- Email and attachment retrieval is fast and efficient
- improved screen and faster processor enhance user experience
- Internet Email service is easy to configure and may suit smaller businesses
- Email attachment handling could be better
- ‘£’ and ‘€’ signs are awkward to access via keyboard
- lacks the flexibility of other handheld devices
Research in Motion (RIM), the company behind the popular BlackBerry smartphone, has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons -- a court case in the US which threatened to shut down its mobile email service. Despite its legal worries, RIM has not taken its eye off of product development, and the latest BlackBerry available in the UK, the 8700g, offers a range of improvements over its predecessors. It's available from O2 and T-Mobile on various tariffs, for both individual and corporate users. Our review unit came from T-Mobile, and costs between zero and £150, depending on the tariff.
The BlackBerry 8700g shares many design characteristics with its handheld-style predecessors. RIM has toyed with a more mobile phone-like shape recently, but the 8700g reverts to a more 'classic' BlackBerry hardware design. Its dimensions compare favourably to Pocket PC and Palm handhelds at 69.5mm by 110mm by 19.5mm, and it's slightly smaller than the previous (and still available) model, the 7290; at 134g. the 8700g also weighs marginally less than the 139g 7290.
The familiar blue livery is retained, but in a darker and more elegant tone than on the 7290. The screen has a silver border, and on the bottom edge there are dedicated Call and End keys, and, between them, what the quickstart guide calls a ‘Front Convenience Key’. You can set this to launch an application of your choice -- the Web browser is the default setting. When you're in the browser, the same key can be used to call up bookmarks.
The right side of the device houses the familiar BlackBerry trackwheel and back key, while the left side houses the mini-USB connector (for battery charging and wired PC connectivity), a headset connector and a button that opens the device profiles, allowing you to quickly switch between them. On the top edge is a button that turns the microphone off during calls -- so that you can have a private local conversation -- then turn it back on again to continue the call.
Unlike on many Windows Mobile smartphones, there is no camera and no flash memory slot for augmenting the internal storage. Such features run counter to what BlackBerry is all about -- primarily mobile email.
The 8700g's screen has been improved considerably over that of the 7290, the latter's 240 by 160 pixels being replaced by 320 by 240 in the new device. This makes for a much clearer display that's far better suited to reading text. The keyboard has had redesign, too: it's still a full QWERTY unit, and there is still abundant keysharing between letters, numbers and other symbols. But the physical design has totally changed.
The keys are rectangular rather than rounded, the keyboard has a flatter layout than before; the keys also feel as though they are raised slightly higher from their base. Spacing between individual keys is slightly reduced, but they feel more substantial beneath the fingers, and we found it relatively easy to use them at a fair speed.
However, there are some odd quirks of design. With just 35 keys to play with, not every symbol that could be required can be made available on a straight keypress. Nor can this be achieved with a single shift-key combination. There are several ‘shift’ key options. Although some symbols will inevitably be more difficult to get at than others, this does not excuse the fact that UK users will find it hard to get at the ‘£’ and ‘€’ signs. To do this, you need to call up a symbol key and choose by scrolling through a list. Once you learn the keyboard combination, you can simply press the symbol key and then ‘V’ for ‘£’ or ‘X’ for ‘€’. But business users may agree with us that that the £ and ‘€’ are the wrong choice of symbols to hide away. Doubly annoying for non-US users is that $ is readily available from the main keyboard.
There is a further issue of ergonomics. To dial a number that's not stored in the address book you need to use a key marked ‘num’ in conjunction with numbers that share some of the QWERTY keys. Fair enough. But the ‘num’ key is awkwardly close to the number keys, and all but the thinnest of fingers may find holding the ‘num’ key down while dialling a challenge. It would have been far better to have located this key on the opposite side of the keyboard.
