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A Slimmer, Brighter BlackBerry

As cool as the hand-held has always been, the new 8700c is even cooler. It's easier to talk on, has a better screen and can connect to a faster cellular data network.

January 22, 2006|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

The BlackBerry, with its ability to send and receive e-mails on the go, is the coolest of the smart phones.

Until you actually have to use it as a telephone.

It is then that the wide-bodied BlackBerry, shaped to accommodate a full keyboard, becomes a bit less cool. A BlackBerry-toting lawyer friend of mine said it's like slapping a frozen waffle against your ear.

The wide shape is great for thumb typing, but it's bulky to carry and when you're on the run it can be hard to line up the ear holes with your ear.

What's more, the standard BlackBerry has a dim screen and a relatively slow Internet connection.

Nevertheless, the BlackBerry is hugely popular among busy professionals. Its real-time e-mail function can become so addictive that it has been nicknamed the CrackBerry.

Now there's good news for CrackBerry junkies: Research in Motion, a Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry, has put the smart phone on a diet while retaining the full keyboard. The new 8700c model fits far better in the hand. It also has a brighter color screen and, under the right conditions, it connects to a much swifter cellular data network.

For now the 8700c is available only through Cingular Wireless, for $350 if bought with a two-year contract. The monthly charge for the e-mail service is $35 or $45, depending on how much e-mail you want to store on the network. This is in addition to a Cingular voice plan.

Research in Motion executives would not say when the 8700c would be available from other cell providers.

The 8700c, which is 4 1/4 inches wide, is only about a quarter-inch trimmer than the previous, full-screen models, but that makes a significant difference in how the phones fit in the average hand. Holding the former model was like trying to grip a softball, while the 8700c feels more like a regulation hardball.

The main drawback of the 8700c is the keyboard, which is not as easy to use as those on the older BlackBerrys. The reason is simple: less room for the keyboard means less space between keys.

It's not terrible -- after several hours of use I got to the point where I was mostly hitting the correct keys by using just the very tips of my thumbs. But I'm not sure I'd ever get as fast or as accurate on it as I was with the standard BlackBerry.

Whenever an e-mail arrives on a BlackBerry via the cellular network, the phone rings or vibrates (your choice). The e-mails don't arrive quite as fast as when you are using a computer hooked up to a cable modem or DSL line -- I was getting e-mails on an 8700c about five minutes after receiving them on a desktop using a cable modem. But mail does seem to come faster than on the previous models.

That's due to the 8700c's ability to use the Edge broadband cell network, which is available in most major cities in the country for GSM-based smart phones. In areas not covered by Edge, the phone reverts to the GPRS cell data network that is about half as fast.

Some companies have put BlackBerry software on their servers, allowing employees to have corporate e-mail sent directly to their phones. But individuals can connect their own e-mail accounts to their BlackBerrys, if their provider uses the POP3 mail protocol. Many of the larger providers, including Earthlink and Charter Communications, use POP3. (The BlackBerrys do not, however, accommodate all Web-based e-mail accounts -- Hotmail is an example.)

Connecting your personal account to a BlackBerry used to be a nightmare, but it now can be accomplished easily online and involves no extra charges.

The speed of the Edge network is especially welcome when using the 8700c's Web function to check news, sport scores, stocks, driving directions and other text-based services. I've usually found Web surfing on smart phones to be arduous because of the small screens.

The 8700c is no exception. It's best to pick a few websites that can display text designed for smart phones and become familiar with them before you need to use them.

None of the BlackBerry phones, including the 8700c, can access the multimedia smart phone functions that are becoming increasingly available. These bring music, video clips and even some live television directly to Palm Inc.'s Treo and others. If those are important to you, steer away from the BlackBerrys.

Another issue to consider is that Research in Motion is embroiled in a bitter, long-standing patent dispute that could, at the extreme, force the company to shut down operations. In 2002 Research in Motion lost a court case over its use of technology patents held by Virginia-based NTP Inc. The matter does not seem close to resolution, but most analysts who follow the industry say it will eventually get settled. The U.S. Supreme Court may decide this week whether to hear the case.

For now, the BlackBerry remains synonymous with mobile e-mail. Indeed, the annoying habit of looking down at the phone every time an e-mail is received -- such as during an important meeting -- even has its own name: the BlackBerry Prayer.

The 8700c will only make BlackBerry adherents even more devout.

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David Colker can be reached via e-mail at technopolis@latimes.com. Previous columns can be found at latimes.com/technopolis.

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