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RIM's BlackBerry handsets used to be in a class of their own. Anyone after a phone offering instant, push email coupled with business-level PIM integration only had one place to go. But nowadays rivals are ten a penny, and every smartphone manufacturer worth its salt has a BlackBerry-style handset in its line-up. Some - Nokia's E71 - have even managed to beat RIM at its own game.
With its heritage in the PDA arena, you'd think that HP would well be placed to give RIM and Nokia a run for their money. But though its PDAs have long been the best in the business - I reviewed its business PDA, the iPAQ 214, back in February and was very impressed - I've yet to see HP evolve its PDAs into successful smartphones. The 614c Business Navigator, for instance, was a real mish-mash - part business PDA, part GPS device, part smartphone - and a big disappointment as a result.
Fortunately, the 914c (or 910 for those in the US) is a more straightforward device: a dyed-in-the-wool candybar QWERTY phone, and it's a far better product for it. But can it compete with the best business emailer on the market, the E71?
First impressions would suggest not - it's hardly the sexiest of devices and is a rather bulky and heavy device. The front is trimmed with shiny chrome, the rows of keys separated by strips of silver, and the rear panel finished in comfortable-feeling soft-touch plastic, It weighs 154g and is 16mm thick - a world away from the sleek lines of Nokia's superb E71, which tips the scales at a mere 127g and measures just 10mm thick.
So what does the extra bulk and weight get you? Well, the keyboard is good. Those silver strips clearly define the position of the keys vertically, while a rounded, horizontal profile to each button means that you won't keep hitting neighbouring keys when typing and editing. There are dedicated keys for the full stop and comma, and the navigation cluster above the keyboard is large and easy to use. There are no fancy touch-sensitive or trackball controls here, but the five-way up/down/left/right/select works well and it's complemented by a BlackBerry-style scroll wheel on the right hand edge. But is this any easier to use than the keyboard on the E71? It's good, sure, but the answer has to be no.
The screen then, surely, is better? Well, yes, it is bigger and, unlike the screen on the Nokia E71, it is touch-sensitive. But the size difference is only, surprisingly, fractional (2.46in versus 2.36in) and at this size the touch-sensitivity doesn't help that much - you'll only use it when you absolutely have to and only then with a stylus. This is not a finger-friendly touch-sensitive device like the iPhone or HTC Touch Diamond. The E71's screen is also transflective, which makes it easier to see in bright sunshine, though turn the brightness up on the 914c's LED backlit transmissive screen, and you won't have to squint too hard to read it.