Hands-on: IMing with Trillian's BlackBerry beta

If all goes as planned, the BlackBerry version of the Trillian multinetowrk chat app hits open beta by the week's end. Here's the verdict from our early test drive.

A new instant messaging app is on its way to BlackBerry smartphones, and it's name is Trillian.

Trillian-maker Cerulean Studios announced work on its BlackBerry beta in May, adding one more operating system for the multinetwork IM app that's already well-known on Windows, Mac, and more recently, on iPhone. Although we expect to see Trillian launch into public beta for BlackBerry phones running OS 5.x, we got to try it out this week.

The app closely resembles the screens we saw from the closed beta (see slideshow below). Trillian lets you quickly sign into accounts from a start screen, and gets you chatting with friends on MSN, Yahoo, AIM, ICQ, MySpaceIM, Facebook Chat, Jabber/XMPP, and Google Talk.

The feature set is basic at this point--not so unusual for a beta app. It can display avatar images, add emoticons, and send photos that you either grab from the image gallery or take fresh with your phone's camera. The app alerts you to new instant messages with a flashing LED light or with pushed e-mail alerts when the app is closed.

Trillian beta is easy enough to use, but not very elegant at this stage. You control the app with the BlackBerry's Back arrow and menu key, but unlike competitors, Trillian doesn't utilize a lot of on-screen buttonry. For example, competitors like Beejive do a better job alerting you to new IMs and who sent them, and makes switching among conversations possible from within open chat windows. Instead of being able to switch among open chats with a menu item, Trillian has you arrowing back to the buddy list and navigating to the developing conversation.

There are some hot key combinations, though, like Enter-Enter to jump to the newest message, Alt-Alt-Space to jump to the previous chat and Alt-Alt-Delete to close the current conversation, but we were hoping for either some user tips or some more intuitive combinations.

Earlier we mentioned that Trillian can trigger your BlackBerry camera to snap a photo, but you'll need to press the Back arrow to return.

Although Trillian's beta chat app comes with your choice of a black or white theme, we would enjoy a splash more color in some sections, especially to help determine which buddies are online and offline. We did appreciate that Trillian shows an ellipsis when your contact starts typing a message.

Other features include managing your contact list from the phone, copying and pasting, and staying signed on for up to a week even when the application is off. We're told that come Friday, you'll be able to download the open beta of Trillian 1.0 for BlackBerry and try it for yourself. Just keep in mind that as a beta app, Trillian will still be in development and may not be as stable as you'd like. We also hope it picks up some polish by the time it hits its final version.

Update, 9:16 a.m. PDT: with more details on hot keys.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.