys — with two letters plus a special function on each. You press keys just once when typing text. Software intuitively figures out from the context which letter you intended. RIM introduced SureType keypads two years ago, but this version is even smaller and not exactly fat-finger friendly. Still, it's more efficient than poking keys once, twice or thrice to choose letters, the only way to type on a numeric keypad.

Bottom line: The 1.3 megapixel built-in digicam (with Flash and digital zoom) is, to be kind, basic. As a music player, the Pearl is no threat to iPod, although for those who only occasionally want to listen to music on the go and don't demand perfection, it will do. And for all its brilliance, the new trackball-and-SureType interface probably isn't ideal for very e-mail-intensive users, especially the fat-fingered.

On the other hand, the critical applications — phone, web browser, e-mail — all worked extremely well in our testing. If you were waiting for a good-looking BlackBerry that was actually fun to use, this is it. From $250 (with a three-year Rogers contract) to $450 (with a one-year contract).