Research in Motion has finally released a BlackBerry for the clamshell crowd. The BlackBerry Pearl Flip 8220, as its name suggests, grafts the standard Pearl's modified 20-key QWERTY layout and SureType predictive text-entry technology onto a flip phone, with some nice design touches. It's a respectable effort, but I can't help wondering whether such a phone will ever work exceedingly well for people who heavily use of their handsets for e-mail and text messaging.
Available from T-Mobile for US$200 with a two-year contract, the Flip is a tad thick (0.7 inch) for a clamshell, but otherwise it's in the ballpark in height (3.9 inches), width (2 inches), and weight (3.6 ounces). It makes a great first impression thanks to its external 1-by-1.25-inch, 128-by-160-pixel color display, which sits under the smooth, glassy black surface on the top half (the case's underside has a matte surface). The display, when active, shows information ranging from caller ID data on incoming calls (including an image if one is attached to the number in your phone book) to new message alerts to a clock (the type with hands, as opposed to numbers) showing the current time.
Also located on the upper case is the lens of the device's 2-megapixel camera, which has built-in flash--a nice extra that's rare in clamshells. Image quality with the digital zoom was disappointing, however: The MyFaves thumbnails that I generated after cropping one snapshot were extremely grainy. I wish that I could have rotated the lens, too, as I've been able to do with some other models.
The slightly larger (1.5 by 2 inches) and equally high-resolution (240 by 320 pixels) interior display is bright and crisp; like other T-Mobile handsets (including its version of the Pearl 8120), it defaults to the MyFaves interface of five contacts, but you have the option of hiding them and using a photo of your choosing as wallpaper (which still leaves icons for messages, e-mail, calendar, contacts, and browser at the bottom of the screen).
RIM has preserved the key elements of BlackBerry navigation on the lower half of the phone: the usual red and green phone keys, the BlackBerry menu key, and the back/escape key. The side of the phone has keys for raising or lowering volume (or zooming in or out, depending on application), plus an extra key on each side that you can assign to whatever application you wish.
Though I'm a fan of the BlackBerry SureType predictive text-entry system, the 20-key SureType keyboard on the lower half of the Flip (a QWERTY layout in which many characters share a key) is a bit disappointing. The Flip does use frets (thin metal strips) between its rows of slightly domed keys, but there are no tactile cues to help you distinguish between adjacent keys. As a result, you have to look when you're typing to make sure that you're pressing the intended keys. Also, I found the action on the trackball so loose that I had a little trouble stopping and choosing a desired menu option (often I'd hit the one above or below).
On the plus side, I had no problem searching through contacts by pressing keys as though each key contained only the character I wanted to hit: In each instance, SureType brought up all possible entries and then quickly narrowed them down as I typed. Voice call quality on the quad-band (world) phone was adequate--no better or worse than on most cell phones I've tried. The included earbud headset was good--and the unit has a standard headset jack, so you use your own headset if you prefer. In our lab tests the battery provided slightly more than 8 hours of talk time, a better battery life than that of many other phones we've tested recently; however, unlike many of the phones that drain faster, the Flip does not support 3G networks.
The Flip is a bit skimpy on internal storage. Its specs say that it has 128MB of user-available flash memory, but after loading my 1500-plus Lotus Notes contact entries, I didn't have enough disk space left to copy a single MP3 (using the excellent included Roxio Media Manager software) to the phone. You can expand the Flip's storage capacity via a microSD card (the Flip supports high-capacity or SDHC cards, so the 4GB limit for standard SD doesn't apply), but no media card is included.
The Flip comes with an HTML browser that can display tiny versions of full pages and can zoom in on areas of interest. But browsing on T-Mobile's pokey EDGE network (the Flip doesn't support faster UMTS/HSDPA service) wasn't much fun. The experience improved markedly, though, when the Flip was connected to an 802.11b/g Wi-Fi network. The Flip supports UMA technology, which lets you use Wi-Fi networks for calls and data service if you subscribe to T-Mobile's Unlimited HotSpot Calling service. This is useful if you frequent locations where T-Mobile's network signals are weak or nonexistent.
My review unit came preloaded with mapping software and recent versions of DataViz's Word-, Excel-, and PowerPoint-compatible Office apps (Docs to Go, Sheet to Go, and Slideshow to Go, respectively). In a pinch, you can use them to review content and to make minor tweaks; but with a display this small, you won't want to spend much time performing office work on it.
Overall, Research in Motion has proved that it can design a reasonably functional clamshell for people who want their flip phone and their BlackBerry too. But the BlackBerry's fan base of heavy corporate e-mail users and other messaging junkies will find the trusty old candy-bar layout plays much better to RIM's strengths. I wouldn't expect too many folks to desert their Pearls, Bolds, and (soon) Storms for this model.