Looking to ditch the landline and keep on top of your inbox? Take a good look at the Wi-Fi–enabled BlackBerry Pearl 8120 from T-Mobile, which enables users to make unlimited calls over their home network and at hotspots for $9.99 per month. The latest Pearl boasts enhanced multimedia capabilities and a friendlier-looking interface than T-Mobile’s BlackBerry 8100. While it looks nearly identical to the 8120 in AT&T’s lineup, support for T-Mobile’s HotSpot @Home service makes this the more compelling option. The SureType keyboard remains a bit challenging to use for smart phone newbies, but overall we like this stylish and full-featured device.
BlackBerry Pearl 8120 Design and Interface
The titanium-silver Pearl 8120 is the exact same size as the 8130, measuring in at a slim 4.2 x 2.0 x 0.6 inches. It’s also marginally lighter, weighing just 3.2 ounces (versus 3.4 ounces). Like the 8130, it has an improved outer shell and includes a microSD/SDHC Card slot and a 3.5mm headphone jack for listening to tunes on the go. The 8120 also sports the same crisp and bright 2.3-inch, 240 x 260-pixel display.
Similar to the 8130, the 8120 has a cleaner e-mail and calendar interface than older BlackBerrys. While it still has the same To:, CC:, and Subject lines as previous models, the 8120 features a friendlier font and graphically improved layout. The calendar also looks less mechanical, as the text is softened (further than with turning on the “Soften Text” option), and the top bar of the calendar is more graphically pleasing.
SureType Improves (A Little)
The SureType keyboard on the 8120 has basically the same layout as other 8100 series BlackBerrys. It crams two letters on most of the keys, and the software predicts the words you’re entering as you type. In general, we still prefer full QWERTY keyboards, especially when entering URLs and proper names. However, we did appreciate the 8120’s enhanced word-completion option.
T-Mobile’s new Pearl also has enhanced spell-check support in most applications on the phone, including e-mail, SMS, and chat applications such as Google Chat and AIM. To use it, simply type a message and then click the BlackBerry menu and select Check Spelling. A misspelled word is highlighted in red and a list of suggested words appears. “Gnld,” for example, yielded “Gold, Gild, Half, Held,” and more. Once a word is corrected, the software moves on to the next misspelled word. You can choose to add misspelled words to the onboard dictionary, ignore the misspelling, or ignore all.
The 8120’s keys were noticeably softer and more responsive than that of the Verizon Wireless 8130, which felt stiffer, and the 8120 offers an Alt button instead of the confusing black-and-white arrow key for switching between alternate function keys.
E-mail and Instant Messaging
E-mail setup was a breeze; we had our work account up and running in less than 10 minutes. Like the 8100 and 8130, the 8120 supports BlackBerry’s push e-mail; BlackBerry Internet Service allows for up to ten personal POP/IMAP e-mail accounts, such as Yahoo Mail or Gmail. Corporate users may favor the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which offers unique benefits such as remote address lookup. T-Mobile also bundles a bouquet of instant messaging apps, including AIM, BlackBerry Messenger, Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger—something not included on Verizon’s 8130.
Like the BlackBerry Curve and 8820, the 8120 offers T-Mobile’s HotSpot @Home service, which costs $9.99 per month. Not only is this a welcome feature for better reception indoors, but its 802.11b/g Wi-Fi support also provides a speedier surfing experience, especially since the 8120 operates over T-Mobile’s slower EDGE network. Using an EDGE connection, we loaded CNN.com in a sluggish 17 seconds and ESPN.com in a speedier 9 seconds. By comparison, we loaded the sites in 7 seconds and 4 seconds, respectively, using an 802.11g Wi-Fi connection.
Like the 8130, the 8120 has browser enhancements such as Page View, which lets you view an entire Web page as a thumbnail and zoom in on certain areas. We appreciated the ability to pan around a page quickly without having to use the scroll wheel on larger Web sites.
To switch from a Wi-Fi data connection to EDGE, you must manually exit the browser (not just close out of it) and restart it. This is a tedious task, considering that calls are automatically handed off from Wi-Fi to the voice network, but data isn’t.
