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Although the RIM Blackberry series of handheld PDA/phones are popular, they are not without their limitations.

This article gives you helpful information to use when choosing a handheld PDA/phone unit, and then how to best use it.

 
 
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Blackberry Tips, Ideas and Suggestions

Readers share their thoughts and suggestions
 


Being a combination of phone, PDA, email manager, plus various other capabilities make a Blackberry, Palm Treo, or other similar unit a potentially invaluable mobile tool.

But such units inevitably suffer from necessary design compromises.  Here are comments from readers as to what they've found good and bad in such units.

Part 3 of a four part series on Blackberry and other personal email units - please also visit

1.  Blackberry 8700 review
2.  Reader survey results on personal email units
3.  Reader feedback and comments/suggestions about Blackberry, Treo, and other units
4.  Blackberry 8800 review

 

 

If you don't already have a Blackberry or similar type of combined PDA/phone/email manager, the information below will be helpful in assisting you decide if you should get one, and in choosing which unit would be best for your needs.

And if you do already have such a unit, the chances are some of the ideas and comments below will help you to get better use out of your unit.


Reader Commentary - Some Surprising Comments

We received a lot of helpful comments from readers, telling us about features they liked and didn't like on their handheld email units.

Some readers reported on things they didn't like with their units, but these negative features were actually mistakes by the readers.  For example, one reader said he couldn't go back to correct a mistake when composing an email with his Blackberry - this is indeed possible - use the scroll wheel to go up or down, line by line, and then Alt-Scroll to move the cursor along each line.

If you think your Blackberry (or other device) can't do something, you might be correct, but you also may not be.  Check the manual, and/or call up your wireless company's technical support and, rather than negatively asking them to confirm that something is impossible, positively phrase the question 'how do I do - - -' and you might be pleasantly surprised to discover what you wanted to do can indeed be done.

Sometimes the way things are done, eg on the Blackberry, are far from intuitive, but the chances are that most things you might want to do are indeed possible.

Reader Commentary - Best and Worst Features

Touchscreens

The Blackberry does not have a touchscreen, but the Treo and some other units do.

Readers were of mixed opinion about touchscreens.  Some liked them, but others reported problems due to all sorts of objects accidentally touching the screen and causing inadvertent commands to be executed.

Higher Speed Data Access

There was - unsurprisingly - a universal consensus on this point.  Everyone liked systems that used EDGE or some other form of faster than regular GPRS data, and many people complained at how slow GPRS based systems were, particularly for web browsing.

Faster connection speeds aren't so obviously beneficial when reading emails but are highly desirable when connecting to web pages.

The Blackberry 8700 does support EDGE and this is a strong point it its favor.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi was not a feature many readers were excited about, and some pointed out the downside to Wi-Fi support - much shorter battery life.

For most users, regular GPRS or EDGE data speeds are more than sufficient, most of the time.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth is increasingly popular and increasingly considered a must-have feature.  Unfortunately, Blackberry have severely limited the range of Bluetooth connectivity functions supported by their units.  Ostensibly this is for security purposes, but the end result is that things which could be very much simpler - for example synchronizing calendar and contact details between the unit and your main computer - do not take advantage of the Bluetooth capability.

Handwriting recognition

Treo units have handwriting recognition, Blackberry units don't.  But no readers seemed keen on the handwriting recognition feature, with most preferring to use the keyboard.

Built in camera

Treo units have built in cameras - the 600 and 650 have low resolution (VGA) cameras and the 700 has a much better 1.3 megapixel camera.  These cameras can be used for still shots and also for short video clips.

Unfortunately, the Blackberry units don't have cameras.

Several readers liked the 'all in one' convenience of having a built in camera, and particularly liked being able to take a picture and then attach it to an email message.  But a couple of other readers felt the camera was unnecessary and were pleased to not have it on their Blackberry unit.

Battery life

As units get more features, and bigger brighter color screens, battery life drops.  Several readers wrote longingly of the better battery life they had experienced on older model Blackberry phones - some would last a week or two between charges, whereas now (depending of course on how much you use it) it is more common to only have a day or two between charges, and some units (not Blackberry or Treo) went through their batteries in less than half a day if the email was being accessed fairly extensively.

Add on Software

This is seen as a great strength of the Treo units.  There are literally thousands of programs written for the Palm OS, enabling a Treo unit to become a very versatile unit capable of helping you better accomplish many tasks.

A growing number of programs are being written for the Windows Mobile OS as well.

There are far fewer add-on programs for the Blackberry system.

Size of Unit

There is a paradox in designing these handheld email units.  The smaller you make them, the less convenient the keyboards become.

Blackberry tried an innovative way to beat this limitation by making each key represent two letters rather than one with their 7100 series of phones (see the picture at the top of this page).

Unfortunately this two letter per key compromise has only been moderately successful and many readers have found it unsatisfactory.

The unavoidable fact seems to be that a phone with keyboard and decent sized screen is going to be larger than a simple cell phone without a keyboard and without the need for as large a screen.  But this fact didn't stop many readers from complaining that their units were too large, and the Treo, for once, scored particularly poorly here, it being somewhat bulkier than most of the Blackberry units.

