Review: BlackBerry Pearl Flip
RIM takes on the clamshell form factor with the Pearl Flip. Is it worth flipping out over?
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BlackBerries have been the mobile email workhorse for years now. The latest device from RIM, the Pearl Flip, is no different in that regard. It is, however, targeted less at the buttoned-down business person and more at the multitasking mass market. Does it get the job done?
The Pearl Flip is Research In Motion's first attempt at a form factor other than a bar-style phone. It is a clamshell, which is a preferred style for many users in the U.S. If you are a clamshell lover, but want the capabilities of RIM's operating system the Pearl Flip could be the device for you...
...that is, if you don't mind its bulk.
There's no dancing around the fact that the Flip is a bit on the bulky side. It is very thick for a modern clamshell and definitely forms a noticeable bulge if you choose to place it in your front pocket. Bulky it may be, but weighty it isn't. The heft of the phone is surprisingly little, given its beefy size. It is comfortable to hold in your hand both closed and open, and feels well balanced. Holding the Flip in both hands, it typing position, is also comfortable. I was worried that the top half of the phone might make it tiring to hold in the typing position, but that worry was misplaced.
Aside from its size, the Flip is attractive to look at. It is clad in black, with silver accents. This may not be an original color scheme, but it works on this device. The front face has a large display for reading the time, checking status indicators, and also reading incoming messages. It is hidden unless illuminated. The glossy, black face does tend to attract fingerprints, however.
At the top corner of the Flip's left side is the mute button. It is a bit hard to find, if you ask me, because it is flush with the surface of the phone. Pushing it iwll mute an incoming call. Below it is the 3.5mm headset jack, allowing you to use most regular stereo headphones with the Flip. It also has a microUSB port for charging and data transfer. A customizable application key is also placed here, and is easy to find and offers good travel and feedback.
The right side of the phone is where you'll find the volume toggle, which is near the top corner of the Flip. It is small, but still easy to locate and use. Next to it is the hatch covering the microSD port. Opening it was not a problem. Last up on the right side is another customizable application key. This key felt a bit spongy, and there was no real "click" to it.
The Flip's battery hatch comes off and is replaced in a snap.
About the keyboard. There's no arguing that the SureType (2 letters per key in a 20-key pad) style keypad on the Flip is bigger than the regular Pearl's. Many users have indicated that the Pearl's keypad is too small to use really well. RIM made it bigger on the Flip to address that issue. I feel that from side-to-side, it is much easier to use. The extra width makes for a much better typing experience. The up-and-down length of the keypad is the really problem. It is a long keyboard, and you really have to move your fingers up and down to reach all the letters and characters you want. That complaint aside, the keys themselves are markedly improved when compared to the Pearl. They have great travel and feedback, with a nice "click" to know they've been pushed. The keys themselves are separated by a distinct set of ridges that run across the keypad, letting your fingers know when they've moved down a row. There is less feedback as you move your thumb back and forth.
The trackball is also different when compared to the original Pearl. On the Pearl, the trackball stuck out from the surface of the phone, making it easy to find, but also easy for it to be pushed or rolled around in your pocket. The trackball on the Flip is recessed completely into the keypad so the phone can close all the way. I wish the trackball were sticking up just a bit more, because I felt that I couldn't grab enough of the the trackball with my thumb. The trackball was responsive, and you can adjust both the up and down, and back and forth sensitivity to a setting that suits you.
The four buttons surrounding the trackball are the standard send/end keys and BlackBerry and return keys. They had less travel and feedback than the number keys.
The Flip's main screen is a QVGA display and it looks great. The high resolution makes for sharp images, text and icons. Most of the default menus are white text on a black background. Usually this means you'll have a hard time seeing the screen in full sunlight. Not so with the Flip. The screen is very easy to read, even in direct sunshine. Menus, icons and text show up nice and crisp. The exterior display is less visible in the sun, but easily seen when indoors.
The Flip was a signal hound. Most places I took it, it registered a full five bars of EDGE signal from T-Mobile. It didn't drop any calls in my time with it, and only dropped to three bars once. In areas that we know to have poor signal strength form T-Mobile, the Flip matched the best scores we've seen.
Call quality was not as good as I've experienced on other BlackBerries. The Flip's earpiece speaker, even set all the way up, was difficult to hear in a quiet room. It was almost impossible to hear callers in noisy environments. On top of that, there was a constant hiss (more so than normal) during calls. I did not notice any crackling or static, though. As for the ringer, it can be made sufficiently loud that you're not going to miss phone calls in your house. Out in the world, however, you just might. I missed several calls when walking through a noisy mall. It helps a lot if you turn on the vibrating alert with the ringer.
