I was hooked on my Palm IIIe from the first week I used it back in April 1999. For me, the PDA was a tremendous tool, but it didn't take much vision to realize that one day someone would develop a device that was both a great PDA and a great mobile phone.
Since then, I have waited, and waited, and waited.
Verizon offered a couple of Palm/phone combinations over the years that seemed poorly executed, so I held off. I was intrigued by the Treo 600 and 650, but several of my colleagues use - and absolutely hate - them. I know only one person who has a Treo and loves it.
Late last year, I read about PocketMac for BlackBerry, which enables syncing between a Mac and any model of BlackBerry device. I had never considered a BlackBerry, though numerous friends swear by them. I disliked the orb-like form factor, and more importantly, my understanding had been that BlackBerries were able to sync only with Windows machines.
After learning about PocketMac for BlackBerry, I started looking at the 7100i, the version offered by Sprint Nextel. In person, the 7100i is smaller than I imagined, only slightly larger than a typical cell phone. The screen is bright and sharp. Impressed, I decided it was time, and pulled the trigger. By re-upping for two more years with Sprint Nextel (which has good coverage in my area) I got a spectacular deal on the phone and a promise that I could return it within 14 days. I went home and immediately downloaded PocketMac for BlackBerry.
PocketMac for BlackBerry -- The most significant question I had about this new phone was: How well would PocketMac's product work? The short answer is just one word: flawlessly. Even weeks into owning the Blackberry, I find that the software does precisely what the folks at PocketMac promise it will do. The longer answer is that the whole point of this exercise was to integrate my phone and PDA in one unit that would sync with my Mac: the BlackBerry functionality was just a bonus. So if PocketMac's software didn't work as advertised, my plan was to return the phone.
The software claims to sync a BlackBerry with Entourage (version 10.1.6 or later), Address Book, Mail, iCal, Now Up-to-Date & Contact, and Daylite. Further, it boasts iSync integration/compatibility, but does not sync with Eudora nor with the Chronos Calendar and Contact applications. I can not vouch for how it works with all of those applications, but my experience with Entourage has been positive. I installed the software and followed the directions for configuring the sync preferences before attaching the BlackBerry. Configuring the preferences was intuitive and user friendly. I connected the BlackBerry to my Mac using the provided standard USB cable, clicked Synchronize, and...it worked, just as advertised. No trouble, no struggle, no problem. The entire process, from download to install to successful sync took well under a half hour. Maybe closer to 15 minutes.
(Note, however, that an incompatibility with the way the new Intel-based iMac handles USB connections means PocketMac for BlackBerry won't currently work on that machine via USB; Bluetooth connections work fine. More information is available at the PocketMac Web site.)
The synchronization options, to my surprise, didn't allow me to set rules to govern how conflicts between data on the handheld and on the Mac were handled. The default option, designed to protect users from data loss, prompts you to decide what to do when one device recognizes that data has been deleted from the other. I think this is the safest way to handle the synchronization process, but some users might want more control. Representatives from PocketMac said they plan to offer enhanced conflict resolution in future versions, but in the meantime an unsupported application called Advanced Prefs is installed in /Library/PocketMacBB. I haven't needed any of those options, as I don't mind being prompted to resolve data conflicts.
The bottom line on the software is that it works as promised, and does so very well. Apparently the BlackBerry folks think so, too: BlackBerry maker Research in Motion has entered into an agreement with PocketMac to include the software with each phone and to enable Mac users to download the software for free from either company's Web site.
BlackBerry 7100i as a Phone -- As I mentioned earlier, the 7100i is the model of the BlackBerry 7100 series offered by Sprint Nextel. Most carriers now offer a version of the 7100, and I'm guessing that these are functionally similar phones tied to a particular carrier and with slightly different shells - though the Nextel phone does have walkie-talkie functionality.
In short, I have owned this phone/PDA for nearly eight weeks now and continue to be thrilled with it. There are a few items I might wish were different, but each is relatively minor. The 7100i is as intuitive, easy to use, and as well thought-through as any electronic device I have ever owned, with the possible exception of my iPod.
