Think BlackBerry and you think scroll wheels, chunky hardware, built-in keyboards, show-off people in business suits and, of course, mobile email.
Some of that holds with the latest entrant to the BlackBerry family, the Pearl, but not all of it. The company behind the BlackBerry, Research in Motion, has decided to break the mould it made and produce something aimed much more at the average consumer. Even its name, the Pearl, is a step away from the number-based naming of the past.
Competition is tough, though. Does the Pearl do enough to bring the consumer into the BlackBerry fold? O2 thinks so -- it has announced it will be offering the handset.
There is no doubt that the Pearl's hardware design team has moved on from the earlier BlackBerry look -- the Pearl is thin, black and silver, and weighs a very pocket friendly 90g. Its overall size makes it on a par with thin candybar handsets, and we aren't used to seeing anything in the smart phone world that is quite so small and neat.
The BlackBerry scroll wheel has gone and has been replaced by a miniature white trackball located where you'd expect to see a navigation button. You can rotate and press this to get around and make selections. It took us a little time to get used to, but it is a very clever system, and we far prefer it to the old scroll wheel.
On its left and right are back and menu buttons, which allow you to move around well -- vitally important as the BlackBerry Pearl does not have a touchscreen.
The screen itself is a mere 240x260 pixels, which we found a bit small, but the light sensor meant we stood a good chance of reading it even when outdoors. O2 provided our review unit and it has added two home screen themes to the three that BlackBerry provides. You can preview them before choosing, which is a nice touch.
No BlackBerry is complete without a keyboard, and in this case it is pretty small thanks to the Pearl's mere 50mm width. The individual keys are wide, though, as the SureType system is used for text entry, and this means most keys house two Qwerty letters and a number. The numbers 0-9 sit on the centre section of keys, and are picked out with a silver surround so that they are easy to find.
The left and right edges of the Pearl each have a 'convenience key', which can be programmed as you wish. Out of the box the right key runs the built-in camera, the left lets you use voice dialling. On the right edge there is also a volume key, which only works when there is sound coming from the Pearl, for example when you are on a call or listening to music.
There is a mute key on the top edge, which among other things acts as a pause button for music playback and puts the Pearl into standby mode. Meanwhile on the left edge is the mini USB mains power connector and a headset jack (unfortunately 2.5mm).
The BlackBerry Pearl is a quad-band handset with GPRS and EDGE (O2 doesn't support EDGE in the UK). There are three firsts for BlackBerry in terms of features -- memory expansion, MP3 player and camera. These have been around in other smart phones for ages, but for BlackBerry their inclusion is something of a major move.
The memory expansion is welcome, but not so wonderful is the fact that the slot -- it is for microSD cards -- sits under the battery, so if you want to change cards you have to power the Pearl down. At least the Pearl automatically switches itself on when you reinsert the battery.