RIM BlackBerry 8800
6th May 2007 | 23:00
BlackBerry gets some colour
The BlackBerry is definitely getting funkier. The latest version of the iconic corporate messaging device has been given a very slick facelift, with a slim chrome and black look and a trackball navigation control that first debuted on its Pearl 8100 prosumer cameraphone.
The attractive Pearl look and feel has been carried over to this model, and it certainly looks sharper than some of the previous BlackBerrys. But the refresh doesn't stop on the surface. The 8800 is the first such device to feature a built in GPS receiver, offering users integrated mapping, location finding and navigation via the onboard BlackBerry Maps application. Cramming in sat nav functionality in such a slimline device is impressive - and it's one of the few mobile devices around with this native skill.
Messaging is, of course, at the core of the BlackBerry experience. Research In Motion (RIM) set the template for the Qwerty-equipped messaging device, and this model comes with a full 35-key Qwerty keypad rather than the truncated version sported by the Pearl and RIM's other candybar-like BlackBerrys.
Being able to type well is only part of the equation for a good messaging device though, and the large 320 x 240 pixel 65k-colour display ensures that messages can be viewed optimally onscreen. The large widescreen format of course has the added benefit of enhancing the 8800's other screen-based functionality - not least the sat nav.
The onboard browser also benefits, plus there's a multimedia player that can deliver video and audio playback. In fact, with the welcome addition of memory card support - via a MicroSD slot under the back panel - users can stack up tracks for playback as an alternative to an MP3 player. So not quite the all-serious BlackBerry, then.
One concession to the corporate environment, however, is the lack of a camera. Although virtually every mobile now is a cameraphone whether you like it or not, many big businesses still tend to be twitchy on the camera issue for security reasons. So although we get here many nods to the Pearl's spec, photography isn't one of them.
Still, there is the ability to receive, send and forward MMS picture and video messages, it's just a no-no for generating snaps yourself.
A full Qwerty keypad by its nature stretches the girth of a mobile device, hence the squeezed up two-letters-per-key version on the Pearl. RIM has been clever with the design, each key being subtly elliptical and grooved so that individual keys feel separate even though they're small and bunched together. The number keys are reserved for the left of the keypad, doubling up with letters in fairly standard phone numberpad formation. The space bar on the bottom is suitably large to suit fast-ish typing.
Naturally, the keyboard does take a little getting used to, particularly if you've never tried one on a phone before, but any regular BlackBerry tapper will feel well in the comfort zone with this format. Two-thumb typing is certainly quicker than regular text message typing, and delivers a good experience for composing emails.
The Pearl-like trackball is a nifty navigation addition too, replacing the thumbwheel that was a staple of previous BlackBerrys. It's not quite a mouse, but does ramp up the speed you can roll through menus, scroll up and across emails and navigate maps. Press it in to select a function or pull up additional menus, it's a very intuitive and tactile way of skipping along.
Immediately flanking the trackball are a BlackBerry-logoed main Menu key and a back key, to get you to the previous page. Either side of these are call and end keys.
Around the rest of the device, there's a set of volume controls on one edge, the power key and mute key on top, and a mini-USB port and headphone socket on the other side, plus a key to activate voice dialling and status updates.
RIM's made it very simple to shift the order of the main menu so your home screen displays the half dozen features you most want to have to hand. In the full icon menu you can highlight an icon to move with a press of the BlackBerry key, select and then simply drag and drop using the trackball. Easy - almost PC.
In practice, the messaging functions will be the most heavily used apps here. For push email, there's options for the full corporate BlackBerry Enterprise Server version, or the consumer-friendly BlackBerry Internet Service version. The consumer service enables users to set the device up to receive email from up to 10 ISP or POP3 email accounts, with an easy set-up procedure making it a straightforward proposition.
As you'd expect with a BlackBerry, this all works very smoothly. Messages received and are listed clearly in the appropriate folder, and it can send or receive and view attachments - including JPEGs, PDFs, Word Exel and PowerPoint files - with no fuss. There is a decent selection of email management options onboard too.
As well as email, the 8800 offers regular text and MMS messaging, plus BlackBerry Messenger instant messaging with which you can communicate with friends or colleagues using Yahoo! Messenger or Google Talk. It works like on a PC, so you can see who's online and set your own status.
The satellite navigation capability will no doubt be another key feature users will make a bee-line for. It's still unusual to find integrated Sat Nav in a mobile device; a trickle of Windows Mobile-powered phone products with integrated GPS receivers has begun and a few other regular phone models - notably Nokia's upcoming N95 and 6110 - are leading a path many mobile makers are sure to follow.
