There is one thing to say about the brand-new AT&T-powered BlackBerry Torch 9800: it starts up a hell of a lot faster than its immediate predecessor, the 9700. That’s kind of the theme of the entire operation: the Torch is a BlackBerry device, but faster, deeper, and similarly infuriating as any before it.
I have owned three BlackBerry devices in my time before using a Torch: a Pearl 8100, a Bold 9000 and its successor, the Bold 9700. Each device has its design advantages and its flaws, but the crown achievement of the the Torch is its “fullness.” Compared to the Bold 9700, which feels solid, but light, the Torch is a tank. It’s not that it is a heavy device, but it is certainly well-rounded.
My unit, like most BlackBerry devices I’ve used, has some seriously build quality issues. While the slider mechanism for the screen is solid (actually, it’s outstanding, and extremely satisfying) the screen wiggles like a little pig when the keyboard is exposed and you are interacting with the touchscreen. It pivots slightly back and forth. But that is probably not the rule, but the exception. Except that I’ve had about five “exceptions” in my time as a BlackBerry owner. Something’s gotta give, RIM.
The device layout is going to be familiar to anyone with a Bold 9700. The rubberized keys are the same as on the 9700, the lock and mute buttons on top are clicky, and the camera button is two-step perfection.
The interesting dichotomy of the device comes in the interaction between your fingers, the touchscreen and the trackpad. Most people upgrading to this device will be doing so from a non-touchscreen BlackBerry. That means, for Curve and Bold users, the trackpad will be second nature while using your fingers less so. When I first powered up the device, I began using it as I would my Bold, but after a few seconds, you realize that the build included on the Torch is not optimized for the trackpad. In fact, some functions work far better with your fingers. Scrolling works as it should, but at times using the trackpad to go from one text-input box to another does not work. You have to use your fingers instead to move up or down.
The tentative world in which this BlackBerry exists, then, is untenable. The device can be used as you would a non-touchscreen one, and most of the experiences with the new BlackBerry 6 are going to be the same as they would on the old OS. In fact, you can tell that BB6 is based largely off OS5 code, since the BlackBerry button menus are identical. The inclusion of long-press on the screen to select context options are an added bonus, but offer nothing essential to the experience. I still prefer using that annoying button to the left of the trackpad to do most of my context selections.
The app menu has been tweaked for gesture usage, too, and apps are no longer downloaded to a Downloads folder. Instead they populate the “All” portion of the home screen, and you can choose between Favorites, Frequent, Downloads, Media and All, with a flick of the finger. It works extremely well, in fact, and is one of the nicer inclusions to the OS overhaul.
The home screen is going to seem very familiar to anyone who has used OS5, but the fact that you can click on the 3G symbol to quickly get into Manage Connections, or start typing on the keyboard to activate Universal Search, makes using a BlackBerry one of the easiest ways to ascertain information on a smartphone.
Tapping right below the clock will pull down a list of your latest emails, SMS messages, calendar entries and missed phone calls, another easy way to achieve information overload. A lot of the interface is quite busy, and since you often don’t know whether to use your finger on the trackpad or on the screen itself, I find it difficult to decide how to obtain the information I need.
The keyboard is nice and clicky, and feels a lot like the Bold 9700 but, because it is more recessed, a little less reliable when touch typing. The phone is weighted quite well when the slider is open, but that doesn’t mean that it is entirely perfect. I often found it difficult to pull off perfect sentences the way I do on the Bold, but that will likely come in time. The quality is second to none, and right up to RIM’s standards of excellence.
The on-screen keyboard is another matter, and not one I would really recommend getting too chummy with. While there is on-screen error correction, it is unreliable, and, especially on portrait, the keys are spaced very close together. In fact, I would never recommend using the virtual keyboard in portrait mode, for obvious reasons. The landscape virtual keyboard is much more spacious, and as a result, more usable, but still, because the backspace key is right above the enter key, most of the time, when trying to touch-type, you end up pressing enter when you meant otherwise.
The aggravation doesn’t stop there. BlackBerry 6 messes with your brain. You don’t know whether you want to use touch or the trackpad, and as a result you end up using both. It’s awkward and clunky and there are still too many menus.
The phone runs relatively well on the 188.8.131.52 build I am running. That isn’t to say it’s a smooth experience, because it isn’t, but if you used the BlackBerry Bold 9000 when it first came out, you understand that as the OS matured, the performance increased dramatically — so much so that it was like running a completely new phone. The problem with the device is that it runs the same processor as the Bold 9000 and the 9700. That is to say, the hardware has not kept up with the industry. There are Snapdragons and Hummingbirds, and this feels like an Emu. Hardy, but flightless.
