My Blackberry addiction started with a 6200 series phone; the first model to incorporate a real phone ( i.e. you did not have to wear a headset). It was a monochrome phone, had a large keyboard and worked pretty well. From there I upgraded to a color 7250 which at the time seemed like quite a leap forward. The major enhancements from the previous generation were a color screen, a faster processor, better Exchange synchronization, and Bluetooth support. This phone was reliable and just plain worked. In retrospect, this model was probably the most reliable smart phone I have ever used. I measure reliability primarily by how often you must reboot the phone and how well it works with the handsfree kit in my Chrysler 300C.
As any good techno-geek, I would not be satisfied with a “it just works” 7250. No – I needed more. :) So times they were a changin’ and Microsoft promised a new version of its mobile OS that provided push email to rival the Blackberry. I bought into the whole hype thinking that an end-to-end Microsoft solution would give me a superior experience. I make heavy use of Outlook’s email, calendar, contacts, tasks, and notes. So my next upgrade was a Palm Treo 700w. I should have seen the warning signs… When the normally pragmatic Verizon is the first to bring a phone to market, trouble has to be brewing.
The 700w brought some new and shiny features that made my Blackberry look a little antiquated. It could take pictures and video, it could play cute ring tones, put pictures of my contacts on the screen, and perform other business critical functions. ;) Well needless to say, the 700w experiment was a complete and total failure. This phone did nothing, absolutely nothing well. I had to reboot the phone a lot, the phone sucked batteries dry like no tomorrow, had a terrible keyboard, and many other annoying shortcomings. In short, Windows Mobile is no Blackberry. I could write an entire rant on just that phone, but after all this is a Blackberry 8800 review so I will move on.
After that experience, I was more than anxious to move back to a Blackberry. At the time, the 8700 series was the current model. I had to switch carriers from Verizon to Cingular to get this device, but given my motivation to get past the 700w, I would gladly make the switch. The 8700 was a breath of fresh air. It was all of the things I knew and loved, and it was new and shiny. While this phone did not provide any revolutionary features over the 7250, it was lightweight, had a fast processor, nice color screen, and a bluetooth radio that worked with my car’s handsfree kit.
While I was glad to be back on the Blackberry platform, I found that switching carriers brought along some oddities that I was not expecting. The switch from EVDO to EDGE was expected, but I did not expect the radio interference a quad-band phone could generate. Get this phone next to a speaker, phone, or other audio devices and you get some nasty bleed over. The other thing I noticed was in the voice quality. On Verizon, a phone call was pretty binary. You either had great sound quality or you had silence, but there was not much in between. I came to expect this behavior out of a digital cell phone. Well Cingular gave me a much different digital experience. While I trust their claim of “fewest dropped calls” to be true, I do not think the overall quality compares to Verizon. On Cingular you will find that a call may not be dropped, but voice quality degrades on a regular basis and leaves one or both parties saying “what?” multiples times. Instead of the binary characteristics of Verizon’s calls, Cingular’s calls can get garbled where you are hearing compression and modulation artifacts when signal gets weak. While my intention is not to review carriers, I mention these shortcomings because they tainted my pristine expectations of what a Blackberry should be. At any rate, this was still a far superior place to be than back on the 700w so I did not complain too much.
I was prepared to use this device for some time and have not been paying attention to the Blackberry rumor mill about new devices as I have had my head down worried about other things like writing Sakai software. Then low and behold, the Blackberry 8800 shows up on my radar a few days ago as a coworker upgraded from the 8700 to the 8800. While I had done a little reading about the 8800, I was not excited about the phone as I did not see anything compelling and I was thinking I would wait for the next generation. That was until I saw the phone in person and my coworker was able to show me the new features and, believe me, they are compelling.
First, let’s start with the “big ticket” items; the brand new features that are new to QWERTY keyboard models. I realize that some of these new features may be review for Pearl users, but I am set in my QWERTY keyboard ways and the Pearl has never really “existed” for serious BB users. I am sure the Pearl is a great phone, but I think the keyboard is more for casual use than banging out full email messages many times a day.
While I am talking about the Pearl, I will start with the features the 8800 shares with that phone. This phone has filled the multimedia gaps quite well. It will not win any awards for the “best media player”, the bottom line is that it plays audio and video and plays them quite well. In fact the audio coming out of the speakerphone is surprisingly clear and high quality for such a small speaker. It will play a wide range of file formats including MP3, WMA, AAC, and MP4. The phone has a micro SD card slot for storage. The phone can expose this card via USB as a generic mass storage device for easy mounting on virtually any operating system. While today wired headphones are required for stereo listening, an upcoming software update is supposed to add the A2DP bluetooth profile so that wireless listening will be possible. While this device will not replace my fifth gen iPod any time soon, their are a couple of nice benefits for business users:
- If your company has deployed a unified messaging system or your voice mail system can send audio attachments to your email account, this device can play back those voice mail messages. This is a first for BB and a huge boon for road warriors.
