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BlackBerry PlayBook hands-on – Update: Now with video!

BlackBerry PlayBookI just scored some hands-on time with RIM’s answer to the iPad: the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet.  Unlike the larger iPad, the PlayBook sports a 7″ screen but a faster dual core processor.  The tablet’s construction feels good, as we would expect from RIM, and the touchscreen’s responsiveness is great.  The bezel is also active, although it will be interesting to see whether or not this is a good idea after sustained use.  I know I hold my iPad along the bezel all the time, and I wouldn’t want it to respond to my hand movements.  For example, to BlackBerry PlayBook 3bring up the open applications view, you swipe a finger upwards on the PlayBook’s bottom screen bezel.

What I saw was a pre-production unit, but the PlayBook’s performance was impressive.  Multiple applications were open and simultaneously active, even in the task viewer.  I would expect that kind of thing would be a battery destroyer, but it sure looked amazing.  The PlayBook seems to be aimed at either being a home multimedia tablet, or an add-on for a BlackBerry.  There didn’t seem to be a mail client actually on the PlayBook itself, and the BlackBerry rep said that the idea is to go to a browser to view email, or view it through a connected BlackBerry smartphone.

The PlayBook will share the BlackBerry App World, so I guess we might see dedicated email and other messaging apps coming out for the tablet.  However I’d really like to see some dedicated messaging apps, as well as a promise of thousands of apps coming soon for the PlayBook.  It’s launching in March, and if it’s just going to be positioned as an internet tablet with a BlackBerry hook-up, I fear it may get crushed in the consumer space by the iPad, and the wealth of apps that will likely start coming out for Android Honeycomb tablets like the Motorola Xoom.

Here’s the video of what went down…

Neil Berman

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Jan 6, 2011 Posted by | CES, Hardware, Mobile, Video Features | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

This gadget life

Reflecting on the past year, I’ve done some wacky things to accommodate my gadget obsessed lifestyle.

Take my old BlackBerry Bold 9000 for example. A great smartphone in almost all respects except that it has a weak Bluetooth transmitter. I mean weak to the extent that I would get music streaming dropouts when walking in open areas where the Bluetooth signal had nothing to bounce against. I always carry my phone in my trouser pocket and it seemed that the only way to fix this was to reduce the distance between the phone and my heaadphones. I couldn’t relocate my headphones so proceeded to buy an army of T-shirts with top pockets. Problem solved. Incidentally the Bold 9700 has a superb Bluetooth transmitter so I’m back to wearing whatevs again.

Kindle 3 web browser screen sunlight

The Kindle's E Ink screen is great for use in sunlight

Speaking of headphones, regular readers will know that I’m a serious fan of stereo Bluetooth. While there are plenty of headsets that are great for the summer, only a few offer genuine wind protection which is a must-have for New York winters. I sought out the Sony DR-BT50 specifically because they have snug-fitting earpads that do double duty as fair-weather ear muffs. So long wind chill.

Now that we’re onto the weather it’s no secret that I like using my gadgets outdoors. This has led me to convert Apple’s iPad case into a sunshade, choose the BlackBerry Bold 9700 over other smartphones due to its sunlight readable screen,and more recently buy the Kindle 3 just for outdoor web browsing. Am I the only person out there to buy the Kindle just so I can read online content for hours outdoors in places like Battery Park’s WiFi hotspot? Weird eh, but I’m lovin’ this gadget life.

Neil Berman

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Sep 4, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Rants | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hands-on with the BlackBerry Torch 9800

BlackBerry Torch 9800 slide-out keyboard

BlackBerry Torch 9800 slide-out keyboard

The BlackBerry Torch 9800 has been eagerly anticipated by BlackBerry fans for a long time, but early reviews have left some disappointed.  After getting some hands-on time with RIM’s latest smartphone, here are my initial impressions:

BlackBerry Torch 9800: Build quality and looks

The BlackBerry Torch is small and well formed.  This smartphone could have been a large brick, but it’s almost the same size as a Bold 9700.  The Torch is slightly thicker but at a glance the two BlackBerrys share very similar dimensions, which is remarkable when you consider that the Torch has a slide out keyboard.  The Torch feels as solid as one would expect from an enterprise class BlackBerry.  Fit and finish seems to be top notch and the sliding keyboard has a satisfying click when it engages.

