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BlackBerry Pearl 3G 9100

July 3rd, 2010
RIM stuffs its smallest phone with as many features as possible.

The Pearl has always occupied an unusual place in the BlackBerry line, if not the whole smartphone world: it's a smartphone for those who hate smartphones and the according price tags. With the Pearl 3G, though, RIM has blurred the line even further by packing 3G, GPS, Wi-Fi and even a high-resolution display into a phone no larger than a free-on-contract candybar. It's very promising, but we'll see in our BlackBerry Pearl 3G review if that amounts to a serious threat. Design and the display

For RIM, the Pearl was by far the most overdue for a makeover this year; much of its design had been unchanged since 2006. To unveil the 3G, then, was a real breath of fresh air, and it shows in the design. Apart from being sleeker-looking -- we especially liked the wine red "gradient" of the Rogers model -- the new model finally excises the trackball from the BlackBerry line and makes the trackpad common on every device. It's not just much faster and more intuitive for browsing the web or thumbing through a large list; it's more reliable and puts an end to clogged and popped-out trackballs.

The small size of the phone makes it easy to hold, but we're not sure every change RIM has made is for the better. The volume rocker and side buttons are subtler, but almost too much so. We had to fumble slightly to turn the volume up during a phone call. We'd also note that a lot of the design is metal-effect plastic and rubber than metal. Still, the build quality is there, and it feels improved enough that we'd expect the Pearl 3G to last the life of its contract, though not necessarily scuff-free.

All the expansion and ports you'd expect are there, which means a microSDHC slot, a removable battery, a headphone jack and a standard micro USB port. The built-in memory won't have you forget you're not using a Droid, iPhone or other device, though. At just 256MB built-in and a 2GB microSD card in most boxes, you'll have just the basics.

As with most modern BlackBerries, what impresses most is the screen. It's sized like that of regular phones and the earlier Pearl, but at 360x400 it's actually higher resolution than on the Curve 8500 series and just a stone's throw from the detail of the Bold 9650 or Bold 9700. While it still visibly shows pixels, it's much crisper and comes backed by fairly vivid colors and wide viewing angles.

All the same, RIM can't escape the realities of size. It can't provide as much visual real estate, so you're often left scrolling through lists or pages and capturing only a small portion of the text you might want to read. If your workflow or leisure time involves a lot of text, the Pearl 3G won't come any closer to satisfying your needs.

BlackBerry OS 5, App World and SureType

The Pearl 3G in many ways represents the end of an era. It may well be the last new phone RIM ships before BlackBerry OS 6 arrives and promises both a cosmetic and a functional overhaul.

For such a simple phone, the use of an older OS isn't a major issue. It won't often be used for complex tasks, and even the aging web browser isn't as much of a problem. Given the phone's size and price, it's not hard to be slightly impressed that you have a true app platform, media and messaging in the size of a phone that would normally be reserved for basic features. Once more, the trackpad is a great fit as it lets you accomplish much more than you ordinarily could without the luxury of a wide surface or a touchscreen.

That you get 3G, GPS and Wi-Fi attached to this is appreciated as well. Unlike past pearls or other very entry-level smartphones, it doesn't feel as though the Pearl 3G is making a sacrifice. There's even a surprise in the use of 802.11n Wi-Fi; this diminutive phone can talk to a local network at faster speeds than many of its larger cousins.

In absolute terms, though, BlackBerry OS 5 is very much one of the oldest-feeling mobile platforms on the market today. Quick and responsive it might be, but scrolling through large, plain text lists and digging through contextual menus for important functions can be tiresome. RIM already knows it needs a better web browser and is readying a much more accurate WebKit-based browser for OS 6; even then, its once venerable mail client now trails behind those of Apple and Google. BlackBerry phones need a much faster way to mass select and delete mail, not to mention rendering complex messages properly. Superiority here is only for the size of the phone and not in the light of challengers.

Some criticism must also be levelled at BlackBerry App World. The store itself is relatively basic: compared to the iOS App Store, the categories are more refined but it remains harder to discover an app you didn't already know existed. App World only just recently added features taken for granted elsewhere, such as credit card payments or an Android-like QR code system that uses the camera to leap directly to an app.

Moreover, it's hard to see much of an effect from the development platform. RIM talks a great deal about "super apps" and encouraging higher quality through its store, but that's not the reality on the ground for BlackBerry phone owners. We've both downloaded and browsed through apps. There's no especially higher amount of polish, and in some cases the apps were straight cross-platform projects that didn't necessarily have the best features. Slacker Radio won't show you the upcoming album where it does on iOS, for example, and It's far more elegant to retweet or search in Twitter for iPhone than on the BlackBerry.

