What's Good: Solid build quality; BlackBerry 6 is a nice improvement that offers more media features for consumers.
What's Bad: Underpowered processor; earpiece seems to favor the left ear; web browser, while much improved, still lags behind other devices on the market.
The Verdict: RIM's newest smartphone is a decent improvement over past devices and should please existing BlackBerry users, but it lacks the form and functionality needed to sway Android and iPhone users to the platform.
It's undeniable - we're in what I like to call the "summer of smartphones." Never in my seven years in wireless have I seen devices launch so quickly. Innovation is moving at a lightning-fast pace, and manufacturers are struggling to keep up. We've seen an onslaught of Android devices, the rise of the iPhone 4, and the fall of Palm, but BlackBerry has been notoriously quiet.
That changed a few weeks ago, when Research In Motion announced the BlackBerry Torch 9800 at a media event in New York City. With a revised form factor and operating system, the touchscreen slider is set to debut on AT&T on August 12th for $199.99 after rebate. With a $200 price point, it's positioned for battle with the other high-end devices on the market. Despite the revision, can it keep existing BlackBerry users happy and appeal to other groups?
Design & Features
The Torch 9800 box is packaged in a much smaller box than BlackBerrys of the past. Inside, you'll find the device, battery, AC adapter module, USB cable, 4 GB microSD card (in phone), earbuds, polishing cloth, BlackBerry Desktop Software CD, and instruction manuals. Sadly, there's no holster included in the box.
The device is made almost entirely out of plastic, but the chrome sides give it a professional look. The ribbed battery door is a nice touch, and right in line with past BlackBerry devices, "Torch" is printed in between the camera and flash. Beyond the design, it's a completely new form factor for RIM, and they did a good job integrating the touchscreen with a physical keyboard. With a 3.2-inch LCD supporting 360 x 480 pixels, the Torch's screen isn't going to turn heads in the world of AMOLED and Retina Displays. It's not nearly as crisp as others I've worked with, but it gets the job done.
The left side of the Torch contains the microUSB charging port, while the right side offers the 3.5mm headphone jack, volume rocker, and convenience key (only one on the Torch, unfortunately). The lock and mute buttons are on the top, and the camera is on the back. There are four physical buttons below the display (send, menu, back, and end), along with a trackpad.
Usability & Performance
The Torch 9800 ships with BlackBerry 6, RIM's new "familiar but fresh" operating system. The goal was to keep BlackBerry loyalists happy by preserving RIM's familiar push e-mail capabilities, while offering new media-centric features to keep potential defectors in place. When you view it from that perspective, they did a good job, as the interface is still distinctly "BlackBerry" in spite of the changes.
Overall, transitions are smoother, fonts are refined, and scrolling is quicker in order to provide a more consumer-friendly experience. Given the takeoff of social media, RIM has taken the opportunity to pre-install Twitter for BlackBerry, Facebook, MySpace, and their new "Social Feeds" application - the latter of which aggregates data from Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and popular instant messaging clients. Also pre-installed is BlackBerry App World (finally), Visual Voice Mail, AT&T App Center, AT&T Navigator, YPmobile, CNN, The Weather Channel, ESPN, Bloomberg, Fandango, and WHERE.
Along with the revised icons, the menu acts as a "dock," which you can keep open or closed depending on your personal preference. Scroll left and right to arrange icons by "All," "Favorites," "Media," "Downloads," and "Frequent." If you choose to keep it in one place (for example, I kept mine on "Favorites"), the OS will remember your selection when you return to the home screen. The digital clock at the top of the screen acts as a button that, when clicked, offers connection information. Directly below it, notifications are shown and can be expanded into list format (see picture).
Aesthetics aside, the biggest enhancement to BlackBerry 6 is the WebKit browser. After years of complaining, BlackBerry users finally have (in theory) the same browser as Android users. That being said, the user experience wasn't nearly as good as it is on Android. The ability to While browsing the web, I frequently encountered the "checkerboard" background when using pinch-to-zoom, and pages loaded somewhat slowly. Don't get me wrong - it's a huge improvement over the previous BlackBerry browser - but it could be better. If you're an iPhone or Android user, and you're migrating to the Torch 9800, you'll probably get frustrated after 10 minutes or more of heavy web use.
The phone sports an on-screen QWERTY keyboard for those times that you want to keep it closed. I used it a few times during my testing, and can tell you that it's not the best virtual QWERTY on the market. The keys are entirely too small, there's no dedicated number row (even in "symbols" mode), and the "return" key is way too close to the backspace key, resulting in me sending several erroneous text messages. It offers a reasonable level of auto-correction, but even with it activated, I found myself misspelling words on a regular basis.
The physical QWERTY is much better, and I preferred it during day-to-day tasks. The keyboard on the Torch is a mix between the Bold 9650 and the Bold 9700, and it offers a similar level of tactile feedback. Unlike the Palm Pre, the keyboard is roomy and positioned far enough from the bottom lip of the screen. Unfortunately, the keyboard on my unit was a bit inconsistent. The Z-M row seemed to be a bit more recessed and "sticky" than the other rows, which meant that I had to push harder to get the keys to register. I'm guessing it's this particular unit and not an issue with the entire product line, but it was frustrating nonetheless.
Though it sports a 5.0-megapixel camera, image quality on the Torch wasn't anything spectacular. While it offers a flash for low-lit situations, I found that natural light helped to produce the best picture quality. Editing options include the ability to zoom, 11 scene modes (auto, face detection, portrait, sports, landscape, party, close-up, snow, beach, night, and text), and various picture quality levels. Video quality was decent and will serve the MMS crowd well, but I wouldn't count on replacing my video camera with it.
In traditional RIM fashion, overall network connectivity on the Torch was very good. The device was tested in Charlotte, and AT&T's network performed well. I experienced no dropped calls, and in the two dead zones I took the Torch to, it was able to hold the call with minimal call fading. The problem that I encountered was the earpiece. It's possible that my device was experiencing issues, but the earpiece volume level was noticeably lower when holding it to my right ear. On several occasions, I had to switch to the left ear in order to hear my caller. It's almost as if the Torch's earpiece is angled to favor the left ear, and needless to say, it's frustrating. Without explaining the situation, I handed the device to three people, and they all reported the same issue. If it is in fact an issue across the entire product line, it could be a huge downfall for a company that has always been known for superb call quality.
BlackBerry devices have always been strong in the battery life department, so I'm pleased to say that the battery life on the Torch is still good, despite some improvements in the connectivity department. With a 1,300 mAh battery, the Torch 9800 lasted through most of the day with moderate use encompassing calling, text messaging, e-mail, downloading apps, checking Twitter, surfing the internet, and playing WordMole (yes, I'm addicted). It doesn't de-throne the BlackBerry Bold 9700 in the battery department, but it's noticeably better than any Android device I've ever worked with, and slightly better than the iPhone 4.
The Torch is a decent device that should keep existing BlackBerry users happy, but during my entire review, I couldn't help but notice how underpowered it is in comparison to its competitors. The Torch 9800 is marketed in the same high-end bracket as the EVO 4G, iPhone 4, DROID Incredible, and Galaxy S line, yet it's lacking important features like a high-resolution screen, HD video capture, and a 1 GHz processor. Keeping that in mind, I'd be surprised to see users of the aforementioned products flock to the Torch.
It's a good start for RIM and is my favorite BlackBerry to date, but they must avoid the temptation to remain stagnant. BlackBerry 6 is a nice step forward, but I imagine that a revision (hardware and software) will be needed in six months. Future releases aside, if you're a BlackBerry fan, you should find a lot to like in the Torch 9800.