Upping the ante on the camera, however, was a nice touch, and boy does the Torch take pretty pictures! The 5MP camera is much more responsive than previous builds, and the flash is bright and capable. With the Torch you can likely leave your point and shoot at home. That is, unless, you decide you want to take some video, as the Torch only shoots at an inexcusably pitiful 640×480 resolution.
Media and video has been given an overhaul, and the apps work as expected. Sound is clear and video playback smooth. Too bad there is no xVid or DivX playback out of the box, but with the proliferation of BlackBerry apps in the near future, I have no doubt the choice for media players will grow. Update: there is native DivX playback out of the box, so maybe it was my files that weren’t working. Keep it to a low enough bitrate and they should work fine. Nice one, RIM!
There is a bit of slowdown on the device on occasion; the clock will appear at the most random places. I have had an app or two crash on me, but overall the device feels smooth. Startup is down to around 45 seconds, which is an enormous improvement over its predecessor.
The browser is another area that the performance could be improved, but that will come with time. As mentioned before, the very fact that all web pages are accessible now is a huge boon to the device.
Call quality is excellent, too. Using the device as a phone is relatively painless, especially now that BIS has integrated Google Contacts syncing. Next we need calendar syncing, which should come in a future BIS upgrade, and you will never need Desktop Manager again. Thank goodness.
BlackBerry App World 2.0 debuted with the Torch, and it is a nice improvement over 1.0. Apps can be priced at $.99 or $1.99 now, and there are more ways to incorporate existing APIs into the function of the OS. RIM has been heavily promoting its Super App contest, hoping to get developers excited to build for the platform, but so far, I haven’t seen any need-to-have apps coming from the App Store that weren’t already there with OS5. Give it time, and BlackBerry 6 will become more app-centric.
There are a lot of good things to say about the Torch, and of Blackberry 6. It is smoother, faster, more touch-friendly. The keyboard is a dream and the device is well designed. Everything you could already do with a BlackBerry is still here, just refined, improved, and sped up. The browser is essential, and absolutely welcome. You can use it like an old BlackBerry, with the trackpad, or like a Storm, using only the touch screen. The new hold-to-activate menus are attractive, and while not necessary, a natural evolution. Gesture support and universal search are brilliant.
The screen, at 480x360px, is sharp and easy to read in the sun. But it’s still low-res compared to the iPhone 4, and is disappointing when reading text on the new WebKit browser. Going from a Samsung Galaxy S to the Torch is like taking off your reading glasses: everything is a blur. But I like the screen, and the touch response is excellent. Smooth and very little lag.
The manufacturing process is still quite weak, or maybe I just got a dud, but the build quality is relatively weak. The on-screen keyboards are a waste of time, especially in portrait, but who cares, right? The trackpad/touchscreen paradigm is still extremely confusing, and you’re more likely to use a unique mashup of both than stick to one or the other. As a result, accessing the menus become a frustrating exercise where you don’t know what’s going to pop up. There is significant slowdown at times, due to the relatively slow processor. There is 512MB RAM, but something’s gotta give. The browser can be painfully slow loading or scrolling through heavy web pages, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t get better in a future OS release.
This is an evolutionary product, and indeed the best BlackBerry ever created. That doesn’t mean it’s enough to keep RIM from falling flat, nor does it mean that they can rest on their laurels and not try to significantly improve the user experience in future OS iterations. BlackBerry 6 is a worthy upgrade, and if Bold 9650 or 9700 owners ever get a chance to install it, do not hesitate. I too believe that because they were fashioning the new OS for non-touch legacy devices, they had to make some design decisions to appease both. As a result, touch does not seem entirely smooth or natural on the Torch.
The battery life has also been an issue: compared to the Bold 9700, for which I could eek out two days without charging the phone, I am getting around 5-6 hours of life use on the Torch. It’s still better than any Android phone I’ve used, but that isn’t an endorsement. I have heard, however, that because I am using the AT&T firmware on a Rogers SIM card, there may be reasons why my battery life is lower than it should be, and once the Rogers Torch is officially released, the firmware should be optimized for Rogers’ 3G network, and use less battery constantly searching for towers. I also hope it fixes the intermittent loss of BIS service I’ve experienced over the past four days.
I hope this isn’t the last I write on the device. I really enjoy using it, but not enough to want to run out and buy one. It’s a great phone, and if you’ve never owned a BlackBerry, this is likely going to be the one that tips you over the edge. It’s not an iPhone, though, and you have to understand what you’re getting with it. BBM is the same as it always was; for those who rely on your manic fingers to communicate with friends and family, there is no better device on the market than a BlackBerry.
If you want apps, stay far, far away.