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BlackBerry Pearl earns praise from cell users

Alex L. Goldfayn
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

TiVo has evangelists. People go crazy over their digital video recorder because it changes the way they watch TV.

In the PC category, the Mac elicits a wildly passionate response from its legion of vocal fans.

And among digital music players, everyone knows the iPod rules the world.

Until recently, however, the cell phone category had no such champion of the people.

But today, people are raving about a little phone called the BlackBerry Pearl (www.blackberrypearl.com). Since its launch in September, it has become a hot seller. It's a half-inch thick and pretty much half screen and half keyboard. In between, there's an innovative little thumb trackball - that's the "pearl" - that navigates the screen and, when you push it down, makes a selection.

Like Prius owners and expectant mothers, users of the sleek, sexy, black-and-metallic BlackBerry Pearl share a common, unifying pride.

"How do you like your Pearl?" I asked a stranger at my coffee shop.

"Oh, I love it," he said. "I just got it, and I absolutely love it."

We talked for five minutes about favorite features and exchanged tips and tricks.

What inspires such enthusiasm in a gadget? It's design elegance (think of the TiVo's interface, for example), which to me means a simple and extremely effective functionality. But there's also style, which both the iPod and Pearl have in spades.

At some point for some machines, the combination of inherent attributes sets off a buzz among consumers. And sometimes, as with the Pearl, appreciation reaches a higher level of passionate, evangelistic response.

For those people, owning one of these devices also becomes a personal statement. Driving a Prius tells the world you care about the environment. Owning a Mac means you're all about creativity, not conformity. I just think the Pearl is a beautifully designed phone.

It is made by Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion Ltd., which for nearly a decade has been manufacturing big, clunky, plastic BlackBerries.

Most of them have spacious, full keyboards for your thumbs and the legendary "always on" e-mail that has made them must-haves among on-the-go business users. They're hard and tough and pretty much indestructible.

But they're not really phones you're proud of pulling out at dinner. (When I used BlackBerry's full-size 8700c, it was so big that I had a hard time pulling it out of my pocket.)

But when RIM released the Pearl, I immediately was smitten.

It's a 3-ounce soap-bar-shaped phone that features a superbright 2.25-inch screen and a little 20-button keyboard. Each button has one or two letters assigned to it. As you type with your thumbs, the Pearl makes a best-guess attempt at which letter you really want to come up.

RIM calls this technology SureType. As you type each word, a list of options appear, and you can select the letter sequence or word you wanted to type. Like other BlackBerries, the Pearl "learns" the words you use, adding them to its database on the fly. Before long, it is guessing at nearly 100 percent.

What's it like to type on a tiny keyboard?

I'm 6 feet 6 inches tall, and my hands are better configured to palm a basketball than press tiny buttons on a 1-inch keyboard.

Still, I spell surprisingly accurately and quickly with the Pearl. In fact, there's not a noticeable difference between the time it takes to hammer out a quick e-mail between the Pearl and my many full-keyboard Palm Treos.

It keeps my contact list, calendar and task list too. The Pearl also has a digital camera built in and can play music and movies. This makes it the first BlackBerry to handle multimedia files.

The second BlackBerry to do so will be the full-size 8800, which became available through Cingular on Feb. 21. It has the full keyboard that many business users have come to love, but otherwise looks and feels like the Pearl, right down to the little trackball. It will retail for about $300 with a two-year contract.

For me, the key to the Pearl is its size.

The Pearl easily fits into a pocket, following a trend with wireless phones that effectively started with the Motorola's Razr: Sleek and thin is in. So are cameras and music and movie playing. The Pearl adds BlackBerry's e-mail functionality.

The downside: It's nowhere near as sturdy as the business-oriented BlackBerries. The Pearl is made of light plastic that scratches easily. I've dropped it exactly once, and the battery cover, along with the battery itself, tumbled dramatically away.

Luckily, I had painstakingly applied a stick-on protector from a company called ShieldZone (www.shieldzone.com). According to the company, their custom-cut protectors are made from the same material the military uses to protect helicopter blades. Obviously, the material is scratchproof, and I like it because it doesn't add bulk to my Pearl like a case would.

ShieldZone makes protectors for cell phones, MP3 players and watches.

For the Pearl, a full-body shield runs about $25, while a screen protector costs about $10. For an easy-to-scratch device like the Pearl (or, for that matter, the iPod), it's a must-have.

The BlackBerry Pearl is available from T-Mobile (about $150 with a two-year service plan) and Cingular (about $200 with a two-year service plan). On Amazon.com, prices are much less; it runs just $50 for T-Mobile and $25 for Cingular.


(Alex L. Goldfayn's book, "Going Digital," about all the things you can do with your digital photos and home movies, was published by HarperCollins. Visit www.TechnologyTailor.com for more information and the full text of more than three years of "My Tech" columns. Write to him at alex at technologytailor.com.)

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