RIM is guilty of sticking a little too closely to its guns when it comes to design, but every now and then it does something a little different -- this time it's plumped for a clamshell. The BlackBerry Flip does what it says on the tin, but we wanted to see if it still worked well as a BlackBerry device and if the clamshell design takes away from the user experience. You can currently pick up a BlackBerry Flip for free on a monthly contract.
If you're a BlackBerry veteran, the Pearl Flip might strike you as a rather unusual phone. Unlike any other BlackBerry to date, the Flip uses the clamshell format. We found the design rather chunky at first, but it's sturdy and houses a large, bright colour screen and a sizeable, easy-to-press keypad.
One of the main advantages of the Flip's design over the conventional BlackBerry candybar is that you can answer calls simply by opening the Flip up, and there's no chance of pressing the keypad by mistake when it's closed.
Like the original Pearl, the Flip's keypad features two letters per key and typing long emails on it is easy, particularly if you use the SureType predictive-text system -- there's even a spell checker if you want to check your messages once you've finished. Above the keypad there's the Pearl's characteristic navigation ball, which allows you to scroll through menus by rolling it around. Some users may find it takes time to get used to using the trackball system, but once you do it's a great way of looking through emails.
On the top left of the Flip you'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack, so you can plug standard headphones straight in. Next to that you'll find a micro-USB port for charging and connecting the Flip to a computer. Finally, on the front outside section there's a 2-megapixel camera nestled at the top. On one side of it there's an LED photo light and on the other an LED indicator that lets you know when you're low on battery, or charging is complete.
Underneath the camera on the front is a small colour screen that displays incoming calls, tells you when you've received a text message or email and what music is playing, among other information. Annoyingly, you can't control the music player when the phone is shut -- all you can do is put the volume up and down. We also think it's a shame that the Pearl isn't thinner, as we think it would make it look more attractive and fit better in a pocket.
The Flip's interface uses similar icons to the BlackBerry Bold and is relatively easy to get to grips with, but users who have never used a BlackBerry before may struggle at first. The menu system responds quickly, although at times we found it fiddly to navigate to the section we wanted quickly, such as getting to the 'compose SMS' option. Setting up work or personal emails (POP3 and IMAP4) is easily done via the BlackBerry Web-based service and up to ten different accounts can be set up.
You can receive emails and browse the Internet via GPRS, EDGE or Wi-Fi, which is reasonably fast, but it's a shame there's no 3G, which becomes noticeable when there's no Wi-Fi and you're out and about. The BlackBerry Flip's browser renders full Web pages, but doesn't support Flash. We recommend browsing the Internet using Opera Mini, which you can download by visiting mini.opera.com on the Flip's browser. Opera Mini lets you see full Web pages and zoom in and out very easily and quickly.
There's no on-board GPS, but you do get BlackBerry Maps pre-installed. This lets you get directions as you would on Google Maps, which you can download too. If you want GPS services, the Flip does allow you to connect an external GPS receiver via Bluetooth, but you'll need to buy it separately. As with 3G, the lack of GPS is a shame and we hope to see it on future BlackBerry clamshell phones.