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Smartphone Round Robin: BlackBerry 8310, Ciao!

Well, my time with the BlackBerry 8310 is over now, so it's time to wrap up my feeling about the little red wonder. Yes - a wonder. I used to think that RIM “just got lucky” with the BlackBerry. They were the first with a real push email solution and managed to “lock in” a whole slew of businesses early on. I thought that this was pretty much the source of the BlackBerry's success: just a whole lot of people who were resistant to change.

Having actually, you know, used one for a week and a half has changed my mind about that analysis. While it's true that a lot of people are sticking with BlackBerries because it's what they know, it turns out that just as many are finding that the BlackBerry is easy to get to know.

(Quick Smartphone Round Robin note: The contest to win a smartphone of your choice by commenting on any Round Robin post has been extended - now any post made by December 7th qualifies! Yes, that also means that our “coming home” articles will likely be pushed back a week as well. You try switching phones once a week - it's tough! ;))

More after the break!

(This is part two of a Windows Mobile Guy's look at the BlackBerry 8310, find the (slightly more comprehensive) Part One here.)

Old School

Despite a sleek and great-feeling form factor, something about the BlackBerry 8310 feels, well, old. It's something about the text-rendering that feels somehow bare-bones. I can't quite put my finger on it.

What I can put my finger on (not literally, since this isn't a touch-screen) is the cursor. A big, orange, square cursor on darn near every screen with text on it - whether I'm actually able to enter text or not. It screams “command line” but I love it anyway. It's useful, of course, allowing you to select text for copying (take that, iPhone, you're the only one who can't do that) or for other purposes.

The cursor, the lack of a touchscreen, the text, and my own preconceptions of BlackBerries as “evolved email pagers” all combine to make me think of the BlackBerry as more of an “email appliance” than a smartphone. I fully admit that's neither fair nor exactly accurate, but there it is.

...Which sounds like I'm knocking the BlackBerry, but I'm not, really. I appreciate that it's eschewed fancy gradients and graphical whiz-bangery for straight-up black-on-white text for most things. I like that when you open up an email all you see is plain-jane text instead of a menu bar at the top and bottom of the screen. However, it does feel a little bare-bones sometimes. Even old-schoolers want just a smidgen of whiz-bang every now and then.

Media

Browser

The BlackBerry 8310's default music player is about on par with the Treo 680 and with Windows Mobile. I'm not in love with it, but it'll do.

Basically, I'm plenty happy with the default library browser, which you can access directly with “Music Player” or via the “Media” app. The library browser automagically sorts music via ID3 tags - this sort of thing is standard now - but it's a step up on Windows Mobile in that it assumes (rightly) that you want all of your music in one big list. With Windows Mobile, you occasionally have to specify that you want the library to grab from your memory card, which is silly and annoying.

Also nice is that the browser's text is big and easy to read. I mention this because that's how text should be when you're browsing music (to make life easier for runners and drivers). I also mention it because, frankly, it was a welcome change from the text rendering elsewhere on the BlackBerry. Try as I might, I still can't seem to find a font setting anywhere that doesn't feel antiquated and slightly hard to read.

Player

Anyhow, once you're actually into the music player proper, you will often be greeted with album art. Windows Mobile also does this - but for some reason I can only get album art to show on WM intermittently. On the other hand, Windows Mobile's player doesn't require you to go into a freaking menu for next and previous song buttons - they're right there on the screen. Yes, I know, the “n” button on the keyboard is a shortcut to next. Still, a button on the keyboard is weird and not nearly as intuitive as the “right” button on a 5-way.

Video

I managed to get video working as well - though only after I admitted defeat and used RIM's desktop-based converter. I don't really count this as a knock, though, as the 8310 supports a decent array of video formats. There's just a whole somewhere in its MPEG-4 support that my movies kept falling into when I created them on my Mac. Video standards are still the wild wild west, so I can't really be sure where the problem lies.

Camera

The camera is nice - the flash is great. Somebody tell me how much that little LED flash costs. If it's less than $2 per device, and I'm sure it is, then I will begin writing letters to every smartphone manufacturer that isn't including a flash on their phones. That's most of them, by the way.

I know that these cameraphones aren't designed to be serious cameras and that a flash isn't going to make them that much better - but it's often the difference between a “dang, won't work” moment and a “sweet, I got the pic!” moment.

