Despite Research In Motion's current patent disputes, its BlackBerry is still the most sought-after handheld communications device for mobile professionals. And if I had to roll the dice, I'd bet the BlackBerry will continue to be popular for the foreseeable future [And we think the blackout is unlikely anyway - Editor].

But how does a BlackBerry fare as a notebook alternative? Can you comfortably leave the laptop at home and take only your BlackBerry on a business trip?

Using a BlackBerry 7520 on the (US) Sprint/Nextel wireless network, plus the BlackBerry Internet Service (which forwards e-mail from your ISP to your BlackBerry), I did the types of things I'd normally do with a notebook while traveling:

  • Send and receive e-mail, with and without attachments;,
  • create and edit Office documents; and
  • browse Web sites.

Handling E-Mail
The BlackBerry's biggest advantage has always been its e-mail prowess. A BlackBerry checks your enterprise or ISP mail server for new messages multiple times per minute. Whenever a new message is pushed to your BlackBerry, the device alerts you with a blinking red light.

BlackBerrys feature built-in support for viewing many types of e-mail attachments, including Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents; Adobe PDF files; JPEG and other common image files; and HTML attachments. Fonts and formatting are usually preserved, and documents are compressed to speed up delivery.

However, images I received as attachments often looked blurry on the BlackBerry 7520 I tested - especially when the images were enlarged. Also, the BlackBerry couldn't handle an e-mail with multiple attachments that I received from a client. The message was sent with four Word documents and one 6 Mbyte PowerPoint presentation. On the BlackBerry, the attachments didn't come through, nor did the text of the client's message. All I received was a message that read, "Message truncated due to size."

A RIM spokesperson explained that the BlackBerry Internet Service, which I used, can forward messages of up to 8 Mbyte in size; my message slightly exceeded that limit. However, there are no size limits if you receive e-mail through the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which is typical of corporate users, the spokesperson said.

Typing on a Mini-Keyboard
With the built-in QWERTY keyboard, typing is fairly easy on most BlackBerrys.

The BlackBerry 7100 series is designed to be more phone-like in shape than other models. To save space, the keys have two letters, such as Q and W, instead of one. To compensate, RIM includes SureType, auto-completion technology that goes a long way toward making it easier to type on the BlackBerry's limited keyboard, says PC World reviewer Yardena Adar in her review of the BlackBerry 7100t.

For more extensive typing, consider purchasing Think Outside's Stowaway Shasta, a full-sized, fold-out Bluetooth keyboard for the BlackBerry 7100, 7250, 7290, and 7520 models. In my experience, the keyboard easily paired and later reconnected with the BlackBerry 7520. Unlike some other external PDA keyboards, the Stowaway Shasta includes dedicated number keys, as well as hot keys to make and end voice calls and perform other BlackBerry functions. The keyboard, which requires its own batteries, costs £52.95 including VAT at Expansys.

Working with Office files
In my opinion, to qualify as a viable notebook alternative, a device must enable you to create and edit documents that are compatible with Microsoft Office.

Out of the box, a BlackBerry doesn't offer that capability, unlike a Windows Mobile-based handheld or a Palm Treo 650, which comes with DataViz's Documents to Go Office-compatible suite. However, you can use DynoPlex's eOffice suite to add those features.

The professional edition of eOffice (download for US$200, free trial available) includes eWord, for working with Word files; eCell, for Excel files; eWorks, which lets you compose and edit formatted e-mail messages and transfer your Outlook inbox to your BlackBerry, among other things; eSpell, a spelling checker; and eFile, a Windows Explorer-like utility for managing and organizing files.

In my tests, the eOffice suite worked well. Navigation can be frustrating, however. Because BlackBerrys don't have touch screens, as do Treo 650s and many other PDAs, you must navigate by scrolling around the screen using the BlackBerry's track wheel, which can be cumbersome. Also, in order to replicate a desktop-like experience on the BlackBerry screen, eOffice menus and documents are tiny and difficult to read. If you're over 40, beware: You'll need your bifocals.

One final caveat: Though there are multiple Office-compatible programs for Palm and Windows Mobile devices, eOffice is the only one I've found for BlackBerrys. So if you don't like this suite of programs, and you want to edit Office docs on your BlackBerry, you're out of options.

Web browsing
BlackBerrys come with a Web browser that lets you access even Web sites that aren't optimised for handhelds. In my tests using the Sprint/Nextel network, Web pages loaded a bit sluggishly on the BlackBerry 7520, and non-optimised pages were sometimes a challenge to navigate, with their content in disarray. In other words: Expect the usual frustrating PDA Web browsing experience.

If you're impatient, consider the BlackBerry 8700, which T-Mobile is shortly to launch in the UK (and Orange will also have), which runs on the EDGE high-speed network. You're likely to see improvements in Web browsing speeds - provided you're in an area where the high-speed network is available.

The bottom line: would I, or wouldn't I?
So would I take a BlackBerry on a business trip and leave my laptop at home? As in my other tests of handheld devices as notebook alternatives, the answer is a qualified "maybe."

For a two- or three-day trip, in which I had no heavy work to do on Office documents, I'd probably ditch the notebook in lieu of a BlackBerry. For a longer trip, or one in which I needed to work on Office documents extensively, I'd bring my notebook in addition to the BlackBerry. Viewing documents on a BlackBerry's small screen is simply too difficult for any length of time.

Ultimately, a BlackBerry - or any other PDA or smart phone I've tested - has considerable limitations when compared to a notebook. For example, the BlackBerry 7520 wasn't able to open an e-mail containing five Office file attachments. Without access to a computer, I wouldn't have been able to review those attachments. And in that particular case, I would have been prevented from starting a new, tight-deadline project. That's a compromise I'm unwilling to make.