The BlackBerry gets a phone

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What happens when one of my all-time favorite handhelds is totally redesigned to include a cellular phone? You get RIM’s BlackBerry 5810: an always-on, two-way, portable e-mail device with a built-in GSM/GPRS phone.

InsertArt(1470853)FIRST, LET ME SAY that I’ve been a fan of BlackBerry devices since the beginning. The idea of being able to send and receive your personal corporate e-mail (or, in some models your POP3 mail from an Internet service provider) is a terrific one. You determine which mails you need to see when you’re on the go, and then you receive them, in real time, on your BlackBerry.

The new 5810 takes into account the best of the previous models and improves what was already a terrific business tool. It combines secure e-mail with a cellular phone, SMS messaging, a browser and an organizer in a sleek (4.6” by 3.1” by 0.7”) and lightweight (4.7 oz.) package. With 8 MB of flash memory and 1MB of SRAM, think of it as a BlackBerry 957 with a telephone inside. It features RIM’s infamous, backlit “thumb-typing” keyboard, a track-wheel, a highly-legible black and white screen and a headphone jack for phone services. Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) is the 5810’s core operating system.

There are so many things to tell you about the 5810 I don’t know where to start. If you know how to work a BlackBerry then operating this new device will be a simple task. Nearly all of the functions are exactly the same as the previous model. And the new cell phone functions are integrated seamlessly into all the menus and functions.

You can now set up a BlackBerry to send and receive mail from your company’s Exchange/Domino mail system (with software that runs on your desktop or the company server), in addition to POP3 e-mail from up to four ISPs via the BlackBerry Web client. That means the new 5810 can handle 5 e-mail accounts wirelessly. There’s new desktop software for the new BlackBerry phone but companies that use BlackBerryEnterprise Server software will be able to support the 5810 without any change to their back-end infrastructure. RIM is also promising that a variety of third-party Java applications will be available allowing a user to view, print and fax e-mail attachments using their handheld.

The 5810’s phone operates on the North American (1.9 GHz) GSM digital cellular network. The 5820 will be sold in Europe for use on their GSM networks. BlackBerry e-mail operates on new GPRS higher-speed data networks. Actually, using the telephone portion of the BlackBerry is optional (for companies that wish to restrict cell phone use), but because the e-mail operates on GPRS you will need to deal with VoiceStream or AT&T Wireless in the United States or Rogers AT&T in Canada.

One nice feature is the 5810’s integrated address book and inbox, serving voice, e-mail and SMS applications. As RIM says in its press release, you “can even click on an e-mail address, telephone number or URL inside a message to automatically invoke an e-mail message, call the telephone numbers or connect to the URL.” They’re right: listing phone and e-mail messages in the same place is pretty neat.

I’d also like to put in a good word for the 5810’s ability to display in 12-point text (in addition to 8 and 10-point) for those of us in the reading glasses age group. It’s a very nice touch.

A FEW HEADACHES Unfortunately, I do have some reservations about the 5810. First, the cell phone is accessible only through the use of a headset. That may be great for keeping within the law while you’re driving, but I personally want to press a telephone to my ear when it rings, not hunt for an earpiece, then press buttons. But if you’re into headsets, the 5810’s phone does work as advertised .

Second, the BlackBerry Browser is a text-only WAP/WML application that handles all Web duties. It reminds me a lot of Go America’s browser that I’ve used on my old BlackBerries since the beginning of time. As for how it works, it gets right to the point and gets you the information you need without fuss. With a device of this size, I would have hoped for a browser that is capable of displaying images as well as text, but I realize that doing so will cost more from your cellular carrier. I’ll explain in a second.

The biggest problem the 5810 faces is the GPRS network. So far I’ve been underwhelmed by GPRS. First of all, when you find a place where it works, it’s not that speedy. The 5810 on the GPRS system is no faster that my BlackBerry 957 on the Bell South-now-Cingular data network. If anything, I’ve found that the new device is actually a little more sluggish than my trusty 957.

That said, in my neighborhood, VoiceStream’s GPRS network rollout is spotty. I’m trying to be nice about it. Here at MSNBC headquarters in Secaucus, N.J., VoiceStream’s signal is questionable at best. I receive no signal whatsoever inside MSNBC, and barely get a blip outdoors. I’ve only been slightly more successful with another manufacturer’s GPRS phone in my possession.

On my drive from New York City through nearby New Jersey the 5810 picks up a signal for a total of ten seconds. I’m able to receive two or three e-mails during that time if I’m delayed at a red light. Most of the time there’s no signal at all, or the phone reads GSM instead of GPRS. The situation is better in Manhattan. The GPRS seems to work as it should everywhere I’ve tried it.

What this means is that if you live, work and travel within areas where GPRS has been rolled out, then the 5810 could be for you. If you don’t, you may just have to wait awhile until you do. European BlackBerry users should have an easier go of it — GPRS is a lot more popular there already. For the record, my trusty BlackBerry 957 wasn’t perfect either — there are no Cingular towers near my Long Island, NY home. I know only too well what it’s like to have a BlackBerry that you can’t use when you need it.

BLACKBERRY 5810 VS. HANDSPRING’S TREO Obvious comparisons will be made with Handspring’s Treo phone. While the Treo uses the same GSM networks for its telephone, they’re waiting to roll out their GPRS compatibility updates until enough users can take advantage of it. For now, Treos use circuit-switched data services, you pay for it as if you were making a cell phone call.

The BlackBerry can redirect e-mail directly from your PC to handheld device. They have a U.S. patent that says they can do so. Handspring offers a separate, optional service to forward your e-mails.

On the other hand, Handspring has a pretty good browser that reproduces graphics and photos. The BlackBerry browser is text only. If a color version of Handspring’s Treo makes an appearance soon, RIM may want to start working on an improved BlackBerry quickly. The 5810’s rechargeable battery lasted for three days on a charge - much better than a Treo’s battery life.

So, if you like your current BlackBerry- want to carry only one handheld - and want to be ahead of the curve you can buy a 5810 now and be secure in the fact that the nationwide GPRS network will soon be catching up with your technologically-advanced device.

VoiceStream has the Blackberry 5810 listed on their Web site, but you have to call their business services office to get details. VoiceStream is selling the 5810 for $499.99, with unlimited e-mail and 1MB of Web browsing for $44.99 a month. If you add a GSM calling plan the data charges are reduced to $39.99, plus the cost of a business calling plan. Additional Web browsing limits are available at an extra charge, one reason why a WAP browser might be best for your portable surfing needs.