BlackBerry Torch (9800) Review| By Edmund O'Neill
BlackBerry. The very name inspires intense emotion for almost everyone who owns a smartphone. For its fans, "BlackBerry" brings to mind words like functional, dependable, workhorse, indispensable. For its detractors, the words are more like ugly, old, out-of-date and passe.
The Torch is Research in Motion's attempt at silencing its critics. A whole new operating system, BlackBerry 6, is combined with a whole new sliding form factor. It's BlackBerry's answer to Google's Android and Apple's near-ubiquitous iPhone. How does the Torch stack up? Can it withstand the considerable competition in the mobile marketplace? Read on to find out.
The Torch is, simply, a thing of beauty. It is almost completely black, with dark gray metal on the front edges. The back of the Torch is rubberized, which makes for a very easy yet strong grip. With the front touch screen off, the phone looks almost like a smooth river stone -- and this is a good thing.
The new device also represents a departure for RIM from form factor. It features a slide-up screen that reveals a hardware keyboard beneath. In the past, BlackBerrys have been either standard "candy bar" style -- keyboard right on the front of the phone, with a screen above -- or "touch" style, with no physical keyboard at all, and a large touch screen to serve as the keyboard. The latter style is more like an iPhone, while the former style -- pioneered by RIM -- is all but dead.
Its slide mechanism feels well-crafted, solid and fluid. There don't seem to be any springs or moving parts involved and there isn't a "catch" or latch. This design makes me feel like the Torch's screen slides on air. I liked the slider very much and hope that RIM expands this feature to other phones. As far as phone input goes, the Torch allows the best of both worlds: a physical keyboard when you need it and a sizeable touch screen when you don't.
How about that physical keyboard? It looks and acts exactly like its relatives on other BlackBerry phones, such as the Bold or Curve. The keys are easily distinguishable from one another and they are big enough for a standard-sized thumb to press. Larger thumbs will probably have issues here.
The other BlackBerry-standard feature is the optical trackpad. This isn't a moving part, but a solid square that helps with navigation around the software. It worked well in our experience, but the speed of the scrolling was sometimes unpredictable. After some time, we began to ignore the trackpad and just use the touch screen for "getting around" the OS.
The bottom of the front face has the now-standard BlackBerry button layout: green "Call" button, BlackBerry key, optical touchpad, back button and red "End Call" button. If you're an existing BlackBerry owner, you'll be at home there -- and there is a negligible learning curve for new users.
The top of the phone has a very well-designed feature. It acts as a large smooth metal rocker, with the left side serving as a screen-lock button and the right side as a mute button. The effect here is impressive: RIM has managed to squeeze quite a few physical keys onto a relatively small phone without sacrificing build quality. This is a stark contrast to Apple's approach, where physical buttons are eschewed for aesthetic reasons. RIM gets high marks here for originality.
The standard micro-USB port is the only opening on the left spine, while a headphone port, volume rocker and "convenience" button round out the right spine (in that order, from top to bottom).
Out of the box, the RIM BlackBerry Torch comes with a standard battery, AC adapter, USB cable, 3.5-millimeter stereo headset, 4-gigabyte microSD card and a polishing cloth.
The Torch features a 5-megapixel camera with an LED flash, auto-focus and a 2x digital zoom. It also features quite a few Scene Modes: Auto, Face Detection, Portrait, Sports, Landscape, Party, Close-Up, Snow, Beach, Night, and an interesting final choice, Text, which enhances the contrast in a picture for maximum readability of captured text. The other modes are straightforward -- they adjust the camera's settings, like white balance, shutter speed and sharpness.
Unfortunately, there's absolutely no manual control for the camera. This is a huge difference from both the iPhone and the Android camera applications, which offer a multitude of manual settings. The Torch can "geo-tag" your photos using its built-in GPS chip, embedding some location data into the photo file. This is useful for uploading to photo-sharing sites like Flickr. Images can be captured at three sizes: Full (2,592-by-1,944 pixels), Medium (1,024-by-768 pixels) and Small (640-by-480 pixels).