- The phone includes a tiny little application called “Send Voice Note” that provides a simple way to record some audio and send it to other MMS phones or email addresses. Other drivers on the road should be cheering as BB users will be doing a lot less typing while driving and instead sending short audio attachments instead. :)
Now I know that to many the “full meal multimedia deal” includes a camera. RIM has been very careful not to bring this feature into their business models and I can understand the reasoning. However, for those of us that do not work for corporate America and do not need to protect company secrets, I would applaud the addition of a camera to the phone which would allow me to easily capture the contents of white boards and email them to meeting participants. The lack of this feature is by no means a deal breaker for me but it would be nice; enough said.
The next killer new feature of the 8800 is the bundled GPS navigation application. As far as I know, this is the first phone to include a full turn-by-turn guidance application that takes advantage of the GPS chip that has been in most phones since enhanced 911 service was conceived. It seemingly has been a long time coming, but it is here today and is an excellent addition for both business and casual users. The application is full featured and does a good job of meeting expectations when compared to the many other navigation systems in the marketplace. The application’s integration with the Address Book is excellent. You can click any contact in address book and choose: “Drive To”, “Business Search”, or “Map It”. I would assume that the same will work in email messages and calendar entries much in the same way the BB detects phone numbers and allows context sensitive dialing. What is unique about the bundled TeleNav application is that there is no huge map database embedded on the phone or some memory card like all other competitors. Instead all of the route planning and map data comes from TeleNav’s servers over the phone’s data connection. This approach has some unique upsides and downsides:
- Since the data is housed on remote servers, the data can be kept much more current than the traditional approach. This is especially evident when searching for businesses. I tried a simple test: I searched for two local businesses that have opened within the past six months. Both businesses were returned in the search results as expected.
- Another nice feature TeleNav provides with the navigation as a service model is the capability to phone in your searches. We all know that we are supposed to pay attention to the road while driving. They help solve this problem by providing an option in the menu to “Call in an Address”. Basically the application dials a toll free number, walks you through a good voice response system, and then returns the search result to the application. This is actually a lot more satisfying than it sounds.
- Along the same lines as the last benefit and because their service is web based, you can log into their web site and perform searches, route planning, etc. All of the stored addresses and route plans then magically appear on your phone when you launch the TeleNav application. The idea being if you are planning a trip, you would likely want to do this on your PC. While this is not a killer feature, it is one that does differentiate from its competitors.
- Okay, I saved the one oddity for last: Since the data is located on remote servers your phone must have an active data connection. If you are in the middle of nowhere you may not be able to navigate your way home. However, there is a decent workaround for this issue. If you create a route when you have service, you can preview the entire trip and this will store enough information locally on the phone so that if you do lose service somewhere between here and there, you can still get turn-by-turn guidance. Heck, is there anywhere left in the world that does not have cell service? :o By the way, Cingular will charge you to use this application. For around $6/month you get 10 routes, but I went with the $10/month unlimited routes.
The 8800′s other brand new feature is the Push-To-Talk (PTT) capability. I have seen NexTel users in action, but I have never personally needed this feature and I will likely not activate this service. I hear that Cingular wants to charge $10-$20 per month for this feature. Sounds like poor value proposition and I am tired of the carriers’ incremental sales which tend to border on the unreasonable. Quick rant: Why when I pay Cingular $45/month for unlimited data do I have to pay extra for text messages? This is simply a sham.
Bluetooth modem – I thought the 8700 was supposed to have bluetooth modem capabilities but I could never get them to work. With the 8800, I was able to connect to the internet via a bluetooth connection on my Mac OSX 10.4.9 easily. I wish the carriers provided better support for this use but I know they want to sell me a another radio device and a whole other data plan; crazy. I was able to get throughput speeds of 181kbps down and 81kbps up via the SpeakEasy tests. While these speeds will not replace wifi any time soon, it does allow for light web browsing and email in a pinch. I have not tried VPN yet, but if Cingular’s NAT will support my VPN connection I will be set for any occasion.
The last big ticket new feature is the addition of voice dialing. I am not a huge fan of voice dialing, but what the heck do I know? I read and send email while driving! I do think their implementation is pretty good as far as voice dialing goes. They licensed VoiceSignal VSuite to provide this feature; I know nothing about this company but am including the detail so you can make your own judgments. This feature supposedly works with bluetooth headsets so you can initiate the voice dial from paired devices, but it does not work with my car’s handsfree kit. Your mileage may vary as with most bluetooth devices.
