With the release of Research In Motion’s BlackBerry Torch 9800 smartphone, the company may have a device that stacks up to Apple’s iPhone 4. Despite a somewhat confusing feel to the BlackBerry interface, the Torch compares well to the tight little package of the iPhone, which still has a ways to go as a business platform. We decided that putting these two devices head-to-head was fair, given their similarities in pricing and basic capabilities.
Our field tests consisted of everyday use of the devices over multiple days, with Andrew using the Torch and P. J. taking the iPhone 4, followed by an afternoon performing phone reception tests around downtown San Francisco. For our two-pronged “walkabout” test, we used Google Voice to simultaneously dial both devices to test incoming reception, then placed outbound calls back to our office from each device. For this phase, P. J. removed the Apple-supplied accessory bumper from the iPhone 4, to make sure we were examining the device’s true performance in the field.
During our walkabout, both devices performed adequately, which, given the awful AT&T performance we are accustomed to in our San Francisco office, came as a pleasant surprise. The Torch fared slightly better on incoming tests, receiving 11 of our 14 test calls, while the iPhone received 9 of 14. In general, we think this small disparity was due to the Torch’s eagerness to flop to EDGE (Enhanced Data for Global Evolution) or GSM when its 3G signal was weak. On the other hand, both phones successfully completed every outbound call attempt.
The Torch, with prices starting at $499 or $199 with two-year contract, comes with 4GB of on-board storage and a 4GB MicroSDHD card (the device supports cards of up to 32GB). Our 16GB iPhone 4, on the other hand, cost $599 before rebates and discounts (also $199 with a two-year contract).
The Torch and iPhone also compare well when sitting in one’s pocket. The iPhone is a little thinner, by about one-fifth of an inch, and lighter by almost an ounce; one might be able to detect this difference when holding both devices, but it’s not terribly material.
The Torch’s extra thickness is due to the vertical slide-out QWERTY keyboard, which RIM complements with touch-screen-based, soft keyboards for both portrait and landscape modes (the latter only with the slide closed). Andrew liked the on-screen keyboard in landscape mode but preferred the physical keyboard when holding the phone in portrait mode.
However, with the slide open, Andrew thought it was a bit of a stretch from the natural typing grip to reach the top of the touch screen to access the new notification area, and resorted to using the touchpad and hotkeys more often than the touch screen in this circumstance.
The iPhone features a soft keyboard only; in P. J.’s experience, the iPhone’s touch-screen keys can be challenging for anyone with a ring size above nine.
Where the iPhone 4 truly excels is its display, which is only three-tenths of an inch larger than the Torch’s but offers landscape or portrait modes with 960-by-640-pixel resolution at 326 pixels per inch. The Torch display seems antiquated in comparison, with its fixed-mode 360 by 480 with 188 ppi. Long story short, the iPhone 4 can play back 720p H.264 high-definition media, while the Torch can’t display the video (but will play the sound).
Likewise, the iPhone can also record 72 0p HD video (like we’ve seen recently from Android devices such as the Droid X), while the Torch can only record at 640 by 480 video resolution. Still imaging on both devices is of the 5-megapixel class, and both offer a built-in flash. The camera application on the Torch is significantly enhanced over previous BlackBerry models, however, now offering scene modes including face detection, low light and fast motion modes.
Processing Power, Battery Life, Sensors
In terms of raw horsepower it’s no contest, as the iPhone sports a 1GHz processor built on ARM’s Cortex A8 core (designed and promoted by Apple as the “A4”), while the Torch comes with a decidedly last-generation 624MHz processor and 512MB of flash memory for applications. Nevertheless, Andrew didn’t feel the impact of the lesser horsepower in tests, as the Torch responded quickly when opening or moving between applications.
Like earlier iPhones, the iPhone 4 was designed with a built-in battery (third-party teardown reports indicate a 1420 mAh battery), which promises much longer battery life than the removable 1270 mAh battery of the Torch (model FS-1). The Torch’s specifications list 5.8 hours of 3G talk time, versus the iPhone’s claimed 7 hours. Media playback follows a similar pattern: 6 hours of video on Torch to the iPhone’s 10 hours, and 30 hours of audio on Torch to 40 hours on the iPhone. In practice, Andrew found the Torch used its smaller battery efficiently, finding that he typically needed to charge it only after two days of common, moderate usage. Similarly, P. J. found that the iPhone 4’s battery holds up well on standby, but processor-intensive operations (such as viewing HD video) could put a noticeable dent in the battery’s lifespan.
