Review: T-Mobile BlackBerry Pearl 8120

By Naomi Graychase

November 24, 2008

The BlackBerry Pearl 8120 from T-Mobile is one of the most Wi-Fi-friendly mobile phones currently available to consumers.

T-Mobile BlackBerry Pearl 8120 with Wi-Fi
MSRP: $349.99
Pros: It’s a BlackBerry; integrated Wi-Fi; compatible with Unlimited HotSpot Calling; Bluetooth 2.0
Cons: Awkward-to-use small keypad buttons; video recording quality lacking

Released earlier this year, the BlackBerry Pearl 8120 from T-Mobile is one of the most Wi-Fi-friendly mobile phones currently available to consumers. Along with integrated 802.11g Wi-Fi, it works with T-Mobile's Unlimited HotSpot Calling plan (a new incarnation of the HotSpot@Home service) to allow for unlimited calling over a home Wi-Fi router to reduce counted minutes and increase coverage while at home. 

The compact smartphone also has a decent Web browser and a 2-megapixel camera with video recording capabilities, although the quality of the video we recorded was mediocre.

RIM aficionados familiar with the BlackBerry operating system and user interface will have no trouble switching over to this more diminutive handset. For users new to BlackBerry, however, the SureType keyboard represents a nuisance in the early days, but once it’s mastered, it’s worth the time it took to learn it.

We prefer the larger PDA form factor of other BlackBerry models, such as the 8800 series, and even with our small hands, we struggled to communicate and navigate well using the keypad and trackball. We also found the trackball required an overly hard push to register the click.

AT&T was first-to-market with a RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8120, which is virtually identical to this model, but without support for T-Mobile’s Unlimited HotSpot Calling service, of course. [Click here for a review of Unlimited HotSpot Calling.]

The Wi-Fi in the 8120 means users can surf the Web on a decent browser at higher-than-GPRS/EDGE speeds when they’re in range of an open hotspot. Currently, after rebates and a contract, the T-Mobile BlackBerry Pearl 8120 is available for just $99.99.

Performance

We tested the Pearl 8120 in Western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine using T-Mobile service, and call quality was satisfactory. Our callers came through clearly, for the most part, and our listeners also reported good quality. Occasionally, calls would be subjected to walkie-talkie-like static interference, the cause of which we never determined. We like that the speakerphone button is easily accessible on the keypad, but we longed for more volume. Our listeners were able to hear us clearly, but we had trouble hearing them when using the speakerphone.

We also made several calls using the T-Mobile Unlimited HotSpot Calling service at home over a D-Link (TM-G5240) T-Mobile Wireless G Broadband Router ($29.99). The Pearl 8120 is also optimized to work with the T-Mobile HotSpot @Home Wireless Router from Linksys ($29.99), although it can work with any Wi-Fi router.

The setup was easy, but the audio quality wasn't quite as good or as consistent as over the cellular network.

The RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8120 is rated for four hours of talk time and up to 15 days of standby time and we found that it met or exceeded this performance in our tests.

Design

The silver gray color of the case was neutral—not too flashy, neither feminine nor masculine.  It measures 4.2 inches tall by 1.9 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep and weighs 3.2 ounces. We liked that it was small enough to fit into a pocket and or small purse, although we were frustrated by how easily it would make calls or activate features, particularly voice dialing, when it bumped up against things in our bag or got compressed in our pocket. We frequently found ourselves in public with a bag that was shouting, "Say a command!"

The 8120 sports a 2.25-inch color display with a 65,000-color output and 260x240 pixel resolution. An auto light-sensing technology automatically adjusts the backlighting to suit the level of darkness in the phone’s environment and we found it was bright enough to use in the dark--and even worked well as an impromptu flashlight on a couple of occasions.

The Pearl 8120 supports T-Mobile’s MyFaves plan and users can set their default screen to automatically display their MyFaves contacts. We found this to be annoying, however, and took the time to switch the default home screen away from MyFaves. RIM has offered a few ways to customize the handset, as well, including graphics, themes, and fonts.

Navigation is done using the SureType keyboard, Talk and End keys, a BlackBerry menu shortcut, a back button, and the trackball. A 3.5mm headphone jack, a mini USB port, a microSD expansion slot, and a customizable convenience key that launches Voice Dialing by default are on the left side. (This convenience key is the button that always seemed to be accidentally triggered in our handbag.) The volume rocker and a camera activation key are on the right, and the mute button is flush on top, which we found awkward and difficult to depress while on a call. The camera lens, self-portrait mirror, and flash are located on the back of the handset.

The phone ships with its battery and charger, a stereo headset, a carrying case, a USB cable, a SIM card, the BlackBerry User Tools CD, and reference materials, including a “tips and tricks” card and a “get started” poster.

Features

We were pleased to see that the Wi-Fi-enabled smartphone includes adequate security features, including WEP, WPA, and VPN settings. The quad-band GSM phone (850/900/1800/1900) also features built-in Bluetooth 2.0.

To take advantage of the Unlimited HotSpot Calling feature, subscribers must have broadband Internet access at home, a monthly plan of at least $39.99, as well as the additional HotSpot Calling plan, and a Wi-Fi router. The two routers mentioned above are available from T-Mobile and optimized to provide better voice calls than an average off-the-shelf router.

Voice features include: speakerphone; voice-activated dialing; smart dialing; conference calling, and speed dial. SMS (text) and MMS (multimedia messaging) are also supported. The address book is limited only by the available memory (the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts) with room in each entry for comprehensive contact information. The enhanced Caller ID includes the ability to assign a photo to a contact, as well a group category (business or personal), and a polyphonic ring tone.

There is no built-in GPS, although because of the integrated Bluetooth, users could add a Bluetooth GPS receiver.

Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-Fi Planet. She has been reviewing consumer electronics since 1996.

Originally published on .

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