RIM's Cultured Pearl
Research In Motion ( RIMM) is now offering some sweet hand candy to hook all the kids on BlackBerry.

The half-inch-thick Pearl is the first truly stylish entry into the general market by RIM.

Measuring close to two inches wide by four inches tall, the itty-bitty Pearl bears almost no resemblance to the bulky BlackBerrys holstered on the belts of all those thoroughly addicted business types.

As devotees will tell you, BlackBerrys are marvels of mobile emailing machinery.

And the Pearl is the best yet -- not only is it charmingly small and equipped with a big screen, it provides a simple setup for everything from email and photo icons to downloading applications.

In fact, if it weren't for two demerits -- the compromised keypad and slow Internet speeds -- the Pearl might be at the top of the current smartphone class.

The phone retails for $150, after rebate, with a contract.

The Stats

RIM conquered the wireless email space by providing portable devices with mini keyboards that gave people access to their office computer's inbox.

The simple, immediate, one-handed connection to emails and attachments made BlackBerriys indispensable to the worker bees.

In making the Pearl, the Waterloo, Ontario, tech shop didn't sacrifice any of the widely praised BlackBerry email features in adding a camera and music player to the works.

And it would be wrong at this point to focus too much on how weak the camera and music player are, considering the magnitude of the makeover.

The Pearl has no rival when it comes to consumer email phones. The BlackBerry system takes messages sent to work email and delivers them to your phone. This so-called push email system is the true beauty of mobile connections.

With just a few setup steps and additional monthly charges, users can have mail from Web accounts such as Yahoo! sent to the Pearl.

RIM is the current leader in this arena, but Motorola's ( MOT) acquisition of Good Technology and Nokia's ( NOK) purchase of Intellisync promise to bring email to a whole new group of consumers.

Every smartphone has its own strengths.

Palm ( PALM) Treos , for example, are good PDAs. Motorola's Q phone does decent video, Nokia's E62 renders good Web views and has a smooth, often fault-free operating system.

But BlackBerrys' true calling is email, and the T-Mobile Pearl is even stronger in that regard than many of its predecessors.

Pearl's email activation is a snap, for example. The IT department simply adds your address to the BlackBerry server; the system automatically finds the phone and synchronizes your contacts wirelessly.

I discovered this to my puzzled surprise within hours of turning on the phone. While studying the new gem, I noticed that a friend in Baltimore was on the line.

Warning: The voice-activated dialer has a side button that is a little too easy to push unintentionally. The phone heard a name, searched my address book and dialed.

This of course is not unique to the Pearl, but the ability of BlackBerry to stock your contact list automatically without a cable connection to your computer is brilliant.

The Pearl won't easily win many old-time BlackBerry fans with its controversial "suretype" keyboard, which squeezes two letters on most of the buttons.

Picture your computer keyboard shrunk by half. Suretype tries to predict the letters and words you are typing. In most cases, not including names and passwords, it does a good job.

Critics rightly point out you can type faster on a conventional qwerty keyboard.

But in defense of this predictive text feature, it saves space, and if you can stop fighting it and simply go with it, you'll manage most typing tasks.

As for Internet speeds, the EDGE technology, while fine for email, crawled on the Web, taking up to 30 seconds to deliver a page.

The blisteringly slow wait time was a big disincentive to attempting quick searches. With 3G widely available in most cities, there's no reason to keep Pearl in the slow lane.

But the Pearl keeps you happily distracted with numerous pleasant surprises.

Among the bonus features is a standby/mute button on the top of the phone.

There are certain times when an easy-to-find kill switch can be handy.

Also, the memory potential is huge.

The phone takes a micro SD card, which allows plenty of storage for pictures and songs.

Unfortunately, the flash memory card slot is under the battery.

Another crowd pleaser: The Pearl's T-Mobile service, a unit of Deutsche Telekom ( DT), supports OZ, an instant-messaging application that allows AOL IM, ICQ, MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger to work on the phone.

( AT&T's ( T) Cingular, by the way, also offers the Pearl.)

Thankfully, the Pearl is set up so you can download applications to the phone.

Google Maps, for example, was so surprisingly useful and cheap (free) that it may get you to think twice about any plans to buy a stand-alone GPS device for hundreds of dollars.

The Pearl will have a half-year jump on Apple's ( AAPL) hotly anticipated iPhone , scheduled for delivery in June.

The iPhone, an all-in-wonder device, will likely capture a big portion of the smartphone spending this year and take some of the luster off the Pearl.

As a camera, the Pearl is still a cell phone with very grainy images, and as a music player it offers an awfully small challenge to iPod.

Apple's iPhone will attract a crowd, but a whole new generation of avid mobile email fans will also find out what all the BlackBerry fuss is about with a satisfying Pearl fix.

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