Multimedia on the Pearl 8120
The 8120 features a 2-megapixel camera that takes 1600 x 1200-pixel resolution shots, a step up from the 1.3-megapixel camera in the 8100. Pictures taken outside on a sunny day were impressive and clear, albeit a little washed out. Indoors, pictures weren’t as clear, and some shots turned out blurry under our fluorescent lights. The 8120 can record video at a less-than-YouTube-worthy 240 x 176 pixels; our video of Sixth Avenue in New York City came out blocky while the audio was choppy and muffled.
The 8120 supports MP3, MIDI, AMR-NB, WMA, AAC/AC+/eAAC+ audio codecs and MPEG-4 P2, H.263, and WMV video formats. The included Roxio Media Manager software encoded WMV better on the 8120 than on the Verizon Wireless 8130, which wasn’t able to transfer WMV formats for playback. We appreciated that RIM opted for a standard 3.5mm headset jack, although the included plastic earbuds were uncomfortable.
We listened to a few Gnarls Barkley tracks over a stereo Bluetooth headset and enjoyed the crisp sound quality. But just like with the 8130, the 8120 doesn’t support stereo Bluetooth during video playback, so we suggest sticking with a pair of traditional headphones if you’re planning on watching video. We were able to receive a signal 25 feet away and through a wall before the Bluetooth connection cut out.
No YouTube or (Real) GPS for You
We weren’t able to stream YouTube Mobile videos on the 8120. That’s because while the 8130 supports the real-time streaming protocol, T-Mobile’s 8120 only supports HTTP Progressive download streaming. RIM informed us that a future software update to v4.5 would enable support for RTSP streaming, but it couldn’t give us an exact date as to when the update would be available.
Unlike the 8130, the 8120 lacks have built-in GPS. To make up for part of the loss, we suggest downloading Google Maps for BlackBerry to the phone (free; www.google.com/gmm). It will let you do a local search for locations in your general area, and also provide turn-by-turn directions on screen. Our favorite features is called “My Location.” It was able to find our location on this non-GPS enabled phone with an accuracy of 1700 meters.
Like on most T-Mobile phones, you can quickly message or call five of your friends right from the BlackBerry home screen by selecting one of your MyFaves contacts, which are represented by circular images that rotate around on the home screen.
For the most part, we enjoyed very good call quality on the 8120. However, we encountered a few instances on the streets of New York City when the phone would just say Connected without ever dialing. When this happened, we had to hang up and redial. Once we were connected with a full signal, our friends said we sounded crisp and that the conversation had near-landline quality.
Using T-Mobile HotSpot @Home, quality was better than with a full GSM signal; our landline caller said we sounded louder and clearer even with the background noise of taxis rushing down Broadway. When we tested the call standing next to a busy office router, our voice message left on a landline phone sounded crisp, but the quality on our end was fuzzy and cut out a little bit.
The Pearl 8120 has a rated battery life of 15 days on standby, on a par with the 8100 but 6 days longer than the 8130. It also has the highest rated talk time of 4 hours, compared with the 8100’s 3.5 hours and 8130’s 3.7 hours. On our own tests, we surfed the Web heavily (both on Wi-Fi and EDGE), used Bluetooth while streaming music, and chatted with friends for over 24 hours. By the next morning, we still had two bars left, enough to get through another day without charging.
Blackberry Pearl 8120 Verdict
The BlackBerry Pearl 8120 is a welcome addition to T-Mobile’s HotSpot @Home lineup of phones. We appreciated its clear quality and speedy surfing over Wi-Fi networks, improved user interface, and the higher-resolution camera. In general, we prefer the BlackBerry Curve from T-Mobile because it offers Wi-Fi calling plus a full-size keyboard, but that also costs $100 more.
If you’re not under a contract, we suggest that you consider either Verizon Wireless’ EV-DO enabled Pearl 8130 ($199), which offers faster data speeds without relying on Wi-Fi, or the even more affordable BlackBerry Curve 8310 from AT&T ($149 as of this writing), which features both a full keyboard and built-in GPS. Just keep in mind that neither of those BlackBerrys offer Wi-Fi calling.