2004 Holiday Pre-Preview
Naturally, RIM's big new thing is the 7100, the first BlackBerry with a truly phone-like form factor. The 7100 is a radical departure from previous BlackBerry models. (Of course, that's pretty easy, since the previous models all looked pretty much the same.)
What's most obvious, of course, is the new "SureType" thumb-keyboard design, which is the main innovation that allows the smaller size and more phone-like shape. The idea is similar to the T9 found on most regular phones, except with two letters per key instead of three. Some people have already nicknamed it "T14".
I spent some time testing it out, and my verdict is a big "two thumbs up". (Sorry - couldn't resist...) If you're used to T9 on a regular phone, it takes some getting used to the different layout, but if you're used to QWERTY, I think you'll feel right at home with the 7100. The predictive text software works well, and a dedicated "next" key makes it easy to correct it on the rare occasions it guesses incorrectly.
The other big new features compared to past BlackBerries are speakerphone and Bluetooth. Speakerphone was previously only available on the 7510 model for Nextel. Unfortunately, the Bluetooth feature only supports the headset and handsfree profiles, which means you can't use Bluetooth to exchange files, connect your laptop to the Internet, or sync the 7100 with your PC.
Another major change is the display. On all previous BlackBerries, the display was easy to read in all lighting conditions, especially in sunlight. Since first adding color their lineup, RIM has always used a very unusual type of super-reflective LCD display that looks eerily like paper. The backlight was very weak, but it didn't matter because you hardly ever needed it.
The 7100 completely ditches that special reflective technology in favor of a more traditional transmissive TFT display. The upshot is that the 7100 has a backlight that looks 50x brighter than older models, but at the expense of visibility in direct sunlight.
And finally, one very welcome change is that you can now dial directly from standby mode. On previous BlackBerries, you had to enter the phone application before you could dial.
Two very different-looking versions of the 7100 have been announced already - the 7100t for T-Mobile USA, and the 7100v for Vodafone in Europe. Each is a completely exclusive design, so if a carrier like Cingular ever picks up the 7100 series, it will look very different.
For die-hard BlackBerry users not sold on the new 7100 form factor, I was assured that the company would continue to produce new models in the "traditional" form factor. In other words, the new design will supplement the existing style, not replace it.