There are, by now, a slew of BlackBerry-like cell phones with typewriter keyboards for mobile e-mail. But none, including Palm Inc.'s popular Treo, has yet mustered a following that resembles the malady affectionately known as "CrackBerry" addiction.
So it's no ho-hum when BlackBerry's maker, Research In Motion Ltd., overhauls its flagship device for the first time in nearly three years.
After a test drive of just two weeks, it's hard to issue a definitive verdict on the new BlackBerry 8700, which debuted Tuesday through Cingular Wireless at $300 with rebates and a two-year contract. But there's little doubt the device, which does e-mail and telephony (search), will please BlackBerry devotees on many fronts.
First and foremost, it's skinnier in width and thickness. That makes the 8700 easier to grip as a phone, addressing one of the few common complaints about its predecessors.
This means, of course, that RIM has gambled on rejiggering the layout of the most comfy QWERTY keyboard (search) in the thumb-typing realm.
The result feels a bit more cramped, and yet typing still seems simpler and smoother than on comparable devices. But again, with only two weeks of repetitive thumb motion under the belt, it's probably best to withhold final judgment on the keyboard.
Other standout changes — some that RIM first tried out a year ago with the consumer-oriented 7100 BlackBerry — include the addition of dedicated "send" and "end" buttons for phone calls, a speakerphone button, two customizable program keys, a doubling of internal memory (search) to 64 megabytes and a brilliant color screen.
This last addition marks a long-awaited admission that RIM's business-minded customers might enjoy a little eye candy, even if a BlackBerry's main function remains e-mail.
That doesn't mean, however, that RIM is abandoning its staid demeanor. Those hoping for new leisure-time bells and whistles like an MP3 music player or a digital camera will be disappointed.
RIM is holding orthodox to its presumption that most of the 3.65 million BlackBerrys out there were issued by employers who don't want their staff playing with their gadgets or photographing internal operations.
So, true to its roots, the 8700 is still primarily an e-mail device, though with a growing emphasis on being a basic cell phone as well.
Size-wise, compared with the popular 7200-series BlackBerry, the 8700 really isn't that much smaller. It measures 4.3 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide by 0.77 inch thick.
Yet this slight diminution in dimensions makes a big difference in one-handed operation, sitting comfortably in the palm where the prior generation always felt just a tad to big to get your fingers around.
The 8700 is also a smidgeon lighter, weighing 4.7 ounces vs. 4.9 ounces with the 7200 series.
To accommodate this scrunching, the keys are closer together. Though roughly the same size as before, the keys have been rotated to a more vertical position from their diagonal tilt on the 7200. This eliminates a good deal of the spacing between each key, which could be problematic for users with meatier fingertips.
The absence of "send" and "end" buttons on the 7200 series turned a simple phone call into a cumbersome process, where one had to use the side track wheel to dial and hang up. Happily, this non-intuitive behavior is gone with the 8700.
Aside from the new keyboard layout and dedicated phone buttons, the most noteworthy enhancement is the screen. While the displays on the 8700 and 7200 both measure a shade above 2.5 inches diagonally, the new screen is far brighter and crisper, a pleasure for both e-mail attachments and Web browsing.
The screen offers 360 x 240 pixel resolution (search), up from 240 x 160 pixels on 7200 models. There's also a new feature RIM calls "intelligent light sensing technology" that automatically adjusts brightness for indoor and outdoor viewing.
Despite the power-drain of these screen enhancements, RIM says the 8700 boasts 16 days of standby battery capacity, or nearly twice as much as the 7200, but with the same "talk time" allotment of four hours.
Notably, one of the two programmable buttons is positioned on the side of the device — right where the walkie-talkie, push-to-talk button tends to appear on most devices with such capabilities. Cingular doesn't yet offer this service but has indicated it will introduce push-to-talk soon. RIM and Cingular refused to say whether the side button might be programmable for such a purpose, but neither dismissed the suggestion with any vehemence.
Other features on the 8700 include compatibility with Cingular's EDGE wireless technology as compared with the slower Internet and data capabilities on prior BlackBerrys, as well as Bluetooth (search) for wireless headsets and direct communications with nearby devices.
In a nod to the speedier Internet access allowed by EDGE, which makes wireless Web downloads less excruciating, RIM has expanded some of its attachment-viewing features to Web browsing.
Now users can directly zoom in on Web pages and images or rotate them without first saving them to the device. However, there's no "enhance" option to sharpen those pages and images after zooming, an option that's available for e-mail photo attachments.
One concern about the 8700, though mostly a sneaking suspicion for now, is that the distinctive BlackBerry track wheel seems a tad chintzy on the spin and click. Overall, the device feels sturdy, so perhaps this initial sensation will prove deceptive.
Only time will tell whether typing on the new keyboard will be less fluid, or continue to distinguish BlackBerry from its growing pack of rivals.