RIM BlackBerry How-To: Download & Install New Themes

By Al Sacco, CIO.com |  Personal Tech, BlackBerry, RIM

It's not easy to put your finger on the best thing about Research In Motion (RIM) BlackBerry smartphones, but there's no question that the ability to customize the BlackBerry ranks near the top.

BlackBerry "themes" rearrange the user interface on RIM smartphones to show various icons and information on the main or "home" display; some themes provide a secondary screen that can be customized to include only the most frequently accessed applications and data. Several custom themes are also "themed," so Star Wars fans can, for instance, show off their Trekkie prowess by sporting a U.S.S. Enterprise-inspired theme.

Our past BlackBerry Tips of the Week offered a wide variety of suggestions on how to customize your BlackBerry, including how to set custom ringtones and message alerts and choose the most stylish ways to carry your device. We've also provided multiple lists of free BlackBerry software downloads, to help you find the best applications for your needs. And our memory optimization suggestions, Bluetooth tricks and battery-life tips are sure to help keep your device running as smoothly as possible while you make your BlackBerry your own.

This week, we're giving you the following theme tutorial to take your BlackBerry to the next level of customization.

Types of BlackBerry Themes

The majority of current BlackBerry smartphones--devices running BlackBerry handheld operating system (OS) v4.2--ship with three different types of themes preinstalled: Icon, Today and Zen themes. Individual wireless carriers also often include their own branded themes.

Icon themes are the simplest option and consist of a single home screen that's populated with all of your various applications and services--though you can pick and choose the apps that you want to appear on the home screen and which ones to hide. In any theme, the background image or wallpaper can be swapped out, but custom themes often included wallpaper that's somehow associated with the design of icons. (Using the Star Trek example again, icons may be designed to resemble the Star Fleet Insignia and match the wallpaper image of the U.S.S. Enterprise.) Icon themes typically have the word "icon" in their names.

BlackBerry Dimension Icon Theme

Today themes are similar to Icon themes in that they all features a basic home screen that includes a listing of all the applications and services that users have not chosen to hide. However, Today themes also features a secondary screen that does away with all the icons and displays only specific text-based information on messages, calendars and call logs--though some Today themes may offer slightly different information on secondary screens. Again, Today themes frequently have the word "today" in there titles.

BlackBerry Today Theme

And finally, Zen themes, like Icon and Today themes, feature an icon screen with all the chosen apps and services displayed, but they a different sort of secondary screen. Users can customize their secondary Zen theme screens to include the most frequently accessed programs. So, for instance, Facebook fanatics can move their Facebook for BlackBerry icons onto their Zen "ribbon" screens for easy access. The Zen ribbon is populated with the first five apps on your icon screen, as well as an icon that links back to all the additional applications. How do you know if a theme is Zen? You guessed it: Most of the time the word "zen" will be in the name.

BlackBerry Dimension Zen Theme

A handful of new and unreleased BlackBerry devices also feature new theme configuration, included L and Precisions themes.

For example, BlackBerry smartphones running handheld OS v4.3, like the CDMA Pearl 8130 and Curve 8330, have L themes, which are very similar to Zen themes, except their secondary screens have ribbons that stretch across both the left-hand side of the BlackBerry display and the bottom of the screen--in an L shape. (BlackBerry handheld OS v4.5, which hasn't yet been officially released by any U.S. carrier, also includes an L theme.)

BlackBerry L Theme

The upcoming BlackBerry Bold 9000 smartphone will feature Precision themes, which offer some degree of transparency so users can see--and presumably use--other icons and applications while another is selected. Stripped down versions of Precision themes for existing devices can also be found on the Web.

BlackBerry Precision Zen Theme

Swapping Out a BlackBerry Theme

Changing or switching back and forth between BlackBerry themes is simple and can be done in a matter of minutes--though each theme must be customized individually and this process can take some time. For instance, if you rearrange the home screen using an Icon theme and then switch to a Zen theme, you'll need to reorder all your icons. However, if you then switch back to the original Icon theme, your icons will still be ordered the way you originally set them.

BlackBerry Themes

To switch from one theme to another, click on your BlackBerry Options icon and choose Theme. You'll then see a list of all your available themes. Scroll down to the theme that you wish to make active--the word "Active" will appear in bold next to the theme that's currently in use--and then click your trackball. After a few seconds, you'll be returned to the BlackBerry Options screen. Simply hit Escape -- located directly to the right of the trackball--and you'll return to your main screen.

Finding New BlackBerry Themes

There's certainly no shortage of BlackBerry themes available on the Internet. In fact, a quick Google search for "BlackBerry themes" turns up more than half a million results--though the themes you'll find this way are admittedly of varying quality, to say the least.