We've only had the Flip for 4 days. We haven't charged it yet. It had a full charge when we took it out of the box, and it has lasted through a weekend of tests. Tests have included calls, messages, browsing the Web, music playback, taking pictures and stuff like that. I expect to have to charge it at the end of the fourth day, however, as it is down to one bar.
The Pearl Flip comes with the latest version of the BlackBerry OS, which has thankfully been refreshed. It uses all new icons and colors to signify everything and the new theme is called Precision. Out of the box, the basic appearance of the home screen includes your T-Mobile MyFaves in the center of the screen, with a row of five icons running along the bottom. Scrolling the trackball left or right cycles through your MyFaves. If you want to get to the five icons below, you have to scroll down first, and then left or right. These five icons are shortcuts to Messaging, Contacts, Calendar, the Browser and your faves.
Hitting the BlackBerry key - as on all BlackBerries - is where the magic takes place. This button brings up the full menu on the Flip. Here you'll find a grid of 20 icons representing all of the phone's functions. The icons are mostly intuitive and you can figure them out easily enough.
Drilling down beyond this set of icons, though, and things start to look more familiar. The underlying architecture of the BlackBerry OS is the same, which mean menus, menus, and more menus. If you want to do anything, hit the BlackBerry key, and a long list of action items appears. Most often, RIM's software automatically highlights the selection you're probably most interested in. For example, if you tap the BB key when browsing the web, the Web menu appears, and the "Go To Web Page" action item is automatically selected.
The one thing I noticed with the Flip was a bit of a lag. You'd press the trackball to access an application or menu, and there would be a small delay before that app or menu opened or loaded.
In all, though, the BlackBerry menu system is easier than ever to figure out.
The Flip performs similar to most other BlackBerries when it comes to the phone features. Press the green send key and a list of recent calls appears. If you start typing a name or a number, the Flip will sort through all your contacts. Most times, you can get away with only typing three or four letters/numbers before the Flip finds the person you're hoping to contact. Press the BlackBerry key to open up a list of options for reaching out to that person, or simply hit the green send key to call them. In the call log, you can scroll up and down through logs quickly. Pressing the trackball once with a number selected brings up a set of actions to take (call, SMS, MMS). Press the BlackBerry key to get the full menu.
If you open the address book from the home screen, there is a search function built into the top of the app, and is the default action. Start typing a name, and the app sorts until you find the contact you want. You can also scroll down using the track ball, but for large contact lists, this can be time consuming. Once you've found the contact you want, hitting the BB key again opens up a magical, extensive list of actions you can take concerning that contact, including dialing them, sending them an SMS, or editing their information. Each contact can hold a wealth of information about that person, including far more phone numbers and email addresses than any normal human being should have. You can also choose to save them directly to your SIM card.
The integration between the calling features and the contacts program is designed around one-handed ease-of-use and minimizes typing to almost zero. It may not look pretty, but it is far more functional than many other phones on the market.
The number of ways in which you can send a "message" with the BlackBerry Flip is bordering on ridiculous. As with other programs on the Flip, it may lack a pretty interface (though it's getting better), but the sacrifice of form for function is well worth it. The messaging center is tightly entwined with the calling and contacts applications. These three together create a strong triad of connectivity and communications options.
The main inbox holds every email, SMS, or MMS sent to the phone in one gigantic list. This can be a boon or a bane, depending on your style. If you like everything in one spot, it is quick and easy to access everything. If you have multiple email accounts tied to the Flip, and prefer to see the emails sorted into their respective inboxes, this view may not be for you. Luckily, you can sort out each inbox so they are in fact separate and you don't confuse which email account you are in. (The Flip supports up to 10 email accounts.)
Probably the most powerful aspect of the messaging app is the search function. Because BlackBerries keep messages stored for 30 days (unless you delete them more often), searching your inbox might be a painful prospect for that one email or SMS you know contains vital information. With the search function, you can find practically anything in your inbox as long as it is still stored on the device.
When viewing emails, the BlackBerry software recognizes phone numbers and email addresses. When you scroll down a page, they are auto-highlighted, allowing you to email people or call them without having to type anything. Simply scroll over the name or email to highlight it, press the trackball, and bingo. Hitting the BB key opens up the options list for the emails or numbers found in your inbox.
