What to do with your new BlackBerry

If you got a PlayBook for Christmas, there’s not much to do but download apps, but for those that just got their first BlackBerry smartphone, there’s a lot more to wrap your head around. I actually just bought my mom her first cell phone for the holidays (a Curve 9300 on Mobilicity), and even after a solid afternoon of tutoring, it felt like there was a lot more to cover. Hopefully I’ll be able to pass on some essential basics and the offer the first steps to advanced usage in this handy guide.

Setting Up

Before anything, you’ll want to prime your device battery. This is a good practice for any gadget with a lithium-ion battery. Charge that bad boy over night to make sure it’s in top-notch condition for the long haul. On a day-to-day basis, you’ll want to make sure the phone is drained to nearly empty before plugging it in, and charging all the way to full in order to maintain high battery life. If you got one of the newer BlackBerry 7 devices, the first thing the phone will ask you for once turned on is a BlackBerry ID. You’ll be able to use this ID for a variety of services, including accessing BlackBerry App World on a desktop PC, and easily setting up new devices should you ever switch phones.

After getting that out of the way, you’ll be taken through the e-mail set-up rigamarole. If nothing else, BlackBerry is well-known for handling e-mail, and if you go through a lot of it, you’ll be spending tons of time on your new phone. Connecting to the usual webmail services like Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo! is really straightforward, and that log-in information can be automatically applied to their related instant messaging clients. Connecting to your corporate e-mail might require a bit more legwork, namely finding the right server settings; talk to your IT guy about getting that info.

You’ll probably want to sync your contacts and calendar too. Navigate to Setup -> Email accounts -> Edit, then scroll down to the bottom, where you’ll find Synchronization Options, where you should be able to check off Calendar, Contacts, and Deleted Items. It shouldn’t take long for all of that to sync up.  While you’re there, you’ll probably want to update the Your Name field near the top and the signature section, where you might want to mention you’re sending your e-mail via BlackBerry, so recipients can excuse your shodding typing skills.

It’s entirely likely that you asked for a BlackBerry to get in touch with friends over BBM. After setting up your name and possibly updating the BlackBerry Messenger app itself, you can start inviting your friends as contacts via e-mail if you don’t have their PIN number handy. You can always share yours by typing “mypin” and hitting space anywhere on the device. There’s also QR barcode scanning as an invite option if your friend is right there; you can show your PIN barcode by tapping the top bar from the BBM home screen to open your profile, and hitting the “Show” button near the top. Your friend can then scan that code with their BlackBerry camera from the Invite to BBM menu to fire out the invite.

The final part of set-up for me is getting my social networks plugged in. Twitter and Facebook are the biggies, but there’s an app for LinkedIn, though it’s a bit dated. There’s nothing other than a mobile site for Google+, unfortunately. Facebook and Twitter should be preloaded, but may need to be updated through App World, which you can log into with your BlackBerry ID. Once you’ve logged in to your fully-updated Twitter and Facebook apps, you’ll want to start linking contacts with those in your address book. This means when you dig up your contact later on, you won’t only see their phone number, address, and the usual stuff you’ve manually inputted or synced, but there will also be a section to show their latest status updates. Facebook even pulls in their latest profile picture to use for caller ID.

The Facebook app should scour your existing contacts for matches and pair up after you first log in, and if it doesn’t, just hit the menu key and go to Options to make sure all the boxes are checked. If some of your friends have weird monickers on Facebook, or you’ve got different address book names for them, you can manually pair up too. Just open up the Facebook app, tap the top-left to summon the drop-down menu, and tap Friends, which should bring up the full list. Names that have a little address book next to them indicate that they’re already paired up with someone in your address book. Those with a phone icon mean they’re publicly sharing their phone number. If absolutely none of your friends are linked to your address book after setting everything to sync, you may need to reboot the phone in order for the pairing process to complete (protip: hold shift+alt+del keys for a few seconds to quickly reboot). To manually link contacts, just highlight the Facebook friend, hit the Menu key (to the left of the trackpad in the middle), scroll down to “Connect with BlackBerry Contact” and click the trackpad. Facebook will want you to find the contact in your address book to link to, which you can do by just starting to type their name, and clicking the right one that pops up. If the contact wasn’t imported through your e-mail service already, you can also create a brand-spanking-new contact using the available Facebook info.