Internal storage

Most Blackberry units have 32 MB of memory to hold all user data, email, and additional programs.  The new 8700 models have 64 MB.

Treo units have less than 32 MB, but can also have an extra plug in memory card to greatly increase their capacity, and to make it easier to transfer data to or from the unit.  Blackberry units don't have plug in memory cards.

Some users reported problems with running out of memory on their Treo units, with the Treos becoming unstable when their memory was nearly full.  No-one reported problems running out of memory with the Blackberry units.

Phone functions

No-one much liked using their unit as a phone, whether they had a Palm Treo or a Blackberry unit.  In fairness, it seems the latest Blackberry 8700 units have much better phone audio quality than earlier units, but even those were generally not considered to be as good as a regular cell phone.

A common suggestion was to use the unit with an headset - either Bluetooth or a regular wired headset.  This seemed to improve the audio quality.

Another reason for using a headset is that it allows you to then look at the unit and access its various functions while also talking on the phone (although in most cases, while the unit is being used as a phone it will suspend the sending and receiving of emails).

One person even reported they found holding an 8700 was too heavy.  Being as how the 8700 weighs only 5 ounces, that would seem a slightly unfair comment!

Reliability

The Blackberry units were viewed as much more reliable.  No-one complained about the units, and several people praised the ability of the Blackberry units to get email even in poor signal areas.

On the other hand, several people reported reliability issues with their Treos, with crashes occasionally occurring for some people.

Reader Suggestions and Helpful Hints

User Forums

A consistent suggestion was to visit some of the user forums on the internet to get new ideas, and to find solutions to problems you might be experiencing.

For the Treo, blog.treonauts.com/ and www.treocentral.com/ are recommended.

For the Blackberry, www.blackberryforums.com/ and www.blackberrytoday.com/ and blackberrygoodies.com/index2.php are helpful sites.

Books

Consider buying a book on how to get the best use out of your new handheld unit.

I've looked at several books for the Blackberry, and perhaps surprisingly, my favorite is the Blackberry for Dummies title.  Another good book, but written for the more technical user and developer is Blackberry Hacks.

Internet Capabilities

Don't just consider your Blackberry as a means of receiving and sending emails and phone calls.

One of its greatest conveniences is the ability to act as an internet browser.  As one reader said, 'I can Google anytime a question comes up'.  Whether you're using Google or the resources conveniently placed in the Berry 411 program (see next section), whenever you have your Blackberry with you, you're only a few clicks away from almost anything you might need on the internet as a whole.

Make a point of copying over favorites from your main computer, and be sure to save logins and password details for sites that require them, too.

Extra Software

One of the exciting things about these units is their potential to have considerably more functionality added to them in the form of extra software.  Some software improves on already existing functions (eg, better IM chat clients) and other software adds completely new functionality (eg mapping and GPS capabilities), while still more software provides better management of the unit and its various capabilities (for example, 'Pref Doctor' for the Treo).

There's an excellent site with a huge range of software for Blackberries, Treos, and most other handheld mobile devices - www.handango.com.  You're sure to find plenty to tempt you there - software ranging from spell checkers and business applications to travel reference material, ringtones and games.  Many of the products include free trials that allow you to try before you buy, and most are reasonably priced.

One of the most popular Blackberry add-on programs is Berry 411, and it is offered free by the developer from his website.

Another add-on that works for a range of different handheld units is Google Maps.  This is a wonderful program that in addition to simply displaying maps can also show traffic conditions and direct you to addresses, help you find stores, and much more.

Auto Text

One of the great productivity enhancements of the Blackberry units is the ability to create Auto Text entries.  If you find you are often typing very similar emails, you can set up auto text - boilerplate text entries that you generate by entering a short abbreviation.

For example, on my Blackberry, if I type the three letters 'sch' the following text displays :

Hi

Thanks for your enquiry.  Unfortunately we can't currently help with that model phone.

You might want to continue to check back with us from time to time because we are adding extra models to our unlocking capabilities on a regular basis.

David.

Chances are you can think of some things you often type, too, and auto text entries can save you a lot of repeat typing.

GPS

Some handheld units can be connected to a GPS antenna, and will run a GPS mapping/tracking program to enable you to see exactly where you are on a map.

We generally don't recommend you use such devices - the screen size of the handheld unit is usually too small to conveniently read, especially when you're driving at the same time.

'Sent from my Blackberry' tagline

Some users don't like having this default tagline added to the end of their emails.  Perhaps they don't want people to know they're not in their office.

It is possible to turn this out - in the case of T-mobile service, it is an option you can set through their web configuration program.

But I generally like to leave it in place, because it explains to people why they're just getting a very brief reply from me rather than my usual more lengthy response.

External Keyboard

Even the most ardent fan of their Blackberry or other handheld device will readily concede the keyboard is a barrier to being able to type long emails quickly and conveniently.

Various different models of external keyboards are available for Palm Treo units, and there are now keyboards available for Blackberry units too.

