Its cute little keyboard might give heavy-handed typists a few nightmares, but overall this unit does provide easy access to your email wherever you go.
The BlackBerry wireless email and SMS device for corporates has been a big hit in North America, but will it be squashed by the very competitive UK mobile market? To answer this question vnunet.com got hold of a pre-production test unit from its manufacturer Research In Motion (RIM).
On the hardware side of things, the most striking feature of the unit, which has a form factor similar to a Palm V, is the tiny qwerty keyboard beneath the clear monochrome screen.
Initially we were more than a little sceptical about the usability of this. Given that the unit does not have a touch-sensitive screen, this midget keyboard provides the only way of entering data directly into it. However, our fears proved to be largely unfounded because the keyboard is augmented by a very useful side-mounted trackwheel that allows users to navigate through menus and click on selections.
The menus are intuitively designed and, employing the trackwheel to cope with the vast majority of navigation, very quick and easy to use. While the provision of a touchscreen and stylus would undoubtedly make the BlackBerry easier to use, their absence is not a major limitation.
While we cannot recommend the keyboard for inputting large volumes of text, it works surprisingly well for the short emails and SMS messages it is designed to send. Security is not a problem as email is sent across the internet securely using Triple-DES encryption.
One caveat here is that when we tried to use the unit on the road - well, actually on a train - where we experienced background movement, it became difficult to keep hitting the right keys.
GPRS always on
The device uses mm02's GPRS network, which means the connection is always-on and always ready to receive email. This will be a relief for people on the move who have previously enjoyed balancing a GSM phone via the IR port of the PDA and praying that the connection will hold long enough to download that crucial email.
In addition to its email and SMS functionality, the BlackBerry comes with standard applications one would expect from a PDA: calendar, address book, to-do list, notepad, calculator, and sundry alarms.
The lack of a voice option on the unit appears a strange omission. When we asked the company why there was no voice available, we were told this could be easily switched on: all the hardware is in place and an earphone jack has already been incorporated. A simple software download would be all that is necessary to activate voice functionality. RIM says that a future upgrade, one of many in the pipeline, could incorporate this, which would really put the BlackBerry at the forefront of mobile technology.
Potentially a real pain for the corporate road warriors who are the target market for this device, is the fact that it is not possible to recharge it without slotting it into a PC synchronisation cradle. It would be a distinct advantage to be able to use a simple AC adaptor on the road rather than having to disconnect and lug around the base unit. However, the batteries are rated for approximately three days of constant use - which was borne out by our testing - so users have a reasonable usage period between charges.
On the software side of things
In our testing we synchronised our device with a PC running our corporate Lotus Notes account. Installing the cradle and software was a simple process: we plugged the serial cable into the PC - why it isn't USB we're not sure - loaded the synchronisation software, and were up and running in a matter of minutes.
As mentioned, our review unit was a pre-production demo version and we did not have the back-end software from the BlackBerry Enterprise Server which is designed to give IT managers a single point of management for devices deployed within their organisations.
A BlackBerry Enterprise Server sits next to a company's mail server, behind the firewall. In addition to security and management functionality this software synchronises individual users' inboxes and the mobile BlackBerry inboxes to act as one. If you are on the move and delete an email using your BlackBerry, it will also be deleted from your desktop system, for example.
The package works with Microsoft Exchange, Schedule+, Outlook and Outlook Express, as well as Lotus Notes.
The BlackBerry runs a Java-based operating system, which means that, in theory anyway, any suitable Java application developed by a third party ISV can be ported to the device.
£439 (device); £2,500 (20 user licence); £39 per month (airtime)