This pairing process can be reproduced in instant messaging clients (including BBM) too; just hit the menu key while a contact is highlighted, and there should be an option to Link to BlackBerry contact. Gtalk tends to be pretty good about guessing who you want to pair with, but with most of the clients you’ll need to manually couple contacts.

An extra step you may want to take is downloading and installing the BlackBerry Desktop software. This will let you manually back up your phone data, update the operating system, and give you an easy-to-use interface for loading your phone with music from iTunes or Windows Media Player.

Using your BlackBerry

Up until now, you’ve probably managed to muddle your way through the basic navigation thanks to some of the initial tutorial videos, but here’s a refresher. The center trackpad is where 90% of the action happens. Swipe up, down, left, and right to get around, and press down on it to select items. If you have a BlackBerry with a touchscreen, you may end up using that more often, depending on the model and application, but for the most part, the trackpad is your best friend. To the right of the trackpad is the back key; use this to back up a step. Often you’ll be prompted to save changes to whatever you were working with before backing out, but not always. The back key is also used to exit from select mode when highlighting text. Next to the back key is the hang up key. You’ll actually end up using that more often outside of calls in order to go back to the home screen, so you don’t have to hit the back key a million times. You can also hold down the hang up key in order to turn your phone off, but generally you’ll just need to lock it using the key on the top of the phone, which turns off the display and stops it from reacting to key presses until you hit the lock key again.

On the other side of the trackpad is the menu key, which has the BlackBerry logo on it. This is going to be another frequent stop. It’s context-sensitive, so the options that pop up when you press it will be dependent on what you have highlighted. Generally, those options will be common tasks like replying to e-mails, editing contacts, adding browser bookmarks, and anything else you might want to do. Just scroll up or down using the trackpad and click to pick a selection. Another use for the menu key which isn’t readily apparent is app switching. There’s often a lot of stuff running in the background that you can’t see, but if you hold down the menu key, you’ll get a grid of the currently running apps; just navigate to and click the one you want to open with the trackpad. A common reason to switch apps is to paste text from one place into another. In order to do that, move the cursor where you want the selection to start, hold down the shift key, and scroll the cursor in the direction of your desired selection. On a touchscreen BlackBerry, you’ll just need to leave your finger on a block of text for a second, and you should get some cursors you can move around to alter your selection. Once the block is all selected, hit the menu key and click on Copy. Now you can switch to your other app by holding down the menu key, move the cursor where you want to place the text, hit the menu key, and click paste. Voilà. To the left of the menu key is the phone key, which is exclusively used for making calls. You can summon up the call log from any screen with it, and if you’re highlighting a contact, it will launch right into calling.

The keyboard is pretty self-explanatory. Tap alt before hitting any of the other keys in order to type the special characters shown above each letter. Further symbols can be accessed with the sym key next to the spacebar at the bottom – just tap sym again to switch between pages, and you can hit the corresponding letter key to input the symbol.  There are a few handy keyboard shortcuts to keep in mind, like if you’re in a call, you can hit the $ key in order to activate and deactivate speakerphone. Hold down the Q/# key in order to toggle vibration mode. You can also hold down the A/* key to lock the phone, but that’s pretty redundant with the dedicated lock key on top. Lots more on keyboard shortcuts later on.

To the side of the phone you’ll find the media control keys and the convenience key. The convenience key is set to launch the camera by default, but you can reprogram it to launch anything through Options -> Device -> Convenience Key. The three keys on the side will let you crank up the volume, lower it, as well as pause or play media without having to unlock your phone and fiddle around with anything. Additionally, you can hold down the volume keys to skip tracks backwards or forwards. Though the media controls are mainly for use with the native music application, the higher-quality third-party music apps will also work with these keys. The pause/play key crammed between the two volume keys can also be used to hastily mute incoming calls.

On the software side, there are just a few things to keep in mind. The basic home screen organizes your apps into different panes. You can switch between them by simply scrolling to the left or right with the trackpad while the title bar is selected. By default, you’ll only see a few icons, but you can show the full list by clicking on that bar, and hide them by clicking the bar again. On touchscreen devices, you can pull up or drag down instead.

