- Supports both push and pull email
- clear screen
- good battery life
- quad-band GSM/GPRS
- Limited memory
- no expansion card slot
- keyboard is awkward to use
- lacks Wi-Fi
BlackBerry handheld/phone devices from Research In Motion (RIM) are popular among business users who require access to email while away from the office. The ability to access email either via ‘push’ (sent from a network) or ‘pull’ (retrieved from a server by the device) technology is one of the secrets of the BlackBerry's success. However, the devices have been criticised for their hardware design, and in an attempt to reach a wider audience, RIM has introduced the more compact 7100 series. The first of these to reach the UK, the 7100v, is a Vodafone-badged unit.
To bring the 7100v down to phone rather than handheld dimensions, RIM has had to compromise on the keyboard and the screen. Both components can only be shrunk so far before usability is seriously impaired, and RIM has drawn the line at a device measuring 56mm wide by 119mm deep by 19mm high -- not quite mobile phone size, but close. The 7100v's weight, at 120g, is reasonable – it matches the Sendo X for heft, for example. Elsewhere, the hardware design has some recognisable BlackBerry touches. The right-hand side carries a jog wheel and an ‘escape button’, which together provide the main means of navigation -- the screen is not touch-sensitive. The power switch is at the top, and there's a notification LED on the front upper right edge. On the left-hand side there's a a headset connector and a USB port, which is used for both charging and data synchronisation. Bluetooth is built in, and we paired with a headset with no difficulty.
Email retrieval is the 7100v's key feature, and the fact that the phone is a quad-band GSM/GPRS device helps the corporate sell as it can be used throughout the world by business travellers. In our test we set the 7100v up to collect email from a POP3 account using a Web site to configure account information. In this configuration, POP3 servers are checked for email which is gathered together in one place, ready to be retrieved by the 7100v at regular intervals. The original server copies of emails are left alone, for download to a main computer at a later date. The service copes with up to ten email accounts, which should be enough for all but the most complex POP3 setups. Within an enterprise environment a software client can be configured to push email out to the 7100v. The 7100v incorporates a range of other productivity applications, including an address book, contacts database, diary and task manager (in the push, or Enterprise, version these can synchronise with desktop applications over the air). There are also staples such as a memo pad, alarm, calculator and picture viewer (you can set any picture as the screen background). There's one game included – BrickBreaker, which is a Breakout clone and Vodafone has added access to its Live! services via a Web/WAP browser that you can fire up via a dedicated button sitting between the call and end keys. You can add third-party software to the 7100v, but you're limited to the 32MB of on-board memory to house this, because -- as with other BlackBerry devices -- there is no memory card slot. The 7100v has a 240-by-360-pixel colour screen that provides enough definition for Web browsing, although the small screen size does hamper viewing of complex layouts. A simple two-column test page we often view on handheld devices rendered perfectly well, but the ZDNet UK's much busier home page was another story: the 7100v took an age to download this, and the large amount of scrolling required to navigate the site made it very hard work on this device. The 7100v is supplied with a carry case, handsfree kit, power charger, sync/charge adaptor and desktop synchronisation software. Its Li-ion battery is removable.
As already noted, the key reason for buying any BlackBerry device is to provide access to email on the move. Although the 7100v performs well in this respect, it's not all plain sailing. If the information is in the main body of an email, and emails are relatively small in size, then there's absolutely no problem. If there is an attachment, it must be a Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint or Acrobat file to be recognised by the 7100v. Moreover the 7100v will not collect attachments in one go unless they are very small. It picks them up a bit at a time, collecting the next chunk when you get to the bottom of the current one. This can leave you waiting for new chunks to arrive. Although the delays were short, they were irritating. Faced with PDF documents incorporating graphics and layout, the 7100v simply delivered the text. It can pick up graphics from Web sites though, displaying these well. If you need to view a lot of Excel data, be aware that the 7100v’s screen cannot show much at once and it can be awkward to move around within a complex or large spreadsheet. PowerPoint slides also lose formatting, although text arrived perfectly. We never did quite get the hang of the keyboard. There are just 20 keys, offering a QWERTY layout and usually combining two letters and a number or symbol per key. To type a word you tap a key and ignore what’s being presented on screen, waiting for the predictive software (SureType) to work out the word you want from its dictionary. This is fine if the word is indeed in the dictionary, but if it's not, you may need to backtrack and type again. An alternative is to use the ‘multi-tap’ method, allowing you to tap a key twice if you want the letter listed second. We tried both systems and never felt particularly comfortable with either. On the whole we’d have preferred smaller buttons with a letter each, although individual tastes may vary in this respect. The combination of jog wheel and escape key make an efficient navigation system, though. You press the wheel for in-context options, scroll to get the one you want, then press again, while the escape key simply takes you back through previous steps until you end up at the main screen. Battery life is exemplary, thanks to the device's relatively low-level specification, We generally went for three days or more without needing to recharge the 7100v. The Vodafone BlackBerry 7100v costs between £100 (inc. VAT) plus £18.50 a month and free plus £85 a month, depending on the price plan selected. Check the full tariff structure here.