BlackBerry Torch 9800: Keyboard

BlackBerry Torch 9800 alongside Bold 9700 keyboard

BlackBerry Torch 9800 alongside Bold 9700 keyboard

A BlackBerry is only as good as its keyboard, and the one on the Torch is okay.  Since it has to slide under the main body of the device, the keys cannot be raised as high as the Bold 9700 or 9000 and consequently it can be hard initially to type quickly.  The Palm Pre and Motorola Droid have the same issue and each of those smartphones handled the problem in their own ways; the Pre has little bobble keys and the Droid went completely flat.  The Droid 2 has adopted slightly raised keys, similar to the Torch 9800.  I did find that typing became fluent after a few minutes but the edges of the chassis, as with the Palm Pre, do sometimes get in the way of quick typing.

There’s also an on-screen keyboard, with which I really struggled.  I couldn’t get into any kind of fast and accurate typing rhythm with the on-screen keyboard, and always reached for the hardware keyboard when I became too frustrated.

BlackBerry Torch 9800: Touch screen and general speed of operation

The Torch has a regular glass touch screen, unlike the Storm which has SurePress to register screen inputs, and for general navigation and opening apps I found the touch screen to be perfectly responsive.  Much hasbeen said about the Torch being slow due to the extra demands of OS 6, but in my limited time with the Torch I didn’t really experience slowdown issues.  I don’t feel that the OS makes efficient use of touch in the same way as Apple iOS or Android, but RIM has created that issue for itself by releasing the Torch with an OS that is also destined for its non-touchscreen devices like the Bold 9700.  So the touch efficiency of OS 6 only goes so far before it feels like an add-on.

Neil Berman

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Aug 14, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

RIM caught between a rock and a hard place

RIM has increasingly found itself in the crosshairs of governments who want to have greater insight into BlackBerry data traveling across RIM’s bespoke network.

While other platforms tend to rely more upon less secure cloud services for content, the BlackBerry platform routes email, BBM and some other traffic through RIM’s network. This has the advantage of keeping it safe from prying eyes, but some governments are worried the internal security issues of not being able to view that data.

Without its strong data privacy and encryption, RIM’s BlackBerry would be a far weaker platform in the Enterprise space. Ironically in some of those emerging markets where governments are challenging RIM, having data privacy at an Enterprise level is all the more important since there might be fewer internal corporate controls regarding information dissemination, compared to more developed economies.

So while Enterprises in those countries are likely to be highly reliant upon privacy to guard their internal knowledge and competitive advantage, they are likely to lose some of that privacy if a country’s security is believed to be at risk.

What does this mean for RIM? Tough times ahead. I’d say it’s pretty certain that as more countries jump on this one it will become increasingly difficult for RIM to maintain lock and key over its data network. That doesn’t bode well for RIM’s competitive advantage at all.

Neil Berman

Aug 8, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Mobile | , , , , | Leave a comment

Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch review

Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch 8

Sitting all over America today are people who yearn to upgrade to a smartphone without paying through the nose on a monthly basis for the privilege. Meanwhile sitting in various Virgin Mobile warehouses is the LG Rumor Touch smartphone. Tying these two things together are Virgin Mobile’s Beyond Talk unlimited data and text plans, which start at a very reasonable $25 per month with 300 voice minutes. So is this the disruptive force that will make smartphone adoption ubiquitous?