Universal search is an awesome feature, and will make your life much easier. Instead of flipping through various panes to find the right app, or digging through your address book for one person, just start typing from your home screen. Results matching your query will pop up, giving you instant access to them on your phone. This mechanism can also be used to launch into quick Google searches, or launch into relevant searches using particular apps installed on you BlackBerry.

The other major area you should know about is the notification bar. Whenever you have an incoming alert, be it e-mail, SMS message, instant message, missed call, Facebook notification, or something from any other app, it will show up on this bar. Generally, you’ll be able to click that bar and access the source of the notification. Even when there are no notifications, bringing down this bar will show your upcoming calendar items.

Entering App World orbit

If this is your first smartphone, a BlackBerry can be overwhelming. A common question is “what do I need this thing for?”, and apps are usually the answer. There’s a lot of functionality bundled with your BlackBerry, like e-mail, phone, web browsing, and music playing, but apps are going to be what enable you to truly personalize your phone and tailor it to address your daily tasks. You may have already flirted briefly with BlackBerry App World when setting up Facebook, Twitter, or BBM. Now it’s time to get cozy.

App World is the official portal for downloading paid and free applications on your phone. There are other third-party app stores you can also use, but App World is generally going to be your first stop. Purchases are linked to your BlackBerry ID, so you can carry over apps to new BlackBerry phones should you ever upgrade. There are a variety of payment methods covering all of the major bases: credit card, PayPal, or even direct carrier billing, so it shows up on your monthly statement from your service provider. Carrier billing isn’t available everywhere, but it’s generally the easiest way to buy apps. Some apps require a regular monthly subscription fee to stay active, while others allow you to expand functionality by purchasing small incremental upgrades to an existing app.

In addition to using the search bar in App World and the various categories to find then apps you want, you can also use your desktop browser to skim through the catalog and even download apps over USB through Internet Explorer. Now, if you’re reading this before 2012 rolls in, you’ll want to cash in on some free apps RIM is offering as an apology for a service outage (protip: if you don’t see a little BlackBerry logo in the top right of the screen, it means you aren’t getting BlackBerry service. that could simply mean you’re out of service range, but it could also mean something is down at RIM’s end of things). My top picks among these free apps are Vlingo, which lets you talk to your phone and have it do stuff for you, and Shazam, which can identify music which is playing around you. There are others but whatever is available to you will show up in the “Thank You Gift from BlackBerry” category, which should be front and center when you boot up App World.

There are a few other apps I would suggest you pick up, and the first among them actually isn’t in App World. Visit google.com/mobile on the BlackBerry Browser and download Google Maps. It’s the only maps app you’ll need. It doesn’t have the fancy-shmancy turn-by-turn driving directions like the iPhone and Android versions have, but it’s the best you’ll get while staying in the realm of free apps. While on that vein, Poynt is another top pick for me. It overlaps a bit with Google Maps insofar as they both offer local search options, but Poynt’s experience is much more tailored towards particular categories –  for example, not only can you find a nearby theatre, but you can also find what’s playing, watch a trailer, and buy tickets from your phone. On the music side of things, Slacker may already be preloaded. Through it, you can stream themed radio stations, build your own stations, and tweak the songs that come in based on preferences. The basic version is free, and also available through your desktop web browser, though you have to deal with ads. If you’re willing to shell out $10/month, I would highly recommend Rdio, since it’s a bit better at pulling up individual tracks on demand, and I find the web interface much better.

RIM makes a few apps themselves that are also worth checking out. I consider BlackBerry Protect essential so you can easily track, lock down, and remotely wipe your phone if it’s ever lost. BlackBerry Travel is really great for those who move around a lot. It scans your incoming e-mails for flight schedules and hotel reservations, and automatically plops the information into your calendar. It will also alert you to flight delays, or help you find accommodations. Although Google Maps might not offer navigation, RIM has an app called BlackBerry Traffic, which tries to guess the best route based on current and estimated road conditions. It does turn-by-turn voice navigation, which is pretty handy.

If you’re looking for more downloads, check out my Top 10 BlackBerry Apps post from last year – a lot of those picks are still solid.

