Rollout: RIM BlackBerry 8800

With voice-activated dialing and push-to-talk features, expandable memory and a GPS sensor, the latest edition of the mobile e-mail device earns its stripes as a phone.

April 13, 2007

7 Min Read
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The Blackberry is the de facto e-mail device for nomadic employees. Now Research In Motion is upping the ante with the BlackBerry 8800, which aims to prove that RIM can do voice well enough to serve as an all-in-one mobile platform.

Voice-activated dialing, enhanced multimedia capabilities, a GPS sensor and other advanced features put this BlackBerry on par with Windows Mobile phones and the Palm Treo. Even better, these add-ons don't come at the expense of its messaging capabilities: It still boasts a full QWERTY keyboard and improves Web browsing with a new trackball.

But this pretty little number still has its flaws, including a limited battery life and disappointing data throughput.

Call Me"Sleek" and "stylish" are words rarely associated with previous devices from RIM, but both aptly describe the 8800. The device itself is runway-model slim. A glossy black finish and chromed sides replace the decidedly corporate look of older BlackBerry models.

Beyond cosmetics, the new form factor means making and receiving calls feels a lot less awkward than it did with previous models. Dedicated volume controls are within easy reach during a conversation.

The new device also offers Voice-Activated Dialing (VAD), which saves you the trouble of scrolling through the address book. (It also makes it easier to dial while driving, but we trust you know better than to make calls while behind the wheel, right?) The VAD feature is voice-independent, meaning the device doesn't have to train itself to a specific user's voice. After activating the VAD, you say, for example, "Call John Doe mobile." The device then scans the address book for the appropriate number. If no exact match is found, the VAD will suggest names closest to the one you said. We found the VAD to be accurate during testing and simple enough for everyday use.

On the downside, the dial pad is still placed to one side of the 8800's QWERTY keyboard, which does make it nearly impossible to enter numbers without actually looking at the device.

The 8800 also includes a redesigned thumbboard and a new trackball. To adjust for a slightly thinner device, the keys on the thumbboard have been slimmed and raised a bit. Users of older model BlackBerrys may stumble over these changes; we fat-fingered a number of keystrokes until we adapted.The 8800 replaces the click wheel with a small trackball on the front of the device. The trackball is one reason Blackberry's Web experience is better, in our opinion, than that of a Windows Mobile device. Although RIM attempts to format Web pages for the small screen at the server (the carrier's Blackberry Internet Services server or at the enterprise's Blackberry Enterprise Server), there are some sites that just don't optimize very well. But by using RIM's default Web client in Desktop Mode, you get a cursor on the screen that has a full range of motion thanks to the trackball, making it easy to scroll vertically and horizontally. The trackball also helps make up for the fact that BlackBerry doesn't have the touchscreen found on many Windows Mobile devices.

Enterprises will also appreciate the control they can exercise over Web use. If the device is connected to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), all Internet access on that device feeds through the company's firewall and Web filters. This means two things: First, the BlackBerry can access internal or intranet sites securely without exposing the sites to the outside world. All Web and e-mail traffic is encrypted between the device and the BES. Second, all of the company's Web filtering policies will be applied, which means no naughty pictures on corporate-issued devices.

Playing Catch-up

With the 8800, RIM has finally brought multimedia and GPS to its corporate devices. However, these are features that its competitors have had for some time.

Music, videos and pictures can be copied to either the 64 MB of internal memory or onto memory cards loaded into the 8800's microSD slot. The media player plays multiple music and video formats, including MP3, Windows Media and MPEG4. Although it lacks common options found on other smartphones, such as playlists and song shuffle, the media player is a viable alternative for road warriors who like to travel with tunes but don't want to carry a dedicated media player. One sticking point is that the 8800's link to the desktop is only USB 1.1, which makes transferring even small music files extremely slow.Of course, given that the 8800 is designed primarily for the enterprise, your users may not have an opportunity to play with the multimedia features. If corporate policies dictate it, administrators can disable the media player centrally from the BES.

Authentication BenefitsClick to enlarge in another window

The 8800 isn't the first in the BlackBerry family to have built-in GPS--Sprint Nextel's 7520 holds that honor--but it is a first for RIM's globetrotting GSM world phones. The GPS opens opportunities for location-based services down the road, and also gives road warriors access to navigation tools today. For example, Telenav, a subscription-based navigator available from AT&T, captures location information from the 8800, then downloads maps, directions and even points of interest from Telenav's servers, and presents them on the BlackBerry's screen. We found the maps and turn-by-turn directions to be surprisingly accurate, though because the service downloads the maps as you go, it can sometimes be a bit slow.

Users can choose a destination from the 8800's address book, enter it on the keyboard, or call into Telenav and use its voice response system. Travelers now have the convenience of mapping and routing with turn-by-turn voice prompts, again without having to carry a dedicated device. In fact, the 8800 is the only device in AT&T's current lineup that doesn't require an external GPS receiver.

Nobody's PerfectAlthough the 8800 brings both form and function to the BlackBerry line, there are flaws beneath the chrome. One concern is battery life. While RIM claims a staggering 22 days of standby time between charges, we were only able to send and receive e-mails and make occasional phone calls for five days before recharging. We've found that RIM devices get very close to standby time when just used for data. (The last one we reviewed, the 8700, listed 10 days of standby, and we got seven days out of it just using e-mail.) E-mail and data usage doesn't fall under "talk time," but since RIM doesn't publish a "data time" either, we thought the battery issue worth mentioning.

Also, despite AT&T's ongoing deployment of its 3G wireless network and the near-broadband speeds it offers, RIM has chosen to limit the 8800 to the older, slower EDGE network. With other wireless carriers offering smartphones, including other BlackBerrys, with much faster data speeds, it puts both the 8800 and AT&T at a definite disadvantage. (At present, AT&T is the only carrier for the 8800 in the United States, though that's likely to change in the next six months.)

Despite these concerns, the BlackBerry 8800 is the premier device in RIM's lineup. Though still weighted toward mobile e-mail, its new form factor and enhanced voice features mean the 8800 can hold its own with other smartphones on the market. Corporate users looking for an all-in-one device need look no further. Pricing starts at $349.

Michael Brandenburg is an analyst for competitive analysis firm current analysis. Write to him at [email protected].

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