First impressions of the Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch

The LG Rumor Touch is a new addition to Virgin Mobile, offering a 3 inch touchscreen with slide out keyboard, email/web/social-networking integration and downloadable Java apps. It runs a proprietary LG Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch 9operating system that supports touch throughout. Other notable features include a regular 3.5mm headphone socket, Bluetooth, a micro SD card slot and a 2 megapixel camera with video recording capability.  There’s no fancy OS here or App Store, but the specs are a good match for social-networking-cash-maximizing-wanna-get-something-that-works-and-doesn’t-break-the-back people.

Speaking of dosh, the LG Rumor Touch costs $149.99 and you then have a choice of no-contract pay monthly unlimited data, web, text and plans that have different voice minute allowances. The $25 plan buys you 300 mins, $40 gets you 1,200 mins and $60 buys unlimited talk time. Even better, while there is sales tax applied to the monthly cost, there are none of those pesky hidden charges that can take a $70 monthly contract cost up to around $80-90 when the bill arrives. The Beyond Talk sales tax, at least in New York, takes the $40 plan to just under $44 at the time of writing. And since there’s no contract you can cancel at any time or go up/down plan levels. So when compared to typical voice+data contracts over two years these Virgin Mobile plans can deliver significant savings.

While that all sounds great it’s clearly only useful if the LG Rumor Touch is any good, so is it?

Using the Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch

The LG Rumor Touch feels good in the hand. It appears to be well made and the slide out keyboard feels like it has a solid locking mechanism. The whole device is reasonably light at 4.59 ounces and is compact enough to hide in a pocket with ease.

Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch 11The social networking and email integration works well enough, although I had difficulty getting new email notifications to come through willingly from online email services.  I found that generally had to load up the email app each time I wanted to access my email, even though I had told the Rumor Touch to run the app to the background when not in use.  This would probably not be an issue for a light user who might only check their email once or twice a day, but I found it annoying to have to wait the few seconds for the email app to load each time I wanted to check my mail.   There’s Facebook integration out of the box and apps like Google Maps and Opera Mini can be easily downloaded.  I was impressed with how quickly the Rumor Touch downloaded and rendered Google Maps data, including satellite images.

On the subject of web content, Opera Mini is definitely a worthy download for the LG Rumor Touch as the built-in web browser is fairly weak. It tends to display information in more of a WAP format compared to how a state of the art smartphone would fully render a page. The Rumor Touch does download information fairly quickly though, as Virgin Mobile uses the Sprint 3G network to provide its service. However one online issue I encountered frequently was that the LG Rumor Touch often failed to play YouTube videos. I have to assume the issues were due to network congestion because while on some occasions YouTube video streaming worked fine, trying to stream the same videos on other days failed. Even when YouTube playback was successful the LG Rumor Touch often thought about the task for upwards of 30 seconds before starting to play the video clip, which is too long in my opinion.

The music player and camera can both make use of the LG Rumor Touch’s micro SD card slot, so with a high capacity card installed it’s possible to carry a large amount of media. The music player works well enough but unfortunately does not play in the background when other apps are in use. That was surprising, especially since most other apps on the LG Rumor Touch can be sent to run in the background.

Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch 5The camera is decent for general use, although its 2 megapixel resolution lags behind some of the competition. It’s fine for occasional snaps though. There’s also video camera functionality offering QVGA resolution, which is only 320×240.  It records video, but not to a high standard and is no rival for the HD-capable cameras on high-end smartphones.  Nevertheless the feature is useful as long you keep its limitations in mind.  It will play back at acceptable detail on a screen the size of the one on the LG Rumor Touch, but larger computer screens will not flatter the output of the video recorder.

The touchscreen does its job, but it’s resistive rather than the capacitive technology found on the likes of the iPhone and some other touchscreen smartphones. This means it’s more responsive to fingernails or stylus input than broad finger flings. Once you get the hang of it though it’s perfectly passable but don’t expect pinch-to-zoom or any of that funky stuff. The screen colors are vivid and the display is bright.

If touchscreens aren’t your thing, the LG Rumor Touch has a fully featured slide-out keyboard. The keyboard includes a dedicated row of number keys, which is a welcome feature, as well as button for instant access to emoticons. The keys themselves are easy to press and offer good feedback. I found it was easy to type with the LG Rumor Touch with good accuracy.

Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch 14Battery life was good on the LG Rumor Touch. I managed to get almost two days of general usage between charges, which I consider to be perfectly acceptable for a data phone. I find that current smartphones need a daily charge (some even need an intra-day fill-up) so it’s always nice to know that a phone has some leftover juice if I forget to charge it overnight.  Kudos also to LG for adopting the standard mini USB charging port for the Rumor Touch.

Call quality on the LG Rumor Touch was good, and these days we expect nothing less from a modern phone. Callers heard me fine and I heard them fine in New York City. I did not experience any dropped calls during my time with the LG Rumor Touch.

Is the Virgin Mobile LG Rumor Touch a good buy?

For a smartphone newbie or light data user, the LG Rumor Touch is a good choice at an excellent price point. It provides enough functionality to enjoy social networking, email and basic web browsing on the move in a compact user-friendly package. While it trails the better featured smartphone market leaders by some margin in many areas, its price point is also stratospherically lower than most competitors over a two year period.  If you’re considering buying the LG Rumor Touch as a genuine iPhone contender though, you will be disappointed.  More demanding users who want better smartphone functionality on a budget might prefer to consider Virgin Mobile’s BlackBerry Curve 8530 which sits at a slightly higher price point.  Stay tuned, our review of the 8530 is coming soon…and as promised here is our Virgin Mobile BlackBerry 8530 review.

All details, including monthly plan features and costs are accurate as at the time of writing and may change in the future.  Consult Virgin Mobile for the most up to date information.

Neil Berman

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Jul 17, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | 54 Comments

This gadget life: Choosing a smartphone

Regular readers might have noticed that I’ve been writing about smartphones a lot recently. This is partly because iPhone 4 and Evo 4G hysteria all came around at the same time, but also because I’m in the market for a new smartphone.

My trusty BlackBerry Bold 9000 has an almost dead trackball having recently acquired an unplanned taste for coffee, and this summer has seen an abundance of smartphone releases.

Like many people, I have some generic and some specific use cases for a smartphone, which guide me towards certain platforms.

Firstly, I need something that is enterprise friendly. In my case this roughly narrows down the range of acceptable platforms to BlackBerry, Android and iOS (iPhone). Not to get too deeply into the relative pros and cons of each of these at an enterprise level, for my needs these platforms are either natively enterprise ready or can provide secure email functionality through add-on apps. Winner: Used to be BlackBerry hands down but these days it’s a tie.

Secondly, the ability to type quickly and accurately is important. The iPad has certainly taught me that software keyboards are not an impediment to fast typing, but accuracy becomes challenged as the virtual key size reduces. It goes without saying that BlackBerry hardware keypads are excellent but software keyboards on the larger smartphones like the Evo 4G are also easy to use accurately in landscape. I’m 50/50 on the iPhone keyboard, and find that I need to make a correction every couple of sentences. Winner: Tie between BlackBerry and large-screen Android smartphones.

Thirdly, I need my smartphone to work reliably in year round temperatures. New York City summers are hot and humid, so my phone needs to function well under direct sunlight with plenty of environmental moisture in the air. There’s sufficient anecdotal evidence on the web to suggest that the iPhone copes poorly under sustained sunlight, with temperature related shutdowns being commonplace. I have had that very experience on my iPad after just five minutes of direct sun exposure. My BlackBerry Bold 9000 has never given me a heat warning, even after hours of use under the sun, plus the screens of most of the current BlackBerry range, such as the 9xxx series, are viewable in daylight. It’s difficult to assess the situation with Android phones as there are so many models. The Evo 4G does seem to have some heat issues although it sounds like these are more connected to signal strength with the device getting hot as it searches for a signal in weak coverage areas. Winner: BlackBerry.