The phone's sound quality is very good: I'd give it a 7 out of 10. I previously owned the high-end (at least when I bought it) Motorola i730, and the difference in phone quality between the two is negligible. On the sound volume front, I suspect that if you work in a very noisy environment or drive an exceedingly loud vehicle, you might wish that the volume could go a bit higher. The speaker phone function is good, though I haven't used it much.
I find the reception to be better than that of my i730, and I experience fewer dropped calls than I did with my old phone (very few, but it does happen). I suspect this is more a result of my carrier and location at a particular moment than the phone itself, but there's no way to know.
The PDA is also good. Although it isn't running Palm OS, none of the applications stray far from what a Palm user might expect. The calendar and address book contain no surprises, though scrolling quickly through what could be a long list of contacts is a two-handed process unless you have extraordinary dexterity in your pinky and can wrap it all the way around the phone to hold a button down while you use the scroll wheel with your thumb. You also can type the first few letters of the person's name you are looking for. The to-do list and notes applications also work as expected. The BlackBerry is preloaded with all the usual smart phone software suspects including a Web browser, a Breakout-type game, a calculator, a password keeper, and several other small applications.
I expected those pieces to be well-done, but I also discovered some pleasant surprises. The first seems so logical and simple that it should have been a no-brainer, but is a new idea to me: the phone charges when plugged into any USB port on any computer. No more having to lug around a power adapter (though one does come with the phone, enabling you to plug into a wall outlet). For anyone who is around computers regularly, this is a fantastic development.
BlackBerry 7100i for Email -- The second surprise is the addictive aspect of using the BlackBerry email service. Most people who buy a BlackBerry will probably want to sign up for the BlackBerry email service - though even if you didn't, you'd still have a good PDA/phone combination. The $45 extra per month for the service (above phone service fees) is obviously not inexpensive, and although I feared that having my email always accessible could be dangerous, I signed up.
It turns out I love it more than I might have guessed. While waiting in my car at a long stoplight the other day, I heard that now familiar buzz to alert me that new email had arrived. I saw that it was Adam asking if I'd like to write this review. Later, while waiting for my lunch appointment to show up, I scanned 10 new email messages from clients and answered three that required quick and easy answers. When push comes to shove, I still have the power to choose how accessible I am, but I can be more efficient by answering email easily when I am not in front of my computer. I now understand why these things have been called "CrackBerries," as checking your email constantly is nearly impossible to resist.
If your company doesn't use the BlackBerry Enterprise Server software, you will have to use BlackBerry's Internet Service. This service retrieves email from your mail server and forwards it to your BlackBerry (it doesn't delete the messages on your server after retrieving them, so you will still receive them on your computer later). I'm not sure at what interval it checks, but it seems to be somewhere between every 15 minutes and every half hour. So messages don't always show up instantaneously.
The interaction between your email server and the BlackBerry server is managed through an account on the BlackBerry Internet Service Web site. You can set up filters that guard your BlackBerry from getting any email other than what you have decided to allow, with options to receive email from only a handful of senders or from everyone. You can also set options related to the receipt, filing, storage, and sending of email.
I opted to create my own strategy to control which messages get through to the BlackBerry. I set up a new email address for myself, one I now give out only to friends, family, and clients. Only email sent to this new address gets forwarded to my handheld. My hope is that this new address will not end up on mailing lists, posted anywhere, sold to spammers, or otherwise disseminated, and will thus stay relatively spam free. Naive? Perhaps, but I can hope, and it has worked so far. I'm keeping my spam-ridden old email address, of course, for mailing lists and because I often receive useful email from people who won't know my BlackBerry's address.
Replying to messages entails using the built-in keyboard, which feels like a cross between the QWERTY keyboard and a typical mobile phone's keypad. You have two options for composing text. The clumsy but effective alpha mode spells out every word by hitting each key the appropriate number of times until the desired letter appears. Most users, however, will tend to use the much faster SureType mode, which guesses the intended word as you type, and requires only a single key press for each letter. I rarely have to correct SureType's guesses, other than when entering proper names. After only 15 minutes of use, I found I could type remarkably quickly, and the device's 35,000 word vocabulary is probably sufficient for most day-to-day uses.