The video camera has even fewer options. The Scene Modes during recording are limited to Auto, Portrait, Landscape, Close-up and Beach. Sizes are only Regular (640-by-480 pixels) and "MMS Mode" (176-by-144 pixels), which is barely visible on the display, and isn't watchable at all on YouTube or any other video sharing site. But, as the mode name implies, it is used for sending a short video directly to another phone and, in that sense, keeping the size small can be a positive feature. Once a video is taken, you can immediately upload it to YouTube. There aren't any other sharing options available from the camera app.
As far as raw quality goes, the camera performed decently well. But it wasn't exceptional. It was able to focus properly and take decent pictures in poor ambient lighting, however the video was nothing to write home about. The camera on both the Evo 4G and iPhone 4 perform much better.
The Torch's camera can definitely get the job done for simple tasks -- capturing a funny sign or quirky facial expression -- but if you want to capture memories, stick to a dedicated camera, or consider a different phone.
The Torch features BlackBerry 6, the latest and greatest software out of RIM's headquarters. The art style is minimalist and attractive -- black and blue wire-frames make up most of the first-level menus. Once you open an application, you are greeted with black text on a white background with blue button accents.
The home screen is a five-page application launcher: one page each for All, Frequent, Downloads, Media and Favorites. These categories display a list apps -- everything from Phone to Options to Calendar to Messaging to Music
"Frequent" displays your most-used apps, "Downloads" houses the apps you found in the BlackBerry App World, "Media" is the hub for all your music, picture, and video needs and finally, "Favorites" has the apps you have selected expressly for this purpose.
The software is easy to navigate for users of other smartphones, but those new to the world of touch screens will have to read the manual. In addition, the art style feels unfinished and inconsistent; the darks of the home page give way to the harsh whites of the menus and apps. RIM did not take a cue from Google or Apple in this department, and it shows -- for the worse. The Torch's performance, on the other hand, was satisfyingly snappy. There is almost no delay when navigating the menus and launching various applications.
The BlackBerry apps, like its fantastic email suite, worked well -- but no differently than a three-year-old BlackBerry would. It was a breeze to type out long emails or messages on the physical keyboard, however -- that is a big plus for anyone who can't get used to the on-screen variety.
The Torch sports a 3.2-inch -- measured diagonally -- capacitive touch screen. Its resolution is 480-by-360 pixels. This means that the Torch's screen is competitive with two-year-old smartphones, not the modern variety. The iPhone 4, for example, has a 960-by-640 pixel resolution, better than the Torch by 3.5 times. This has the effect of making the Torch's screen look quite blurry and ugly next to an iPhone, or even a recent Android phone. Text on the Torch always appeared blurred or smudged. Pictures were noticeably noisy.
The Torch's touch functionality worked perfectly and it has a sensor for auto-rotation -- the screen works in both portrait and landscape orientations. This is standard behavior, however. There is nothing special about the Torch's performance in this regard. There really is no saving grace here. The Torch simply has an outdated and poorly-performing screen. In a market where touch screen-only phones are at the top of the heap, this oversight is almost inexcusable.
The Torch has a very capable speakerphone. Even on maximum volume, human voices are clear and undistorted. Music, even music from YouTube videos, sounded better than most laptop speakers. On the software side, the Torch has an included music player. It has simple controls and sticks with the dark-colored art theme, which is rare. You can load MP3 files from your computer with the included USB cable or with BlackBerry's included syncing software.
The BlackBerry computer software is very pleasant to use, easy and powerful. I used it to load some MP3 files and the software found all my existing music without asking, backed-up my messages and synced my contacts. All of this was extremely simple and easy, as well as fast. RIM did a very good job with this software. This is a huge contrast to Android, which lacks desktop syncing software of any kind.
Here is where the Torch shines. BlackBerry phones have always been at the top of the communication game, and the Torch is no different. RIM's excellent Messages app aggregates all SMS, MMS, IM and email messages for you, and each style of message can be composed or read from one app. This makes for a seamless and very enjoyable experience.
The physical keyboard bears mentioning again. While the Torch does have an on-screen touch keyboard, the slide-down hardware keyboard is superb. I had no trouble typing out complicated words with near-100 percent accuracy.
