Twelve months ago BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion (RIM) combined their renowned business conscious handsets with features aimed to attract the consumer market. The result was the BlackBerry Pearl 8100. A year on and the Pearl series is expanding with the release of the Pearl 8120; a sharp-looking upgrade that improves on its predecessor in some key areas, but also shares at least one major short-coming of the earlier model -- it's still not a 3G phone.
There's no denying it, the Pearl 8120 is a sexy handset. It's a slim and impressively lightweight unit with an attract stainless-steel trimming. The keypad and trackball are only slightly raised off the body of the phone, which is otherwise streamlined. The 8120 feels good in the hand, and fits well in your pocket.
The Pearl 8120 sports a 240 x 260 pixel TFT display which is large enough and bright enough for using the applications on the handset. Video playback looks great, however the square display means no true wide-screen and the media player doesn't have a landscape playback option for when you're watching videos.
One of the big differences between the Pearl series and the rest of the BlackBerry range is the replacement of a full QWERTY keyboard with a dual-input QWERTY keypad -- where the keys share two letters and are laid out in QWERTY format. Initially this feature does take some getting used to, being somewhere between the two common keypad styles, but with a bit of practice we found we'd mastered it fairly quickly. To assist with this transition the 8120 has SureType predictive text software which impressed us with how easy it was to use and how accurately it predicted the words as we entered them.
With business related functionality still intact, RIM has been very keen to show the new multimedia capabilities in action. Designed in conjunction with PC software developer Roxio, the media player offers playback for most popular audio and video formats, after a conversion via the PC media software that comes with the handset.
We were really curious to see how the Pearl 8120 handled longer form video files. To really test the multimedia playback we imported some DivX video files. The Roxio Media Manager software converts the media to BlackBerry-friendly audio and video files -- MPEG4 for our test videos.
The results looked great. The pictures were sharp with very little of the artefacting we expect to see in heavily compressed video. The audio was clear and the episodes managed to keep lip-synch for the duration. The lack of landscape viewing is the only let down in this whole process. When watching wide-screen videos half of the viewing area becomes black letterboxes on the top and bottom of the image. We found ourselves holding the phone under our noses to compensate for the tiny picture.
A 3.5mm headphone jack allows you to use your own high-quality headphones instead of the stereo hands-free kit in the box, but the position of the port on the side of the phone may make it difficult to slip into your pocket while you're listening to music or watching your videos.
We had criticised RIM for positioning the microSD memory card slot under the battery on the 8100; meaning you'd have to shut down the device before being able to swap cards. Well, it seems RIM have heard our calls for change and the microSD slot on the 8120 is now conveniently located on the side, meaning you can "hot-swap" memory while the device is still switched on.
The Pearl 8120 comes with a 2-megapixel camera onboard, as opposed to the 1.3-megapixel shooter in the earlier model. However, this jump in image size certainly hasn't improved the quality of the images produced, which is, at best, passable. Even with the assistance of the LCD flash the pictures we took were uniformly plagued with soft-focus issues and dull colour reproduction. Although, the photos you take are easy to upload to Facebook.
That's right; we referred to Facebook in the middle of a BlackBerry review. It seems a strange marriage, the leader in business PDAs mixing with one of the greatest time-sinks in modern times. Visiting the Facebook site for the first time prompts the user to download the BlackBerry Facebook application. This tool allows you to perform a degree of Facebook maintenance -- sending messages and pokes, uploading photos -- without having to open the browser and sacrifice speed. The ability to upload a photo to Facebook immediately after snapping the photo is a handy feature.
Similar to the 8100, the 8120 is a quad-band phone, making data connections at a similar speed to dial-up Internet with GSM/GPRS/EDGE support. However, the 8120 adds Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) to its connectivity options, a must have feature for business smartphones and PDAs.
Without access to Wi-Fi, Web browsing on the 8120 soon shows how sorely lacking 3G and HSPDA connection speeds are. Perhaps we've become speed snobs, but browsing the Internet on this device will definitely test your patience, and will have you scanning the room for the closest PC. The speed is adequate for accessing various text based Web applications, like push e-mail and instant messaging, but once the Web browser opens you feel the need for speed and it's just not there.
During our testing the BlackBerry Pearl 8120 proved itself to be a sturdy workhorse. Accessing the various menus is fast and virtually lag-free, with the exception of entering the camera and multimedia applications. Even the Facebook application is fast enough to encourage its use.
The audio through the built-in speaker during the phone calls we made sounded slightly louder than comfortable, leading to a buzzing sound as the audio of the people speaking peaked. We couldn't find a happy medium with the volume setting, but we consider this to be a minor issue at most.
RIM predicts a standby battery life of up to 15 days, and talk time of four hours. Our experience when testing the handset was approximately five days between charges, with moderate use including voice calls, messaging and some Web browsing. You could expect heavier use of the multimedia utilities to drain the battery faster. A USB cable charges the battery while connected to a PC, and can be charging while you sync your address books, or convert media through the Media Centre. A travel charger also comes bundled with the handset for when you can't find a computer to charge your phone.
The BlackBerry Pearl 8120 is a great smartphone, there's no doubt about it. It looks good, it feels good, the interface is responsive and the device offers much of the business functionality you'd expect from the rest of the BlackBerry family but in a considerably smaller package.
The multimedia functionality is good but if you're looking at the Pearl as a pure media playing handset, you'd be better to consider a more dedicated device, such as phones in the Nokia N-Series.
The paltry 2.5G Internet speed is a major oversight for a phone that rates well on almost all fronts, although Wi-Fi will compensate for users with access to a network. Every part of this device seems considered and well-designed and using the Pearl 8120 is a pleasure until the Web browser starts up.