The BlackBerry simplifies other tasks, as well, with minimal interaction on your part. For example, let's say you receive an email message that includes a phone number. You scroll (using the scroll wheel on the side of the phone, which also acts as a button) through the message until the cursor gets to the line containing the phone number. The BlackBerry automatically recognizes it as a phone number and highlights it. Press the scroll wheel and a contextual menu appears containing the option to call the highlighted number. Pressing the scroll wheel again dials the number. The same is true of an email address, allowing you to select or save the address quickly, or to compose a message to that address.
You can use the device's other functions while you're talking on the phone without disrupting the call, something that many cell phones with bare-bones contact management features handle poorly.
A Few Squashed Berries -- I've encountered relatively few downsides, but they're worth mentioning.
First, the BlackBerry is still, at its core, a device made to connect to a Windows PC. As good as PocketMac for BlackBerry is, it's still essentially a workaround. The PC-based desktop software that RIM provides offers features and functionality still unavailable on the Mac. For example, you can use RIM's PC software to install new software on your BlackBerry, much like adding a new application to a Palm device. However, you can work around this by downloading many BlackBerry applications straight to your device from the developers' sites, as long you're connecting to them using the BlackBerry itself. (BlackBerrycool.com is a great resource for finding new software.) However, if you only have a Mac available, reinstalling software from the BlackBerry's CD could be an issue.
On a practical usage level, I am uncertain about the phone's battery life. It easily lasts for one day of heavy use, and sometimes for two. But I am getting into the habit of charging it every night because I've had it go dead late in the second of two days of regular use. The good news on the battery conservation front is that phone senses a magnetic strip in its holster and shuts off its display automatically whenever it is inserted into the holster. The holster is otherwise lame, unable to rotate or swivel. I expected better.
My most significant concern reflects my paranoia about the security of my personal information. When you download a third-party application, you can set permissions that include the capability to allow or deny that application to (a) interact with other programs on the BlackBerry; (b) gain access to personal data; and (c) transmit information. I understand that certain applications need to transmit data to work properly: GPS software that uses the 7100i's built-in GPS support, for example, needs to transmit its location (other models of the 7100 lack GPS support). That said, users should be careful when downloading third-party software and learn what each set of permissions actually does.
The BlackBerry does have a built-in firewall that is designed, according to the manual, "to prevent...programs from transmitting data without the user's knowledge." It goes on to say that when a third party program attempts to transmit data and the firewall is enabled, a dialog will appear asking you whether or not you would like to allow that connection. This is all the manual says about the firewall - two sentences. The good news is that its default options seem to be set to protect you from unwittingly transmitting data, and the permissions enable you to prevent third party apps that wouldn't need access to your private data from accessing it.
The Courts and Final Thoughts -- Like many other BlackBerry users, I'm interested in the long-running intellectual property lawsuit between RIM and NTP Inc., the firm which claims patents on technology RIM uses for its wireless services. RIM has recently lost a couple of big court battles, while NTP is losing ground at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In late January, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, so now a district court will consider a possible injunction against RIM on 24-Feb-06. If the injunction is enforced, RIM may be forced to shut down BlackBerry service in the United States.
The company claims to have a software workaround to keep services running, but it's not known at this time if an update would have to be installed to indivdual BlackkBerry devices, and, if so, whether that will be possible from Macs, or only from Windows PCs. If you're thinking about using the BlackBerry email service and don't have access to a Windows PC, the next few weeks may be very significant. I personally would be shocked if the case were not settled out of court - there is too much money at stake and too many business people and politicians who are committed to their BlackBerry devices.
With all this in mind, I will say this about the 7100i/PocketMac for BlackBerry combination: I have waited years for an elegant combination of a phone and a PDA. The 7100i does not feel like a good phone with a lousy PDA tacked on, nor does it feel like a nice PDA with a mediocre phone tacked on. Each is designed and integrated well, and when you add the BlackBerry email service to the mix, I can say only this: it's about time!
[Patrick Dennis is the President and Creative Director of Alliant Studios, a brand strategy and communication design firm in Northern Virginia. He has been a Mac user since 1986, and has enough old Macs in his home to drive his wife to suggest he either "toss them or open a museum."]