There are a host of other considerations of course, such as Internet browsing, media playback and size/weight. For my use case, the web browsers on most smartphones are good enough for my occasional usage with the exception of the BlackBerry which has a disappointingly poor browser. Media handling is good on most modern smartphones, although the iPhone has the disadvantage of having to be tied to a specific computer for mass media transfer. The iPhone also has an incomplete Bluetooth implementation for stereo headset usage. For size and weight, the iPhone and BlackBerry devices win over the 4+ inch Android smartphones that are less pocket friendly.

For now I’m torn between the Evo 4G, Samsung Captivate and BlackBerry Bold 9700. The BlackBerry 9800 slider may also get onto my shortlist if we ever get a release date. Even though the BlackBerry platform has much to do to catch up to the user experience of iOS and Android, its reliability continues to make it a compelling platform as a daily workhorse.

Neil Berman

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Jul 12, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On location with BlackBerry Bold Tour 2010

BlackBerry Bold Tour 2010This is the first weekend of RIM’s BlackBerry Bold on Tour, so I stopped by New York’s South Street Seaport to sample the Boldacious action.  Read about what I saw in my post at BerryReporter

Neil Berman

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Jul 11, 2010 Posted by | Mobile | , , , | Leave a comment

BlackBerry follows coffee shower with rice bath

BlackBerry Bold moisture indicatorWarning, this post contains stuff which will almost certainly void your warranty if you repeat it.  If you like that kind of thing, read on!

This morning was a minor disaster. My BlackBerry Bold 9000 seemed damp to the touch as I threw it in my pocket, I thought nothing of it since I had just washed my hands. I did however get concerned ten minutes later when I tried using it.

The trackball was spewing liquid when spun, key presses resulted in random “hl” and “ou” garbage and the call buttons were ineffective.  The growing knot in my gut tightened as I caught the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee, and I wasn’t walking past Starbucks …continue reading

Apr 27, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Rants | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Today in 2015: The Big Three rule the smartphone market

This article is a fictional work of my overactive imagination depicting how the smartphone market might appear in 2015.  Don’t count on it turning out this way…

Ah, how time flies!  It feels like only a few months ago that Microsoft announced Windows Phone 7 Series and fans lined around the block for Apple’s iPhone Evolution, yet five whole years have passed since then.  During these telling years the smartphone market has truly evolved.  Vertical platform integration, wider corporate adoption and growth in the tablet market have been kind to Microsoft, Apple and Google at the expense of the RIM, Nokia and Palm.

With the benefit of hindsight it should have seemed obvious that as vertical platform integration improved, the smartphone market would come to resemble what used to be called the desktop computing market.  In the last five years the Microsoft, Google and Apple smartphone platforms developed such successful …continue reading

Mar 15, 2010 Posted by | Analysis | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Windows Phone 7 Series analysis vs iPhone, Android & BlackBerry (update: now with video!)

Windows Phone has been struggling in recent years.  Facing an onslaught from Apple, Google and RIM, many would say that the OS formerly known as Windows Mobile has not even been competing in the current marketplace.  Rumors have been flying around about Microsoft starting from scratch with Windows Phone 7 Series and that’s exactly what they’ve done.  And they’ve done it well. Continue reading our in-depth analysis…

Feb 15, 2010 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobile, Video Features | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CES 2010 BlackBerry coverage

As you can see from my recent posts I had a busy week at CES.  In addition to all the news I covered below I was also on the BlackBerry beat for BerryReporter.  You can see all my BerryReporter CES posts including videos here.

Neil Berman

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Jan 17, 2010 Posted by | CES, Hardware, Mobile, News, Video Features | , , , | Leave a comment

RIM, Apple winners in 2009; Windows Phone suffers

The recently published ComScore stats give RIM good reason to celebrate the holidays, and tell an interesting story about the US smartphone market overall. These stats show two clear winners this year in the form of RIM and Apple, while the company losing out was Microsoft which experienced a stagnation of Windows Phone users.

