Tool offers multiple functions–phone, e-mail, planner–in a handheld device

If you’re a commuter, you probably see at least one BlackBerry device a day, if not more. You see people on buses and trains checking e-mail, typing (or more properly, thumbing) messages, going online, checking their daily schedules, and even using their BlackBerries as telephones.

Most of us would have to agree that it’s pretty amazing to have all these functions (and more) wrapped up in a device that’s about the size of a man’s wallet (folded) and weighs less than five ounces. This multiplicity of functions is what makes the BlackBerry 7250 Wireless Handheld such an interesting product for agents, brokers and other busy insurance professionals.

The device we evaluated was supplied by Verizon Wireless, which was also the wireless service provider. Research In Motion–a Waterloo, Ontario, Canada-based company–makes the hardware.

A bit less than half of the face of the device is taken up with a full-color display that is readable in ordinary lighting. The rest of the space is covered by a keyboard that tries hard to provide what a full-size keyboard would offer but understandably falls short.

Unless the circumference of your fingers is less than that of a number-two pencil, you’ll be using the edges of your thumbs to do your typing, and while I’ve seen some fairly facile BlackBerry thumbers, it’s probably safe to say that typing speed will suffer.

The key control of the device is the thumb-operated track wheel, located on the right edge of the device as you observe the display. The track wheel lets you shift onscreen highlighting, scroll through messages and, when pressed, select a highlighted item.

Just beneath the track wheel is an “escape” button whose function is fairly obvious. (A word of warning, however: It’s easy to roll the track wheel or press it and/or the escape button by simply picking up the device by its sides. That could result in a message being sent before it is completed, or in a host of other annoying and potentially embarrassing occurrences.)

Lesson: Pick the device up with thumb and forefingers on the top and bottom.

We found it easy to link the BlackBerry up to our work e-mail via connection to a network workstation and installation of software provided by the manufacturer. This allowed us to compose, view and respond to all of our e-mail from the device.

The size of the screen naturally limits the amount of information displayed at one time, however. The screen will display the first two kilobits (Kb) of an e-mail, which isn’t much. If you want to read the remainder, you need to use the “more” function and wait for the rest of the message to download.

In general, the BlackBerry provides a handy platform from which to manage e-mail. One feature we liked was an “auto-aging” function that, once set at a particular time frame by the user, automatically moves old messages to the Deleted Items folder. If you’re contemplating dealing with a significant volume of mail, however, you may find the display limitations of the device a bit frustrating.

You can use the BlackBerry like a standard cell phone, but if you have a hands-free set plugged in, you actually can send e-mail and talk simultaneously, assuming your brain will tolerate such multitasking.

An address book and electronic calendar are also standard and obviously useful, especially if you link them to your office PC. Other features include a calculator, task manager, password keeper, keyboard lock and Brick Breaker–a Pong-like game that could be an interesting distraction during a long and boring meeting.

The Internet browser features limited graphics due, in part, to the screen size and possibly to the limits of the wireless carrier. A company representative told us that some wireless carriers may offer full HTML browsing capabilities. The device also offers Bluetooth wireless technology that enables it to establish wireless connections with other devices that are similarly equipped.

While scrolling through the main screen one day, we did encounter an error message that, in effect, shut down the machine. RIM’s tech folks were friendly and helpful, and after a few hours of phone calls we were up and running again.

The tech representative told me that the problem was “software related,” that it was “very unusual,” and may have been caused by my review unit’s history of being passed around to numerous reviewers like myself. Lesson: Don’t lend your BlackBerry to a reviewer.

One limitation that bears noting is that we were unable to access Internet-based e-mail through the unit’s portal. With each of several tries, we got a message that a “communication failure” had occurred and that the server might be busy. I was able to access the same portal, however, and to read my Internet mail using my Internet-connected cell phone. The company representative told us that the device is not designed to access Internet-based mail.

To synchronize your personal data between the BlackBerry and your computer, you must install the software provided on an Intel-compatible 486 (does anyone still own one of those?) or higher computer that has at least a USB 1.1 port. Microsoft Windows 98, ME, 2000 or XP are also required on your PC.

Overall, the BlackBerry 7250 provides a handy mobile platform from which you can conduct many aspects of your business. In terms of e-mail, it’s not a replacement for your laptop or desktop unit, but it does get the job done neatly if you’re not dealing with high volumes of messages and you don’t need to type lengthy e-mails.

The BlackBerry 7250 sells for $299.99 with a two-year customer agreement, said RIM. Voice plans start at $39.99. Details are available at www.verizonwireless.com.