RIM's Blackberry in a new form factor.
By Columnist
updated 9/8/2004 1:04:33 AM ET 2004-09-08T05:04:33

In the beginning, there was BlackBerry. A delicious fruit, yes, but also a clever way to get your e-mail on a pager-like device. Then there was BlackBerry: a clever way to get your e-mail plus an awkward phone in a much larger pager-like device. And beginning today, there is BlackBerry: a great cellular phone that also includes that clever way to get your e-mail. 

As you can see from the photo above, this is not your father’s BlackBerry. This is an easy-to-carry cell phone which also has the patented BlackBerry always on, ‘push’ e-mail system, Web browsing and IM built right in. I’ve been playing with a beta version of the handset for the past few weeks and am happy to report that this time, RIM has created an almost perfect device. (Of course, I had to find something to complain about.)

The 7100t is a full-featured, quad-band (GMS 850/900; DCS 1800; PCS 1900), world-ready smart phone that works on the GSM/GPRS network.  I can tell you that it feels great in my hand and is easy to use –- especially if you’re a BlackBerry user already.  Dimensions are 4.7 by 2.3 by 0.7 inches; it weighs in at a mere 4.3 ounces.

A good look at the 7100t's 20-key QWERTY keyboard
RIM claims the rechargeable battery provides four hours of talk time and eight days of standby time. In my tests, the 7100t needed recharging after four days of constantly receiving and sending e-mail, plus a few phone calls. RIM suggests you recharge the battery every night just to make sure.

One change from the older, clunkier BlackBerry phones is obvious right up front: there are now separate call and hang-up buttons right beneath the screen.  A welcome addition.

The BlackBerry e-mail system worked perfectly for me, receiving my pushed e-mail from a desktop computer at work. It can also receive mail and calendar items if your company runs BlackBerry’s server software. (Mine doesn't.) The phone also receives POP3 and IMAP-based e-mail services, which is what most consumers use through Yahoo, AOL and the like. In all, you can set up 10 e-mail accounts on one BlackBerry device.

Unusual keyboard works well
In addition to the e-mail and the full synch compatibility with Microsoft Office, ACT!, Netscape and Lotus, there’s lots of other interesting stuff inside the 7100t: a full-featured Web browser (supposed to be a lot better than the slow-ish one that resides in the beta model), AOL, ICQ and Yahoo IM programs, Bluetooth, a speakerphone with one-key activation and the 20-key QWERTY keyboard.

That’s not a typing error. RIM’s keyboard has only 20 keys. How is that possible? Most keys have two letters, and SureType software helps the device make sense of so many letters but so few keys.

At first I was very skeptical. I thought typing was slow because you had to use the track wheel in addition to the keys. Ten minutes later, once I gave up and stopped looking at the screen while typing, SureType and its 35,000 word library was nearly perfect. It basically always knew what I wanted to say. And, if I typed in a strange word, like MSNBC, it learned the new word and knew it the next time. Other phone manufacturers have created similar software/keyboard schemes, but this one works particularly well.

The only other item I haven’t mentioned is the color screen. It’s crisp, sharp, bright and terrific -- indoors. Outdoors, the 7100t’s screen is kinda hard to see, even with the brightness turned up all the way. This is the only thing I could find wrong with the phone. Maybe it will be better in the final production version of the phone.

Now, the best part of the equation. T-Mobile, the only cellular carrier to sell the 7100t, has priced the device at a mind-boggling $199. They’re sweetening the deal by discounting the service: 1,000 anything cellular minutes plus all the text you can use for $59.99 a month.

More on the way
RIM and T-Mobile are planning to sell a lot of these phones.  And based on my experience there will be a lot of happy customers in the near future.

Expect the Nokia 9300 in the first quarter of 2005.
But RIM can’t rest on their laurels. In the wings are a number of smartphones from other manufacturers with the BlackBerry e-mail software built-in. While developing their 7100t, RIM has also been leasing their e-mail system to other handset makers.

In addition to the previously announced Motorola MPX super phone which runs on Windows Mobile (hopefully we’ll see it soon) and Nokia’s eagerly awaited 9500 (Symbian OS), today Nokia is announcing an even smaller phone, the 9300, which will also have the BlackBerry e-mail system as standard equipment. I had a chance to play with an early version of the 9300 and I think it’s a must have.  Looks like a winner. Stay tuned.

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