SMS messages are threaded into a single conversation (similar to a Treo or iPhone) as long as you and the contact continue to reply to messages already sent and not type a brand new message.
New messages of any sort are easy to initiate by simply typing in the contact's name. If you begin typing a contact's name in the address field, it will auto sort your contacts in that field and let you select from that list. Same goes for SMS or MMS messages.
Speaking of files, the BlackBerry inbox lets you view most attachments, including images and Microsoft Word documents.
The Flip is also preloaded with BlackBerry Messenger, AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Yahoo and Windows Live instant messaging programs. Any way you want to get your IM on, the Flip lets you do it.
Lastly, the Flip lets you read your messages on the exterior display. When a new message arrives, you'll see a notification on the external display. Using the volume toggle keys, you can choose to open up and read your SMS and MMS messages and see how many unread emails you have.
The Flip's music-playing software is another evolutionary step forward for RIM, but still not one that is big enough. In the main menu, you can get to your music via the Media icon, or the Music icon. The Music icon is faster because it takes you straight to the player.
The basic music menu is unchanged from the Curve and is white lettering on a black background. It lets you select from the songs, artists, genres, albums, playlists, etc. While you can sample songs and even shuffle. There are still no advanced music functions, such as an equalizer. Hitting any of the menu selections takes you into another list of what's available, be it the songs, albums or artists. These lists may be simple, but this is a major advancement over the Pearl, which made you jump through folder after folder after folder to find what you wanted. Once you make your selection, the player interface launches.
The player is no more impressive than the Curve's. You can play or pause/stop the music with the track ball, as well as skip forward and backward tracks. As with most media players, a progress bar shows you how much of the song remains, and album art is displayed if it is tagged to the song.
As we noted earlier in the review, sound quality is not that great. Whether through the external speaker, the earpiece, stereo Bluetooth headphones or standard stereo headphones, the sound quality is just not there. The music sounds dull, lifeless and bland.
With the phone closed, you are able to see the music player interface, though I was unable to interact with it by pressing any of the buttons. Incoming calls mute the music, which will resume once the call is completed.
Otherwise, the music player performs ably, but nothing sets it apart from many other media-playing phones. It does the basics, but not much more. RIM could stand to get its act together in the music playback department.
The camera can only be launched via the Flip's menus, there is no dedicated key. Similar to the original Pearl or Curve, however, you can set one of the two application keys to launch it. Unless you do this, launching the camera will take about 5 seconds in total, which may be too long.
The screen shows you your subject and there is a bar along the bottom that shows you some of your options. The track ball lets you zoom in and out, but the zoom function is preset to 1x, 3x, or 5x. This is somewhat frustrating, as 5X can be too much, and 3x can be too little.
The rest of the camera application is a bare bones affair. You can adjust the flash, choose between normal, B&W and sepia tones, and adjust the resolution and quality of the images in the options menu, but that is about all. The flash is improved compared to previous camera-carrying RIM devices. Perhaps the nicest feature is that you can expand the viewfinder to fill the entire screen, meaning the status bar along the bottom disappears. This really gives you a nice large view to help compose pictures.
You hold the phone vertically, but it actually takes pictures in the landscape orientation. The viewfinder shows you just the central portion of the image.
After you've framed your picture, hitting the track ball snaps the shot. It takes the picture right away and the Flip saves the image much faster than the Pearl or Curve. After it is saved, you have 5 immediate options to choose from. The default is to take another picture, but you can also choose to send the image (as an email or MMS), rename it, set as desktop/caller ID, or trash it.
The gallery app is accessible from the Media icon or from the camera application. In the gallery, if you hit the BB key you get a long list of options. With this list, you can basically take any action imaginable, including setting the selected image as your homescreen, emailing it, renaming it, moving it and many more. After you have a picture open, hitting the BB key brings up another list of actions, including zooming in and out and some of the options of the aforementioned menu.
There may not be advanced editing capabilities, but you can send picture files just about anywhere via multiple different methods.
The pictures I shot with the Flip were the best I've seen from a BlackBerry. The Flip's 2 megapixel camera performs pretty well outside. Some details were washed out in bright sunlight, but colors looked spot on.
Pictures taken indoors introduced more grain and noise in the image, but that's not so surprising. The flash helps out a little bit when taking pictures in very dark environments, such as bars. It isn't good past about 4 feet, though.