And at roughly 7,000 apps at last count, the diversity just isn't there. It's more than Palm's App Catalog, but it's well under the 50,000-plus apps at the Android Market or 225,000 for iOS. Say what you will about quality over quantity, but Android device and iPhone owners will have a better chance at getting exactly the app they need.

As much as we may criticize the app support, we would be remiss in the review if we didn't give some compliments to RIM's SureType input on the Pearl series. It won't ever be as quick as a full QWERTY keyboard. It's still worlds faster than T9 or other number pads, though, as you never need to press a key more than twice and, more often than not, just once. The word auto-detection and correction is surprisingly intelligent and is context-sensitive, understanding when you mean to find a contact or a web address. The BlackBerry Pearl was never meant for heavy duty typing but is often good enough in a pinch for a Facebook status update or a text message.

Camera quality

At 3.2 megapixels, the Pearl's camera sensor is above average for the class but fairly mild as a whole. Performance is what you'd expect, too. It can take decent outdoor landscape shots, but it quickly falls flat under more difficult conditions. We noticed fringing effects (the blue or purple "glow" usually caused by having too small a lens for the sensor), blown out highlights in bright scenes, and noise in darker scenes. Focusing is quick, but we noticed it had a tendency to focus on the wrong subject, even if using the macro ("close-up") mode as we did in our third shot below. A flash is present and should help for close-up shots in the dark, however.

Options are substantial but mostly have to do with how and where the files are saved. Image quality tweaks are mostly limited to macros, white balance, and adding a novelty black-and-white or sepia effect.

Movie recording exists, but as with virtually every BlackBerry we've seen, there's little noteworthy; it's low resolution and low bitrate. One can forgive it for the kind of phone it is, but in an era where more and more phones can record at full quality and in HD, it's harder to keep defending such video output.

Call quality and battery life

Adding 3G means making calls on 3G, and this in theory should help for the Pearl's main focus. Voice in our experience was good, but not great. Calls were clean and easily understood in both directions, but we preferred the more detailed, "brighter" sound of the Acer Liquid E we tested just a few weeks ago.

A few may be disappointed by how long one the Pearl can make calls. You'll get just five hours of non-stop talk on basic GSM and, curiously, 5.5 hours on 3G. Both are slightly below average for smartphones and could be a deciding factor for salespeople who need to spend all day in conversation. Having mentioned this, it's good for a phone which clearly has such a small battery and competes well with similarly-sized conventional phones. Standby time hasn't been greatly hurt in the 3G transition, so you won't lose a large amount of battery overnight versus a larger handset.

Wrapping up

There's no doubt that the new BlackBerry Pearl is a meaningful upgrade. It feels and acts much more like a quality device than its predecessors, and it finally doesn't have to give up important hardware features to get to its undoubtedly good price. Between $30 and $50 on contract, it's low-hanging fruit for someone new to smartphones or who simply wants to pay as little as possible up front, not just for the monthly rate.

Some sacrifices have clearly been made to get there: the camera just isn't that good, and the runtime is short. And as capable as the BlackBerry OS is for a phone of this stature, we just can't say that it has an edge in most areas anymore. Unless you're particularly tied to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server for work or all your friends are on BlackBerry Messenger, the better interface and the better apps are to be found elsewhere.

What the Pearl 3G does best is to cover certain niches of the smartphone market very, very well. It's for the college student that understands what a smartphone can do but can't justify getting an expensive, full-sized device. It's for the person who still uses a phone for calls first but demands just that bit more out of the software. It's even for the fashion-conscious who would consider it social death to have a regular smartphone bulging out of tight pants.

We liked the Pearl 3G overall, but if there's a real danger to its existence, it's that the public might be moving away from that niche. Even among the cash-strapped younger set, we've seen fewer Pearls and more iPhones in recent months. You can get a capable Android phone for as much as the Pearl 3G. Depending on the carrier, there's often a choice of BlackBerries to compound the situation. The Curve 8520 or 8530 can often cost exactly as much or less than a Pearl; do you value the small size and sharper screen of the newer phone enough to forego a full-sized keyboard, especially when you might pay less?

Consequently, we can't give RIM's latest creation an unqualified pass. To choose it above all others, you'll have to shop around and make a calculated decision that the cost and pocketability are worth whatever tradeoffs come by skipping a larger and potentially more feature-laden phone.

- Much better display and trackpad.

- Low price.

- SureType still a great solution for a small phone.

- Good (though not great) call quality.

- Some more advanced phones at its price.

- Disappointing camera.

- Slightly below-average battery.