BlackBerry 8800: a first look

The BlackBerry 8800 is the latest phone/email device to emerge from the Research In Motion stable. It retains all the traditional appeal of the BlackBerry platform, while adding GPS functionality.

The BlackBerry 8800 is the latest phone/email device to emerge from the Research In Motion stable. RIM has developed a reputation for turning its users into addicts, thanks largely to its pioneering push email technology, and its latest offering will do nothing to dispel that reputation.

So what's new? A handful of features, the most prominent of which — the one that will make most people desire the device — is the GPS functionality. GPS on the BlackBerry 8800 comes with maps and directions. It won't typically find satellites if it's inside a building, but in the open air it consistently found eight or nine from central London locations and pinpointed our location accurately on a street-level map.

The mapping application will find street-level maps of most locations. It won't find postcodes in the UK, and it's not as pretty as Google Maps Mobile, but it's more than adequate for finding where you are and where you want to go. It's not a terribly good driving aid — you don't get the 3D views that owners of dedicated GPS devices will be used to, but then owners of dedicated GPS devices will not get the features that the BlackBerry platform delivers.

Mapping works best with a decent screen, and the 8800 does not disappoint here — its 320-by-240 landscape TFT screen is clear and bright. The key pitch is smaller, but a cut-out corner on each one means the keys are usable by all but the biggest thumbs. Status and style junkies will love its slender (it is just 14mm thick) black lines — our review model had Treo users in the ZDNet office turning green with jealousy.

The 8800 series has the standard BlackBerry push email features and personal information manager, together with a quad-band smartphone. New features include an instant-messaging client that can chat to buddies on Yahoo IM and Google Talk, plus RIM's own browser, which was usable for a variety of sites we looked at, and which includes a JavaScript interpreter.

The phone includes noise-cancelling technology — this cancels out background noise and echoes, and we found the speakerphone to be exceptionally clear, from both ends of the conversation.

RIM has also added a media player to the 8800, which will play MP3 and WMA audio tracks as well as MPEG-4 and WMV video tracks, among others. It doesn't support flash, however (and neither does the browser), so there is no way to play flash movies without a third-party application.

The media player handles music and videos, and although it appears to play files from the miniSD card, it does have some shortcomings. We tried plugging the BlackBerry into a PC and transferring media files across; this worked fine, but we could only transfer media files to directories on the BlackBerry that the media player seemed unable to access. The BlackBerry itself has no directory explorer.

RIM is among the growing (and to be encouraged) number of mobile device makers who are adding mini-USB ports for communications and charging. When we tried charging the BlackBerry 8800 in this way, it snubbed our PC saying there wasn't enough charge, although the battery charger did show it charging. RIM says the 8800 series has better battery life (1400MaH battery pack), and we found the device lasted a weekend quite comfortably, with moderate use of both the phone and GPS features. BlackBerry claims a standby time of 528 hours, or 22 days.

The mini-USB port also means you can treat the BlackBerry as a mass-storage device, although you will, of course, be limited to the capacity of the microSD card (not included), so this is no 30GB iPod.

Finally, a nod to the tactile side of the BlackBerry, which has clearly received some attention. The 8800 includes a tiny white and, in the dark, illuminated trackball. This works a treat, but on occasion — particularly when used with the GPS/mapping application — the interface can be confusing; rolling the trackball up and down can zoom or pan, with little apparent rhyme or reason. It's a small gripe.

On the whole, RIM has produced a device that will keep its addicts happy and help pull in a whole new generation of users.

BlackBerry 8800

The BlackBerry 8800 includes multimedia and GPS features


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