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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Calendars and contacts: Trade in your laptop, trade in some functionality
If you use BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server), syncing the BlackBerry to your contacts and calendar is automatic, and thus easy. Yet the calendar proved to be hard to read and navigate, mainly because so much detail is stuffed into each entry. Of course, the BlackBerry’s lack of a true WYSWIG interface means that, even if some calendar information were hidden by default, you would have to wade through even more menu options to reveal it. Preferring too much information over more menu jockeying, I found myself thinking twice before opening calendar entries, relying instead on the title as a reminder.

Where things get tricky is syncing contacts and calendar items outside of BES, at least on a Mac. The BlackBerry has no native sync capability with Mac (which I use), but you can download from RIM a free copy of PocketMac, which lets Mac OS’ iSync utility connect the BlackBerry to iCal and Address Book. All BlackBerry-created calendar items are placed in an iCal calendar called PocketMac, and only iCal appointments set in that calendar are synced. But this is an iCal/iSync limitation that affects any device, not just the BlackBerry.

But Apple is not to blame for an annoyance in the BlackBerry’s contacts manager. When getting an e-mail from a new person, I tried to add the person to my contacts list so that I wouldn’t have to type in the e-mail address in the future when composing e-mails. There’s a menu option to do so, but if the e-mail doesn’t include the person’s first and last name, you can’t save the new contact until you enter that in. It’s a requirement that shouldn’t be needed.

Documents and apps: Awkward at best
E-mail is critical to business, but e-mail won’t do it alone. At least not for me. I work with documents -- spreadsheets and text files, mostly -- as well as with some online management tools.

My BlackBerry has the DataViz Documents to Go software installed (some carriers provide it at no charge; it costs $70), so I could open and edit Microsoft Office and PDF documents. (Note that the BlackBerry can’t display most formatting in Office documents, such as fonts.) They were a snap to open from e-mail attachments, even from zipped ones.

[ Discover the 10 free must-have BlackBerry apps. ]

Within the confines of the BlackBerry’s tiny screen, I could read documents, though zooming was awkward. The BlackBerry’s trackball is also hard to control, at times not seeming to move the pointer, other times zinging the pointer across the screen. I could perform basic edits, such as inserting text or deleting it, and apply basic formatting, such as boldface, to selected text. Through a somewhat awkward combination of menus and trackball highlighting, I could also cut and paste.

Those who hope to write a report or rework a spreadsheet on a BlackBerry will be sorely disappointed. It’s simply too hard with BlackBerry's limited UI and screen. And if you track revisions in Word, all that is lost when you save in Documents to Go, making it fine for touch-up and comment insertion, but not for “real” or collaborative work -- you’ll need your laptop at the hotel and on the plane.

As for using Google Docs, which we do at the office for shared planners, calendars, and working proposals, don’t bother. You can look at spreadsheets (one column at a time) and edit cells, and you can view calebndars and edit individual events -- with some serious effort. You can’t edit text documents.

I surveyed several sales- and marketing-oriented apps such as and Salesplace. Clearly designed for a DOS-like environment, these forms-oriented apps proved underwhelming. I had a lot of trouble with Salesforce, which was often not available and twice caused the BlackBerry to crash and reboot (which takes forever). Salesforce’s primitive interface requires endless menu selections, and registration and setup are painful, and they required a reboot -- both common problems with the BlackBerry. Salesplace was easier to set up and less menu-intensive, but also more limited in its capabilities; ultimately it was no better an option than Salesforce.

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