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Macs, Modularity and More

Blackberry 8700

P990 2007 Review

I've recently started using a BlackBerry, and I've been given the opportunity to use a BlackBerry 8700, which has the advantage of a reasonably good multi-colour screen. I must say that this is the first PDA that I've owned since my Psion that's actually felt usable. A lot of the other 'smartphones' that I've used over the years haven't been that smart; in fact, my review of the P990 sums up quite nicely what I think of that as a phone.

It turns out that the BlackBerry also does voice calls; but as I am not able to use that feature, I don't know what the call quality is like, or how usable it is. It's worth noting that this flavour of BlackBerry (as opposed to, say, the Pearl) is that it's a PDA with phone functionality, and as such has a full QWERTY keyboard. Mind you, it's not like many people need to use numbers to dial anyway; almost all of the use of my phone uses the built-in contacts for calling people rather than typing in the numbers manually ... but I digress.

It's very good at what it sets out to achive; to allow easy acccess to office e-mail and appointments whilst on the move. Given that it syncs (and reminds me) of meetings I've got set up with the Outlook/Exchange server, it is really an extension of the dekstop and useful as I travel from palce to place (including on the train to/from work). Composing e-mails works well; they keyboard buttons are small, but not so small that you easily hit many of them at a time whilst typing. It's marginally difficult to type capitals or symbols because there's a special key; but they're like Windows' "sticky keys" feature; you can press and release just the shift button, and then it stays shifted until you hit the next key. So it's quite possible to drive one handed (well, thumbed) but I find it faster to type with two thumbs.

From a typing speed, it's on a par with predictive text input on most smartphones. In fact, it wins out marginally beccause although you can go at the same speed, you often make more mistakes with predictive text (home/good/gone are all the same key combos, and invariably you get these wrong). You have to type on the BlackBerry with both hands, though, as well as looking at the screen – with a phone, you can whack out an SMS with the phone in your pocket if you know what keys you're pressing. (Perhaps you can do this with a BlackBerry too, once you get used to it.) I can also see how accidents can occur; you can walk with it in both hands staring intently down to realise you've just stepped into a main road. I wonder how long it will be before it's cited in accident reports ...

The roller on the side is the main thing I dislike. Ironically, for such a key piece of the BlackBerry puzzle, the roller is surprisingly poor in terms of physical quality. The roller itself is both serated and sunk into a curved part of the body, which means that repeated scrolling can irritate the thumb itself. In addition, the bumps as the wheel rotates are distinctly noticeable. It reminds me of the old wheel mice rather than the newer frictionless rollers that you get now. Using the roller to navigate is actually very easy; it's just the physical button itself that is pretty bad on this model; maybe other models don't have as much of a problem with it.

The hardware suffers from another major flaw; there's no docking cradle. Pretty much every phone I've ever had has had a docking cradle (inc. the several iPods that I've owned) for connectivity and charging. Granted, it's not like the BlackBerry needs it from a connectivity standpoint – the wireless works well enough for that – but the charging is the main benefit of having a static docking station, whether connected to a computer or not. They are to be commended that it uses a mini-USB connector rather than some random 60-pin monstrosity; but why can't that be located at the bottom of the unit and a docking cradle adapted to allow that to slot in? Plus, the USB charging is just 'trickle charging' (though that may be more to do with the drivers installed on Windows) so it takes ages to achieve full charge using the computer. There is a provided hardware charger (essentially, a high-powered USB charger that would probably damage any other USB devices it's plugged into; the USB spec says that upon first connection, the USB power must be 500mA unless negotiated higher subsequently, and I doubt the transformer has any logic in it) which works, but it's a pain to have plugged in with the cable dangling out the side.

Software-wise, I'm pretty impressed. The BlackBerry does all of its navigation with the roller button; you can also push in to select an item (there's a separate back/cancel button). I can't help but think that the P900i had a better all-in-one button than the BlackBerry, but what's interesting is that the P900i's software was much worse than the BlackBerry, so all in all it's the P900 that would lose out in a head-to-head challenge. For example, the menus are actually organised (the P900i's would tend to be in a bit of a random order) and there's separators to deliniate different functionality. In addition, you can get to all the functionality via the scroller; there's no need to resort to pressing activity buttons at the bottom of the screen (a feat that's been taken to extremes for the P990i). But the neat thing is that the default location of the menu 'cursor' is changed depending on what you're doing and the state of the program at the time. In other words, if you're in Browser, and you're over the link, then the 'default' menu item is 'Get link'. If you're over an image, then it's 'Full image'. Similarly, in Messages, if you're on a date header, then the default is 'Compose email' whereas if you're over a message, it's 'Open' . Inside a message, the default action is 'Reply', and so on. The great thing is that intuitively, this is what you want to do most of the time. In fact, if you press-and-hold the button, then it performs the default action automatically, which means that once you learn to trust its judgement, you rarely need to use the menus.

In summary; the BlackBerry 8700 is probably the best PDA I've used for a long time, though the majority of that comes from the tight integration with Exchange. It will be interesting to see what the general telephone operators can do with providing the BlackBerry devices; if they were to start providing e-mail and calendaring services as part of the deal, you would think they're onto a winner. (Unfortunately, the mobile operators in the UK are anally focussed on talk minutes and price everything else out of reach, so I doubt that it will happen any time soon.) The data connectivity – GPRS – helps for the automated download of data, but you probably wouldn't want to use one of these if you didn't have an unlimited data tarrif, and those don't come cheap either. Still, if you are looking for a network, I can recommend T-Mobile's price plans – they seem to be one of the few mobile operators that 'gets it' when it comes to mobile internet connectivity; frankly, I wouldn't trust any other operator who charge a hideous premium per byte downloaded. Unfortunately, I'm not with T-Mobile for my personal phone; but then again, the P990i is so pants I gave up using that for a browser/internet connectivity when I upgraded.

It will be interesting to see how the iPhone, when it's released in June (sadly, Leopard has been pushed back to October now due to iPhone development) will be able to compete. If Apple has a strict guideline that all iPhones must come with unlimited data tarrifs – because let's face it, the mobile browsing wouldn't be that good if it couldn't – then they might be in place to kick start a wider revolution in pricing plans.