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Review: BlackBerry 8800 Only Slightly Better Than Predecessor

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The BlackBerry 8800 smartphone being reviewed in New York.AP

The maker of BlackBerry e-mail phones has managed to reinvent its wheel repeatedly, churning out surprising new models and innovative redesigns that have repeatedly left rivals in the dust.

But it's not so easy to wow the masses with every product launch, and the latest BlackBerry reveals a little design fatigue at Research in Motion Ltd. (RIMM)

That's a quibble, though, as the new 8800 looks sharper than RIM's current top-of-the-line 8700: It's more than 25 percent thinner, and it packs some key multimedia enhancements.

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One puzzling shortcoming is that the 8800 runs on the slower data network operated by AT&T Inc.'s (T) Cingular Wireless, which will sell the $500 device for as little as $300 with calling plan and BlackBerry e-mail service commitments.

The most striking change, an improvement that nonetheless will displease some BlackBerry traditionalists, is that the company has decided it's time to ditch the side clickwheel.

That wheel has been used to navigate every RIM device since the first came out a decade ago — until, that is, last August. That's when RIM introduced a front trackball on the Pearl, a cell phone-sized BlackBerry geared toward consumers.

The Pearl's instant popularity has helped drive BlackBerry's subscriber growth to record levels by a wide margin. And so, quicker than you can say "profit, shmofit" or "tradition, shmadition," RIM is adapting the front trackball to its flagship e-mail device for business users.

This is a good thing. The front trackball, clickable like a computer mouse, addresses the reality that there's a lot more to do these days on a mobile device than merely scroll up and down through e-mail. And the trackball is still perfectly suited to simpler tasks of old, even if you don't want to access Web pages, watch video clips or listen to music.

But in borrowing one innovation from the Pearl, it would appear that RIM decided to take an easy route on styling.

Where the launch of the 8700 in late 2005 brought a brand-new look to the BlackBerry, the 8800 is basically a puffed-up version of the black Pearl (RIM recently introduced a white Pearl).

It's got the same shiny black front and back, the same silver sides and nearly identical detailing in the look and placement of buttons and orifices.

Granted, I myself found the Pearl to be a gleaming specimen, an eye-catcher that could prompt device envy from those around me. Part of the allure was that it was entirely different from the other two BlackBerry product lines.

This time around, it was a letdown to see so many obvious similarities in the redesign of the 8700 — even if the 8800 is undoubtedly prettier than the 8700, as well as the unchanging, ever-boxy Treo from Palm Inc. (PALM)

On a less superficial level, it's simply odd that this device is only equipped for Cingular's EDGE data network, which isn't much better than a dial-up connection, rather than the advanced UMTS technology the company is rolling out for speedier Web browsing and downloading music and video.

This omission is glaring, as this is the first high-end BlackBerry for business users with a media player and a memory slot for extra storage of audio and visual content. But there's a theme developing here of late, as even the hugely hyped iPhone from Apple Inc. (AAPL) will also be confined to Cingular's slow lane.

While device makers always grapple with trade-offs in component costs and cramming features into a tiny case, it's worth noting that some of RIM's existing 8700 and 7100 handsets already feature UMTS or another speedy technology called EV-DO.

Regarding the new memory slot, the 8800 does hold a design advantage over the Pearl. The slot is still located inconveniently in the battery compartment on the back. But with the 8800, while you still need to remove the back cover, there's no need to remove the battery, cutting the power, when you want to insert or eject a storage card.

Another concern is shape and feel. Like the Pearl, the 8800 is flat on the sides where you grip it. The flat edges felt fine in your palm with a narrower device like the Pearl, which measured 2 inches from left to right. To accommodate a full keyboard with one button per letter, the 8800 is more than half an inch wider, so the grip might feel more sure and comfortable with contours like those on the sides of the 8700.

Now, about those keys, which are central to any device of this ilk. RIM has dared to tweak its keyboard again.

Because the 8800 is a tenth of an inch narrower left to right than the 8700, the keys look to be a hair closer together. To compensate, the company has added a tiny curving ridge to the top edge of each key to serve as physical guides for the thumbs.

My initial reaction is that it feels a bit cramped and slippery. But after only a few days of testing, I'm hesitant to underestimate the adaptive powers of my thumbs, let alone RIM's proven ability to design a handheld for typing.