Microsoft and Windows Mobile clearly have a primary focus these days - and that focus is business. From adding a slew of business-oriented features to Windows Mobile 6 to their recently announced device management suite, Microsoft is serious about gaining some marketshare in the enterprise space.
If they're successful, they'll likely be taking that marketshare away from one company: RIM. So I'll admit to feeling the pressure this week in the Smartphone Round Robin. Sure, people enjoy pitting Microsoft against Apple, but it seems like the place where there's really direct smartphone competition is between Microsoft and RIM - and both companies talk enough trash to back that up.
While I can't comment too intelligently about advanced enterprise and business features, I do feel like I'm getting a pretty good feel for the BlackBerry from a Windows Mobile user's perspective. This week is actually the first time in the Round Robin that I've been using a brand new interface - with the 680 and the iPhone I had some experience. So I need to give a gigantic shout-out to the incredible folks over at the CrackBerry.com forums, without whom I would have felt awfully lost.
Read on for my initial thoughts on the BlackBerry 8310!
There's no doubt about it: the 8310 is a sexy little gadget. We're using the Burgundy color, which looks very nice yet still seems business-like. Around the sides the slick red plastic is replaced with a matted / soft-touch black plastic which helps with gripability quite a bit.
I also think that the weight of the 8310 is great, it's light and well-balanced, it feels great in the hand and isn't too “slabby” like some other QWERTY phones I know (cough MotoQ cough).
This would be the place to get into specs, too, I suppose - but honestly I don't really feel like “specs” matter as much to me here as just the basic (and totally new to me) BlackBerry experience. Battery life: very very good - though that's not too surprising given that they 8310 is EDGE-only (boo) and does not have a touchscreen. The spec that's most interesting to me is the built-in GPS, which works very well (more on that below).
There is such a wide array of Windows Mobile form factors that it's difficult to choose which ones to compare it to - so I'll just pick a couple semi-randomly so that folks who are more familiar with Windows Mobile can get their bearings here:
One of the biggest strengths of the entire BlackBerry line is their excellent QWERTY keyboards. Typing on the 8310 is quick and easy. I'm especially impressed with the software-intelligence behind the keyboard. You can hit the spacebar twice to get a period, which is cool. What shocked me in a big way was that the 8310 recognizes when I'm entering an email address - the first “space” you enter in an email address automatically switches the space into an @ symbol, the 2nd switches it to a period. The same happens in the built-in browser - space maps to a period. Smart, cool.
Input on the keyboard is quick, but I'm surprised to say I don't think it's the best QWERTY keyboard I've ever used. It's very close (and with more use I might change my mind), but I think I prefer the Treo's keyboard. Some pictures are necessary here (click the thumb for the full image):
The differences between the buttons on the Treo and the 8310 are subtle but important. The 8310's buttons are “flat” where the Treo's have Palm's patented “Rounded, with the 'top of the hill' slightly on the upper right” finish. The Treo's buttons also seem a bit more “grippable” whereas the 8310's are pretty slick. Finally, the 8310's feedback is more “clacky” than the Treos.
The upshot is that I find I make slightly (very slightly) fewer mistakes on the Treo's keyboard - the buttons are easier to feel beneath the thumb and also feel spaced apart more (even though they aren't) because their topmost surface is more spaced apart. The gripability of the buttons also helps keep my thumbs from sliding across to the next key. The “clackiness” of the 8310 actually isn't bad - it's nice if you like that sort of thing.
In any case, the keyboard on the 8310 is darn good, it's certainly better than 95% of the other QWERTY keyboards there - it puts the keyboards on the MotoQ, Q9, Blackjack, and Dash to shame. I slightly prefer the Treo's physical buttons to the 8310's. However, when you include the sofware improvements, I guess I'd have to admit that it edges out the Treo.
Although I've never used a BlackBerry at length before, I do remember the minor tempest that ensued after RIM switched away from the scroll wheel to the scroll ball. I was initially worried that the thing would fill up with gunk, get pressed accidentally, or that I would be constantly accidentally doing a “Scroll-press” instead of just a straight press.
I'm here to say that my fears were unfounded - the scroll ball is pretty neat. It certainly feels a lot better than your standard push-button 5-way navpad. The only gripe I have is that there's not a way to do an “infinite scroll” with the scroll ball - you have to scroll, move your thumb up, scroll again, etc.
The thing I'm learning about the BlackBerry platform, though, is that there are little keyboard shortcuts hard-coded into the device darn near everywhere. So although I can't just “hold down” a 5-way to scroll down, in most apps I can just hold down the space bar instead.
Setting up the BlackBerry was very easy. I'm happy to see that RIM offers basic Mac sync functionality via PocketMac. I also am happy to see that the BlackBerry asks if you'd like to mount your storage card when you plug into the computer - which makes managing media files much easier.