The Must-Dos

  1. Editors must use their assigned smartphone as their “main brain” and may not use any other smartphone OR music device (such as an iPod) for one full week.
    Done and done - although certain functions that I used to be able to do on my main brain ended up getting shifted to my desktop. Mainly email shuffling, since I never managed to fully get IMAP working properly on the BlackBerry. However, I have seen that this can be done, so I should leaven my previous “just one mailbox” issue from the earlier article a little. But just a little. ;)
  2. Editors must attempt to sync their phone to their computer, syncing all PIM data.
    This worked out just fine - though I do wish there were an easier, consumer-level, “cloud-based” PIM sync. I'm sure there are options, but this is dead-simple to do with Windows Mobile and any hosted Exchange server.
  3. Editors must attempt to set up their email on the smartphone
    Done. See my First Look for a not-so-brief overview of what I think of the email on the BlackBerry.
  4. Editors must attempt to use their smartphone to get directions at least once.
    TeleNav is great, though (as usual) I wish it were a little more configurable. It's also surprisingly easy on the battery, which I didn't really expect to be the case.
  5. Editors must attempt to use their smartphone with a bluetooth headset.
    Done. Not too shabby, certainly better reception than the Treo 680's bluetooth setup.
  6. Editors must attempt to install at least 2 3rd-party apps (if possible) on their smartphone.
    Opera Mini (swoon), the CrackBerry.com shortcut (of course!), and JiveTalk (double-swoon). Installing apps is fairly easy, though somehow it still feels unfamiliar to me.
  7. Editors must attempt to play a game
    Yeppers. BrickBreaker is good stuff.
  8. Editors must attempt to browse the internet
    Yeppers again. You would have seen an extended series of increasingly unhinged paragraphs in this space about the default web browser on the 8310, how I never thought I'd find a browser worse than Blazer, and how RIM just doesn't “get” that the web is just as important, if not more important, than email to a lot of people these days. Luckily, I installed Opera Mini and saved us all that hassle.
  9. Editors must attempt to add music to their smartphone and use it as their music device.
    No worries there, well, no worries worth mentioning again, let's say.
  10. Editors must attempt to watch a video on their device.
    Done and done - after I let RIM's desktop app do the converting for me.

Wrapping Up

...And now I'll be going from a non-touchscreen, front-facing QWERTY keyboard device with GPS built-in to a ....non-touchscreen, front-facing QWERTY keyboard device with GPS built-in (with 3G). The Blackberry 8310 and the BlackJack II are crazy different to me despite their outward similarities and functionalities.

At the end of the day, both do virtually identical things, yet I do have to admit that I am able to wring more functionality out of Windows Mobile than I can out of a BlackBerry. By “functionality” I don't just mean “able to get GPS on Google Maps while I do my taxes and check email” (but I do mean that too), but also I can tweak the BlackJack to be more usable and user-friendly.

Saying BlackBerry isn't the pinnacle is user-friendliness is sort of hitting BlackBerry where it's strongest (just like my earlier thoughts on email). I really do prefer the default Windows Mobule user interface to Blackberry's. I like the today screen, I like Pocket Outlook. Most of all, though, Windows Mobile has a wider variety of interfaces that you can install and tweak away at if you don't prefer the default. These different options in both interface (and form factor) are what make me love Windows Mobile.

If you want a device that “just works,” then the BlackBerry 8310 is probably for you. But make sure that you want “just works” in both senses of the word “just.” As in

  • just: without having to futz around too much with settings.
  • just: without being able to futz around too much with settings.

The reason I prefer Windows Mobile to BlackBerry is that latter bit. As for the former, well, I think that WM is really close, just not quite there yet. (I'll discuss this point much more next week in my “coming home” article - because I don't want WM to be pigeonholed as the “tweaker and power user” OS.)

So, yes, the BlackBerry “just works.” That's a great thing for people who don't care about the 2nd definition of “just.” I'll even grant that there are people who do care about the 2nd definition who are happy with the BlackBerry OS - I just think they'd be happier with Windows Mobile. ;)

Don't forget - every day you post a comment you are entered to win in the Smartphone Round Robin Contest!