RIM’s user population seems to have skyrocketed this year, increasing from just under 10 million in February to almost 15 million by October. Apple also saw a big gain from 5 million to just under 9 million during the same period. Meanwhile Windows Phone tread water throughout the year around the 7 million mark, as it waits long and hard for Windows Mobile 7. It’s also worth noting the Google number, which represents Android. While the numerical increase from around 400,000 to just over 1 million may not seem significant, this platform increased its user community by over 100%, which is a phenomenal growth figure.

What I find most interesting about the RIM figures is that corporate purchasing was probably pretty low this year. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if corporate subscription growth was negative in the first half of 2009 due to companies terminating the BlackBerry accounts of fired employees. So this increase in RIM’s numbers this year tells me that it must be growing its retail consumer population successfully. If my analysis is correct then this is great news for the BlackBerry platform, which has traditionally been perceived as a corporate device. Perhaps the Love What You Do campaign has been more successful than I gave it credit for in a recent podcast!

Neil Berman

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Dec 18, 2009 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Microsoft, Mobile, News | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Neil Berman now also posting on BerryReporter

I’m now contributing to BerryReporter :-)

Neil Berman

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Jul 14, 2009 Posted by | News | , , , , , | Leave a comment

theONbutton@CES – Blackberry Curve 8900 announced and fondled

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Blackberry’s Curve has been a popular smartphone to date, balancing size, weight and features to good effect.  The new Curve 8900 seeks to capitalize on its predecessor’s success, adding a 3.2MP camera, a Bold style screen and revised keyboard.  The new Curve 8900 is due to be released in the US in February on T-Mobile, although with EDGE data only unlike the Bold which offers 3G on AT&T.

Gallery…

Neil Berman

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Jan 10, 2009 Posted by | CES, Hardware, Mobile, News | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blackberry Storm Quick Hands-on Review

Reasons to like the Storm:

SurePress screen is 100% better to type on than the iPhone’s static glass

Smaller than the Bold with a great screen size

Decent for the Internet compared to the Bold…

Reasons to wish they’d worked a bit harder:

…as long as you wait a looooong time for the page to complete loading.  Storm Internet speed is crushed by iPhone and Opera on WinMo.

SurePress screen is 100% worse to type on than the Bold/Fuze/Epix/most things

Slower than any smartphone I’ve used recently…right up to the moment it crashed

Neil Berman

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Nov 21, 2008 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

BlackBerry Flips Out

Following on from BlackBerry’s dominance of the corporate market, RIM has recently been turning its attention to retail consumers.  RIM is positioning its BlackBerry Curve and Bold as complete work/play devices and the Pearl Flip 8220 under review here goes in a different direction; it’s a BlackBerry for those who want a cellphone which doesn’t looks like a BlackBerry.

Compact for a BlackBerry

The Flip’s compact form is made possible by RIM’s two-letters-on-a-key Qwerty system, called SureType.  The keyboard allows the Flip to be very compact, although the base is quite thick.  The clamshell flip design means that the screen also has to be smaller than a regular BlackBerry.  The familiar BlackBerry trackball is also present.  Closing the phone reveals a good looking lid housing the camera and exterior screen.  This is definitely the Flip’s best angle.

What’s it like in use?

In use, I really noticed the reduction in screen size.  Where the Curve is good for email and the Pearl is just fine, the Flip requires a lot of scrolling to view long messages.  But it does work, and if you prefer SMS or short instant messages to email, then the screen would not be a problem.

The keypad is responsive and SureType works well for me.  The trackball is mounted a bit low for my liking though.  There’s just not enough contact area compared to the Pearl and as a result large amounts of scrolling can turn into hard work.

The Flip’s internet browser loaded mobile sites fairly slowly and when a page is ready the trackball performs as a useful mouse pointer.  The map application was even slower unfortunately, almost to the point of being unusable.

Call quality was fine and the Flip has bluetooth for headset hook-ups.

Should you get one?

The BlackBerry Flip is pretty on the outside and sometimes frustrating on the inside.  It is definitely a compromise, but it looks great and if for a light data user it might be a good call.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Oct 26, 2008 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

   

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