The original BlackBerry Pearl 8100 was a breakthrough device. It was the first BlackBerry to sport a camera as well as being the first trackball-controlled device. It was obvious upon its December 2006 release that RIM was taking aim at the Nokia feature phone market with a new breed of consumer-friendly devices.
Since then, the BlackBerry Pearl has been a regular character in the cast of top 10 stateside-sold smartphones. Usually priced at around $100, the BlackBerry Pearl form factor is a proven product line that, thanks to the Pearl 3G, can no longer be labeled entry-level.
The Pearl 3G styling is superb. The bezel around the screen looks angular and shiny, just like a cut and polished gem. The media keys are barely visible making the device look clean with a beautifully curved grid of keypad buttons. I have the good fortune of testing out the gradient red model from Rogers, one of the best looking color schemes I have seen to date.
The 3G Pearl is no longer designed to be an entry-level smartphone; it’s now a full-featured powerhouse, so streamlined it has the feel of a sports car. The device is light and curvy on the back making it a pleasure to hold and to use. I found that the somewhat stiff rubberized sides mean harder to press convenience keys and volume control buttons.
3G: Great for the web browsing experience. I would have never dreamed of browsing YouTube on any of the previous Pearl models.
Dimensions: 108 x 50 x 13.3 mm feels more stylish than previous Pearl models, especially how some of the edges are cut at an angle, and others are rounded and smooth. It is roughly the same dimensions as the 81XX series BlackBerry Pearl except and eight of an inch thinner; no quantum leap here.
Speaker: The mono speaker is loud and clear for speakerphone use but it makes music sound flat. This is not such an important feature for me because I rarely use the speakerphone for music playback.
Internal Memory: 256mb is great, even roomy for BBOS 5. We’re not sure if this device is capable of running OS 6, but it’s unlikely. A 2010 device should be able to run a 2010-released OS, unless RIM is cooking up some planned obsolescence strategy. Imagine being able to upgrade your Internal BlackBerry memory like how they did with the Nintendo64. That would be ideal.
External Memory: With the purchase of a big Micro SD card, you can hold up to 32GB of media (we also sell a 16G card).
WiFi (B/G/N): Speedy N-flavored WiFi makes the Pearl 3G RIM’s fastest WiFi device.
Bluetooth 2.1: The new Bluetooth spec will mean faster data transfers, provided you’re using other Bluetooth 2.1 devices with it.
Charging: The Pearl 3G came with the old charger. I can’t wait until they begin shipping the new tiny power cube featured at WES2010.
Processor (624 mhz processor): The processor is similar to the 9700 Bold series. It doesn’t feel particularly nimble but I have not experienced any processing bottlenecks.
GPS: Full GPS and assisted GPS make for snappy location results. The GPS is more in line with the 9700, and 9650 GPS chips. Getting your location took around 20 to 30 seconds with the Bold 9000, If feels like less than 10 seconds before Google maps has me pinpointed on the Pearl 3G.
Battery: On paper, it has hundreds of hours of standby time. In the real world, It lasts through the day under heavy usage with everything turned on. It can do two days with casual use, and three days if you’re the ultimate battery miser.
The Pearl 3G is as significant a jump in battery performance just as the 9700 was to the Bold 9000. I used to constantly adjust the WiFi, Bluetooth and screen brightness on the old Bold. With the Pearl 3G, I keep WiFi and Bluetooth on and I know the battery will last the full day.
Migrating From a Full Keypad BlackBerry to the Pearl 3G
The thing about the Pearl 3G that convinced me to migrate from a Bold 9000 is that it’s basically the same guts as a 9700, but in a much smaller and stylized package. I probably wouldn’t have gone with the Pearl 3G if it had compromised on the features like some previous Pearl models had done by omitting WiFi or real GPS.
Migration from another BlackBerry is the way to go if you’re interested in the Pearl 3G. With the system having access to all my friends’ names in the phone book, the only time that SureType seems slower is when I’m typing a password in the mandatory multi-tap mode, or using language that I know the BlackBerry won’t recognize.
The Rogers Pearl 3G comes with BlackBerry OS 126.96.36.1999 installed. The only noticeable difference is when you press back to access the Zen menu from the main menu, you now have the option to select and click directly into connection settings. Very handy because it’s something that I want to access quite often and who wants to go deep into the options menu for something that is tweaked often. They should bring screen brightness control out of obscurity next.
This OS build takes 5 minutes to start up from a battery pull, which is annoyingly normal for a new BlackBerry. I’ve seen OS5 builds so optimized that it would start up in just over a minute. 5 minutes is too long to go off the grid, I hope they can release an optimized version soon.
I can actually browse the web, read articles, and emails with ease on a Pearl device. The new 360×400 resolution lends itself well to browsing in column mode so you don’t have to scroll left and right to read each line of text. It feels like a high-end widescreen BlackBerry that’s been put into portrait mode.
Videos are viewed in landscape mode, a lot like the current iPod nano series. This is good because if you were to resize with black bars in portrait mode, you would be watching a video less than half the size of the original. Also rotating the device into widescreen is a normal occurrence for the Pearl’s media functions like taking landscape photos and shooting widescreen video.
The screen can also be set to very bright.
The software, hardware and battery are specifically tuned to play music for extended periods of time just like the 9700. I love the dedicated media buttons; not having to switch your application in order to change the volume, pause, or fast-forward is priceless. At home I’ve been using the BlackBerry Remote Stereo Gateway and it makes the BlackBerry feel like the ultimate remote control.
The media buttons are controlled by a single flexible piece of plastic on the top of the device. It works the same as all the modern optical trackpad devices: play/pause and mute are in the center, rewind is on the left and fast-forward is on the right with volume controls on the top-right side. I’ve been using much more music features how that it’s easier to access, so much so that my 9100 now has more songs than my iPod.