Video taken with the Flip was a bit jittery. I noticed a lot of waviness and pixelization. Video shot outdoors had a perfect exposure and color representation, just more digital artifacts than I care to see in my videos. Video taken indoors was not as well exposed, and the colors looked more drab. Conversely, the digital artifacts weren't as noticeable.
3GPP / MPEG-4 format (viewable with QuickTime)
File size: 1.3 MB
There are two browser icons on the Flip: The BlackBerry browser is located on the home screen, and the T-Mobile browser (really just a shortcut to T-Zones) is in the Main Menu.
I really hate to say this, but they are both terrible. Slow, slow, slow, slow. The software is slow, there is serious lag between moving the cursor around and seeing a reaction from the phone, and Web pages take FOREVER to load via T-Mobile's EDGE network. The T-Zones link is the entry point to T-Mobile's mobile portal and gives you access to ringtones and other downloads, as well as your account info and news. The BlackBerry browser takes you directly to the open Internet, though both browsers function in the same way.
Using the BB key is the trick (once again) to accessing the menus you need to navigate with the browser. Setting bookmarks and using other navigation tricks is simple once you get acquainted with how BlackBerry's system works. One helpful feature is the ability to copy or send the URLs. Once you have navigated to a page, using the BB key, you can automatically copy the web site's URL, or choose to send it to one of your contacts via email, SMS, MMS or PIN.
The BlackBerry browser loads full HTML Web sites. Phone Scoop looked like its normal self through the Flip's browser. Having HTML support is somewhat moot, however, is the device is going to be exceedingly slow to load the Web sites. No matter what network conditions we tested the Flip under, it was very slow to browse the mobile Web.
Switching over to Wi-Fi made a huge improvement. I was able to connect the Flip to my protected home network with no problems. Surfing the Web via Wi-Fi was much better than EDGE.
The Flip lets you re-arrange the main menu as you see fit. You can hide applications, stuff them in folders, or move them anywhere on the screen. You can set pictures as wallpapers, music as ringtones, and customize how the Flip connects to Wi-Fi networks for UMA calls (which, by the way, worked fine), and configure when the phone goes on/off, turns the radios on/off and so on.
You can add words to the dictionary at will, you can tell the dictionary which word to pick more often when you type a key combination that could be two or more words, and make adjustments to how the spell check app functions.
Both application keys on the left and right side of the Flip can be customized as short cuts to your favorite or most used applications or settings menu.
The options menu lets you alter the phone as you would expect most phones for personalization. You can change the fonts, the size of the fonts, whether or not they are bold and more. This alters the view of your inbox and the majority of the text-only menus you interact with on the Flip a great deal.
Because BlackBerries are typically targets business users, there are literally hundreds of ways to configure the phone, set limits, and so on. Most of these will be completely unused by normal people.
The BlackBerry OS uses Java, so you can find, download and install a host of Java-based applications for the Flip. The T-Zones site is a place to start. The Flip also comes with Docs To Go, Maps, and other business-oriented applications pre-installed.
The Flip's Bluetooth radio supports a large number of profiles. I was able to pair it easily with other phones and my Mac. Passing files back and forth was easy. Pairing with headsets - both standard and stereo - was a snap. Sound quality suffered a bit, though.
The external display of the Flip is an awesome clock. The entire thing is a huge clock that is easily read when inside. It can be set to analog or digital. It is a bit harder to read when out in the sun, but either way, one quick press of a button on the side of the phone, and you'll be able to tell the time in no time.
Here is a video tour of the BlackBerry Pearl Flip. You can watch it here:
Or visit YouTube for more viewing and sharing options.
The Flip definitely has some strengths and weaknesses. It is the multiple-messaging master you expect it to be. Email, SMS, MMS, IM: it has all the bases covered. There's no doubt you'll be reaching out and touching someone with the Flip.
The form factor itself is a big change for RIM, but I am sure it will be a mostly positive one. Despite its girth, the Flip is likely to find plenty of users who prefer the clamshell style.
The weaknesses all come in the media department. The software for the music player, camera/video camera and gallery are bare bones and less-than-intuitive. The camera takes passable pictures, but music playback was stale.
More importantly, the sound quality of phone calls was not great, certainly not up to the standards set by previous RIM devices.
If you're looking for a phone that does messaging first, and phone calls and media second, then there's nothing wrong with the Flip. If media playback is super important to you, you're looking at the wrong phone.
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