Simply put, the BlackBerry is to e-mail what the iPod is to music. Using the benefits of almost-always-on wireless to push freshly received e-mail right into your palm (as well as letting you reply to messages and tap out new mails), this pocket-sized slab of connectivity has plenty of fervent fans. Not to mention the legion of former addicts who've managed to wean themselves off a device that's affectionately called the CrackBerry.
Most users know the BlackBerry as a near essential item of corporate kit, but because the carrier-hosted BlackBerry Web client software can poll any ISP's POP3 mail server, small and solo businesses aren't ruled out of the game. In fact, companies and consultants that rely on e-mail and rapid responsiveness could find the BlackBerry is a potent weapon in their fight to stay ahead of the competition -- in exactly the same way that the first mobile phones were adopted not by executives but by small business owners and tradespeople for whom a missed call could be a missed job.
The new enhanced BlackBerry 7250 adds the show trick of turning into an EV-DO modem which can connect your notebook to Telstra's mobile broadband network. It seems like an odd partnership: isn't the compact BlackBerry intended to do away with lugging around a laptop? But for mobile professionals who travel with both but rely on the BlackBerry as the fastest way to stay in touch, this is certainly a convenient solution to two very different problems -- and one more tempting ingredient to an already appealing recipe.
The 7250 relies on the classic BlackBerry form: a black palm-sized slab designed to fit easily into the right hand while your thumb does most of the driving, using a scroll wheel and push button to launch programs and access menu options (a trait which has given rise to the RSI syndrome known as 'BlackBerry thumb').
It's amazing how much you can do with just those two controls, although once you start entering text and numbers it really becomes a two-handed job -- or rather, two fingers, as that's about all you can fit on the tiny keyboard at any time.
That said, the carefully spaced keys with their ovoid-shape, short travel, yet firm action, makes this the easiest 'thumb board' we've ever encountered. This usability is greatly enhanced by the smart selection of secondary key functions and a dedicated symbol key.
Almost half of the handheld is given over to the screen -- a surprisingly bright 16-bit colour panel that benefits from sensible use of iconography and layout. The display is initially so crowded that you'll have to scroll to the next screen to select an icon at the end of the roster, but it's easy to reorder and hide icons to group your favourite applications close together and onto a single screen. That's also just the first step, and certainly not the last, in your journey of BlackBerry customisation.
Given that the BlackBerry's raison d'etre is e-mail, this should be the strongest card in its deck -- yet its e-mail capabilities are more broad than deep. The Spartan client parses HTML messages into plain text, and while it can retrieve DOC, XLS and PDF attachments the rudimentary viewer strips them of everything text.
Telstra's BlackBerry 7250 -- how it works.
This of course is designed to keep data transfers and the device's own hardware spec to the minimum that's necessary to efficiently do the job. We figure that most users can live without fancy formatting provided they can get, send and manage their e-mail without having to lug around a laptop. And at that, nothing comes close to the BlackBerry.
The 7250 also sports a mini-browser that's pre-set to Telstra's WAP portal, but if you want to do anything other than BlackBerry-based e-mail you'll be hooking the unit up to your notebook (using the supplied USB cable) to press-gang it into service as a digital wireless modem. This taps into the same EV-DO network as used by Telstra's BigPond Wireless Broadband service, delivering between 300-600Kbps in metropolitan areas and throttling back to a still-meritorious 100Kbps over the regional CDMA network.
Rounding out the 7250's communications roster is a quad-band phone which can roam to pretty much any country in the world (although don't expect to use it as a wireless modem outside Australia) with Bluetooth headset support.
The rest of 7250's checklist mirrors that of any PDA -- calendar, address book, to-do list, alarm clock et al -- all of which may be sufficient to the task but can't touch a 'true' PDA running the Palm or Windows Mobile operating systems. It's as much about the constraints of the small display, primarily textual interface and lack of CPU horsepower much as any limited functionality of the applets themselves. Third-party programs can be installed but you're limited to whatever will fit in the 32MB of on-board RAM as there's no memory card slot to provide extra headroom.
Using the 7250 as a wireless modem (hooked up to a Toshiba Satellite M50 notebook) we clocked a reliable average speed of 450Kbps over EV-DO around the Sydney and North Sydney CBDs, which out-strips the peak capacity of any 3G-based service. Journeying around the Blue Mountains, to Sydney's far flung west, the fallback CDMA network served up a steady stream of almost 90Kbps. Both these real-world figures are close enough to Telstra's claimed speeds and are ample for most road warriors provided you limit your activities to e-mail, Web browsing and must-grab downloads.
Among Telstra's morass of BlackBerry pricing schemes, only the BlackBerry Plus Plans are intended for the BlackBerry 7250 when used as a wireless modem. Prices range from AU$99/month for five hours of EV-DO or CDMA time (with a AU$1.50 per minute surcharge once you pass that limit) to AU$129/month (20 hours of EV-DO or CDMA access, extra time charged at AU$1/minute) to AU$149/month for 40 hours (with a 50c/minute surcharge). These all include the Blackberry 7250 and entail a 24 month contract.
If you're in a position to 'BYO BlackBerry' and apply Telstra's free user-downloadable update to your 7250, the fees drop to AU$59, AU$89 and AU$109 with the same time caps and excess usage fees.
You can remain on any existing BlackBerry plan, however firing your 7250 up as a modem will see you slugged as Telstra's casual rate of 22c per session plus 20c per 10Kb.
One undeniable trait of the BlackBerry's built-for-business breeding is its exceptional battery life. Despite packing a rich colour panel, polling for e-mail and serving as a mobile phone, we needed to plug in the charger only once every few nights -- or not at all, if we gave its camel-like battery a quick top-up while deskbound.
As a tool for the e-mail-centric, the BlackBerry wins plenty of praise on its own merits. Adding wireless modem functionality further sweetens the deal for those who are already looking to go wireless broadband and leaning towards Telstra's EV-DO solution (which we'd suggest is a slice of a subset of a niche market).