Get in Sync: BlackBerry

The e-mail–focused BlackBerry, by Research in Motion (RIM), inaugurated the smart-phone category and is still largely regarded as a must-have accessory in corporate and government realms. Its Mac support is fairly limited, but e-mail junkies (and people whose jobs require them to be available at all times) can convince a BlackBerry to sync with their Macs.

The BlackBerry Approach The BlackBerry’s dominance in the corporate world is largely a result of its e-mail-centric approach. The BlackBerry introduced the concept of push e-mail, an innovation that has now spread to most other smart phones. When you use a regular e-mail program on a computer to check e-mail, you’re using a “pull” process: the client initiates a connection with a server, checks for new messages, and retrieves them. The e-mail is pulled off the server in a synchronous, or real-time, operation. As a result, you have to wait for that process to finish before you can see new messages.

The BlackBerry, however, allows for asynchronous message delivery. You configure the BlackBerry service for one or more e-mail accounts, the RIM servers regularly check those e-mail accounts, and when the servers spot new messages, they push the e-mail to your BlackBerry. (You can also receive e-mail through a provided address.) As a result, you get messages quicker.

There are many BlackBerry models available, and some provide 3G cellular connections for faster, or an alternative method of, data transfer. But we tested the BlackBerry 7250, as sold by Verizon Wireless, which has a fast EVDO modem.

BlackBerry smart phones started out with a wide design to accommodate their miniature QWERTY keyboards, which functioned just like standard computer keyboards. But the 7100 series and the new Pearl 8100 smart phones replace the one-letter-per-key keyboard with a two-letter-per-key predictive typing system that fits onto a smaller, more phone-like design (the 4 key, for instance, also acts as the D and F keys).

Because of its awkward navigation, the BlackBerry interface may irritate Mac, Palm, and even Windows Mobile users. BlackBerry phones don’t offer touch screens, so there’s no mouse-like stylus for choosing icons. Instead, most models have a wheel on the side to scroll through items and pages. Pressing it at close to a 90-degree angle to the device selects and activates items. Small deviations result in scrolling.

Although a BlackBerry’s scrolling method makes for nice, one-handed operation, the fact that the device represents standard functions with somewhat arbitrarily ordered icons in multiple rows on the screen makes the interface difficult to work with. Pressing the alt key (which has a half-moon icon) allows for up and down scrolling, but it’s no less awkward—and it requires two hands.

Mac Synchronization RIM doesn’t offer desktop management software for OS X, but the company does freely distribute (as long as you’re willing to provide your name, address, and e-mail address) Information Appliance Associates’ PocketMac for BlackBerry 4.0 (   ), which is a Universal app.

BlackBerry Pearl 8100

PocketMac for BlackBerry works very much like Apple’s iSync—no doubt because it was formerly an iSync plug-in. The current incarnation functions better as a stand-alone program, avoiding some of iSync’s limitations. You use PocketMac to choose which data you want to synchronize to various programs on the Mac. This approach allows you to be eclectic—for example, using iCal for your calendar and tasks, and Entourage for contacts and e-mail.

Current BlackBerry models come with USB cables for synchronization, and although many include Bluetooth wireless networking, you can’t use Bluetooth for synchronization on most models. (The exception is the Pearl model.)

E-mail Configuring push e-mail and setting an e-mail address for the BlackBerry itself are quite straightforward. It’s admirable that adding an e-mail address for a BlackBerry doesn’t require a separate visit, via computer, to a Web site and lots of data entry. You’re already on a uniquely registered device; RIM takes advantage of that.

PocketMac also offers two methods of linking e-mail between your Mac and a BlackBerry. With PocketMac running, you can set Entourage or Apple Mail to forward incoming messages to your BlackBerry’s e-mail address.

You can also load e-mail from the BlackBerry back onto your Mac. The E-mail Synchronization option copies messages that are found only in the BlackBerry’s inbox or sent-mail folder to either Entourage or Mail.

Other Media The new Pearl, unlike other BlackBerry models, can play audio and video files, store items on a microSD (Secure Digital) card that’s mountable on the desktop, transfer files with Bluetooth, and function as a cell data modem. However, the Pearl lacks the iPhoto integration that Palm OS and Windows Mobile devices offer, and syncing with iTunes requires PocketMac’s $10 pearlTunes app.

The Bottom Line If you need constant and instantaneous access to e-mail while away from your computer—or work in a place that expects that of you—the BlackBerry may be just what you need. However, we find its interface and Mac integration seriously backward when compared to the other two smart phone platforms. In the end, the BlackBerry prizes e-mail above all else, and it shows.

The last word

Mac users have never had it so good when it comes to synchronizing important data—no matter which type of smart phone you choose, there’s software to help you make the connection. And if you prefer a particular phone for some reason, you can rest assured that it can interact with your Mac on some level. But we feel that Palm OS is particularly suited to Mac users—thanks to its longtime and extensive support for Mac syncing—especially when paired with The Missing Sync for Palm OS. l

[ Jeff Carlson is the managing editor of TidBits and the author of iMovie HD 6 and iDVD 6 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide (Peachpit Press, 2006). Glenn Fleishman writes for the Economist, the New York Times, and Popular Science . Photography by Peter Belanger. ]

A Berry Good Year: PocketMac for BlackBerry lets you control many aspects of your BlackBerry’s communication with OS X, including synchronization with one of several popular calendar programs.

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