RIM has stepped up its smartphone game by introducing the BlackBerry Torch 9800 ($200 with a two-year contract from AT&T), the company’s very first touchscreen/physical-keyboard phone sporting the brand-new BlackBerry 6 OS. But can the Torch (and future BlackBerry 6 OS devices) compete with the ever-growing Android army?
A little thicker than some of the other top-line smartphones out right now, the Torch measures 4.4 by 2.4 by 0.6 inches and weighs a manageable 5.68 ounces. Unlike with the BlackBerry Storm and the BlackBerry Storm 2, here RIM has successfully added a touchscreen while retaining the look and feel of the phone familiar to BlackBerry users. The front face of the phone has the four typical buttons: Talk, Menu, Back, and Power/End. The buttons flank the square optical touchpad, which you can use for navigation in addition to the touchscreen.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Torch is its touchscreen display. Not only did I find it slightly lackluster, but it could also be a bit wonky in its responsiveness. Thankfully, it doesn’t use RIM’s awkward SurePress technology, which we saw on the Storm models. The 3.2-inch 360-by-480 capacitive touch display is smaller and a lower resolution than the screens of competing phones such as the Samsung Vibrant or the Motorola Droid X. Though it is fine for browsing the Web, the colors, text, and detail looked slightly flat. The display also comes equipped with multitouch (for zooming in and out), which the browser and photo gallery both support.
Like the Palm Pre, the Torch has a vertical slide-out hardware keyboard. The slider mechanism feels sturdy, and the keyboard slides smoothly and easily. The Torch’s keyboard is thinner than those on other BlackBerry models, but I found it quite comfortable to type on. The keys are sculpted and nicely sized, and include a handful of useful shortcut buttons. The Torch also has a software keyboard that you can use in portrait and landscape mode, but both variations feel pretty cramped.
BlackBerry 6 OS may have a more modern, spruced-up user interface, but BlackBerry owners will feel right at home. Though the icons and text appear sharper and smoother, the overall look is ultimately BlackBerry. For more on BlackBerry 6 OS and all of its new features, see my in-depth hands-on look.
E-mail is where RIM really shines, and BlackBerry 6 OS adds some features that solidify the company as the master of messaging. You can of course sync with your company’s BlackBerry Enterprise Server with support for Exchange, Lotus Domino, or Groupwise for real-time e-mail delivery. With BlackBerry Internet Service, you can access up to ten personal or business POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts.
Here’s where things get confusing: Essentially you have to deal with two separate inboxes for managing your messages. First you have the universal Messages inbox, which contains your SMS items, e-mail messages, and BlackBerry Messenger. Then you have your dedicated your e-mail (in my case, Gmail) inbox. In the dedicated Gmail inbox, you get archiving, threaded conversations, labeling, and starring–an arrangement that’s just about as close to the desktop Gmail setup as possible. In the catch-all inbox, however, you don’t have access to any of these features. This is a bizarre oversight on RIM’s part.
Social media aggregators are a hot item in competing smartphones, so it comes as no surprise that RIM has created its own. I’m not a huge fan of social aggregators; I find them a bit messy, and I prefer to read my feeds in separate places. I don’t have a use for them, and I wish smartphone manufacturers would stop insisting that dumping all of your social networks into one place increases your productivity.
Perhaps the most exciting update in 6 OS is the addition of a WebKit-based browser. Until now, the BlackBerry platform’s biggest pitfall was its shoddy Web browser. The new browser isn’t perfect (more on that later), but it is light years ahead of the older one. BlackBerry OS has finally caught up with the other players: You get pinch-to-zoom multitouch support, tabbed browsing, and auto-wrap text zoom (when you zoom in to a block of text, the font automatically wraps in a column so that none of it is cut off).
Pinch-to-zoom wasn’t the smoothest experience, but it worked just fine in my hands-on tests. Auto-wrap text functioned well, too. I liked having a cursor while browsing so that I could easily copy text and navigate as I would in a desktop browser. The tabbed browsing interface is especially nice and easy to navigate. Opening a new tab requires clicking an icon in the top-right corner of the display. Clicking this icon also shows all of your open browser windows in thumbnails. You can then flick through the miniature pages to navigate.
Full Flash Player 10 support unfortunately isn’t ready yet for BlackBerry, though RIM is still working with Adobe to deliver the multimedia platform to future phones. Additionally, since the OS has no HTML5 support, you’re pretty much stuck with YouTube for Web videos.
I can live without Flash support for now, but I can’t deal with a sluggish browser. This is probably more of a hardware issue on the BlackBerry Torch 9800, but I found the browser slow to load, especially with media-heavy Websites. The Torch’s 624MHz processor just can’t seem to handle the new browser technology. Scrolling through text- and image-heavy pages wasn’t as smooth as I’ve come to expect with faster, 1GHz-processor phones. I actually managed to crash the browser a few times, too, which was frustrating.
Call quality over the AT&T network in San Francisco was good overall. Voices on the other end of the line sounded loud and clear, with no static or voice distortion. A few callers sounded slightly tinny, but it wasn’t distracting. Callers on the other end heard background noise while I was standing on a busy city street corner, but reported that it wasn’t loud enough to interfere with the call.
RIM has finally caught up with the rest of the smartphone world in terms of camera megapixel count. The Torch sports a 5-megapixel camera with autofocus, 2X zoom, and an LED flash. The phone also has some fancy new shooting features, such as scene modes and face detection, and it presents everything within a clean, easy-to-use interface.
The image quality was definitely better than what I’ve seen from older BlackBerry models’ cameras, but my photos were a little washed out. Playing around with the scene modes was fun, though, and I was able to capture some great shots. Unfortunately the camera shoots only VGA video; no high-def footage here.
Can a BlackBerry phone be an entertainment device? RIM is certainly trying to change the perception of the BlackBerry as strictly business. Thankfully, the upgrades in 6 OS definitely help. The music player receives a much needed face-lift, gaining a CoverFlow-like interface that nicely showcases your music collection’s album art. You simply run your finger over the album art to navigate through your collection.
You’ll also find a brand-new YouTube application with a fairly straightforward interface, as well as a BlackBerry Podcast app for managing your video and audio podcasts.
The Torch successfully melds a touchscreen with the signature BlackBerry keyboard, resulting in a design that is both innovative and familiar to BlackBerry users. Unfortunately, the Torch’s performance and specs aren’t quite on a par with those of competing smartphones such as the HTC Droid Incredible or the Samsung Vibrant. Additionally, the software, while a big improvement from previous versions, feels outdated. If you’re a BlackBerry loyalist, you’ll be quite pleased with the Torch, but rival Android devices have much more appeal.
[Ginny Mies is an associate editor for PCWorld.]