The next set of enhancements are more evolutionary than revolutionary. These small enhancements add up; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The first thing you will notice when handling this phone is that it is thinner than any full keyboard BB ever. It is thin, mostly black, clad with shiny sides, and has a really solid feel. In the hand it seems to weigh about the same as the 8700. I like the new black and chrome look; it is fresh and appealing.
Long time BB users will immediately notice that the age old thumb wheel is gone. You heard that right, RIM is taking a big chance and replacing their trademark input device with a trackball. This was a real concern for me as the thumb wheel provides for real one-handed use. The good news is that after one day of use, I have adjusted to the change and it is feeling natural. The trackball provides the same clickable capability the thumb wheel did and more. Any slight loss in physical usability is far outweighed the new capabilities the trackball provides. With the thumb wheel, scrolling up and down was very natural but scrolling horizontally required holding the ALT key as a modifier. With the trackball you can scroll in what appears to be eight directions. You will definitely notice this the first time you navigate around the home screen or any maps. The other thing they made with this change is the addition of a dedicated Menu button. This new button provides the menu that all BB users expect when they would click in on the thumb wheel. Clicking in on the new trackball provides a new context sensitive menu. The dedicated Escape key remains the same. Where this comes into play on a day-to-day basis is that BB users will be presented with a much smaller amount of choices when clicking the trackball. For example, on the old phones you would compose a message and when ready to send you would click the thumb wheel which would present you with a menu that had no less than 15 choices. With the 8800, clicking the trackball in the same compose/send use case will present a menu with only three options: Send, Save Draft, and Full Menu. Make no mistake about it, this simplifies the use of the phone in a very measurable way.
The screen is bright and crisp. Just like the 8700, the 8800 does a very nice job of varying the brightness based on ambient light. My eyes will probably never recover from being scorched by the brightness on the 700w in a dimly lit room. The current generation of BB just get this right, very right. The keyboard follows suit. It is well lit and responds just as well to ambient lighting conditions. Compared to the 8700, the keyboard is pretty usable. It has been reduced in size just a bit, but the ergonomically raised keys seem to compensate well. It always takes me a week or two to adjust to a new BB keyboard and I expect the same for the 8800. If my speed and accuracy to not improve as expected, I will post a follow up. Oh – I almost forgot: the new trackball has a great luminous glow that makes it look like the moon at new moon; very cool.
While I like to dig Cingular, one of the things they have done very well is provide a very nice, clean default theme. I have seen Verizon’s theme on the 8700 and wow was it bad. Cingular maintains the traditional BB feel while updating the icons and indicators icons. I think the Cingular theme is better than any RIM provided theme. Good job.
The enhancements to the user interface will be framed primarily as a comparison to the 8700. RIM has historically done a great job of making every new model of a phone better than the last generation. The 8700 had one regression that drove me nuts related to searching contacts. The problem is based around using one UI screen to enter either phone numbers or search contacts. The 7250 handled this by using an above/below the line solution; i.e. if your cursor was above the horizontal like separator, numbers were assumed; if the cursor was below the line, searching contacts from the address book as assumed. Once you understood this little trick it was fast and natural. I have to assume that new users had problems with this user interface because they changed it in the 8700; this was not a good change for BB veterans. The 8700 always assumed numbers are being entered unless the user clicks and chooses “Dial from Contacts”. This extra click when you primarily dial based on contact names really grated on me and made the 8700 a little less perfect. The 8800 solves the problem in a way that is quite suitable to both newbies and power users. Now you just don’t think about it. If you want to dial a number just enter a number and it will figure it out and display numbers. If you want to dial a contact, just start entering a name and it will figure it out. This is a good way to use the extra horsepower in the new CPU. The other little enhancement is that when the search results are returned for an address book search, highlighting a name will cause the phone to display all phone numbers for that contact under the name in context. I apologize if my explanation is not the easiest to comprehend, but the end result is that it saves you one extra menu selection and click. If it is not obvious, I really like these improvements and after all this device is a phone and these incremental enhancements make it a better phone when compared to its ancestors.
- Color coding has been added to both Email and Calendar. I am not sure about Email (color coding could have existed in older phones), but color coding of appointments in Calendar is new. I have not explored this extensively, but so far I do know that all day appointments show up in orange and other appointments retain black as the color of choice.
- All indications point to improved battery life over the 8700. The 8700 had great battery life; in fact my experience shows that BB is superior to every other smart phone in this regard. The 8800 looks to have superior battery life. I assume this is to help support the multimedia functions and GPS navigation. As a point of reference, I can go through an entire day of use (phone, email, web browsing) and after 18 hours I still have 75% of my battery left.
