How much work can you do on a BlackBerry?

The laptop-free promise of today’s next-gen mobile devices is put to the test. Can the BlackBerry Bold deliver?

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I became proficient at two-thumb typing in a matter of days, although numerals never came easy due to the Alt key’s too-close placement, meaning that anything that required numbers or symbols had me going at a snail’s pace. Still, sending and replying to messages was a breeze, and I can see why so many businesspeople can’t stop typing on their BlackBerrys.

Addressing messages, however, exposed my first frustrations in forgoing my laptop in favor of the BlackBerry. For example, you can select someone from your address book as you type in an address, but the BlackBerry doesn’t look up addresses of people you’ve received messages from or previously responded to, so you have to type those in completely. Those of us for whom collaboration is key depend on expediency of communication, and this kind of extra labor adds up fast.

Also labor-intensive was keeping my inbox free of unnecessary e-mail. Deleting messages is easy, but having to confirm whether you want to keep a deleted message on the server each time is a real slowdown. Fortunately, there’s an option to stop that. What I couldn’t do was multiple-delete messages unless they were contiguous, making it hard to get rid of the endless junk that streamed into my inbox.

In fact, managing e-mails on the Bold proved to be more of a pain than expected. The lack of options for mail filtering or blocking spam on the BlackBerry is to be expected for a mobile device, but time-stamping messages based on when the BlackBerry downloads them, not when they arrived at the server, wreaked havoc on my message order any time I was not connected to the Internet, such as when the battery died or I was on a plane. Choosing the Reconcile option compounded the problem, loading six months’ worth of archived e-mail onto the BlackBerry -- even though I had set a 30-day mail retention limit on the Bold -- all with the current date and time, burying real mail from that day beneath 9,000 “new” messages.

For many business users, organizing e-mail into folders is essential to remaining productive, as is the ability to sort e-mail based on rules -- functionality BlackBerry lacks. Using a BlackBerry Exchange Server to connect to my Exchange e-mail account for work meant my folder structure was replicated on the BlackBerry, and I could move messages to the folders without much trouble. But without Exchange mirroring the move on the server, I had to repeat that work back at my laptop. And once I moved messages on the laptop, they remained in the BlackBerry’s top-level index, keeping it cluttered. There is an option to actually move the mail, not jusy copy it -- the BlackBerry is full of such options that are hard to know exist, much less fine, even if you peruse the various setup options.

Navigating folders on the BlackBerry was also painful. Getting to the folders requires several steps in the BlackBerry’s menu system (most things do, unfortunately), and once I was in a folder to see messages, I had to start at the top again to switch folders. Soon enough, I stopped using e-mail folders on the BlackBerry altogether.

But the BlackBerry does offer worthwhile e-mail navigation. Press T to go to the top of your message list, B to move to the bottom, or U for the first unread message. Using a menu option, you can also search your messages by name, subject, message body, and e-mail account.

I also set up my personal e-mail account on the BlackBerry, which provides a separate e-mail icon for each account so that you can switch back and forth easily. That said, if you've set up multiple e-mail accounts, the folders created for each share the same name, so you can’t really tell what e-mail folder you’re opening. That confused me every time. The exception is an e-mail account set up through the BlackBerry Exchange Server, which establishes a root folder with a unique name.

All in all, the BlackBerry sufficed for on-the-go e-mail. But its poor organizational capabilities for e-mail (particularly around folders) made it unsuitable as a message manager. You’ll still need a laptop or desktop for that.

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