The ease of running music on my device has often made me forget about it when I pick up my phone to make a call. I’ve noticed that we’ve had a lot of smartphones suffer from the same music problem: if you’re using it as a phone, the music screeches to a halt and your party is basically over. I would love to see phones continue to play music through a miniplug output or Bluetooth while you take or receive calls. I’m sure it’s technically feasible so long as you’re using separate inputs and outputs. The BlackBerry OS could easily manage this feature if it were implemented as a sound profile.
My biggest problem with smartphone cameras is that they don’t perform like a regular digital camera. The shutter is usually unusable and laggy, the exposure, white balance and dynamic range are typically comparable to a 90s era digital cameras. However, the Pearl 3G camera is a vast improvement over previous implementations. The auto-focus is nimble; the shutter is actually responsive enough to feel like a consumer digital camera as opposed to a feature afterthought. I will be taking a lot more pictures with this model and I consider the current generation of BlackBerry cameras to be another nail in the coffin for consumer digital cameras.
New Product Line Blues
When RIM releases a device with a new set of specs it takes a long time until most of the apps and themes are ported and in the sales channels. I’m surprised that they’ve not done more to tackle this problem by providing earlier developer access to emulators, devices, and an updated theme builder.
Whenever I get a new device I usually spend about $50 on extras to make it the best new device I can. For the 9100 I’ve had to settle for the stock theme, and whatever favorite software of mine happened to be updated to the new form factor. If I had got a new Curve I would have sent $50 by now, my current Pearl 3G software tab: $0.
I can’t imagine how much application revenue is lost with the release of new BlackBerry form factors. People generally buy most of their smartphone software and accessories while their phone still feels new. This device will have been with me for a couple of months by the time I can spend any money on it.
Demystifying the SureType Keypad
SureType is RIM’s proprietary input algorithm based on a 2-letter per button keypad. This makes it much more sophisticated and accurate predictive text than the feature phone world’s 3-letter per button keypad T9 algorithms.
I used to be a big evangelist of the QWERTY BlackBerry because I thought it was the strength of the entire BlackBerry platform: Being able to reply to a message at top speed. This led me to believe that all the other BlackBerry text entry methods like SureType, SurePress and Standard (T9) were second-rate. Within a week of using the Pearl 3G’s SureType I was eating my quickly typed words.
Newsflash: SureType is not that much slower than the full BlackBerry QWERTY keypad. I found that the consolidation of the buttons means for a bigger button surface area: 2 times larger than the Bold series buttons. A great tip for increasing your typing speed on the 9100 is to look at the letters themselves, not the buttons.
It’s easy to type quickly and confidently on the big wide buttons, and it reduces the mental typing slowdown of making sure you’re hitting the correct, tiny key. After using the Pearl 3G for a week, I feel that the bottleneck for typing faster on a QWERTY series BlackBerry is the small size of the buttons. The bottleneck for typing faster on the Pearl is using never before entered names and uncommon words: a rare occurrence in the midst or a rapidly typed message.
I was a user of the first ever SureType device: the BlackBerry 7100 without migrating a phonebook. It was very tedious entering some of my friends’ uncommon names and when entering a URL, felt as if I had two left thumbs. SureType has come a long way and feels much more intuitive than its first implementation, probably thanks to it’s use on 2 of the top 10 Smartphones sold in the US: The Storm, and the Pearl.
Pre-loaded SureType-ing Tutor
Getting good at SureType takes about a week of normal use, or you can fast-track your progress by playing the pre-installed SureType tutor.
Trooper Typing is a SureType typing tutor game developed by Magmic. The game starts off slowly with two-letter words, then gets more complex with longer words, less common words that you have to select using the popup SureType menu, and number strings.
The later levels are quite intense and force you to forget that you’re using consolidated buttons. I found myself typing some words that I would press the same key twice in a row with two different thumbs. This is the essence of SureType: forgetting that they are indeed separate buttons.
In the Box
Included in the standard BlackBerry sized retail box are the typical cardboard BlackBerry tray, the standard BlackBerry charger, software CD and paper instructions. Time to take a cue from nearly every other handset maker in the world: excess packaging and optical media are passé.
I like how smaller packaging highlights the importance of a device and I wish RIM would innovate in this manner with some updated packaging. I think something like wristwatches that come in a plastic case that shows off the device without having to open the package would be perfect. You could even use it after purchase to store or hold your device while charging. The only thing the current packaging is good for is recycling or taking up 6 books’ worth of bookshelf space.
The only accessory I have been able to purchase in stores so far is official rubber skin. I find this case simply unusable because of how it obscures the bottom row of keys. Sure you can see the bottom row of keys un-obscured but pressing them is a different story. Your thumb will be battling a quarter-inch of rubber in order to press alt or enter. Some might appreciate the raised lip it gives your bottom keys, I think it makes you have to press buttons at awkward angles. That and the material they use for skins is a dust magnet, protection from scuffs doesn’t do much good when it sticks to dirt like a Swiffer.
This Casemate Gelli case doesn’t seem to obscure the keyboard if you don’t mind the 90s NoteTote design.
The accessory I was most interested in during the Pearl 3G unveiling at WES2010, is the leather case with the built-in vanity mirror. If your Pearl 3G is going in your purse, you need one of these.
The new Pearl 3G
I find it interesting how RIM has kept the Pearl branding considering that the “Pearl” itself has been replaced by an optical trackpad. It was released in the same stroke as the Bold 9650, which was already undergoing a branding change. Personally I find the Pearl branding still relevant because the Pearl 3G feels like a small and treasured device.