The Messages app also allows you to search "all" of your messages. This can be very convenient to find that phone number you know someone sent you, or that important meeting location, or that vital statistic from last week's summary -- all without knowing exactly where the information is. The Torch can sync to a company's BlackBerry server, Exchange server or also use your personal Gmail or Yahoo accounts.
BlackBerry is a late-comer to the apps game, and as such, the selection in its "App World" store is very limited. There are some standards -- Twitter, Facebook, Maps and so forth -- but nothing earth-shattering. Compared to Apple's 225,000 apps and Android's 70,000, BlackBerry's 7,000 seems puny -- and it shows.
The built-in apps, however, are fairly capable if you're a casual user. The Twitter, Facebook and MySpace integration is there, without the nice textual graphics of other phones, though, these features lose their punch. There is also nothing especially interesting about these apps. They're more like re-packaged mobile websites.
Some other built-in apps are nice, though, like the voice recorder, video camera, picture gallery and so on. Again, nothing that's too fun -- given the offerings on other phones -- but certainly passable. One shining feature is the direct link to YouTube's mobile site. This site is so well-made it behaves like a native app. It works fantastically on the Torch. Videos started playing very quickly.
The Torch has a Web browser, but it isn't very easy to use. It does support pinch-to-zoom and it will reformat the text to fit the screen, but other than that, it's a pain. The pages load very slowly -- even over Wi-Fi -- and the interface is not pleasing to the eye. The good news is that the sites look beautiful once they render. If a website uses a nice Web font, then that font will display very nicely on the Torch.
Scrolling on a long site, however, was arduous. The browser takes a very long time to catch up to your finger, and the site's contents aren't loaded until quite a few seconds after you scroll to them. This has a very disconcerting effect -- every time I had to use the Torch's Web browser, I was afraid to do anything but read the Times or visit YouTube. The Torch can also access Facebook and Twitter, but the Internet experience is not very fun to use. Those looking for a full Web experience ought to look elsewhere.
For media storage, the Torch comes with 4-gigabytes on-board, plus a 4-gigabyte microSD card, tucked behind the back cover, for a total of 8-gigabytes. For most, this should be enough. But if you need more storage, the Torch will happily accept microSD cards up to 32-gigabytes. Of course, these cards can cost upwards of $100.
The Torch can connect to your local wireless network via Wi-Fi b, g, and even the newer, faster "n" specification. You can also use various hands-free devices over Bluetooth 2.1. It can also run on AT&T's 3G wireless data network. It has a pretty wide range of wireless network connection possibilities. As mentioned earlier, the Torch can connect to your computer via the included micro-USB cable. This charges the phone as well as allows you to use the wonderful BlackBerry Desktop software. You can move pictures, videos and music to and from the phone this way.
The Torch presents a true dilemma. It is a beautiful phone, easy to handle, easy on the eyes; it has thoughtful hardware, an interesting form factor and best-in-class button layout. The keyboard is also best-in-class; no keyboard on any other phone even comes close; on-screen keyboards aren't even in the same league.
If this review ended at hardware, the Torch would earn a perfect ten. Unfortunately for RIM, however, software matters. While the Torch performs admirably with simple tasks like email, SMS and MMS, the rest of the package just doesn't cut it. The app situation is atrocious; the interface can be clunky; the Web browser is barely useable.
In addition, the phone's software feels unfinished -- there is no consistency to the user experience. Some apps feel like they were written in 2006, some in 2009. None feel ultra-modern. The best parts of the phone are the ones RIM has had a full decade to perfect -- the keyboard and the Messages app. These items are nearly perfect. Everything else, however, is sub-par.
Should you buy the Torch? If you are an email or SMS addict and you don't use your phone for Web browsing, then absolutely. I recommend the Torch whole-heartedly. You can even use the Torch if you do some light Twitter or Facebook use on the side -- nothing heavy, just updating your status every now and then. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then the Torch is probably the best phone for you.
But if you need your app fix, or you use your smartphone to do complex Web browsing, or you have some advanced social networking needs, then you should look elsewhere -- like the Samsung Captivate or iPhone 4. ♦
Categories: Business | Messaging
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