How a BlackBerry Works

Blackberry Hardware
We took apart a BlackBerry similar to this 6700 model.
We took apart a BlackBerry similar to this 6700 model.
Photo courtesy RIM

A BlackBerry can do everything that a cell phone can do, including sending text messages via SMS. It's also an organizer, a calendar, an e-mail client, a Web browser, a two-way pager and a palm-top computer. Although it can do some of the same things a computer can, it doesn't have to be in a WiFi hot spot to work -- it uses the cell phone network as well as 802.11b WLAN. To do all this, it combines the components of a cell phone and a PDA.

Some BlackBerry models have the same form factor and components as a smart phone. Others look more like PDAs or palmtop computers. Specific components can vary from one model to another, but in general the visible parts of a BlackBerry are:

  • LCD display
  • QWERTY keyboard
  • Click wheel
  • On/off, escape and other keys
  • Headset jack
  • USB charger connection
  • Antenna (interior on some models)
  • Indicator light to advise users of new messages or data

From the outside of the unit, you can also see where the microphone and speaker are located as well as where to access the rechargeable lithium ion battery.

A printed circuit board connects everything inside the case, including:

The internal parts of the BlackBerry.

Unlike many earlier PDAs, which used touch screens as a user interface, the BlackBerry has a keyboard designed for use with the thumbs. This keyboard operates much like the keyboard of your computer, with one notable difference. Most computer keyboards use dome switches, and each key lies over one switch. Pressing the key activates the switch. In a BlackBerry, however, rows of dome switches lie between the rows of keys. Each key has actuators that press one or more of the switches adjacent to it.

The underside of the BlackBerry keyboard.

The BlackBerry's software uses a lookup table to match each letter with a specific combination of dome switches. This layout uses fewer switches, allowing a smaller keyboard.

BlackBerry smart phones have even less space for a keyboard, so each key corresponds to more than one letter. Predictive text software called SureType lets a person type normally and determines the right word as the person types. People can also use multiple taps on each key to select different letters as most people currently do to send text messages on their cell phones.

Next, we'll look at the software that drives the BlackBerry.