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 (640×480) 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 480×360 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.
ATandT and Software
However, the Torch 9800 has another Achilles Heel, and that’s exclusive carrier AT&T. During the smartphone’s Aug. 3 unveiling, AT&T executive Ralph de la Vega told the audience that his company and RIM had worked closely together to develop the Torch. Indeed, the user interface has been “skinned” with carrier-specific apps such as AT&T AppCenter, AT&T Maps, and AT&T Navigator. BlackBerry Maps is oddly missing from the smartphone’s app lineup, but it may have been a casualty of the AT&T deal.
The problem here is twofold: some companies and consumers curious about the Torch may not be particularly interested in signing up for two years’ worth of AT&T. As I walked around New York City, testing the Torch’s connectivity in a variety of situations, AT&T’s network problems seemed particularly acute: 3G coverage frequently died indoors; downloading a 3MB app because a 10-minute wait; at one point, the AT&T Maps application kept telling me I was floating in the middle of the Hudson River, when in fact I was standing inside a lobby on the Upper West Side. (For the latter example, it was impossible to determine whether the maps’ habitual inaccuracy was a consequence of location-based service (LBS) or GPS.)
To AT&T’s credit, after I Tweeted about the poor service (“If I duct-tape my new BlackBerry to my office window, it might-might-hold more than one bar of signal”), a company representative emailed me within an hour seeking to help. They couldn’t really offer a solution, however.
Your own mileage may vary, of course, depending on where you live and work. But by restraining itself to a single carrier, RIM may have alienated a portion of its potential audience for the Torch.
The Torch 9800 comes with RIM’s much-touted operating system revamp, BlackBerry 6. In designing the OS, RIM clearly tried to walk a tightrope: not wanting to alienate its core constituency, the company preserved much of the “traditional” BlackBerry user interface. If you’re a longtime BlackBerry user, the home page will be instantly familiar, as will the majority of the icons.
BlackBerry 6 continues RIM’s fine tradition of enterprise-caliber communications. The Notification Bar, easily accessible via the top of the home screen, displays the user’s most recent e-mails, phone calls and calendar updates. Integration with an enterprise’s BlackBerry Server is a snap. As a workday device, RIM continues many of the traditions that made it a stalwart among businesspeople.
But RIM also wants to rope in the consumer market, as well. To that end, BlackBerry 6 heavily emphasizes the smartphone’s multimedia capabilities, with streamlined access to YouTube, social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, music, videos, and the Web. These features are well-integrated into BlackBerry; but as previously mentioned, users interested in a smartphone for multimedia playback will likely gravitate towards the iPhone or an Android offering, if only because those devices tend to offer a larger, higher-resolution screen.
Although the camera itself is decidedly last-generation, RIM’s also markedly improved its photo software. Your images can be organized by event or date, viewed as a slideshow, or shared easily with social networks. Given that ease-of-use, it’s a pity that RIM didn’t install the Torch with a higher-megapixel lens.
RIM is also promoting its new Universal Search application, which hunts through both your search phone and the larger Web. Similar features are becoming standard-issue on a number of smartphone platforms, and RIM’s version seems just as effective as the rest.
If RIM wants to make a solid run at the consumer market, though, it’ll need to augment its App World with far more mobile applications. During the company’s Aug. 3 presentation, executives suggested that the company had not only worked to make its marketplace simpler and more intuitive-through features such as the ability to discover new apps via Universal Research-but more profitable for developers.
Those developers already working with the BlackBerry platform will be relieved to find the apps they developed for BlackBerry 5 are compatible with BlackBerry 6. They’ll also have the ability to graft ads into applications, which seems to be RIM’s way of challenging Apple’s iAd platform for iOS4.
These shiny features help breathe some life into the traditional BlackBerry interface. However, the touch-screen itself could use some tweaks. At moments it seems too sensitive, with programs accidentally activating at the slightest touch; at other points, I had to dig my thumb into the screen in order to make something happen. The virtual keyboard could also prove cramped for users with larger fingers-with less space between the keys than the iOS4 or Android interface, I found myself frequently mistyping words.
Are you an enterprise user who’s wedded to their BlackBerry? Do you cringe whenever someone utters the words “virtual keyboard”? Then the Torch 9800 has a lot to offer you in the smartphone department-everything you’re familiar with, plus some new features which bring the BlackBerry franchise more in line with rival offerings.
If you’re a typical consumer, however, the choice is more problematic. Those who primarily use their smartphones as communication devices-whether that involves texting, email, or voice calls-will also find many things to like here. But those wanting a smartphone with robust gaming and multimedia capabilities may find themselves drawn to competitors with a better screen and a broader app library.
I can only assume that the minor issues with the Torch’s user interface will be corrected in subsequent updates. In the meantime, RIM seems to have developed a solid-although not exactly groundbreaking-platform for holding its own in the smartphone wars.
The BlackBerry Torch is available Aug. 12, for $199 with a two-year contract through AT&T.