Becoming the BlackBerry boss

Most of the basics have been covered, but there are a few tips that will set you apart from the noob masses and fool anyone into thinking you’ve been using a BlackBerry for years. The first one are the variety of clever keyboard shortcuts that most people generally don’t learn until later on. Within the Messages app, you can hit any of these when either in a message, or simply having one highlighted:

  • R: Reply
  • L: Reply All
  • F: Forward
  • del: Delete message
  • U: Jump to oldest unread messages (my personal favourite)
  • N/P: Next/previous day/message (depending on view)

If you want to see someone’s e-mail address, highlight their name in the message header and hit Q.  In both Messages and the browser, hit the T key to go the top, B to go to the bottom, and the spacebar to go down a page.

I ran you through the basics of selecting text and copying and pasting earlier, but there’s an even easier way to do it, which even I forget to use sometimes. After text is selected, you can hold down alt and click the trackpad to copy the text, then shift and click the trackpad to paste it. That’s much easier than fiddling around in the menu, since you’re going to be busy selecting text with the trackpad anyway.

I find the home screen in its default state is a bit cluttered. For example, some of the panes I find are redundant, since most of those apps are readily visible elsewhere, and the extra pane just makes for more swiping. Luckily, you can hide those; from the home screen, hit the menu key, and click manage panels to show and hide the ones you want. “Downloads” and “Frequent” tend to get the axe from me. Individual icons can be hidden if you’re not comfortable (or unable to delete them). Simply highlight the icon you don’t want to see, hit the menu key, and click “hide icon”. You can always unhide icons with the same process, just hit the menu key from the home screen and check “Show All”. Some icons you might want to keep around, but just not have directly on the front page. This is when you start putting stuff into folders. You can do that by simply hitting the menu key from the home screen and hitting “Add Folder. Give it a name, and click the folder picture to chose an image for it. Now you can highlight icons, select Move to Folder, and start tidying up. If you’d like to have some apps more readily available (especially for that top row, which is the only one visible when the panes are lowered), just highlight the icon, hit “Move” from the menu, scroll with the trackpad where you want it, and click in its final location.

Not all icons have to be apps, though. You can also save website bookmarks as home screen icons, so you can launch right into your favourite destinations. Just pull up the page, hit the menu key, and hit Add to Home Screen. It will also give you the option to add it to the browser’s bookmarks. You can do the same sort of thing with Contacts, which is especially handy for family and friends you talk with all the time. Find them in your address book, hit the menu key, and “Add to Home Screen”. You’ll be able to chose which folder you want to drop them into, but usually I’ll just leave them in Favourites.


So, that’s a pretty solid start to your new life on a BlackBerry. There’s plenty more to learn, though. Leave your questions in the comments, and we’ll try to help you out!

  • And when all else fails, the fantastic build quality of BlackBerry devices make for a superb paper weight.

  • Lowey5

    “What to do with your new Blackberry” Take it back and ask for a real phone

    • Anonymous

      Haha, you’re hilarious… NOT.
      This is a NEW BlackBerry, not an OLD BlackBerry. You almost certainly haven’t been paying attention, but the NEW BlackBerry’s are real phones.

  • Red777

    after reading from beginning to end, i realized that there is no hope for RIMM. while an user may feel “invested” in his/her learning experience, there is so much that makes blackberry deficient from an UI perspective compared to any of the other mobile OS, that I think it is lost.  I ran into a Blackberry store at Newark Airport (no other customers, 3 employees eager to talk with anybody that walked in) and tried “playing” with the Playbook (to see if it’s worth the $199 to simply buy another device — we have 5 tablets in the house). It was fast, well-built, great graphics, but the UI simply sucked. Nothing was intuitive. I was slicing in mutliple directions (I wonder how Fruit Ninja would play on a Playbook) and NOTHING was intuitive. I kept on envisioning how it would migrate as BB10 to a small screen platform,…and decided that it simply wasn’t worth the effort.

    Goodbye RIMM, it’s been a good 14 years (as someone who first got a RIMM 2-Way pager from BellSouth and have had at least 8 blackberries, and first switched away on webOS device), but I’ve moved on, and not likely to return.  You can keep the dog and the furniture.

  • Jonybashala

    Hey just asking, i just got a new curve 8520 and i want to know if you should use the battery life up till dead before charching first time or if you should charge it straight away   

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