Both devices offer an accelerometer and GPS location services for applications, and geotagging features are built into the stock photo and video applications. The Torch lacks the iPhone’s three-axis gyro and compass but does offer a proximity light sensor, which worked a little too well, as Andrew kept managing to mute calls with his cheek.
P. J. took an extensive look at the iPhone’s iOS 4 earlier in 2010; the most prominent features of iOS 4 that couldn’t be tested on the equipment we had in hand at that time are FaceTime video chat and the ability to edit HD video with iMovie for iPhone, which Apple sells in the iTunes App Store for $4.99 (the Torch really doesn’t have anything that compares to either). P. J. will dive into these features in depth in a future column, currently scheduled for the Sept. 20 issue of eWEEK.
The Torch comes with the new BlackBerry 6 operating system, and the two combine to deliver a vastly superior touch-screen experience than on older BlackBerrys such as the Storm. Like the iPhone, the Torch utilizes now-familiar pinch and spread gestures for zoom actions, along with swipes and double-taps for screen navigation. RIM will undoubtedly release future BlackBerry 6 devices without a touch screen, however, so the OS must straddle two worlds, and the legacy of BlackBerry’s myriad menus and hotkeys is also still apparent in the Torch, leading to a slightly schizophrenic user experience.
eWEEK Labs will have more on BlackBerry 6 OS in the near future.
Along with BlackBerry 6, RIM released the next version of its BlackBerry App World app store, which thankfully does away with the reliance on PayPal as the only supported method of payment; credit cards can now be used as well. Users must create a new BlackBerry ID to download apps from BlackBerry App World, and will have the opportunity to port previously purchased apps over to the new BlackBerry ID account.
Despite that and other small improvements, however, BlackBerry App World is still a far cry from the App Store experience, lacking the ease of exploration, breadth of recommendations and raw volume of available applications.
BlackBerry Torchs Big Advantage
The Torch has an undeniable advantage over the iPhone 4 in large-scale enterprise deployments, thanks to its ability to work with the extensively deployed BlackBerry Enterprise Server. We activated the Torch connected to our BES 5.0.2 server for Exchange, successfully pushing security and WiFi configuration policies and accessing our protected file shares through the MDS channel.
Indeed, the Torch and BlackBerry 6 OS will work with both 4.x and 5.x BES iterations without requiring any server-side updates. However, mobile administrators will need to upgrade BES to 5.0.2 to support personal-liable devices when that capability is added to BlackBerry 6 OS later in 2010.
Although the iPhone offers a degree of remote configuration and management through its support for Microsoft’s Exchange ActiveSync, and Apple’s stand-alone iPhone Configuration Utility provides policy-based management for iOS devices, BES can be integrated with IBM Lotus Notes and Novell GroupWise environments as well as with Exchange.
Apple is looking to third parties such as MobileIron and Tangoe to provide the extensive management capabilities that RIM has offered for years through BES. In iOS 4, Apple unveiled a number of private Mobile Device Management APIs that these third parties can access to push policies, configurations and applications, and to monitor device health, status and usage. This new functionality will undoubtedly escalate enterprise interest in the iPhone, but it is worth noting that Apple seems to be keeping a tight rein on these APIs, so third-party feature sets may not be very distinct from one another. Although Apple may be catching up quickly, when it comes to managing a fleet of devices, BlackBerry still outpaces the upstart in this category.
Although Apple’s designers get a lot of praise for providing the company’s devices with an elegant appearance, lately we’ve noticed a lack of communication and coordination among the teams charged with accessories. Apple offers a range of accessories for the iPhone 4, including bumpers of various colors and a dock, but one of the first things P. J. found was that an iPhone 4 with bumper installed simply doesn’t fit into the iPhone 4 dock. This caused a bit of d??«j??í vu, as P. J. observed earlier in 2010 that the iPad’s dock couldn’t be used with a tablet that’s encased in Apple’s microfiber cover.
At the close of our testing, we determined that the purported advantages or disadvantages of the devices’ respective antenna designs really didn’t make much difference in the field, but the distinct lead that the Torch has in policy and administration thanks to the BES infrastructure can’t be overcome for now, no matter how tightly Apple controls its ecosystem.