The other day I was talking with my mechanic about cell phones and asking him how he liked his Treo. In the conversation it came up that he had a Blackberry 7100 sitting in the drawer and would be willing to sell it, so I decided to buy it and try it out. I was particularly interested in using the device for it’s email capabilities. Currently I use a Sony Ericson T610 which is a nice small phone with Bluetooth. The thing I like about the T610 is the fact it works with OS X on a Mac. I can easily sync my contacts and calendar using Bluetooth and when traveling it works as a digital modem allowing me to check my email without dealing with any wires. However the T610 is very hard to use for sending email or browsing the web from the device itself, so I was curious if the Blackberry would be any easier with it’s funky two letters on each key keyboard.
It turns out that the 7100t keyboard is much more usable than I expected. I can’t type 75 WPM on it, but it is better than most of the Palm and Pocket PC’s I’ve used with the exception of the Palm Tungsten C (thumb keyboard). It is easy to type a quick note and isn’t nearly as annoying as using the Sony numeric pad to create messages. It isn’t perfect, but it’s very usable. I didn’t feel the Sony keypad was usable for text.
One of the first challenges was getting the dataservice to work correctly with T-Mobile. With my Sony I had an unlimited internet plan for $20 per month. The Blackberry requires a special Blackberry plan. It costs the same amount, but it has to be setup on it’s own and you can run the normal dataplan and the Blackberry plan at the same time. This required a call to Tmobile, since my $20 per month plan doesn’t exist anymore, I got them to make a note on my account so I can go back if I decide I don’t want to use the Blackberry anymore.
Blackberry works differently than I expected. The phone itself doesn’t know how to talk to an email server. The Blackberry service talks to your email server and the service communicates with your phone. The advantage of this setup is the fact that you can log into your Tmobile account and add an email account by only filling out a few fields. The service seems pretty intelligent about figuring out what domain name and protocol to use. It had no problem figuring out that for firstname.lastname@example.org it should use mail.digital501.com and connect using IMAP over SSL.
I think this easy setup is the reason Blackberry is so popular. It is very easy and fast for someone to setup who has no understanding of POP, IMAP, or SMTP. When you get a message the Blackberry service notices the new email and pushes a message out to your phone where it shows up in the messages box. This “push” feature is one of the major selling points of the Blackberry. For me it isn’t that important. I turn off any settings on my email clients that will play a sound when an email comes in, so I definately don’t want my phone to ding all the time. It isn’t uncommon for me to get 100 messages in a day and that is a lot of interruptions. The Blackberry service has a nice option where you can configure certian types of messages to notify you and others to be ignored. For example you could set the phone to notify you when you received an email from your boss or an important client, but silently accept all other messages.
Blackberry also has a feature for Exchange and Outlook users where you run software on your desktop computer. It interfaces with Outlook and sends notifications to the phone for meeting requests, etc. You can reply to these items from the phone and it will make the appropriate change in Outlook. This means you can accept meetings and tasks from your phone just as if you are on the desktop computer. I haven’t used this feature because I don’t have a desktop PC running all the time and most of my email servers aren’t running Exchange.
The downside of the Blackberry service is that many of the capabilities you expect to get with IMAP don’t exist because your phone isn’t talking directly with your email server. When I get a message on the Blackberry, I can open it and read it as expected. When I delete the message, it gives me the option to delete from just the phone or from the phone and the mailbox. Deleting from the phone and mailbox behaves as expected and eventually the message will disappear from the client on my computer.
However, if I delete a message from my computer, it remains on the Blackberry. Worse it still shows up as unread even after I’ve read it on the computer. I suppose this might be fine if a user spent most of their time using the phone and only occasionally used their laptop or desktop for email, but that is the opposite of how I work. With the current functionality I end up dealing with every email twice — once on my computer and then again on the phone. Over time I may adjust, but my initial impression is that this is a great tool for people who need to “look” busy, but really aren’t concerned about productivity. Ok maybe that is a little strong. I can probably adjust to it, but it just seems very non-intuitive to me.
Another important need was the ability to sync my contacts from my Mac to the device. With the T610 this was done through Bluetooth and works beautifully. Blackberry doesn’t support Macs so I thought it might be problematic on OS X. Fortunately there is a company called PocketMac that makes iSync conduits for various devices. They give away free software that lets you use iSync with your Blackberry. Once installed you can sync using the USB cable. The Blackberry comes with Bluetooth but it only works with audio devices like Bluetooth headsets. This seems like an odd limitation, but I think certian government offices don’t allow Bluetooth devices that support data transfer for security reasons, so the limitation might be to keep the government contracts.
They sync process seems to work just fine. It has the option of syncing your Sticky Notes with the Blackberry if desired. This would be very convenient if you wanted to use the device to keep notes and other text documents without sending them on email.
The biggest disappointment I ran into was the fact that I can’t use the 7100 as a modem for my OS X Powerbook. I knew that Blackberry didn’t support it, but I figured someone had figured out a hack. It turns out that the Blackberry doesn’t respond to commands from OS X at all, so there isn’t a way to write a script to make things work. From talking with Tmobile it works just fine with a PC but it requires the Blackberry PC only drivers to make things work.
Overall I’m pretty impressed with the phone. The navigation is easy to use and the keyboard is surprisingly usable. However, I’m starting to rethink wether or not I really need access to my email from my phone. I’d like to try a Treo type device sometime. The inability to get to the internet from the Powerbook is pretty much a show stopper for me. My connection through the Sony is very slow, but when I’m stuck without internet access I just leave it running and it keeps my email in sync on my laptop which keeps me in touch with anything important that is happening.
By the way, if you think you might want to use a Blackberry with a Mac someday, you should head over to PocketMac and download the software while it is free. I don’t know if it is a special deal or if they are going to charge in the future, so it might not be a bad idea to get it now just in case.