The Web's First Review of the BlackBerry KickStart 8220.
Grab a cup of coffee, sit back and relax! It's time for another hands-on review of a yet to be officially announced or released BlackBerry smartphone. We were the first to get our paws on the BlackBerry 9000, and we're doing it again with Research in Motion's BlackBerry flip phone, aka the KickStart.
While the last few weeks in CrackBerry nation have been primarily focused on the release of the BlackBerry Bold and the development of RIM's upcoming touchscreen device, rewind less than three months back to April 30th and it was leaked images of the KickStart that shocked the smartphone world and pushed RIMM stock up nearly 5% on the news and for good reason - it showed the world and investment community that RIM wasn't afraid of reinventing and targeting opportunities outside their norm. No, the KickStart doesn't feature the same high-end hardware and all-in-one functionality of the Bold nor have the same allure that a touchscreen BlackBerry proposes, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't get excited about this device. It may not be something that existing BlackBerry or other smartphone users will flock to, but if it hits store shelves at a reasonable price it should be a top pick for flip phone lovers and feature phone upgraders, which should mean CrackBerry nation is about to get a whole lot bigger, and that is exciting.
As with our BlackBerry Bold review, keep in mind the device we're working with here is pre-release. While the hardware of our KickStart seems to be pretty close to (or perhaps actual) production caliber, and the OS is "close", it's possible (and in the case of the OS version guaranteed) things will change-up a bit by the time you can walk into your local carrier store and buy this device.
We're going to break this review down into a few parts. Today we'll focus mainly on the hardware and initial impressions after having used the KickStart for a few hours and in the days ahead we'll dig deeper into the KickStart's operating system and device features.
Start at the KickStart
Before we move into the hands-on, let's recap some of the discussion points and key features surrounding RIM's BlackBerry flip phone.
8220 and 8210 Key Features:
The device in possession features WiFi and the operating system features T-Mobile themes and features (MyFaves), making the unit in the pictures a 8220 KickStart. The OS version is 220.127.116.11 and the Options > About screen is still labeled as BlackBerry 9100. Expect further OS revisions.
Initial Reactions and Observations
With the BlackBerry KickStart it seems RIM has managed to achieve a form factor that is both Small yet BIG. It's actually a little bit weird to experience at first. Sitting on the desk next to a pile of other smartphones (a few BlackBerrys, a Treo 680 and even an iPhone 3G) with its flip closed, the KickStart "seems" small. With the exception of the Treo 680, the KickStart is definitely the thickest of the bunch, but the width and height of the device is obviously much smaller and the black face with chrome-colored edging makes it look tight. Despite the extra thickness added to the device from having a flip, the KickStart should be small enough to fit into most people's pockets inconspicuously. Busting out the measuring tape, with the flip closed the KickStart comes in at ~ 4" long, just under 2" wide and about 11/16ths of an inch thick.
Flip the KickStart open, which by the way is easy to do with one hand, and the KickStart looks MASSIVE. The internal LCD is big (a good thing), but there is a lot of "border" surrounding it which makes the top half of the phone appear large. On the base, the KickStart's "Next Gen" SureType keyboard features oversized keys -- we're talking literally twice the size of the keys on the Pearl -- and also features the same guitar-fret inspired row separators as the BlackBerry Bold. Even those with the biggest of hands (or is it fattest of fingers?!) should be able to text and email at speed on this thing, assuming of course they are willing to learn SureType. But below the spacious keyboard there is a lot of dead space, and above the trackball the flip's hinge takes up quite a bit room, making the base of the flip feel a bit empty. Holding the KickStart up to my ear, the phone's resting position feels natural - the angle of the phone sits well with my ear/cheek/mouth and the unit is easy to hold.
On the kitchen scale the KickStart weighs in at 100 grams (~3.5oz), which places it firmly in the lightweight division of smartphone competitors. Sum it all up and my first impression of the KickStart was more favorable than I expected (some of the earlier leaked photos had me a bit turned off). Sitting with the flip closed I really like the look - it's sort of elegant, understated, and futuristic all at once. With the flip open the KickStart appears a little big and a little plain, but the design makes the device easy to navigate and type on one-handed (an acceptable trade-off), and when I'm talking on the phone I can't see it anyways, so I'm not going to gripe too much. While definitely divergent from other BlackBerry smartphones on the market, it only takes a few minutes of use to realize this is still very much a BlackBerry, which is a good thing.
Though the KickStart is small and lightweight, it appears to be well-built. Unclasp the battery door (which features a sliding release mechanism vs. push-in button release) and under the small CM2 battery (same as the Pearl?!) the manufacturing stickers say "Made in Sweden." I'm pretty sure that's a first for a BlackBerry.
