Having just reviewed a BlackBerry handheld PDA (the 8700c) at the end of 2006, I was a bit surprised to be offered another one for evaluation earlier this year. After all, I reasoned, what else could they possibly have come up with in that relatively short period of time?

If your agency business frequently takes you on the road, however, you will appreciate the addition of a global positioning system to the Swiss-army-knife-like arsenal of functions already featured in the well-known BlackBerry devices. The GPS is the key improvement in the newer BlackBerry 8800, and frankly, I couldn’t wait to test it out.

But before we get to that, I have to talk about some significant addition by subtraction–to wit, the removal of the signature BlackBerry track wheel.

In previous versions, I have decried the fact that the track wheel–which stood out like a sore thumb on the upper right edge of the unit–was too easy to move or press by simply picking the unit up. The result was that the BlackBerry might receive commands you didn’t intend to give it.

The new 8800 unit, however, replaces the nuisance track wheel with a track ball navigation system that acts more like a mouse, and thus is intuitively easier to use.

Oh, I know some veteran BlackBerry users will miss the reassuring sensation of the track wheel gear teeth scraping across their thumbs, but the new track ball is actually smack in the middle of the unit’s face, making it more accessible and putting it closer to the tiny keyboard on which one must, in any case, use one’s thumbs.

Unfortunately, some of the unit’s controls are still on the edge of the 8800, but those controls do tend to have a lower profile than on previous units, making it somewhat less likely that you will press the wrong button by simply laying hands on it.

GPS TEST DRIVE

The BlackBerry 8800′s built-in global positioning system is coupled with a mapping application, and users can use it to view their current location or track routes to a target destination–specifying shortest distance or shortest time, and even allowing you to avoid highways, if that’s what you want.

As a user, the first thing you have to accept is that no matter where you are, the GPS knows, basically, where you are. If you’re a Mapquest user, you’re trained to type in a starting point and end point, but because the GPS already knows your starting point, you need only supply the destination.

To begin, I simply asked it to guide me home from my local train station, an easy three- to four-minute trip by car.

The process began with me typing in my home address. The GPS guides you in two ways: via a graphic representation of the roads on your screen, and via a rather insistent female voice that tells you where to go. While the graphic was interesting, it wasn’t terribly useful when I was trying to keep my eyes on the road.

One problem that became immediately apparent is that the GPS has no clue how to guide you out of a parking lot, which makes sense, since most parking lots aren’t laid out on road maps, either. As I negotiated my way out of the lot (yes, I do know how to get out on my own), the voice kept suggesting turns, then other turns that simply weren’t there.

I started to think the unit might just overheat and die, but once I got onto a street, it recovered nicely.

The GPS didn’t take me home the way I would normally go, but it didn’t make any mistakes, either. It named the streets I was traveling on and knew on which side of the street I would find my home.

When I finally pulled into my driveway, it also knew enough to tell me that I had arrived at my destination.

Next, I decided to try the GPS for a longer trip (about 17 miles) that involved both highways and local roads. As I went along, the unit’s screen would occasionally go blank, and I thought the screen saver might be booting me out of the GPS program, but I needn’t have worried. As soon as I needed to do anything, the screen lit up and the guiding voice returned.

At one point, the highway branched–one way being a local route and the other express, but both still the same road. The GPS didn’t tell me which route to take, so I opted for the local way. No sooner had I done this, however, than the unit began beeping and then telling me that it was “re-routing.” Within a few minutes, it took me to a side street that reconnected with the express version of this highway, and all was right with the world.

This is one of the best features of the GPS–not only if you take a wrong turn, but also if you just decide to go another way. However you go, it will re-plot the route to accommodate you, which is especially helpful if the recommended route is mired in a traffic jam.

Another difficulty arose as I was about to turn onto an interstate highway. The voice simply said, “Turn right to highway,” without identifying the highway’s name. When I got a chance to steal a glance at the display, however, the highway number was there. The lesson, I suppose, is that the insistent female may not always give you complete information.

Other than these few glitches, the GPS performed very well, and it even showed me a somewhat faster way to get to my destination that day. For agents or others who must find unfamiliar locations while on the road, this is a useful feature indeed.

OTHER FEATURES

As with previous BlackBerry models, I found this to be a handy mobile platform from which users can conduct many aspects of their business.

The device allows users to check e-mail, type messages (with their thumbs), go online, check daily schedules and even use the BlackBerry as a telephone. Phone features include voice-activated dialing, a large assortment of ring tones, speakerphone, smart dialing, conference calling, speed dialing and call forwarding.

Among the newer features I particularly liked is an icon that allows you to “send a voice note.” Very simply, you can speak a message into the microphone on the device, save it as a file, and send it as either an e-mail or a telephone message to whomever you like. The recipient either hears your voice on the phone or hears it played through computer speakers when the file is opened.

It occurred to me that this would be a handy way to send important reminders to myself–obviating my previous method of scribbling a note on a cocktail napkin or hastily torn piece of newspaper. Agents might also use this to get messages to associates, as well as customers. It has the additional benefit of being delivered in the sender’s own voice, giving it that personal touch that agents often prize.

For those who simply must have the coolest devices, it is worth noting that the BlackBerry 8800 includes a media player and storage space for pictures, audio and visual files–much like the highly touted Apple iPhone. The sound quality we experienced from the resident media was excellent for such a tiny device.

Overall, the BlackBerry 8800 continues to represent a useful adjunct to your office systems, although certainly not a replacement for them. It cannot easily handle large volumes of e-mail messages, and typing in lengthy messages on this device may be a trial, unless you have particularly facile thumb skills.