Review: The BlackBerry 8800 is sleek, but missing some features

It looks gorgeous but lacks 3G and Wi-Fi support

The BlackBerry 8800 smart phone is a departure from previous BlackBerries. It is both more mainstream and more refined. But it also suffers from some missing features that diminish the attractiveness of this otherwise elegant device.

After its successful foray into the consumer market with the BlackBerry Pearl, Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) set out to give the 8800 a bit more swagger than previous business-oriented BlackBerries. As is typically the case with RIM, everything it did on the 8800, it did very well. But many users will miss some of the features that RIM chose not to support, most notably 3G and Wi-Fi.

Bottom line: We liked the BlackBerry 8800 a lot. Depending on your needs, however, you may not be as enthusiastic.

New look and feel

The BlackBerry 8800 smart phone

The BlackBerry 8800 smart phone The first thing you're likely to notice about the BlackBerry 8800 is that it looks and feels less like older BlackBerry models and more like the current crop of best-selling smart phones, such as the Motorola Q and Samsung BlackJack. It's still a hair bigger than those competitors (although smaller than Palm Treos), but gone are the rounded edges, larger size and thickness of the older BlackBerries.

Longtime BlackBerry users will also immediately notice the omission of the thumbwheel on the right side of the device, a feature that has long been used and was much beloved by some. Instead of the thumbwheel, there is now a tiny trackball-like navigation device on the front, just below the display.

We found the new trackball quite easy to use. The initial instinct is to push down hard on the button, then push it to steer to the on-screen item you want. But the trackball actually responds better to a lighter touch, and we became quite accustomed to it after only a few minutes.

Another significant refinement is the full QWERTY keyboard on the 8800. Given the fact that RIM had less space to work with in this more svelte device, it did an excellent job making this keyboard usable. Unavoidably, the keys are closer together than on older BlackBerries. However, the top of the keys are beveled so that it's easy to feel each key. As a result, we found typing with the 8800's keyboard to be at least as easy as typing with the old keyboard and more satisfying than typing with the rounded oval keys on our Motorola Q.

While the 2.5-in., 320-by-240-pixel, 65,000-color display has roughly the same specifications as some previous BlackBerries, the clarity and brightness of the display on the review unit were truly impressive. Add the familiar and elegant BlackBerry user interface, the new keyboard and trackball, and the overall usability of the BlackBerry 8800 is quite high and arguably improved over previous models.

Of course, for everything new, there are plenty of old things in the BlackBerry 8800, and that's a good thing. All the expected e-mail capabilities are part of this device, including support for BlackBerry Enterprise Server, Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes as well as POP3 accounts. You can set up e-mail either through a wizard on the device or via a Web site.

As a phone, the 8800 is full-featured, with support for voice commands, call forwarding and a speakerphone. Sound during calls was adequately loud and voice quality was well above average. In addition, the 8800 has all the expected personal information management and desktop synchronization capabilities, although it still only has the ability to view attachments and not to edit them.

New features

An old joke illustrates the approach RIM and AT&T/Cingular took with some of the features on the BlackBerry 8800. A man sitting at a bar was gorging himself with free popcorn. He turns to the bartender and says, "It's a good thing you sell beer. This popcorn is making me thirsty."

Similarly, like RIM's 8700-series devices, the 8800 includes built-in Global Positioning System (GPS) capabilities, but the only way you can use them is to pay AT&T Inc. extra. The carrier charges $5.99 per month for a GPS-based navigation service that provides routing for as many as 10 trips and $9.99 for an unlimited number of trips. Push to talk? Same deal. That capability is built into the BlackBerry 8800, but it will cost you between $10 and $20 a month, depending on the service plan.

It's nice that RIM built GPS and push-to-talk capabilities into the phone, but it's also irritating that users must pay for them when buying the phone even if they don't want to use them. Cingular/AT&T is charging $299 (after a rebate) for the BlackBerry 8800 with a two-year contract, while it is offering the Windows Mobile Samsung BlackJack and RIM's BlackBerry Pearl for $100 less with a two-year contract. Neither of those other phones supports push to talk or GPS.

While this is a business-focused device and RIM's e-mail capabilities remain at its heart, RIM made a passing nod at keeping mobile business users entertained. To that end, it includes a video and audio player. You copy music (MP3, AAC and WMA are supported) and videos (MP4 and WMV) to the device using Windows Explorer or RIM's Media Manager, which is part of its included desktop software.

However, we found the audio player inflexible to use. After being transferred to the device, the music shows up in folders -- you navigate to the folder and select the first song to play. The playback quality was good, but there are on-screen controls only to play and stop the music. To perform such basic tasks as playing the next or previous song, you must go into the menu system.

The device has a MicroSD slot for additional storage that is inconveniently hidden behind the battery. One notable missing capability is support for the A2DP Bluetooth profile for stereo headphones, although the device does support mono Bluetooth headphones for use with the phone. RIM says support for A2DP will be added in a future software update. Until that happens, to get the most out of your music, you'll need wired headphones with a relatively uncommon 2.5-mm headphone jack or to use an adapter with your regular wired headphones. All in all, the media capabilities feel like a half-hearted add-on to this device.

Missing in action

As mentioned earlier, the BlackBerry 8800 is missing support for Wi-Fi and 3G. The device supports only AT&T's older enhanced date rates for GSM evolution (EDGE) cellular data network. The latter omission is particularly frustrating for a device that brags about the ability to browse the Web, since EDGE speeds are typically between four and five times slower than Cingular's faster High-Speed Downlink Packet Access network.

If you are a Cingular user, the BlackJack supports the faster network and costs $100 less than the 8800. If you are not a Cingular user, the BlackBerry 8700-series supports Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO) networks offered by Cingular's competitors. For instance, Verizon Wireless offers the BlackBerry 8703e, which supports that carrier's 3G EV-DO network, for $50 less than AT&T is charging for the 8800.

Also missing is a built-in camera. That's a bit less surprising than the other omissions because this is a business-oriented smart phone, and many enterprises don't want their users to have cameras. Still, some phone vendors give users a choice about the camera.

In fairness, it's a bit of a shame that RIM would get dinged for these omissions since AT&T undoubtedly dictated the feature set for the device. Still, given that the BlackBerry 8800 costs $100 more than the BlackJack, which supports 3G, and the Pearl, and is as much as $200 more than the Motorola Q, which also supports 3G, the 8800's missing capabilities will make it less attractive for some users.

That's too bad since the BlackBerry 8800 easily matches, and even surpasses, its rivals in terms of usability and includes RIM's justly famous e-mail capabilities. Add to that the 8800's attractive new shape, and RIM and AT&T undoubtedly should have a winner in the BlackBerry 8800.

David Haskin is a contributing editor specializing in mobile and wireless issues.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon