The BlackBerry Torch 9800 represents Research In Motion's attempt to be all things to all customers. For business users, many of the tools that made BlackBerry a corporate name have been preserved in all their utilitarian glory. However, the company also hopes the Torch's multimedia features will appeal to consumers in the hunt for a next-generation smartphone.
Can RIM pull off this delicate high-wire act? After a few days of extensive testing, eWEEK found that the smartphone-due for release Aug. 12-represents a leap forward for the BlackBerry franchise in many respects, but also suffers from a handful of niggling software and hardware problems.
The Torch 9800's vertical slider is a relatively rare form-factor. Palm tried it with the Pre, and while early reviews of that device were largely positive, some users complained about the sturdiness and durability of the keyboard's sliding mechanism. By contrast, the Torch 9800's sliding screen feels very firmly seated in its track, with no horizontal "wobble" when extended; a satisfyingly heavy "click" accompanies the action.
That being said, the sliding mechanism does have its issues. The lack of a thumb indentation or "grip" in the screen's frame means that your fingers, in the process of trying to slide the screen upwards, will sometimes skid across the front of the device. After a few days' use, my thumb trained itself to angle downwards against the screen's bottom bevel-and even then, I found myself accidentally hitting the trackpad or other buttons on occasion.
Is this a dealbreaker? No. But it can lead to frustrations while trying to type an email or text message via the physical keyboard.
As with previous BlackBerry devices, the Torch 9800 seems to manage heat well. After a long period of heavy use-voice calls, browser, maps and YouTube-the back of the device was only slightly warm to the touch.
But hardware-wise, the Torch 9800 comes with an Achilles Heel: the 5-megapixel camera, which boasts image stabilization, auto-focus, flash, 2x digital zoom, and VGA (640x480) video recording. It feels decidedly last-generation, especially when compared to the camera on the iPhone 4 or the newest Android phones. Even though RIM integrated a number of "Scene Modes" into the camera interface-including "Party," "Landscape," and "Portrait"-many images remain blurred and/or murky when shot under less-than-ideal conditions.
Also last-generation: the 3.2-inch HVGA+ touch-screen, with its 480x360 resolution, simply can't compete against smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S or the HTC Evo 4G. Hardcore business users primarily interested in email and texting probably won't have an issue with that screen resolution, but it could prove a deal-killer for consumers who expect to watch television episodes or play complex games on their device.
Overall, though, the Torch 9800 has a weighty sturdiness that will be familiar to habitual BlackBerry users. With the keyboard retracted, the 5.68-ounce smartphone measures 4.37 inches high, 2.44 inches wide, and 0.57 inches deep: shorter and thicker than many of the iPhone-like devices on the market. Extended to its full 5.83-inch length, it towers over those rivals by a solid 0.75 inch in many cases-which brings the bottom of the Torch closer to your mouth when speaking without a Bluetooth, which in turn may have contributed to the crystal-clear fidelity during calls.
BlackBerry devices have traditionally boasted superior battery life, and the Torch 9800 is no exception. RIM claims the device has a standby time of either 14 days (UMTS) or 18 days (GSM), talk time of up to 5.5 hours (GSM) or 5.8 hours (UMTS), music playback of up to 30 hours, and video playback of up to 6 hours.
Even with heavy use, it took around two days to drain the Torch's battery. In that aspect, it proves superior to the iPhone 4 or Google Android devices, where battery life is something of a weak spot.