Overall build quality seems good, very good if the KickStart will sell for as low a price as we're hoping. With the flip closed there is a tiny bit of wiggle room on the flip's hinge (on this particular device anyways), which tightens up when opened and provides a very solid feel. The flip's materials are nice - the glossy black coating looks great, and the external display turns so "black" when it's off that you don't even realize it's there. It's actually surprising to see it light up to display the time, battery level, connection/signal, and message notification icons and incoming messages. The flip also features the KickStart's 2 megapixel camera with flash, and...I like this one... the good ‘ole LED notification light mirrors the camera flash's look and is mounted opposite the camera lens, keeping things symmetrical.
Build quality through the base of the phone is also good, though the material finish here doesn't seem quite as nice. The convenience key and volume control buttons and microSD card hatch seem a little on the plasticy/cheap side and the sliding action on the battery door release leaves a bit of room for improvement. Again, it should be noted this is a pre-release model, so this may change. Thinking back to the original marketing images of the KickStart that surfaced it was shown that the KickStart would feature a selection of material choices (ie. Soft touch black or metal battery door, or low gloss topcoat for graphics application). Come commercial release time, it's likely there will be more to the KickStart than currently meets the eye.
Around the perimeter of the phone is the standard BlackBerry attire: left side and right side convenience keys, volume up/down controls, a mute button, a 3.5mm headset jack, externally accessible microSD card slot, holes to allow the speaker sound to escape, and like the Pearl, a small anchor for attaching a lanyard. There is one exception though - instead of the usual miniUSB charging/syncing port, the KickStart features a microUSB port.
With the flip open the LCD display looks good (definitely no Bold display though!) and is big. The OS4.6 Precision theme looks good on it. As mentioned, the SureType keyboard is massive, making it very easy to use. The least easy to use item on the KickStart is actually the trackball. On other trackball equipped BlackBerry smartphones, the ball is the highest point on the device - it typically protrudes higher than the keyboard and display. Due to the nature of a closing flip lid, the area around the trackball is actually dug out into the phone allowing the trackball to sit deeper in the device so it sits flush and doesn't hit the display when closed. This actually changes the trackball experience somewhat. Instead of using flat of the thumb to roll over the trackball, this design changes forces you to approach the trackball from a slightly steeper angle, putting the trackball more under the tip of the thumb. If you're an existing BlackBerry user it will definitely take some getting used to. It's not difficult to use, just different. Surrounding the trackball are the standard Send/End call keys and BlackBerry menu and back buttons, though instead of being placed on four individual buttons, they span two device-wide buttons.
Under the battery cover the biggest item to note is the position of the SIM card. It actually slides in horizontally into the device housing. Definitely a little unBlackBerry-like. It took me a minute of staring to figure out where it should go and how it should be slid in. There is an indicator that instructs the proper way to insert the card - it's just a little hard to see in my old age. :-)
All in all, the KickStart's hardware is good. I was a bit worried the introduction of a flip phone might cheapen the solid reputation of the BlackBerry brand, but based on what I've seen of the KickStart so far I think it's safe to lay that fear at rest.
KickStart My Heart? Flip Phone Comparisons
With such a divergent form factor from the existing BlackBerry smartphone line-up, comparing the KickStart next to the 8700, 8800, Curve or Bold seems a bit irrelevant. Instead, I headed to the mall and snuck a few comparison shots to provide an impression of how the KickStart stacks up to the flip competition.
I don't know much about the other flip phones on the market (I don't know anything about them to be honest!), but walking through the stores and checking out the flips on display the KickStart looks like it should be able to hold its own in terms of both fashion and function.
Showing the KickStart off to a few store agents, the comments received back after the initial "WTF is that?!" we're pretty positive for the KickStart. My favorite was when one of the agents said, "If we start selling these (KickStart) and they're priced competitively, I don't think we'll be selling anymore of these" as she pointed to a couple of Motorola flips. Apparently a lot of the flip phone buyers these days are teenagers looking for a text messaging machines and the BlackBerry brand has a lot of respect among that segment as well (in North America anyways) - this marriage of BlackBerry and flip could be a big hit. This segment of the market is typically price sensitive though, so we may see it become the case that a lot of BlackBerry KickStarts get sold without a data plan. I guess time will tell!
BlackBerry KickStart 8220 vs BlackBerry Pearl 8120
The most relevant smartphone comparison for the BlackBerry KickStart is to its older sibling, the BlackBerry Pearl. The pictures that follow compare the KickStart to a BlackBerry Pearl 8120.
While I think the BlackBerry Pearl is good for both the ladies and gents, one of the ongoing arguments in the forums is the notion that Pearls are for Girls. For any guys who actually worry about this, rest-assured the KickStart is a more masculine SureType option in the BlackBerry family.
Up Next - Using the BlackBerry KickStart
Up Next: Using the KickStart and OS4.6
Stay tuned for more in the web's first review of the BlackBerry KickStart. Up next we'll dive into OS 4.6 on the KickStart and put its features to use. In the meantime, be sure to submit your reactions and questions in the comments!