BlackBerry Torch 9850/9860: RIM Plays the Touch-Screen Game

RIM's BlackBerry Torch 9850/9860 is an all-touch-screen smartphone running BlackBerry 7 OS. How well does RIM move away from its physical-keyboard comfort zone?

Research In Motion finds itself in odd straits. As one of the world's top smartphone vendors, it continues to enjoy a sizable audience base, particularly among businesses. On the other hand, the company faces significant competition from the likes of Apple's iPhone, Windows Phone and the growing army of Google Android smartphones.

That competition, along with its aging line of BlackBerry devices, has forced RIM's income downward. During its Sept. 15 earnings call, the company reported revenues of $4.2 billion for the second quarter of fiscal 2012, a 15 percent decline from the $4.9 billion it earned during the previous quarter. RIM has pinned the prospects for its salvation on an upcoming line of "superphones" powered by its QNX operating system, supposedly due sometime in the next few quarters.

In the meantime, RIM has unveiled an updated line of BlackBerry smartphones running BlackBerry 7 OS, the company's latest update of its longtime operating system. One of those new devices, the BlackBerry Torch 9850/9860, tries to take RIM's competitors at their own hardware game, by embracing a touch screen-only design.

How well does RIM fare when it veers away from the "traditional" BlackBerry design of a physical QWERTY keyboard paired to a smaller screen? The Torch's 3.7-inch screen, paired with a 1.2GHz processor, is responsive to touch and high resolution enough (at 800 by 480) to satisfy most users, whether they're answering email, cruising the Web or watching a video.

The virtual keyboard feels tiny but responds well to touch. RIM's software proves reasonably accurate at predicting your word choice while typing emails or search terms, which means rapid composition.

The rest of the Torch's hardware seems well-built. The 5-megapixel camera is also capable of capturing 720p video, and includes a variety of modes and features such as face detection-more than enough to suit most casual shutterbugs. Nothing on the phone's body appears loose or ill-fitting. RIM rates the battery life at 6.2 hours' talk time (GSM) and 5.9 hours (UMTS), and standby time of up to 11.6 days, and in testing the Torch seemed to conform to those standards. In roughly a week's worth of testing, calls came crisp and clear in New York City on Sprint's network.

On the software side of things, BlackBerry 7 OS will prove instantly familiar to anyone who's owned or used a BlackBerry before, complete with the gridlike screens of apps. RIM claims the operating system offers faster browsing and other tweaks to the interface. It has also updated some preinstalled services, such as BlackBerry Messenger 6. BlackBerry App World's offerings remain sparse in comparison to the Android Marketplace or Apple's App Store.

Unlike the new BlackBerry Bold 9900/9930, with its 2.8-inch display, the Torch's 3.7-inch screen feels large enough to accommodate these apps and functions. The sliding app tray and screens are a snap to navigate. Like the Bold, the Torch does its best to deliver an essential and familiar "BlackBerry" experience. That could satisfy those users who already constitute RIM's dedicated user base, and aren't hungering for anything new or radical. Those seeking the latter, of course, will need to wait and see whether RIM's QNX "smartphones" will indeed alter the landscape.
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