If the Pearl is the sleek sports car of BlackBerrys, then the new 8800 from Cingular ($299 with two-year contract) is the Escalade in the line, a beefier model complete with a full-sized keyboard and bigger display. RIM has even decked out this device with a GPS system, enabling the 8800 to double as a navigator using the included TeleNav software (if you pay an extra $9.99 per month). Add it all up and you have a full-sized, fully-loaded smart phone with just a few minor flaws.
It may sport the same silky-smooth trackball for navigation and chrome accents on the sides, but there's no mistaking the 8800 for its smaller brother. This dark metallic blue device weighs 1.5 ounces heavier than the Pearl(4.7 versus 3.2) and is noticeably wider (2.6 inches versus 2 inches). At the same time, the 8800 is a tiny bit thinner than the Pearl (0.55 versus 0.57 inches). The bottom line is that you'll notice when the 8800 is in your pocket, but it's certainly less bulky than the Treo 750.
There are three main benefits to the 8800's girth: the larger 2.4-inch screen, a bigger battery for longer talk time, and a real QWERTY keyboard. The full-sized treatment is certainly an improvement over the SureType keyboard on the Pearl (because you don't have to hope your smart phone guesses the right word as you peck out messages), but we found the 8800's layout to be a little cramped. RIM compensates for the tightly packed keys by giving each one a slightly raised groove to keep your thumbs from slipping. Still, some may prefer more spacing between the keys, whether on theSamsung BlackJack,Palm Treo 750, or an olderBlackBerry 8700.
Having more screen real estate made reading e-mail and even opening and closing applications easier than on the Pearl, because you can see more messages at once, and the icons are larger. The right side of the device houses the two volume buttons, and the left side is where you'll find the push-to-talk button. Up top is the power button and a mute button. The back of the device houses the microSD Card slot; it's located underneath the battery cover, but we like that you can access the card without removing the battery itself.
What makes this BlackBerry unique is its GPS capability. We were very impressed with the bundled TeleNav GPS Navigator. For a reasonable $9.99 per month, you get spoken turn-by-turn directions (including street names), 3D maps, and local search via the Biz Finder tool. We tested the system by asking the 8800 to get us home from a park-and-ride using local roads. The very natural-sounding female voice told us the distance before the next turn and alerted us at just the right time before the turn itself. TeleNav also pulls up addresses from your contact list. The local search function worked well, too, allowing us to map a business address, navigate to it, or dial the number.
Like Cingular's BlackBerry Pearl, the 8800 supports the carrier's Push to Talk service ($9.99 per month). Setup couldn't be easier. Just enter the phone number of the contact and the 8800 sends an invitation for that person to join your group. When we tried a walkie-talkie call with a Cingular Pearl, we noticed very little latency, and the voice quality was decent, despite a noticeable echo effect. The incessant beeping, however, (both when making and receiving calls) quickly got annoying. The good news: You can switch over to a regular call from within the Push to Talk app.
As expected, the 8800 did a superb job of pushing new e-mail to our Inbox automatically. We used the BlackBerry Internet Service, which allows users to set up ten personal and corporate e-mail accounts and features the easiest setup of any smart phone. Attachment support also continues to be excellent, as you can view Word, Excel, PDF, and JPEG files. Just keep in mind you can't edit or create Office documents, at least not without third-party software.
Other standard-issue features include an organizer (address book, calendar, memo pad, task list) that syncs with Outlook and a Web browser. Even though this is not a 3G device, we enjoyed very good performance on Cingular's EDGE network. Because the browser loads text before images, sites like CNN.com and The New York Times began to load within ten seconds, and articles on those pages took only about six seconds to pop up.
Audio quality when making regular voice calls was generally good. Callers didn't complain, but we noticed a slight fuzziness on our end of the line during some conversations. When we left a voicemail on a landline phone, the message sounded clear when played back, if a little faint. The 8800 can be used to make conference calls, and the voice-activated dialing worked quite well even over Bluetooth. A top-mounted speakerphone puts out plenty of volume, whether you're making calls or listening to music using the device's built-in media player. Unfortunately, the 8800 lacks stereo Bluetooth support; you'll need to use the bundled wired stereo headset to listen to music in private. (RIM promises that stereo Bluetooth capability will be added with an update of the 8800's software later this year.)
RIM includes a Media Manager utility to import music, photos, and videos to the device. The 8800's media player supports AAC, MP3, and WMA music files, as well as MPEG-4 and WMV video files. The device doesn't support DRM, so download and subscription services are off limits. And while you can view photos, the 8800 lacks a camera--most likely at the request of security-conscious IT buyers. We hope a camera-enabled version is on the way for the same price.
Overall, the BlackBerry 8800 is an excellent smart phone and a surprisingly good navigator. At $299, it's priced between the sleeker, BlackJack and the more powerfulCingular 8525($399), which offers both HSDPA and Wi-Fi connectivity. Whether it's $150 better than Cingular's BlackBerry Pearl depends on how much of a premium you place on having a full-sized keyboard, up to five hours of talk time, and GPS capability. We think it's worth it.
Exclusive Q&A Interview: RIM's co-CEO sounds off on the iPhone, Windows Mobile 6, and why GPS is the new killer app for BlackBerry. Read it now.
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