The other piece of setup that was easier than I was expecting was getting my data plan and BlackBerry Internet Service set up. I griped about data plans and praised AT&T yesterday, but it's worth repeating: the reps at AT&T knew the BlackBerry, knew what I needed to set it up, and were able to get it done with a minimum of hassle. Although I was initially a little confused about the differences between a straight internet plan, BIS, and BES, Kevin's CrackBerry 101 “Lecture” on the subject set me straight.
Really, the only complaint I have about setting up the 8310 is how freaking long it takes the thing to boot up. I've been told that it's because BlackBerrys have magical communication powers that need time to percolate, talk to their server, and so on - but that explanation leaves me a little dubious. On the bright side is that the device seems rock-solid, so a reset should be a relatively rare occurrence. With WM I found myself resetting once a week or so, though that's likely because of how often I mess around with it.
Ok, I lied. I have another complaint and it's one that I've hinted at before: I flat-out don't understand how email works on the BlackBerry. I think it's an issue of basic email
philosphy religion. So the below is my wandering thoughts, trying to “get” the BlackBerry philosophy of email. Think of me on my knees, praying to the god of mobile data, trying to understand the doctrine of email. Where I am wrong, please correct me in the comments!
The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counterreformist and has been influenced by the “ratio studiorum” of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach - if not the Kingdom of Heaven - the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.
DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: a long way from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.
In this case, the Catholic smartphone is the BlackBerry, the Protestant Smartphone is Windows Mobile. Basically, the BlackBerry takes all the work of setting email up and moves onto the priests of BlackBerry - the BIS servers. You punch in your email address and your password, wait about 20 minutes (actually, I never waited more than 5), and your email magically starts getting pushed to your BlackBerry. Compare this to most Windows Mobile setups - where everything is handled device-side. Sure, WM can often (usually) auto-detect your email settings, but everything is pretty such client-based.
The problem here is that how exactly my email is set up via BIS is mysterious to me - those details are handled by the priests in the temple. With some awesome help from the folks in the CrackBerry.com forums (thanks Bla1ze!) I was able to get BIS to look at my Gmail accounts as IMAP instead of as POP3 accounts -- but that didn't make my BlackBerry email client look like a standard IMAP client! I set up a standard mac.com account too with similar results.
I'm pretty sure that the idea here is that BlackBerrys are designed to let you absolutely blast though emails, as Mike noted in his look at the 8310 at Phone different. The BlackBerry does this and does it well - emails come in quickly, responding to them is easy and fast, and keyboard shortcuts like “shift for select” mean I can select a whole buncha them at once and do an action on them. I am also a big big fan of the unified inbox - which is surprising to me because initially I thought it was a horrible idea and would get me into all sorts of trouble from mixing and matching my personal and work lives.
It seems to me that one way that RIM lets you blast so quickly is they pretty much stripped the concept of “folders” out of email completely. There's just one “box” for your email and this box is basically the inbox with a few caveats (it seems to show sent message notifications in there). So, for example, I have Gmail auto-label and auto-filter certain messages into subfolders (or at least Gmail's version of them) right on the server - these messages never appear on my BlackBerry. That's fine - I auto filter them because I don't want them in my inbox - but I don't have a way to access them at all via BlackBerry's email client. Worse - deleting emails in my inbox on either desktop or on the BlackBerry doesn't seem to sync up properly, ditto read/unread.
Now, I want to say here that it's possible - likely - that I may have misconfigured something in BIS or that BIS and Gmail's IMAP aren't are friendly as they ought to be. That's the way of things on the cutting edge and it's the way of things with new devices. What's frustrating to me is that I don't really know for sure - those settings are hidden away by the priests of BIS. Sure, I can access some apocrypha like “Send Service Books” or “Register Now” for the “Host Routing Table,” but I'm pretty sure that's not what I'm looking for.
What I'm looking for is choosing which IMAP folders I want my email client to subscribe to, setting which IMAP box my sent-mail should go to in case the default isn't working for some reason. I'm looking for the “protestant” version of email, where you are in charge of your own
salvation setup and can get it just so. With Windows Mobile, they definitely aren't as good at automating and simplifying email, but Outlook Mobile feels like it has more power under the hood than the BlackBerry's email client.
Ok, enough kvetching. Let me be crystal clear: once you accept the “BlackBerry religion” of how email works, it's perfect for getting emails in and out quickly and efficiently. It handles attachments well (both sending and receiving), although I'll admit I wish I could edit Office Docs natively.
I do think that BIS's simplified email setup is the bee's knees for a 90% of people. Yes, Exchange Server does push email, but unless your company support it you're stuck trying to find one on your own and setting it up. Ditto for the other push email solutions for Windows Mobile out there - if you have corporate support, they're easy, if you don't, it's not. BlackBerrys are impressive because they make push email easy for everybody.
There is no easier way to get reliable push email than with a BlackBerry, period.
