I'm beginning to notice more and more BlackBerry 7100s showing up in the hands of mobile warriors. For example, by carrying the latest and greatest, I was always on the leading edge compared to the rest of the family, often drawing those coveted oohs and aahs. But when I saw my brother-in-law with a BlackBerry 7100t, I realized those days are over. By the way, he loves it.
Compared to previous BlackBerries, the 7100 is a candy-bar form-factored cell phone/Blackberry hybrid that doesn't have a full-sized thumb-board. Instead, to compress everything into the much narrower industrial design, the QWERTY keyboard is squeezed onto fewer keys, many of them shared by two letters and a number. When the keyboard is in use, the more keys you press as you spell out a word, the better the chances that the software inside will guess what word you're after. While the basics of the 7100's design are the same from one wireless carrier to the next, there are enough differences in the industrial designs that could make or break their usability to you.
Case in point? The two BlackBerries pictured below. T-Mobile's 7100t is on the left and Cingular's 7100g is on the right (for a brief period, I got to work with both of them simultaneously). If you look closely, you can see a slight difference in the size of their keys. Whereas most of the 7100t's keys are larger and flush with each other, most of the 7100g's keys are smaller with spaces in between them. But the g's "talk" and "end" buttons (two buttons above the 1 and 3 keys that you could end up using a lot) are actually a bit larger than those on the t. Preference for one over the other is obviously a matter of personal taste. But, in handling the two, the T-Mobile 7100t gets my personal nod over Cingular's 71001g for ergonomics.
At 6'1", I have pretty large hands, and I found the QWERTY keyboard with the larger keys easier to use. (I had difficulty actually picking out the smaller keys on the g.) The slight difference in size actually made a difference for me (as did the flush nature -- my thumbs could easily detect when they slid from one key to the next). But this may not be the case for everyone. As can be seen from PC Magazine's review of the same unit, Sascha Segan saw it (or should I say, felt it) the other way around (although PC Mag ultimately gives the nod to the t anyway).
Also, like all other BlackBerries, these units have the trademark scroll wheel on their right hand sides -- a user interface feature that I wish all PDAs had, including Pocket PCs. (You can't see them in the pictures above, but PC Magazine has a picture of what the scrollwheel looks on the g). Given the way the scroll wheels sit in a depression in each of the above units so they aren't accidentally scrolled, I also found the g's scroll wheel to be more difficult to use. I had to apply more pressure, making me feel as though I had to work harder to use it. You wouldn't realize this design flaw until you had an opportunity to use the two different units like I did. At first, I thought the g's scroll wheel was fine. But then, when I realized how much easier it was to use the t's scrollwheel, the cumbersome nature of the g's scrollwheel stood out like a sore thumb (no pun intended). That said, it wasn't enough to make the scrollwheel unusable.
Finally, between the default user interfaces that each ships with -- the T-Mobile device with more of a fun graphical user interface and the Cingular device with a bit of a boring menu, the 7100t delivers a more engaging, out-of-the-box experience. So, I've sent the 7100g back (no, its battery doesn't fit in the t, so, while the thought did cross my mind, I didn't bother keeping it as a spare). Stay tuned for more on the 7100t as well as Audiovox's XV6600WOC PocketPC phone, which I've also just started to test.
[Update 2005/06/21 9:00 AM EST] One thing I forgot to mention: When it comes to picking BlackBerries, or any device that you're going to rely on as your phone, the three most important criteria are coverage, coverage, and coverage. So, if you're in the market for a smartphone, nuanced differences in industrial design like the ones mentioned above won't matter a hill-o-beans if the service provider that resells the phone doesn't have adequate coverage in the geographic areas where you spend most of your time. In the case of T-Mobile and Cingular, since both rely on GSM/GPRS networks and the two borrow each other's infrastructure where it makes sense, your ability to get a connection won't change much between the two. However, the cost to you might. Depending on what sort of plan you've subscribed to, the more time you spend connected to borrowed cells (aka: roaming), the bigger your bill could be. This is why it's always good to pick a wireless carrier that provides the coverage you need without having to roam onto another wireless carrier's network.