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Review: BlackBerry Has Winner With Pearl Cell Phone

Those who don't mind carrying a paperweight already have plenty of options for "smart" phones that do more than just make calls. The rest of us are stuck with a sad compromise between size and function.

Say what you will about the new BlackBerry Pearl, and some undoubtedly will complain of cramped keyboards and other tradeoffs. Its creator, Research In Motion Ltd. (RIMM), has taken a truly gutsy stab at designing a tiny mobile device that can do it all.

It's so very imperfect, as all small devices are, and yet I'd more happily keep using this BlackBerry than its larger siblings or the vast majority of new devices hitting the market every week.

The Pearl, named for its glowing navigational trackball, is the first BlackBerry geared more fully toward consumers. It's the first with a digital camera and a slot for a MicroSD mini-disc to store songs, photos and video games — the sort of recreational functions that RIM has stoically deemed nonessential or even counterproductive for the corporate user market.

More importantly, as even non-corporate types may care more about mobile e-mail than pictures and music, it's the only BlackBerry that's light and small enough to sit imperceptibly in a pocket. In fact, this non-flip handset is more compact that even most regular cell phones, including the exalted RAZR from Motorola Inc. (MOT)

RIM is launching the Pearl through T-Mobile USA. The normally $300 device will go for $200 with a two-year contract and $250 with a one-year contract.

Weighing just 3.2 ounces, the candy bar-style phone is a palm-friendly 2 inches wide, 4.2 inches tall and 0.6 inch thick.

By contrast, the RAZR and its non-flip cousin, the SLVR, both weigh about 3.4 ounces and are roughly equal to the Pearl in width and thickness.

And despite its smallness, the Pearl's screen measures nearly 2.2 inches diagonally, or just 0.4 inch less than on a full-sized Blackberry.

The little round trackball may seem silly to ardent fans of RIM's signature trackwheel, which has been positioned on the side of every BlackBerry beeper, PDA and phone since the beginning.

That clickable side wheel has been a key to BlackBerry's success, allowing for easy navigation through lists and menus. Yet, as evidenced by Apple Computer Inc.'s (AAPL) ever-readiness to scrap its popular designs with new Macintosh computers and iPods, tradition is not a good enough reason not to mess with success.

Positioned front and center, the Pearl's trackball should prove far more intuitive for newcomers to BlackBerry — and lefties — as it more closely mimics navigation with a laptop or computer mouse.

Where hardcore BlackBerry users proudly avail themselves of odd keystroke shortcuts to manipulate the side wheel, the trackball can be spun in any direction to get where you're going. Just click on the ball to make a selection.

One concern: I'm curious whether thumb grime might collect over time, gumming up detection of the ball's rotation. It's a fading memory in the era of optical sensors, but this problem was common with the ball used to roll a computer mouse.

RIM says its use of magnetic, rather than physical, sensors should minimize this risk.

Otherwise, Pearl users also will want to tweak the tension settings for the trackball so it doesn't spin too freely, overshooting your intended destination.

The Pearl also features the quasi-QWERTY keyboard that RIM first developed for the BlackBerry 7100 line. The letters are laid out in the same order as on a typewriter, but it's two letters per key across five vertical rows, rather than the one letter per key across 10 rows on a full-sized BlackBerry and other QWERTY devices.

That compromise enables RIM to shrink the Pearl's width by up to 50 percent from a full-keyboard BlackBerry.

Compared with a regular cell phone, where you to need to multi-tap to choose among the three or four letters sharing most keys of the number pad, it's easier to pick out one of two letters on a Pearl key.

RIM has updated its predictive SureType software, which automatically suggests and chooses likely letter combinations and words as you type. Over time, SureType "learns" from the phrasings and spellings you pick, as well as the contents of incoming e-mail. The new version of SureType also analyzes preceding words in a sentence to make its predictions.

The keys, while laid out the same as on the 7130, sit closer together, but they're forgiving as you start to press, enabling you to reposition before it's too late. My fingers veered onto the wrong ones occasionally, and thicker fingertips may stumble more often. Still, the keypad and software work well enough that you soon stop double-checking the words chosen on your behalf as you type.

The Pearl's 1.3 megapixel camera, like those on so many mobile phones, takes blurred shots more often than not. Actually, in my limited photographic exploits, it seemed like my success ratio was worse than usual. One nice touch was that with the camera activated, the trackball can be used to zoom in and out.

The Pearl also features a few other firsts for a BlackBerry, including a dedicated menu key and the volume buttons on the side that are typical on most cell phones. There's also Bluetooth for wireless headphones.

Because it's pretty darn hard to cram it all into a small device, the MicroSD slot is located in the battery compartment. That means you have to pull the back panel off and take the battery out any time you'd like to freshen the song collection on the storage card.

All that's missing, acknowledges RIM co-founder Mike Lazaridis, is GPS location tracking and Wi-Fi capability. But again, compromises are what it's all about in this pursuit of little gizmo nirvana. If you can't handle it, feel free to carry a laptop.