These keyboards are usually slightly smaller than a full sized computer keyboard, and have the usual typewriter set of keys (ie no separate number pad).  They typically fold up into a compact size (some even fold in four) making them easy to travel with, and if you're settling down for an extended session of writing emails, you would find one of these keyboards invaluable.

Some Blackberry Specific Tips

  • If you don't plan to use the unit outside of work, you can use the Auto On-Off feature to have it turn off at the end of your work day and turn on again the next morning.

  • Most users end up turning off most of the notification alarms and vibrate signals.  This slightly extends battery life and makes the unit's presence less annoying to others around you.

  • Consider turning off the 'Dial from Homescreen' option (in the General Options part of the Phone menu).  This will allow you to use shortcut keps to jump between homescreen applications (eg m for memos, a for addresses, p for phone, etc)

  • Most newer Blackberries allow you to change font sizes, and you might wish to change from the default system font.  You might prefer a bigger/bolder font, or if your eyesight is keen enough, you might prefer a smaller font.

  • Move the home screen icons so that the ones you use the most are at the beginning.

  • Be sure to switch on password protection for your phone.  You can vary how long before the unit locks itself automatically.  And at the same time, enter in your name, address, and contact information, so that if your unit is found, the finder will know how to reach you.

  • Add a line that says something like 'Generous Reward Paid to Finder, No Questions Asked' to the owner information that appears on the screen when the unit is locked.  This may encourage the unit's finder to contact you.

  • The 8700 has two programmable keys - one on the left of the unit and one in the center.  Assign these to common functions.

  • Holding down a letter for a couple of seconds will convert it to upper case.

  • Turn your wireless off and you can legally use the unit on the plane without the danger of interfering with the plane's electronics.  This allows you to read emails and prepare replies that will be sent once you turn the wireless back on again after landing.

  • Delete multiple consecutive emails by holding down the shift key while selecting the emails.

  • When in an email address field, and typing the address, you can type the name, then hit the space bar and the '@' symbol will be inserted for you; then type the domain, hit space again and the '.' will be inserted, and then type com or net, etc to finish the address.

The Blackberry Mindset

A Blackberry (or Treo, etc) shouldn't supplant your usual email management methods.  Rather, it can add to it.  For example, one reader said he likes to check his email first thing in the morning at home before going in to work.  He doesn't reply to any emails then, but this gives him a 'heads up' and a chance to think about issues while traveling to work.

Another reader referred to using his Blackberry as a means to triage his email.  He can immediately respond to the most urgent issues, send one liner responses to other issues, and defer less important things until at his regular computer.

Other readers commented that their Blackberry could save them from needing to take a laptop computer with them while traveling on short trips out of town.

These three strategies illustrate the best ways to add a Blackberry to your life.  Having a Blackberry means you can always know what is coming in to your email box, while not obliging you to have to be always responding to the emails.

There's a fourth strategy as well.  You can use your Blackberry to manage your email at times that would otherwise be wasted time.  If you're waiting in line at your local supermarket or bank, if you arrive at a concert or movie early, anywhere when you'd normally be just wasting time, you can now use your Blackberry to catch up on emails.

Before I had my Blackberry, and while traveling, I would typically need to set aside an hour or more in the morning before breakfast and leaving the hotel for the day to work through emails, and then another hour or more in the evening to work through more emails.  Now, with my Blackberry, I've been able to save at least one and possibly two of those hours, because I've been able to steal one and two and five minute slices of time during the day - while waiting to meet a client, when waiting to collect luggage at the end of a flight, while stuck in traffic in the back of a cab, and so on all through the day.

My Blackberry has given me back than an hour or more of extra time every day, and rather than getting frustrated at delays and wasted time, I'm now relaxed and unworried because it is no longer wasted time.

So next time you see people flicking through their emails in what you think to be inappropriate places, don't feel superior and make a joke about those people being addicted to their Crackberry.  They're not addicted.  They're just sensibly using wasted time - the time that would otherwise have been wasted is now being used to give them more quality free time back at home that evening.

If email takes up a large slice of your day, don't you think you should consider a Blackberry (or other PDA email device) too?

Summary

The preceding section on 'The Blackberry Mindset' is of perhaps greatest relevance to people considering if they should purchase a Blackberry or similar type unit.

If you do get such a unit, then be prepared to invest extra time in learning how to use it most effectively, and consider investing extra money in buying extra programs to use on the unit, and perhaps to get a well written instruction manual book as well.

With a bit of extra effort and investment, chances are you too will become a devotee and beneficiary of the Blackberry's enormous capabilities.

Bottom line - well, for me, my Blackberry saves me at least an hour of quality time every day, and ensures I never miss any important or urgent communication.  I'm a convert.

Part 3 of a three part series on Blackberry and other personal email units - please also visit

1.  Blackberry 8700 review
2.  Reader survey results on personal email units
3.  Reader feedback and comments/suggestions about Blackberry, Treo, and other units

 

If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.

 

Originally published 4 August 2006, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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