Research in Motion's BlackBerry e-mail devices have gathered a loyal (if relatively small) following, and their small-yet-usable QWERTY thumb keyboards have become widely imitated icons of modern handheld design (see our review of the BlackBerry 7230). The BlackBerry's biggest drawback: Models that double as phones have always felt too wide to cradle comfortably to the face.
That was before the new BlackBerry 7100 cell phone. While the notion of a Blackberry without a QWERTY keyboard may seem tantamount to heresy, RIM pulls it off quite well with this slim, attractive device that includes all the features BlackBerry fans have come to expect.
This review is of the 7100t, the version brought out by T-Mobile in the US. The Vodafone-styled 7100v, which has just arrived in the UK and Germany has a different look but is fundamenally the same machine.
The 7100's narrower silhouette brings to mind another converged device - PalmOne's Treo 600 PDA-cell phone (reviewed here, but even the Treo has a full QWERTY keyboard. The keypad on the 7100 looks much more like that of a traditional cell phone - until you examine it a bit more closely. Then it looks like a strange cross between the two.
For starters, the 7100 has a few more keypad keys than a traditional handset: Two columns of four keys flank the traditional three columns of keys (1-9, *,0, and #) that make up a standard phone keypad. The QWERTY keyboard hasn't completely disappeared. but instead of one key per letter, two letters are printed on most keys (including the numeric keys). Clearly RIM still expects you to use this BlackBerry for e-mail and text messaging.
I didn't see how at first. When I tapped on a key with two letters, how would the device know which one to use? I figured that as with most phones, which crowd three or four letters on each numeric key, I would have to slow my pace to let the device know what I was trying to type.
The Joy of SureType
I clearly underestimated the SureType text-input system of this appealing phone. You don't have to tap once to choose the first letter on a key and twice to choose the second letter; SureType is much smarter than that. Regardless of which of a key's two letters you want, you only have to tap once: Each time you do so, SureType analyses the possible letter combinations from your taps and guesses your word from its 35,000-entry dictionary. The guesses change as you type more letters and the list of possible words narrows; the more you type, the more likely it is the software will figure out the word.
The system works, too. I was able to compose a 25-word e-mail message on the BlackBerry 7100 in one minute - without ever having to correct the software. The trick is to type the word completely before looking to see what SureType thinks it is (if you look earlier, you'll see a lot of wrong guesses the software later discards).
SureType isn't entirely intuitive; you can't just pick it up and start typing. But after reading the top 10 typing tips that came on the phone, I was up and running efficiently within minutes. I have no trouble heartily recommending the 7100t as a text-messaging device. [Vodafone in the UK has said it expects SureType to make a big difference to the way we send text]
Other good features
I liked lots of other things about this phone. Navigation is simple using the trackwheel and escape button, easily accessible on the right side of the device. It's a quad-band GSM handset - T-Mobile will be the first carrier in the US, and Vodafone in Europe - so you can use it around the world (with an appropriate plan). RIM even provides slide-on plug connectors for a couple of popular electrical outlet formats from around the globe. The phone will also support EDGE, the first 3G high-speed network [the one that is available in the US and not Europe - Editor], where available.
The use of a USB cable to connect the device and the electrical adapter (the brick that plugs into an outlet) is a nice touch. If you're not near an outlet, you can disconnect the cable from the adapter and simply plug it into your notebook in order to trickle-charge the battery.
The graphics [special to T-Mobile USA -Editor] are terrific, from the sprightly looking sans-serif font to the somewhat whimsical icons on the sky-blue main screen. RIM uses a backlit 340-by-320 color LCD here instead of the faded-looking affairs of previous RIM models.
Web browsing is still a challenge on the small screen, but it's no worse than other small phone screens - and, thanks to the improved display quality, pages look better than they did on previous models. The battery seemed reasonably robust in my informal tests; RIM says it will last for four hours of talk or eight days of standby.
You can aggregate e-mail from up to 10 corporate and personal accounts in your inbox. If your company has a BlackBerry server you can enjoy the so-called push service -it automatically sends e-mail to your device as it arrives - that helped make BlackBerry famous. (the BlackBerry server supports the major players including Exchange and Lotus Notes and is reviewed here).
The Price Is Right
Finally, at $200 in the US, the 7100t is reasonably priced [In the UK, Vodafone charges from nothing to £82.50 depending on contract, for the 7100v]. The 7100t's price is $100 less than the company's offer on its upcoming SideKick II device, and is dramatically less than the $500 that T-Mobile is charging for a Treo 600.
My only major beef: The 7100t still runs RIM's proprietary operating system for which few additional applications are available. As a longtime Palm owner, I'm spoiled by having lots of software choices for everything from productivity to gaming.
BlackBerry aficionados who've been yearning for a more phone-like phone will want to check out the 7100, and people looking for an affordable phone/text-messaging hybrid should take a look as well. RIM once again has displayed a knack for creating a product that - like the first BlackBerry - gives people what they want, in a package that is at once practical and attractive.
Do you agree? Is this the kind of thing you want, or do you reckon you know how RIM could have gone one better? Join our Forum and tell us.
BlackBerry phone's svelte form and unusual (but usable) new text-input software make for a genuinely useful phone-e-mail hybrid.