T-Mobile choices aiming at adults

Eric Benderoff
Chicago Tribune

T-Mobile is growing up.

In recent years, the biggest hit for the nation's fourth-largest wireless carrier has been the Sidekick, a cool device that teens and young adults coveted because it was a nifty way to send e-mails and text messages.

The Sidekick is no longer the coolest kid on the block.

That honor belongs to the Blackberry Pearl, a T-Mobile exclusive since September that also will go on sale next month at Cingular Wireless. Not far behind the Pearl is the Dash, made for T-Mobile by Taiwan's HTC. The Dash is nearly as sleek and thin as Motorola's Q.

The Pearl and the Dash are significantly smaller than the bulky Sidekick 3, surprisingly hefty considering today's preference for thin mobile devices. The Pearl, in fact, is a candy-bar style, not the typically squat traditional BlackBerry.

For T-Mobile, the two smart phones aren't an effort to attract the business user, although they won't be turned away. Rather, the goal is to attract the moms and dads of those teens who love the Sidekick.

These phones "are not about increasing your productivity at work, but with your personal life," said T-Mobile's Mike Hendrick, director of product development. Teens like to send text messages, he points out, so why not send them to Mom and Dad too?

It's a good strategy, and the Dash and the Pearl will appeal to people who are interested in trying a smart phone. Both are reasonably priced at $199 with a two-year contract.

The Pearl is simply an attractive phone. It's black, light, slim and easy to operate. More important, it is the first BlackBerry with true multimedia functions. It has a 1.3-megapixel camera, music player and offers video functions.

You might say it is about time, but BlackBerry's bread and butter has been e-mail and always-on business connections, not showcasing cute pictures of the kids. Well, with the Pearl, now you can show off pictures of the kids before the meeting starts.

In my tests, videos looked sharp, the music played crisply through headphones - it sounds like an iPod - and the camera took decent photos. Frankly, none of these features stand out compared with other mobile phones, but they all work well.

Using the Pearl to send messages, though, is a departure if you're used to a smart phone's typical QWERTY keyboard. The Pearl has what BlackBerry calls a SureType QWERY keyboard, where two letters share one key.

Avid users of this type of keyboard like it because the software anticipates much of the word, hence the name SureType, and it can produce text faster if you're adept. I'm not. I found it difficult to use SureType, so I relied on the multitap method to type out words.

In multitap, you tap the key once for the first letter or twice for the second letter. This is similar to how a standard mobile phone works if you were to tap out a text message.

Nonetheless, I've talked to plenty of BlackBerry users who like SureType keyboards. I suggest people practice this method if they like the looks of the Pearl. It's thin and stylish because of the keyboard.

There are drawbacks, particularly if you are a BlackBerry devotee. Primarily, there is no scroll wheel to move through messages, a feature BlackBerry users adore, and one Motorola emulated for the Q.

Instead, there is a track ball at the top of the keypad used for this function. The track ball is also the main navigational tool, as it helps you scroll through the various menu options. Like the scroll wheel on other BlackBerries, users push the track ball in to select the function you've highlighted. It's easy to use, but different if you're a dedicated BlackBerry user.

The Pearl's call quality was mixed. One co-worker said he heard an echo when I talked, and that some of my words were clipped. My wife, on the other hand, said the call quality was better than on my regular mobile phone.

On the Dash, the call quality was decent. Again, the person you call is not likely to be wowed by how great your voice sounds. But that's a minor issue because this is a very practical device, even if it lacks the pizzazz of the Pearl.

There are three main differences between the two devices. The Dash has a full QWERTY keyboard, runs on Windows Mobile software and includes built-in Wi-Fi connectivity.

The keyboard feels nice, and the keys have a solid touch. I found it easy to use, like the Q. The device also sits well in the palm of your hand, making navigation that much easier. The Dash does not have a track ball like the Pearl, but it does have a big button in the center of a typical five-way navigation pad. It's a good, practical design.

Windows Mobile is becoming common on smart phones not made by BlackBerry or Palm. I like the software because new smart-phone users in particular will find it easy to grasp. I had things up and running on the Dash pretty quickly.

The best feature, in my opinion, is the Wi-Fi finder built in to the Dash. To test this, I walked into the Starbucks across the street from my office, and the Dash immediately recognized the network.

Frankly, if you have an unlimited data plan, you can surf the Internet through the mobile carrier's network, but in my tests the Wi-Fi access was slightly faster. And Wi-Fi is free, too, so if you have a limited data plan, it might save you some change to surf the Web from a Wi-Fi hot spot. It's a nice option to have.

Unlike the Pearl, which sets a new standard for the BlackBerry, the Dash is not a groundbreaking product. Yet, it's a very solid phone, a nice addition to T-Mobile's line of proprietary messaging devices.


T-Mobile's smart phones for parents

BlackBerry Pearl

$199 with two-year contract

Plus: Sleek and stylish, first BlackBerry with multimedia functions.

Minus: Hard-core users will miss scroll wheel.

T-Mobile Dash

$199 with two-year contract

Plus: Thin and simple to use; it includes a built-in Wi-Fi connection.

Minus: Lacks style of Pearl





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