The 8800 uses an onboard GPS receiver that's provided with BlackBerry Maps out of the box (though other BlackBerry-compatible applications could be used). It can be used to locate your position and can provide navigation and route planning, with GPS tracking via onscreen maps as you proceed. Usefully, BlackBerry Maps is integrated with other apps onboard, so you can select addresses and generate maps by clicking on contacts, and also send maps by email.
Unlike most sat nav applications for Symbian and Windows Mobile devices, the BlackBerry Maps mapping info isn't stored on a high capacity memory card that allows for a self contained navigation system. Instead, the application downloads maps in small snippets of data as needed from the BlackBerry server.
This data is cached as you go along so refreshes onscreen remain fairly smooth. While this enables you to keep the memory card free for other uses, and theoretically allows mapping info to be updated more regularly, it does mean you're reliant on a decent GPRS signal to get navigation information, and those using the 8800 for sat nav who aren't already signed up to a flat rate deal (most BlackBerry corporate users presumably would be) are advised to do so.
In practice, the BlackBerry Maps sat nav application is a nice extra to have, but doesn't offer the same in-depth detail of other mobile smartphone packages, and is a far-cry from the in-car systems many corporate car owners (and ordinary users) will be already familiar with. It does offer zoom in and out functions, and route planning with text instructions onscreen and a route mapper , but you don't get the snazzy 3D graphics, voice instructions and other eye-catching extras - though admittedly you don't pay extra for it either.
The 8800 also has as standard issue a web browser which offers an optimised small screen rendering of regular websites, or an optimised desktop-style view. It's speedy, considering there is no 3G on this phone. There is a useful selection of navigation options, brought up by pressing the BlackBerry Menu key, including overviews of pages to help shift around using the trackball. This may not be quite as 'rich' as other smartphone browsers using high-speed networks, but it is effective.
The media player looks good on screen, and puts in an excellent audio performance; you can add a variety of music file formats (MP3, AAC, AAC , eAAC , WMA, AMR-NB, MIDI) and video clips (MPEG4, H.263, WMV) to the 8800 in several ways. You can use an optional MicroSD card (none is supplied as standard with the device) or via hook up to a PC or Mac via the supplied USB lead (you can also synchronise contacts from your desktop email in this way too with downloaded BlackBerry software).
Tuning into tracks on the media player via the onboard speaker produces surprisingly lively results with a decent volume and good quality performance. The BlackBerry comes with a stereo handsfree headset kit that improves on that significantly, delivering a warm and pleasing musical experience with a fine sonic range and balance. It uses a 2.5mm jack, so with an adapter (no supplied) you could stick in regular headphones too.
Video playback of loaded clips is good too, boosted by the visual real estate offered by the widescreen display. Not all the screen is utilised, with the video player framing top and bottom, but it is larger than most regular mobile devices.
As mentioned earlier, the MicroSD card support boosts the multimedia storage credentials of the 8800; 64MB of onboard flash memory is provided, although no additional microSD card is supplied by RIM - that will be up to individual service providers. The card holder is tucked in the centre of the back, beneath the rear panel and held in a SIM-card style cradle. A touch fiddly, but it can be swapped without having to power down the device.
In addition to the headline features, the 8800 offers mid-range add-ons, such as speaker-independent voice dialling, Bluetooth connectivity, and Java support. One game, BrickBreaker, is included but more can be added plus other BlackBerry specific applications are widely available to download.
Other functions onboard include a Password Keeper function, MemoPad, alarm, and voice note sender option. Useful set-up Wizards and Help functions are also useful to have around.
RIM hasn't take the kitchen-sink approach to adding features to the BlackBerry 8800. It has upgraded the device with an eye on what the corporate user finds useful rather than simply ticking off all the boxes demanded by high-end consumers.
The addition of GPS is a nice touch, although not a must-buy application - you'll get a better, if more expensive experience with standalone or Symbian/Windows Mobile add-on packages.
3G isn't included here either, although for the core messaging applications this is of no great loss -BlackBerry's push email is already practically as fast as your desktop PC. The browsing experience is also compensated for at by BlackBerry's rendering optimisation software onboard.
What you do get here is the evolutionary next stage of the BlackBerry, with an improved keyboard and trackball navigation and with secure swappable memory capability. A welcome addition that besides its fine media player and clever GPS, retains excellent messaging functionality at the core of its business.