Review: Roundup - RIM BlackBerry Pearl 8130, Palm Centro, Samsung Blast & Ace

If your old phone is showing its age and you're ready for a new style or some new features, take a look at this roundup. We present four of today's best reasonably-priced models - three smartphones and one feature phone - to help you make your decision.

BlackBerry Pearl 8130
The 8130 is an excellent continuation of the successful RIM BlackBerry Pearl series, and a perfect choice for execs who need a smartphone more for keeping in touch than for doing major work. It's the first CDMA Pearl-offered by Verizon, Sprint, and Alltel-and it should find plenty of takers. Even the price is right: Verizon offers it for $169 with a two-year commitment and online discount, and then throws in a $70 mail-in rebate.

The 8130 measures 4.2 x 2.0 x 0.6 inches, making it slender enough for a pants pocket. It feels nicely compact in the hand, and we like the polished silver exterior of our test model. It doesn't have a full QWERTY keyboard, but has the letters share keys in the interest of space (a "SureType" keyboard). It then suggests words as you type. This works well for common English words, but not well at all for online names and e-mail addresses.

The software is the same BlackBerry interface you've come to trust, which means anyone switching from a Palm OS device will need a month just to get used to it. Notable features include a 2-megapixel camera, which we found provided strong color but not always well-focused images, and a video recorder. It you need extra storage, you can use the included microSD expansion slot.

The 8130 includes GPS abilities and can provide navigation (for a fee) with the included VZ Navigator software. We found Web surfing or downloading messages with Verizon's EV-DO network to be speedy. You won't get a lot of work done with the 8130 (not that you'll want to type much with the SureType keyboard), but it makes staying in touch with friends and colleagues much easier.

Palm Centro, AT&T GSM/EDGE Edition
We've previously tested Sprint's CDMA/EV-DO Centro, and now we've had a chance to try the GSM version. Except for the online connection speed, most of the differences are minor. With AT&T you can get a Centro in black or white, while Sprint offers red, pink, and charcoal. The size is the same: 4.2x 2.1 x 0.7 inches. Either way, it's an attractive, useful, and compact phone, a great option for people who prefer the terrifically easy Palm OS but find the Treo too large.

The AT&T edition uses EDGE for online data connections, which will disappoint many who want a 3G connection. Don't overstate the difference, though. We found that this Centro downloaded our mail quickly and loaded most Web pages in ten seconds or so. Unless you plan to do heavy Web surfing on your phone (unlikely, since the 320 x 320-pixel screen is better for occasional info look-ups) you won't notice much difference.

The software bundle is slightly different, as AT&T offers programs to connect to the AT&T Mall (where you can buy ringtones), AT&T Music (where you can buy tunes), and three-day trials for MobiTV, Get Music ID, and XM Satellite Radio. In other words, AT&T hasn't added anything useful, just offers for paid services.

In our testing, we were mostly happy with the Centro, although call quality wasn't quite as sharp as we would have liked. Frequently, calls terminated immediately, before dialing. This was probably due to our accidentally grazing the screen when we held the phone to our ear. We had the screen lock setting turned on, but it only seems to work once a connection has been made.

The Centro is an excellent phone on either wireless platform, and one of the few that works with both GSM and CDMA.

Samsung Ace
Looking quite a bit like the Samsung Blackjack II, the Samsung Ace is an attractive and powerful phone for world travelers. It offers CDMA connectivity (including EV-DO data) in this country, and can quickly convert to a GSM phone for use abroad.

A slim candy-bar phone, the Ace measures 4.7 by 2.3 x 0.5 inches, and tapers slightly at the bottom for a more comfortable grip. The keys on the QWERTY keyboard have a faceted pyramid shape, which makes them easy to tap. The button interface has been modified slightly from the Blackjack II, but not in any serious way.

You'll get the usual set of buttons below the screen, with a thumb dial and Back button on the right side. That side also holds the microSD slot, while the left side holds the volume controls and the proprietary slot for the charger and headphones.

In our testing, we enjoyed using the Ace for everything but phone calls. Web pages and e-mails downloaded quickly over the EV-DO connection, and the Windows Mobile 6 applications are easy to find and operate. Pictures taking with the 1.3 mexapixel camera were sharp and colorful. Calls always sounded a bit fuzzy, however, and the people we were talking to occasionally complained. Regular business travelers will like the Ace's versatility, but we'd prefer something with razor-sharp call quality.

Samsung Blast
Not looking for a smartphone? Want something that slim and easy to carry? The Blast, offered by T-Mobile, is a pleasantly thin slider phone that's up to any messaging task. It's hard to get enthusiastic about it, though, since it's really a repackaging of features we've all seen before. The price is excellent at $49 with discounts and two-year commitment, although we wish this phone and the rest of the T-Mobile line-up had a bit more pizzazz.

The Blast measures 4.2 x 2.0 x 0.5 inches and weights just 2.8 ounces, so it feels good in the hand during use. Sliding the front up is easy, and that's how you access the keypad in front and the 1.3 megapixel camera lens in the back. The button layout is standard, except for a dedicated button to access T-Zones, T-Mobile's online store. With no 3G connectivity, doing anything online with the Blast is slow, but accessing T-Zones is glacial. Short, text-only pages take 15 to 20 seconds to load.

T-Zones won't sell you music (beyond ringtones), so you'll need to supply your own microSD card if you want to listen to some tracks with the included music player. The Blast can also check e-mail, surf the Web, and run included apps such as an alarm, task list, or tip calculator.


Palm, Centro, Samsung ACE, BlackBerry Pearl, Samsung Blast