Blackberry 5810 Heeds Call for Fewer Gadgets

RIM's newest PDA offers cell phone capabilities, Java platform-and trade-offs

With a design that boasts new cell-phone functionality, speedy GPRS network connectivity and a Java-based software platform, Research in Motion Ltd. has built a better Blackberry—while remaining true to the form factor and messaging facilities that drove the popularity of its previous models.

For all its new capabilities, however, the Blackberry 5810 has its trade-offs. Pending wider deployment of the not-quite-nationwide Voicestream GPRS network on which the 5810 relies, Blackberry users who live in or travel to certain states—most notably California—will have to stick to RIMs earlier, Mobitex network-based offering.

In addition, the 5810s new radio technology significantly shortens the units battery life. Where weve seen the Blackberry 957 manage a month between charges, the 5810 must be topped off more on the order of once a week, and frequent cell phone use further shortens this span.

In any case, eWeek Labs tests of the Blackberry 5810, which began shipping through Voicestream last month, revealed the device to be a compelling alternative to Handsprings Treo for users looking to thresh some gadget chaff from their electronic utility belts.

The 5810 sells for $499, and may be activated with data-only or voice and data services. Voicestream, which is currently the only carrier offering the 5810, offers unlimited e-mail, 1MB of non-e-mail GPRS data transfer, and 300 SMS messages for $44.99 a month. Additional megabytes of GPRS data traffic cost $10 each per month.

Users who sign up for phone service as well get the same deal for $39.99 a month, on top of whatever voice plan they select.

Its all J2ME

The biggest change between the 5810 and older Blackberry models is the introduction of a J2ME (Java 2 MicroEdition)-based platform for the 5810. All applications for the 5810 are now written in Java, using a mobile-device-optimized subset of the standard Java class libraries.

For previous versions of the Blackberry, applications were written in C++, compiled as Windows DLL files, then uploaded to the handheld via the serial port.

Although the move to J2ME breaks support for some important Blackberry applications—such as GoAmericas Web browser—third-party Blackberry applications are few and far between. The switch to J2ME could pay big dividends for RIM by expanding the pool of developers who might create applications for RIM devices.

The 5810 is powered by a 32-bit processor that was custom designed for RIM by Analog Devices Inc. to handle wireless communications and Java applications on a single chip. RIM plans to offer a reference design based on this processor to companies that wish to produce Java-powered wireless devices.

The 5810 is built with the same sort of thumb keyboard and 160-by-160-pixel monochrome display found in the 957, with the notable addition of backlighting for both the display and the keyboard. Measuring 4.6 inches tall, 3.1 inches wide and 0.7 inches thick and weighing 4.9 ounces, the Blackberry 5810 is nearly identical to RIMs 957 model in size, shape and heft. The 5810 is a bit taller and slimmer than the Treo.

RIM lists the Blackberry 5810s talk time at approximately 4 hours, with a standby time of about one week.

The new RIM device is built without an external microphone or speaker (beyond the speaker that generates ring tones and alarms), so calls must be made using an included earpiece/microphone unit.

In our tests, call quality with the 5810 was good—pretty much on par with most other cell phones weve tested. During a call, the units scroll wheel serves as a volume control, which we found convenient. Also, we could terminate calls by pressing a button on the earpiece unit.

While engaged in a call, we could use all of the devices functions—e-mail messages tapped out and sent during a call were queued for sending once the call ended.

The 5810 has pretty much the same interface as the 957 did. We could carry out most navigation tasks with the units scroll wheel. While reading an e-mail message that contained a phone number, we could scroll to the number with the wheel, and with a click, start a call to that number. We could send or reply to e-mail and SMS messages in the same way.

Sent and received e-mail messages, SMS messages, and phone calls are logged in the 5810s inbox for convenient reference.

As with previous Blackberry units, we could password-protect our test device. The devices network transmissions are encrypted by the same Triple DES encryption present in other RIM devices.

Network and messaging

The Blackberry 5810 can be used to send and receive e-mail from Ex-change or Domino servers via RIMs desktop redirector software or its Enterprise Sync Server products. We tested the desktop redirector with Exchange 2000 with good results.

Using RIMs Blackberry Web Client Web-based service (now in beta and slated to ship this summer) we could forward mail from POP addresses to our test device.

The 5810 must be in an area of GPRS coverage to send or receive e-mail messages. When GPRS is not available, the device falls back on GSM, from which phone calls may still be made and SMS messages sent. This can pose a problem, because Voicestreams (the only carrier currently supporting the 5810) GPRS network footprint is differently situated than the Mobitex network under which Blackberry 950 and 957 units operate.

Operated by Cingular Interactive, the Mobitex network covers an estimated 93 percent of the U.S. business population, with coverage clustered mostly around major metropolitan areas. Voicestream has begun rolling out GPRS service across its GSM network, but major coverage gaps, including the states of California, North Carolina and Virginia, remain.

However, GPRS networks are growing, and AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless are each building out their own GPRS networks.

Also, we found that the higher speeds available across GPRS have boosted substantially the speed with which the 5810 can send and retrieve messages.

Beyond messaging, for which the older Mobitex network delivered enough speed to keep Blackberry users happy, the GPRS in the 5810 will pay its biggest dividends in the areas of Web browsing and other Internet operations. Thats why its unfortunate that the 5810 does not ship with an HTML browser, nor does one currently exist for the device—a fact that we found particularly disappointing, since an HTML browser from GoAmerica has been available for the 957 for some time now.

Instead, the new Blackberry comes equipped with a WAP browser, a piece of software that worked well enough in our tests, but that suffers—as all WAP browsers do—by the paucity of decent WAP pages that exist on the Internet.

The Blackberry 5810 is primarily a messaging device, but it functions very well as a PDA. The 5810 includes applications for managing contacts, calendar, to-do items and notes, and the device can synchronize PIM data with a Windows desktop using a serial cradle and a version of Intellisyncs very good synchronization software. RIMs sync or desktop mail redirection software is not available for Linux or Macintosh.

The 5810 also lacks any sort of memory or peripheral expansion slot, a feature weve come to expect on handheld devices, particularly those with limited space for data storage—the 5810 ships with 8MB of RAM. Although space is at an understandable premium in a device as slim as the 5810, wed love to see a Secure Digital slot included in future versions.