13 Comments
  • Official Round Robin Contest Thread!
  • Nice job on the article Dieter - especially given the short time to do it. I think you hit all the high points and provided a balanced perspective.
    Precisely because these are all "smart"phones, the features and usability varies. While some features are significantly better on some devices vs others, it's still the "which ones are important to me" that drive our individual purchases and fandom. I think your article touched on both aspects in a fair and honest way and provided a good overview for those unfamiliar with Blackberries.
  • I agree with most of your assessment. I think Blackberries have a strong hardware platform to run off of, but I've never been a big fan of their software. It really does have the look and feel of a dated OS. Sometimes it actually feels like I'm working in a terminal session. For being an email-centric solution, there's something that's just lacking in the way that email is presented to you. Take a look at the iPhone, which is pretty impressive in the way it properly displays HTML-formatted email. Also take a look at WM6, HTML email is also displayed complete with images and such out of the box. I never really liked their font either, but that's just personal preference.
    The competitive advantage that RIM has in email is slowly slipping away (I feel). I'll elaborate more on this in the upcoming article on SEVEN (now that they've released a fully functional, HTML-ready WM6 client). Yes, Blackberry usually seems to have the "just works" part down, however the proprietary plans (often requiring higher prices, unlike the iPhone's) and old feeling of the UI just don't make it worth it for me. BlackberryOS, for me, is kinda like what we all expected PalmOS 6 to be minus a touchscreen: it's more stable, functional, mostly intuitive, yet limited to EDGE on GSM networks and either feels (or in Palm's case really is) old.
    [now WM6 is still far from perfect, I have my gripes with it, but it's better suited to those of us here who finally decided to leave the aging PalmOS behind but want to retain similar functionality]
  • I like your 2 "justs" and I completely agree. Blackberrys do "just" work, but you are limited to "just" what comes with the device. That is why I recommend BB to a lot of people, bc they don't want to tweak and spend time customizing something as powerful as a WM phone.
  • It just works. Amazing how profound that is. I wonder if all of you in the contest are coming away with that mantra as more or less something you desire moreso than tweaking or certain features (unless that is your thing). While I would not do any RIM product voluntarly, I can admire the "just works" methodology of it.
  • Having both the 700p and Curve I agree. On one hand, my Curve just plain works but I can't tweak it much. On the other hand, I can tweak my
    700p/play with new apps/etc but have to live with random lags and resets (unrelated to new apps).
    Never really interested in WM devices (mostly on principle), but maybe I need to see what I've been missing. Need to find one in a Curve-like form factor. Once you can put it in your shirt pocket, you'll never go back.
  • Awesome review dieter, I understand what ya mean when you say the OS feels old that I will totally agree with, it doesn't have that "flash" that say WinMob6 has but then again (I personally) don't feel as though it needs it, just too touch on some things mentioned though...first the music player overall the music play out of the box is fine, you make mention of the "shortcut" keys n for next etc...and that you would be more comfortable with a five way, but the menu key in combination with the trackball replace the five way clicker that you would rather have, once the menu is pressed, all your stuff is right there..next..prev..shuffle..show play list..etc..all in probably the same amount of click it would take on any other device..theirs also FlipSide as an excellent music player..along the lines of Apples coverflow (don't laugh, it does an alright job)...next issue...videos..I take this issue rather seriously as I devote alot of time to making videos for BB and making them available to everyone else as well (see Videos4BB)..and what you stated in regards to the MP4 format is correct, the media player suffers when it comes to AVI and MP4 files, not because it can't handle them, just simply because they use archaic "profiles"..their are ALOT of ways to encode MP4 and AVI files, but the BB needs it in a "specific" profile, which most are outdated at this point, say if it used a DivX 5 and above or an XviD profile all would be fine, but it does not...the best and most reliable codec the BB can handle is 3GP, standard for cell phones and mobile devices of course...Camera topic...nothing to say on this front, only better camera to be found is on Sony Ericsson devices ( see Sony Ericsson K790)...last issue i'd like to address goes out too Merlyn_3D however the proprietary plans (often requiring higher prices, unlike the iPhone's)...your right..the plans are more expensive to an extent, approx $10 more a month, take that $10 a mnth under consideration and then go look at the purchase cost of an iPhone and then go look at the purchase cost of a BB...see which comes out costing more....that extra $10 a mnth you pay for a BB plan, was paid for approx 1 1/2 times over when you bought the iPhone :)
  • Never really interested in WM devices (mostly on principle), but maybe I need to see what I've been missing. Need to find one in a Curve-like form factor. Once you can put it in your shirt pocket, you'll never go back.
    T-Mobile Dash my friend.
  • My biggest complaint with the Blackberry is hands down the Edge network. I enjoyed this review and have opened my eyes to the device I've been stuck with at work.
    It's remarkable that they have innovated quicker than Palm. I can only imagine now what the smart phone world would be like had Palm innovated at the same rate.
  • I've been in a similar boat over the years. I loved the original BB "pager-style" devices for their simplicity, but have wanted more of a PDA. I've been back and forth in the Windows Mobile world between the more phone-type vs. the PDA-type devices, and see value in both. I'm at a point of choosing a next device and hadn't looked at BB as an option until now ... only complicates life.
  • I've been in a similar boat over the years. I loved the original BB "pager-style" devices for their simplicity, but have wanted more of a PDA. I've been back and forth in the Windows Mobile world between the more phone-type vs. the PDA-type devices, and see value in both. I'm at a point of choosing a next device and hadn't looked at BB as an option until now ... only complicates life.
    Take a peek at the Motorla Q9 series - they're wide as the grand canyon but otherwise I'm very impressed with them. :)
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  • This device does it all. It is solid, has a great keyboard, bright display and intuitive. This machine productivity, but also thin and sports, as well as GPS and 2MP Camera. Initially I wanted the iPhone, but when I try the keyboard 8310 is much better. The system also push e-mail is more advanced, and a removable battery, replace the SIM card, is more flexible.