RIM was up against it when it launched the revamped BlackBerry Pearl last November, going head-to-head with the much-hyped iPhone. But a few months into the battle, it seems the business brand of choice has achieved a crossover handset with the staying power to last the distance.
Competing for a similar audience, the Pearl offers business functionality in a more obviously 'mobile' consumer guise. Like most of RIM's products – and unlike the iPhone – it thrives on the understated. The shape and size have remained much the same to the original Pearl , and aside from a lick of navy blue paint there's little to mark this handset out from its predecessor.
Welcome to Wi-Fi
Under the sleek blue-and-chrome chassis, though, some essential maintenance has taken place to confirm BlackBerry's status as the communicator of choice. Wi-Fi is the main newcomer, although 3G is yet to join the standard EDGE network connectivity.
Despite this, you should find plenty of Wi-Fi hotspots using the Manage Connections menu, thanks to the partnership between O2 (currently the Pearl 's exclusive network partner) and The Cloud. Saving a Wi-Fi profile – like your home network – allows the handset to automatically log on whenever in range, so there's no need to tinker with any settings on a regular basis.
Of course, the small screen can't really compete with the likes of the iPhone when it comes to the web browser, but changes are afoot on this front as well. A new full-page view has been incorporated, with a magnifying glass that allows you to zoom in on a particular area. It's not perfect, but it helps – and if your main browser use is for things like checking the football scores you'll be fine.
Everybody knows the BlackBerry's raison d'etre is mobile email, and despite extra consumer flourishes the heart of the 8120 is still in its abilities as a communicator. Push email – where your messages are 'pushed' from the server directly to your phone's Inbox – has always been the BlackBerry's main attraction, and works seamlessly.
It's possible to configure up to 10 email accounts on the device, and customers with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server can also access corporate accounts along with built-in IT management tools. Setting up accounts is surprisingly easy. An email wizard takes you through the stages of creating a login and password for the email management software (also accessible from a PC), and adding an existing account is just a case of entering the email address and password – the software inputs the other settings for you.
To get the most from the email aspect you'll need to install the supplied PC software, which will allow you to synchronise personal info like contacts, tasks and appointments. It also comes with an Application Loader, Backup and Restore facility and Media Manager. Mac users can download the PocketMac syncing software from the BlackBerry site, and there's also plenty of third-party apps for syncing things like Google calendar with the handset.
Email isn't the whole story, though, and fans of instant messenger can get their fill by downloading BlackBerry-compatible versions of Yahoo! Messenger (an install application can be found in the menu) and Google Talk. Both are just as straightforward as their PC-based counterparts.
RIM has bowed to market pressure and made the new Pearl a more attractive consumer proposition by boosting the camera to 2 megapixels, and video is also supported for the first time. Pressing the shutter release button will automatically call up the camera, and – while not up to the standard of other 2-megapixel offerings from the likes of Sony Ericsson – images taken at the highest resolution are perfectly acceptable.
The flash also makes shooting in low-light possible, if a little soft. Pictures can be saved either to the phone's 64MB internal flash memory or the newly added hotswappable microSD card (a 1GB card comes bundled by O2).
To offer the full gamut of multimedia features, RIM has once again sought the services of Roxio and music fans will appreciate the 3.5mm jack input, bringing more choice in the headphone department. There's also a new voice recorder function, so your handset can double as a Dictaphone.
The one area RIM could do with putting in some overtime is the menu interface, which has changed little since the days of the original BlackBerry. The new Pearl does make a stab at enhancing the interface by incorporating a quick-access icon-based menu of six features down the screen's left-hand side, and there's a hotkey to bring up the full list of applications next to the mini navigational trackball.
Old-fashioned it may be, but the proof is in the usability, and for a smartphone the 8120 is a breeze to operate once you've got used to the SureType keyboard, which provides two QWERTY keys per button to keep dimensions down.
It may not command the kudos of the iPhone, but the new Pearl 8120 succeeds in bringing together the worlds of business and pleasure (Facebook app anyone?) in a device that could pass itself off as a pro in both realms. For those who don't want the extra bulk of a more traditional smartphone, the BlackBerry Pearl 8120 is the ideal solution – and not a bad looking one at that.
Ease of use: 3.5/5
Call quality: 4/5
Value for money: 4/5