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Emails in motion, on your palm

Josey Puliyenthuruthel | December 02, 2004

Ontario, Canada-based Research in Motion Inc made a name for itself some years ago when it unveiled its BlackBerry series of devices. The little gadgets were phenomenal in performing one function: retrieve and send emails easily and fast.

You could be hurtling in a train at 100 miles an hour and it would pull in and push out emails effortlessly, and, of course, make phone calls dodging in and out between fellow pedestrians on a busy street.

A few weeks ago, Airtel, one of India's leading mobile phone service brands, introduced three BlackBerry models with some fanfare. The devices run on GPRS-enabled networks of Airtel or other service providers.

Bharti Televentures, Airtel's owner is pricing the gizmos between nearly Rs 18,000 and Rs 32,000 and aims the devices at enterprise users who need email connectivity at all times.

The company seems to have underestimated the demand for BlackBerrys in the country; chairman and managing director Sunil Mittal says his company cannot keep up with the rush of applications for service. (That, however, could also be because its target of about 10,000 BlackBerry buyers was a tad low.)

I got to review the BlackBerry 7230 last week. (There are two other models: the top-end 7730 and lower-priced 6230 with a monochrome screen.) An early verdict: the device is amazing for its email functionality. It sends and receives emails much more smoothly than my notebook connected through a wireless Internet connection.

Accessing the Internet is easy, too, especially if the website that you are visiting has a PDA (personal digital assistant)-configured, thinner version; but the experience with other sites varied depending on how light or heavy they were. A comment on the PDA and phone functionalities later.

Airtel has got its act together behind the launch of the BlackBerrys. It has, for instance, a dedicated customer service number -- 7070 -- manned by some well-trained executives. I was handheld through the configuration of my VSNL and Hotmail accounts for the device quite seamlessly.

Mails come into a folder called messages, which also -- irritatingly -- file SMS messages and details of phone calls alongside. I'd expect there is a way to make mails come into a separate folder or a sub-folder, but if it was there, it's not too obvious.

Although it adds to the clunky looks of the BlackBerry, the QWERTY keypad of the gizmo is its best feature. This takes a little getting used to, but once you are there, it is easy to key in messages quickly and easily -- a particularly useful feature when you have to compose or reply to emails.

You can navigate between applications using a jog-wheel -- something popularised by an earlier version of Sony-Ericsson phones -- and an ESC (escape) button.

The contacts database feature is rich, expectedly from a gadget that runs on the Palm operating system. So is the calendar application that comes with all the bells and whistles. A nifty search utility allows you to zero in on messages on your BlackBerry, which can be very many if you have it synched with Outlook or other mail software on your PC.

Updating contents of the BlackBerry with a PC is done through a USB cable and also bundled with the device is a hands-free kit (no speakerphone, though).

One big crib: the user-interface of the phone on the BlackBerry 7230 is a little primitive. For one, the numbers are buried in -- and sometimes lost within -- the QWERTY keypad. Accessing the phone application takes two manoeuvres (one jog, one click), but I later discovered you could start off by just pressing the number keys.

It is perhaps this pain-point that users in the US and Europe avoid by using the BlackBerry for only email access and carrying a plain old mobile phone for voice calls. Crib number two: Airtel charges Rs 1,500 a month user charge for BlackBerry, though it's without a cap on amount of data used.

So, will I buy the BlackBerry to replace my phone and use its powerful email functionality to be "always-on"? I want to try HandSpring (now Palm Inc.)'s Treo 650 -- or the earlier 600 model -- smartphone before taking a decision. I'm told the Treo might be a better buy (with add on email software), but if email is your first priority, go for the BlackBerry.

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