- The web browser seems to be the same for the most part. With the addition of the trackball, scrolling around web pages is more natural. I have also found two new views in the menu while viewing a web page: “Page Overview” and “Desktop View”. “Page Overview” is a mode where you se a thumbnail of the whole page on the right of the screen and scrolling moves a view port around the thumbnail which in turn seeks the larger view to the same location. The “Desktop View” takes full advantage of the trackball and provides an experience that is similar to using a mouse. You see an arrow pointer which tracks well with the trackball and behaves for all practical purposes just like a mouse. You can choose which view you want by default in the browser options but the default remains “Mobile View” which is what existing BB users expect. I have not had a chance to give the other modes enough web time to make any determination if they provide a measurable improvement. Reading the manual makes it sound like the new web browser support RSS feeds, but I could not get it to work and I may have misinterpreted the manual so it may not be about RSS at all. I will share more details as I figure it out.
- Manage Connections – the old radio tower icon on the home screen used to turn both the cell and bluetooth radios on and off simultaneously. The same icon on the 8800 now provides a new mini application that allows you to turn on/off both radios like before, turn each radio on/off independently, check service status, pair a bluetooth device, and enter the option screens for mobile network and bluetooth. This is a small but nice improvement.
- I was amazed to find out that the Calculator could perform conversions when I read through the manual. Enter a number into the display and click the Menu button. You can choose “To Metric” or “From Metric”. I am not sure if this feature is new in the 8800, but I am sure I will use it on occasion.
- Blackberry Messenger – I know this application is not new and you could download it for older phones, but it comes bundled on the 8800. While it does not support well known IM services (like AIM, Yahoo, MSN, etc), it is very well integrated into the BB mobile experience. For BB-to-BB use it cannot be beat. I will likely use this IM client on business travel with other BB toting coworkers to hold conversations that span the duration of the trip. RIM’s web site provides downloadable IM clients for Google and Yahoo if you need them.
- Pictures and custom ring tones can be associated with contacts in the address book. This is a nice personalization feature that simply puts the BB on a level playing field with non-smart phones. While I cannot confirm, my wild speculation is that the new Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) version 4.2 will synchronize all of those contact pictures you have stored in Outlook. The synchronization features of BES usually track very closely with new features in the phone’s operating system.
- The new Profiles application has been improved in a way to make it more like non-smart phones. Entering the Profiles application, which I have mapped to the PTT convenience button, presents a large easy to read user interface with simple options. Choose a profile (e.g. Vibrate, Quiet, Normal) and that profile is activated. Scroll down to Advanced and you will find the old user interface of the Profile application where you can customize each profile to your hearts content.
- New Standby mode – clicking the Mute button while a phone call is not in progress will place the phone into what seems to be a new Standby mode. While the phone is in this standby mode, accidental key presses can be avoided. When I read about this feature I thought, “Cool”. That was based on the assumption that it would perform the same function as locking the phone. It does not; these are two different modes. For those of you not familiar with locking a BB, the lock function can be password protected or not. If you do not use a password, the lock function behaves very much like the key lock on any non-smart phone. While locked, the phone displays the owner information and emergency 911 calls can be made. Now let me explain how standby is different: the owner information is not displayed, emergency calls cannot be placed, and the only key that will bring the phone out of this mode is the Mute button. I like the idea of a dedicated key for “locking” the phone for convenience, but I do not like the implementation. Call me paranoid, but if my phone is locked I would like it if someone could call 911 if I needed medical assistance and if I ever lost my phone I would like my contact information easily accessible so they could quickly get the phone back to me. So my paranoid side has me using the Lock function instead of Standby; your mileage may vary. You should also know that previous BB models could be unlocked by scrolling up with the thumb wheel and choosing Unlock. The 8800 does not work this way; you must use the “* Send” keystrokes.
- BrickBreaker – the same game you know (and maybe love), now supports the new trackball. :) This new input device looks to improve BB game scores around the world. The thumb wheel was a lousy games controller and the trackball is definitely better. I do not play games on the BB, but some of you out there might find this compelling.
In conclusion, the Blackberry 8800 is far and away the best Blackberry ever. The trivial shortcomings of this phone do little to detract from the overwhelming delightful experience it provides. It looks like the 8800 may be one of those “perfect storm” devices for me and hopefully I will learn from my previous mistakes. I liken it to the 7250 because at the time, the 7250 was a perfect device for me. I will not replace the 8800 without some serious thought and a 30 day return policy. :) The only things that would make my experience even more perfect would be the addition of a camera and fixing that niggling Lock/Standby issue. This is going to sound like a very strong endorsement and it is. I have tried nearly every mobile operating system/PDA out there and there is no substitute for a Blackberry. Once you have gone BB, you will never go back. I hope you will find this review useful. Cheers, Lance