By Walter S. Mossberg
When you think of a BlackBerry phone, what usually comes to mind is a squat, bland, all-business device that is great at email and fair at phone calls, but does little else well. BlackBerry models have been mostly aimed at big businesses, and they have lacked cameras, multimedia capabilities and style. Even their model names have been boring designations like "8700c."
But that image will change radically next week when the BlackBerry's maker, Research in Motion, introduces a sleek but powerful model called simply the Pearl. It's not only the smallest BlackBerry ever made. It's also the smallest smart phone from any maker with a keyboard for typing emails and other text.
All shiny black and silver, the slender Pearl looks more like a fashion phone than a keyboard-equipped smart phone. It is shorter, narrower and lighter than the much-admired Motorola Q, though a bit thicker. And, like the Q, the Pearl, which is being launched next Tuesday by T-Mobile, costs $199 with a two-year contract. The Pearl is squarely aimed at consumers who need powerful email capabilities, but also want style and bells and whistles.
When it comes to email, the Pearl is a true BlackBerry. The email interface is essentially the same as on larger BlackBerrys. It can be used with a traditional corporate BlackBerry email system, and, for consumers, it works with the BlackBerry Internet Service offered by T-Mobile.
Still, for hard-core BlackBerry addicts, the Pearl is a shocking departure. The iconic side scroll wheel has been replaced by a tiny, light-up trackball beneath the large, bright color screen. It's the first BlackBerry with a camera, the first with a memory card slot (though no card is included) and the first to play songs and videos.
And then there's the keyboard, where the slim new design has required a major compromise. As on the older and bulkier BlackBerry 7100 series, the full keyboard has been replaced by a smaller version that squeezes two letters onto most keys. To avoid repetition and error, the Pearl uses smart software called SureType that has the uncanny ability to guess the word you meant to type in almost all cases. But it doesn't work if you're entering a new Web address or a person's name that the phone hasn't memorized.
To find out if RIM can actually be cool, I've been toting around a Pearl, testing all its functions. In general, I like it, and can recommend it to anyone who wants real BlackBerry email capabilities in a great-looking multimedia phone. Voice quality was excellent and the interface for making phone calls, once a big problem on BlackBerrys, is now decent. There's even a Treo-like universal silencer button, and the speaker phone function turns on and off with a single key press.