For the first time, RIM has used an Intel XScale processor to drive the device. This provides plenty of power, and we did not notice any performance issues during our test period. There has also been a move in the right direction as far as internal memory is concerned: the rather paltry 32MB of flash memory and 4MB of SDRAM on the 7290 has been upgraded to 64MB of flash memory and 16MB of SDRAM on the 8700g.
Infrared -- supported on the 7290 -- has been removed, which is a pity, but Bluetooth is still present, so you can use a wireless headset for making calls. This will appeal to those who don’t fancy holding the relatively bulky 8700g to the ear. Also, at long last, there is a speakerphone -- something that was sadly lacking in the 7290. Conference calls are a regular part of business life, so a speakerphone is a welcome addition.
As well as the email client, the built-in software bundle includes an address book, calendar, tasks manager, Web browser, memo pad, alarm, calculator, picture viewer and a game -- BrickBreaker. The phone is quad-band GSM (with GPRS), so it's usable on international travels.
RIM caters for both corporate and individual users. The corporate proposition involves installing BlackBerry Enterprise Server software onto the network, which ensures that the 8700g receives email and that its diary and address book are kept up to date over the air. Individuals, or smaller businesses that use POP3 or IMAP4 accounts, can use the Internet Email service can be used instead. This can be configured via a Web site to collect emails from up to ten accounts and deliver them to the 8700g, leaving them on the server or deleting as you choose. In addition you get a blackberry specific email address to use with the device. Individual users can take advantage of the provided software to synchronise their PC contacts, tasks and appointments with the device, make backups and install add-on software.
RIM has been criticised in the past for its rather dull menu system, and for the amount of scrolling -- using the trackwheel -- that can be required to get to a desired application or option. In mitigation, the 8700g comes with four ‘themes’, two of which use large icons ranged for horizontal scrolling, and two of which use application lists ranged for vertical scrolling. These not only allow you to customise the look of your device somewhat, but the list-based themes reduce the amount of scrolling required. You can also choose an image to set as the home screen background.
Performance & battery life
We managed to get through two-day periods without needing to recharge the battery, although we didn't use Bluetooth significantly during testing. If you are a Bluetooth user, we would recommend daily battery charges.
Because the BlackBerry is primarily an email device, one of the most important features is how it handles messages and attachments. We tested it using the Internet Email service, and it worked perfectly. Setup was straightforward. The 8700g can show attachments in PDF, Microsoft Word Excel and PowerPoint formats. We tested each one.
The spreadsheets we tried had several workbooks, and the 8700g automatically recognises this and allows you to retrieve them individually. You can force cell width to fit text, but this inevitably means that sheets run off the edge of the screen. Using the Alt key and the trackwheel you can move horizontally through a spreadsheet (this works more generally too), but the process of viewing all but the simplest sheets proved difficult on the 8700g's small screen.
The PowerPoint presentations we tried were listed slide by slide. If slide labelling has been effective, this makes it possible to download precisely the slide(s) you require. Alternatively, you can opt to download the whole presentation. In this case -- as with all other attachment types -- the download comes in chunks: you scroll to the end of what’s been downloaded and the next chunk is requested. Whatever download option you choose, text is extracted from slides, and the graphics and layout are left behind. Depending on the nature of the presentation, context and some information -- if it's presented via graphics -- is lost.
The same system was employed for our PDF documents, and again layout and graphics were lost, which in some cases meant the PDFs were less useful.
Word files fare much better. Embedded tables seemed to retain their original formatting, being presented in a spreadsheet-like layout on-screen. However, the software can’t cope with RTF files.
We also sent ourselves some JPEG images. Provided these did not exceed 1GB in size, they were rendered well to the screen. Anything over 1MB in size could not be retrieved.
Overall, the speed of data download, and the rendering of information both seem to have been improved over earlier BlackBerry models, and the enhanced screen helps with reading text. But we still feel that compatibility with attachments is not what it could be. PDFs and PowerPoint presentations are often as much about the visual impact as the textual content, and the loss of images and layout in both is a particular problem.