BlackBerry breaks with design tradition to take on the flip phone market.
2008 has been a year of firsts for RIM. The recently-released Bold marked the first time a BlackBerry offered the wireless jackpot of HSDPA, Wi-Fi and GPS, and the upcoming Storm – due for arrival December 1 through Vodafone – will be the first BlackBerry to feature touchscreen operation a la the iPhone 3G. Nestled in between these two handsets is the BlackBerry Pearl Flip 8220: the first RIM smartphone ever to use a flip phone design. Perhaps not as revolutionary or awe-inspiring as the Bold and the Storm, but it's a big – and refreshing – departure from RIM's traditional candybar QWERTY designs.
One thing we've always been able to say about BlackBerry handsets is their design is anything but generic. Even after QWERTY keyboards became popular with other mobile manufacturers, there was always something distinctive about a BlackBerry that set it apart from other smartphones.
And then came the BlackBerry Pearl Flip. It's not that it's an eye-sore per se, it's just disappointingly plain from the outside, with a nondescript (and fingerprint-prone) gloss black front and cheap-looking plastic black rear. Things improve a little when you flip it open, though, thanks to the striking black and chrome colour scheme, unique wave-pattern keypad and vibrant 2.6in display.
Anyone that's used a BlackBerry from the last three years will be instantly familiar with the trackball navigation; for the uninitiated, it works like an inverted mouse for scrolling through programs and settings. Other hardware characteristics of note include the microUSB connector – the first BlackBerry to ditch miniUSB in favour of the new industry-standard, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a microUSB slot on the right that accepts high-capacity cards up to 16GB.
And CrackBerry addicts needn't worry – the all-consuming blinking red indicator for new messages is still on-board and has been relocated to the outer shell next to the two-megapixel camera.
Like most flip phones, the Pearl Flip features a smaller screen on the outer shell, and by default this shows an analogue clockface, date, battery indicator and mobile reception. Any new calls, emails and text messages are also displayed on the screen, and you can even read the entire SMS or email without flipping open the phone using the buttons located on either side. When you're playing music, it also displays the track information, and you can pause and skip through tracks using the same buttons.
First introduced on the original Pearl, the Flip uses a modified QWERTY keyboard called SureType for entering text. The layout is essentially identical to the full QWERTY found on the Bold and 8800, but each key houses two letters, and it uses predictive software to guess which letter you mean to enter. Functionally, it's the same system used in standard phones, but since it uses a QWERTY layout and there are only two letters per key (the traditional phone keypad has three), it's faster and more efficient. The large keys feel positively luxurious to type on, but they're relatively flat, and we found ourselves constantly checking that we were pressing the right keys.
The Pearl Flip runs the same BlackBerry OS 4.6 operating system that we first saw on the Bold, and the upgraded interface translates well to the smaller QVGA resolution. It's more or less the same icon-driven menu system as previous versions of the OS, but the graphics have been overhauled for a more modern look and feel. Key applications have also been updated: email now supports HTML and rich text formatting; the media application can now play DivX and XviD videos; and the web browser has been tweaked to render desktop-formatted web pages more efficiently (although it's still not a patch on the iPhone's Safari browser).
It's not only email that gets the benefit of rich text formatting – you can now view Word, Excel and PowerPoint file attachments in their native formatting as well thanks to the preloaded Documents To Go Standard Edition suite. This also lets you edit files, but if you want to create a new document from scratch, you'll need to upgrade to the Premium version.
Other bundled applications include Facebook, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! Search, Yahoo! Messenger and Google Talk. The Facebook client is a bit of a let-down as many features from the main site – like the ability to comment on people's status updates – aren't available. Windows Live Messenger, on the other hand, is almost as full-featured as the desktop client, and seamlessly integrates with the email program so that new instant messages appear in your inbox.
Multimedia playback has improved in leaps and bounds in the BlackBerry models released in the last year, and the Pearl Flip continues the tradition with a powerful external speaker, 3.5mm earphone jack and centralised Media application for music, videos, ring tones, pictures and voice notes. However, we weren't as impressed with its video playback as we were on the Bold. On the latter device, we were able to play our XviD copies of Heroes without having to do any conversion or resizing, but on the Pearl Flip, the videos wouldn't take up the entire screen, even with the Full Screen setting active. Also, there's no way to flip the orientation to landscape, and playback is stuttery due to the Flip's slower 312MHz processor.
Speedy performance isn't one of the Pearl Flip's strong points, and there's a definite lag at times when bringing up the menu, moving between applications and entering text. It's worth noting that the BlackBerry Bold's processor is twice as fast at 624MHz, and even on that phone we noticed the occasional system lag. RIM is good about pushing out software updates, though, so we're hoping that future revisions will improve the Pearl Flip's performance.
The Pearl Flip has a small 900mAh lithium-ion battery, but since it doesn't use 3G and has a slower processor, it's enough to keep it running for around four days of medium usage. Talk time is rated at four hours, with 14 days of standby.