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Wide Appeal for Slimmer BlackBerry

Big changes for BlackBerry show Research In Motion (RIMM) isn't exactly sitting out the smartphone scramble.

Sprint's (S) BlackBerry 7130e is among the first of RIM's narrower handset designs and a big style break from the wide squat devices users have been toting around for the past few years.

Suddenly, for the first time, the words sleek and BlackBerry can appear in the same sentence.

But looks haven't really played a big role with the BlackBerry-obsessed. The hook that continues to reel in users is RIM's unsurpassed ability to keep people connected to email at all times.

BlackBerry fans will be overjoyed to know that RIM's email finesse is as impressive as ever on the 7130.

Add to that the fast mobile Net connection through Sprint's EV-DO network, and you have a Web-viewing experience that's even better than ever.

A Mixed Message

Unfortunately, the 7130 is sort of an in-between model for RIM.

While its lean form will appeal to BlackBerry users looking for an updated style, the fashion party is already being upstaged by the introduction of an even sleeker BlackBerry Pearl model this month with T-Mobile, a unit of Deutsche Telekom (DT).

RIM's newfound fashion consciousness is a welcome development and likely to catch the eye of an even broader group of cell-phone shoppers. The one-trick pony aspect of BlackBerry's email superiority saddled with a portly design didn't make it as much of a compelling device for consumers.

While the trimmer RIM is more like a conventional candy-bar phone than most BlackBerrys, it doesn't have some of the features that have become common on cell phones, like a camera or music player.

In fact, the 7130 would be pretty much all business if it wasn't for its great Internet agility.

Form and Function

With its bright 2 1/2-inch LCD screen, handy thumb dial and Sprint's 3G mobile network, this BlackBerry is a powerful Web-surfing machine. In most cases, the BlackBerry browser presented Web pages better than the beloved Palm (PALM) Treo .

The sleekness of the 7130 comes with a few tradeoffs, though: A daunting keyboard and a truncated subject line for email.

The 7130 is nearly 3/4 of an inch narrower than other BlackBerry phones.

To make the squeeze work, letters on the qwerty keyboard have to double up and share most of the keys. Great idea, in theory, but getting used to the SureType predictive text system takes a lot of time, practice and patience.

BlackBerry 7130e

The SureType program guesses what words you are typing as you go. In most cases, this works out satisfactorily. But names and passwords will repeatedly stump the SureType predictor -- overall, the software still doesn't trump a qwerty-style keypad.

Another unfortunate aspect to the narrowing squeeze is the shrunken info line in the email inbox.

Each line display shows the time an email arrived, the sender and the subject. But there are only six to seven characters available for the subject. That's plenty for some subjects, but for most others, just a few more letters would have been helpful. In many cases, you have to open the email to find out what it's about. Not hugely daunting, of course, but an annoying extra step.

Overall, the 7130 packs RIM's superior email system in a sleeker form targeted to professionals and consumers -- or the so-called pro-sumer segment.

Email, as RIM does it, is a killer application for mobile phones, as industry watchers would say. And while it may not appeal to everyone, slimmer BlackBerrys are likely to be embraced by an even wider audience.

Unlike its rival, the Palm Treo, BlackBerry's designers are pushing form as hard as function.

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