A freshly picked BlackBerry ripe for use

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BlackBerry 8700c

RIM's latest handheld is an impressive answer to Palm's Treo

Ask a government worker to describe his personal continuity-of-operations plan, and he might pull out his BlackBerry. The handheld devices have seemingly become standard issue in and around the halls of power. The various BlackBerry models offer basic e-mail access, a QWERTY keyboard, long battery life and scheduling software. But hold onto your hats, because the new BlackBerry 8700c blows the doors off every existing model the way a 2006 Corvette would race ahead of a Model T Ford.

Everything in the 8700c is either brand new or vastly improved. This is really the first BlackBerry model that can compete head to head with Palm OS devices such as the Treo 650 in nearly every respect. Before its formal launch this month, the GCN Lab was able to test one of the very first 8700c devices over a period of a couple of weeks.

Fast performance

The first thing you'll notice about the 8700c, especially if you've used other BlackBerry devices, is its performance. Armed with an Intel PXA901 processor running at 312 MHz, all programs execute with lightning speed. The 64MB of flash memory and 16MB of SRAM don't hurt either. And you can leave programs open: If you are working on your schedule, for example, and suddenly have to look at your e-mail, just switch back to the calendar later without any data loss. Keeping programs open doesn't seem to slow down the device, at least not noticeably.

To really test the 8700c's performance, we enhanced a photograph e-mailed to the inbox. We imagined the huge 2MB crowd shot was a crime scene and zoomed so far in on a suspicious person in the back of the photo that the person was little more than a two- or three-pixel blob. Then we selected the Enhance Photo option, and after several seconds we could see not only the person's face but also the red bag he was carrying. This photo-enhancing software is standard with the 8700c and can also be used to read faxes and notes that come in as attachments.

Although not ultraslim, the device is much smaller than most BlackBerrys. It is 4.3 inches by 2.7 inches by 0.7 inches. You can easily hold it in your hand without fumbling, and its 4.7 ounces are hardly a burden. The entire 35-key QWERTY keyboard fits nicely and its buttons light up when you need to use the device in a dark area. The keyboard is more like the traditional BlackBerry layout than the cramped, multi-purpose keys we panned on the BlackBerry 7100t.

Using the device as a phone takes a bit of getting used to, simply because it feels odd to hold a wide-format phone up to your ear. But the call quality was good each time we tried it, and the awkwardness quickly faded into mere routine. And the 8700c is smart enough to know it should use the numbers on the leftmost keys, not the letters, when you're making a call.
You simply push the ALT button to access the secondary characters above the main ones when typing normally. This lets the device get away with a 35-key keyboard and still have all the special characters you need to type an e-mail or letter.

The color screen is simply beautiful. Its 320-by-240 resolution supports 65,000 colors. This is enhanced by an electric eye that can sense lighting conditions and adjust the screen appropriately. In a car with bright sunlight all around, it automatically cranks the brightness up and will lower it when you go back inside. This occurs almost instantly as conditions change.

The 8700c is currently sold in the United States exclusively through Cingular Wireless. But it's extremely versatile and can connect to whatever networks are available including 850-, 900-, 1800- and 1900-MHz Global System for Mobile communications and General Packet Radio Service networks, as well as the high-speed Cingular EDGE network. The EDGE network has download speeds of about 120 Kbps. That's not going to be as fast as, say, an IEEE 802.11b connection, but it is very quick for sending e-mail and browsing the Web.

And more important than raw speed is the fact that the device seems to work everywhere. Cingular says the EDGE network is deployed in 13,000 cities and covers 40,000 miles of highway. One weekend, in rural Gettysburg, Pa., my wife and I saw an ad for a family farm. We typed the Web address from the billboard into the 8700c and within about 10 seconds were looking at pictures of the farm.

Around the D.C. metropolitan area, including a few locations where we knew other networks failed, we were never without at least some signal. Cingular says the device will work in Europe because, if a country does not have an EDGE network, it reverts to standard GPRS.

Battery life is surprisingly good for a system with such a bright color screen and a fast processor. If you frequently use a BlackBerry as a phone, we found you can get about 3.5 hours of talk time. It will sit in standby mode for several weeks. If you use the 8700c as most users do and type a lot of e-mails, plus play games like Texas Hold'um King 2, expect at least eight hours of use.

Powerful handheld

The 8700c is more powerful and functional than we thought possible in a handheld system.

According to Cingular, the 8700c will be available starting today for $300 with a two-year contract. Although that's a little on the high side, it's still a good price when you consider the functionality. And government users can expect a 15 percent discount when buying through GSA or other government channels, according to the company.

If you've never bought a handheld computer, or if previous handhelds have been less than impressive, the 8700c is a perfect excuse to make the jump into the always-connected world.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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