The UK version of the Pearl 3G represents a quiet revolution for BlackBerry because it’s the first phone the company has produced with a standard numerical keypad rather than a QWERTY keyboard. However, the firm seems to be hedging its bets somewhat as in the US the handset will have a hybrid keyboard similar to those found on the pervious Pearl models like the 8220.
One of the advantages of losing the QWERTY layout is that the UK version looks much more like a normal mobile phone than any of the company’s previous handsets, even the other models in the Pearl range. The main reason for this is that at just 50mm the Pearl 3G is narrower than many of the other BlackBerry models (although still the same width of the 2G Pearl). The design is quite attractive, too, especially the wave shape used on the keypad, and ergonomically the handset feels very comfortable to hold. Build quality is also good, although the battery cover on our review sample didn’t sit flush with the battery behind it and so moved and squeaked a little when you pressed down on it.
As this device is aimed as much at consumers as corporate users it has a row of music buttons across the top plus a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the right-hand side next to the micro-USB port. The latter is used for both charging the phone and synchronising it with a PC. It would have been better if the headphone jack had been positioned at the top of the phone as in its currently location it tends to snag a bit when you’re taking it in and out of your pocket.
Like the Curve 8520, the various side-mounted buttons are now covered with a rubberised membrane to make them more weatherproof and the handset also uses an optical trackpad rather than the older style mini trackball from which the original Pearl models drew their name. Optical trackpads can be a bit hit and miss, but the one used here is superb as it’s fantastically accurate and reliable at tracking your finger or thumb as you swipe it across the surface of the pad. This makes it very quick and easy to move through the menus or scroll around web pages. Finer movements can be a little trickier but not enough to annoy.
Of course, the keypad is the biggest difference over previous models and perhaps the most interesting aspect of the phone. As we’ve already noted, it has a distinctive wavy design that looks quite stylish and helps two-handed typing. The top three rows have the keys positioned on a single strip of plastic, while the fourth row at the bottom is split in three with the ‘0’ button in the centre separated from the Symbol button on the left and the Shift/Return key on the right.
Used in combination with BlackBerry’s SureType predictive text engine (which feels a lot like the T9 system used on most other mobiles) the keypad is reasonably fast for tapping out emails and text messages as the keys respond with a satisfying click as your press them and the layout feels natural under your fingers and thumbs. However, it’s nowhere near as speedy to use as the keyboard found on the likes of the BlackBerry Bold 9700, so we wouldn’t like to use it longer term if we frequently had to bash out longer emails.