Sorry to go on so long there, but BlackBerry's main strength is email so if I'm going to knock it, I'd best have a darn good reason for it. My darn good reason is that I don't like mystery in my smartphone setup - whether it be memory management on the PalmOS (see “Gripe 1”) or email setup on my BlackBerry.
The BlackBerry OS
I was expecting the OS on the 8310 to stink, since my understanding is that the apps are all basically a version of MIDP for running Java Micro Edition (sometimes known as J2ME) apps. If your head is exploding because the previous sentence is completely inaccurate, I feel your pain. I don't understand much about the BlackBerry OS and need to say that from the get-go that I was expecting it to be primitive, since everything J2ME that I've used to this point has been slow and buggy.
Yeah, I was wrong - the BBOS is pretty nice.
The UI took awhile for me to get used to - I don't think I'm fond of the idea of “themes.” It seems like a theme should just change the wallpaper, colors, and icons on a device - not move icons into different folders, change settings for inboxes (you can adjust that manually, though), and so on. All that said I was happy to get advice from CrackBerry Kevin: stick with the default AT&T theme, move everything out of their subfolders, put them in the order your want, and hide the stuff you won't use.
Basically, I'm really fond of having a single home screen that acts both as a dialer (just type to dial) and an app launcher. While I miss being able to pack information in ala Windows Mobile's Today Screen, the trade off of being able to manage my app shortcuts in a way that makes sense to me is a pretty good one. I'm sure with a little more work / theme hunting I could be made even happier.
The only thing I'd wish for is a more efficient way of switching apps one-handed. There are just two “convenience buttons” for me to map and I wish I could have just one more: One for inbox, one for profiles, and one for camera. I'd like to be able to map the “mute” button, which seems completely useless to me.
Stability-wise I have no complaints. It's very responsive all around - the 8310 probably has the fewest delays in app switchnig of any of the Smartphones in the Round Robin. I experience an odd pause from time to time, but rarely.
The built-in browser froze a couple times (but righted itself eventually) and I am finding that sometimes alert-tones seem to not happen. The latter issue is a little (ahem) alarming, but I'm not positive this is a bug yet. Interacting with the device seems to cancel it making noises so it's possible I've just happened to be toying with it when it wanted to beep at me.
I've got no beef with the standard apps. I'm happy to see a real alarm clock (weird that I jumped on that first). The PIM apps do their job nicely. The built-in Facebook app is neat. The browser kinda stinks, but then again so does Pocket Internet Explorer, so I can't really complain much about that.
I haven't had a chance to delve into any sort of multimedia yet - look for that in my next article.
TeleNav is built-in and costs 10 bucks a month for an unlimited plan. GPS is built-in to the 8310 and unlike Windows Mobile it requires absolutely no configuration. In fact, I have yet to see any sort of setting for GPS at all.
Anyhow, TeleNav is really sweet - much better than I expected it to be. I've always been a TomTom man myself, but this is just as good as TomTom and better in some cases (great traffic support). I do wish I could save maps locally on the microSD card, though, in case I am ever in a spot without data.
Third Party apps
Opera Mini was the first 3rd party app I installed and I think it's near perfection on the 8310. If ever there were a browser designed to be used with a scroll ball, this is it. I love the RSS reader feature for quickly reading sites (so much more common and more efficient than mobile versions of pages). The zooming is great, it's pretty fast. Opera Mini on the 8310: an absolute must.
Also in the category of “absolute must” is JiveTalk. It's 20 bucks (with a 30 day trial) for what might be the best mobile IM client I've ever used. Thanks again to the folks at CrackBerry.com for aggressively recommending it, because it's aggressively recommendable. :)
There you have it, my first impressions after 4 days of full time BlackBerry usage. Could I make the 8310 my main device? I quite possibly could, but it would mean changing (email) religion, by which I mean I'd have to restructure how I deal with email both on my mobile device and on my desktop. I could do it, but I don't think I'd like it.
For folks who aren't as persnickety as me, though, I don't really have a problem recommending the 8310. It looks good, lasts a long time on a charge, is stable, handles most email like a rock star, and has GPS built-in.
Somehow the 8310 seems less powerful than the other smartphones in the Round Robin. It certainly can't do as much as Windows Mobile; I suspect you can't find nearly the number of 3rd party add-ons as are available for PalmOS; and it lacks the whiz-bang of the iPhone. I could be wrong about all three of those assumptions, but I don't think I am. However, what the 8310 lacks in power, it makes up for in utility: the BlackBerry “just works” at smartphone tasks whereas the others need a little 3rd-party push from time to time.
As I've said before, I personally prefer to get a device to “work” the way I want it to instead of “just work” in a way I don't, but I have to give credit where credit is due. The BlackBerry 8310 just works.
I need to spend more time with it - I should install DocsToGo to see how that works, look into finding a real file browser, and of course get into its multimedia capabilities (sneak peek - love the camera!). Keep an eye out for my last look early next week!
So: what'd I get right? What'd I get flat-out wrong? Comment on this post for an entry in the Round Robin Contest!