BlackBerry Scribble Theme

One of the best ways to find quality BlackBerry themes is to visit RIM's mobile site, which can be located at mobile.blackberry.com, using your BlackBerry browser. (Click the "Fun and Games" icon on the home page and then choose "Themes," to browse the current offerings.) Though the selection isn't exactly wide, RIM's site can determine the specific device you're using based on browser setting to ensure that the theme is compatible with your BlackBerry--and all the themes are free.

Note: It's extremely important that you ensure any new themes you attempt to install are compatible with your device. Installing a theme that's meant for a different device or operating system version can severely damage your BlackBerry and even render it useless. To determine whether or not a theme is compatible with your RIM smartphone, first check your OS version by simultaneously hitting ALT, Shift/NUM and the letter H. (Check out "BlackBerry Tips and Tricks: More Keyboard Shortcuts for Power Users" for more keyboard tricks.) Your OS version will be listed as "App Version." You can also find your device model and OS version by clicking your Options icon and then choosing About.

BlackBerry About Screen

Once you've determined your device model and OS version you should also make sure that the site you plan to download the theme from has specified compatibility with your BlackBerry and handheld OS. Always be sure to obtain your themes from a reputable or trusted source.

Downloading a New BlackBerry Theme

You can download and install new BlackBerry themes wirelessly (over-the-air), or using RIM's Desktop Manager Software, which ships with every new BlackBerry.

The over-the-air (OTA) download is easiest, as it doesn't require a PC or any additional processes. To download a theme OTA, visit the site from which you want to obtain a theme, and follow the directions for OTA downloads, if available. Such directions will typically call for you to enter an e-mail address associated with your BlackBerry so a message with the appropriate download link can be sent. Once you receive such a message, open it, click the link and follow the download instructions.

OTA Theme Download in Progress

In some cases, like when you download themes OTA from RIM's site, you won't need to enter in an e-mail address; rather, all you'll need to do is click a link and you'll be transported to a download page. Once said page opens, click the "Download" link and wait a minute or so for your new theme to download. When the process is complete, a dialogue box appears to let you know, and you'll then be able to access and install the theme via BlackBerry Options and the Theme menu.

Downloading new BlackBerry themes using RIM's Desktop Manger software can take a bit longer and requires an Internet-connected PC, but the process is similar to downloading OTA. First of all, you'll want to ensure you have the latest version of Desktop Manager. To determine which version you're current running, open the program, click the Help icon and choose About BlackBerry Desktop Manager. A dialogue box will appear to tell you which version you're using. Next, surf over on over to RIM's download page, verify you've got the latest version of the software and download and install it if not.

Next, download the theme file to your hard drive. Usually, the file is compressed, and you'll need to "unzip." After doing so, launch Desktop Manager, connect your BlackBerry and open the Application Loader component. When the Application Loader opens, click on the Add/Remove Application option. On the following screen, click "Browse" and then navigate to the location within your PC where the unzip theme file is stored. The file you should select will very likely end in an ".alx" extension.

With the appropriate file selected, click Open within the dialogue box and the theme will then be discoverable by the Desktop Manager software. On the Application Loader screen, scroll down until you see the name of the new theme, check the box next to it if it's not already filled, and then hit Next. The software will then confirm the file is the correct one you wish to transfer to your device. Click Finish and the file will transfer from your PC to the BlackBerry device.

When the process is complete, you'll be able to access and install the theme via BlackBerry Options and the Theme menu.

More on BlackBerry Themes

Once you've downloaded and installed a new BlackBerry theme, you have a number of options to further customize your smartphone. For instance, you can move your application icons around to position them wherever you like. To do so, scroll over any icon on your application icon screen, hit the BlackBerry Menu key--located directly to the left of your trackball--and choose Move. Use the trackball to move the icon into the position you wish and then click the trackball to make it stay in place.

As mentioned above, you can also switch out the background image or wallpaper behind a particular theme, though in some cases doing so may hurt the aesthetic appeal--think Star Trek icons with no U.S.S. Enterprise. To change your BlackBerry wallpaper, simply click the Media icon on you home screen, scroll to the Pictures section and then highlight the image that you wish to set as your home screen graphic. After the image is opened, hit your BlackBerry Menu key, choose Set As Homescreen Image, and then hit either End or Escape a number of times to return to the icon screen.

You'll find plenty of free BlackBerry themes available if you do a bit of searching--we've never paid for a single theme, though we've used piles of them--but lots of reputable sites also sell themes for small fees. Some of these sites include CrackBerry.com and BPlay.com, though CrackBerry also has a free section. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn't spend any more than US$10 on a theme--even that's pushing it--but there are probably some exceptions.

Finally, if you wish to delete a particular theme, simply click on your Options icon, choose Advanced Options and then Applications , and highlight the name of the theme you want to ditch. Next, click your BlackBerry Menu key, choose delete and confirm that you wish to get rid of the selected theme. When the process is complete, you may need to reboot your device.

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