So with the differences in appearance and functionality laid out, let’s get down to actually evaluating the unit. It’s worth talking about that new form factor a little, because it really does feel quite different from the 8700. For one, it’s less chunky, and certainly feels better quality. Blackberrys have traditionally felt quite plasticky and light, and this is certainly a departure. It’s smooth, glossy, and actually a little bit heavier. It’s also longer in the hand, but this enables it to feel better whilst using the roller ball – the 8700 had to be shorter because the click wheel was higher up the device. The fact that it’s so thin makes it feel quite modern, and the phone almost feels like an ‘executive’ version of the 8700. The centre-mounted roller ball makes it ideal for both left and right handed use, and the silver Menu and Back buttons from the Pearl put in a re-appearance, making for a striking flash of metal across the middle of the device. Certainly, the 8800 looks like it means business.
The thinner, longer form factor does mean that the keyboard feels a little different. There are no spaces between the keys on the 8800, unlike the 8700, which can make it feel a little cramped to type on. Research in Motion has attempted to get around this by adding depth contours to the keys, so that a raised section of each key butts against a lowered section of the one next to it. This does help, but the usability will depend on the size of your hands. I have very chunky fingers and found the keyboard eminently usable, but others have complained on web forums. The key action is slightly softer, which I find preferable – whereas the 8700 is really a tap-tap kind of action, this is more of a softer push, with less force required to press the keys, which could make this a more ergonomic device for those already suffering from Blackberry thumb.
As with the Pearl, having the headset and charging ports on the side of the device is slightly annoying, but the top side of the device is taken up with dedicated buttons for power and mute. Where you would normally expect to see a click wheel, buttons for volume up and down reside.
The roller wheel is the major introduction from the Pearl, and it works no worse here. Public opinion seems to be split over whether or not this is a good introduction, with BB purists lamenting the demise of the scroll wheel. Having not been a hardcore user before the 8800, I find the roller wheel an intuitive and quick way to navigate around the menus, with 4-way directional control making it a cinch to quickly move around emails and web pages, too. Clicking the scroll wheel in often brings up a small context-sensitive menu, a limited version of what might be available by hitting the menu button on the same page. This can make the 8800 quicker to use than the 8700.