updated 02:00 pm EDT, Tue August 3, 2010
RIM's first hardware QWERTY/touchscreen hybrid
Following RIM's official unveiling of the Torch 9800 slider at a special event in NYC, the company allowed attendees to fondle the handset and explore BlackBerry 6. Electronista took advantage of the opportunity to take an early look at RIM's first attempt to pair a QWERTY slider with full touchscreen functionality.
The slider combination makes the Torch a hefty device, weighing just eight grams less than Motorola's Droid and much heavier than the iPhone 4. The extra weight gives the Torch a solid feel; however, the moving parts don't feel as indestructible as the Droid.
The slider action is snappy and easily maneuvered with a single hand. The portrait orientation does not leave much of an edge to push a thumb against, although the screen automatically locks when the keyboard is deployed. BlackBerry users will find the keyboard very familiar, as the layout retains the same curved rows and ridges between each column.
An optical trackpad is another component adopted from the earlier BlackBerries, however OS 6 makes navigation easy without needing a dedicated trackpad. The UI has continued to evolve toward touch-based input, improving beyond the Storm's OS 5 implementation while completely dropping the SurePress feedback that many found annoying. Users will encounter a layout and overall feel that seems to bridge the gap between BlackBerry OS 5 and its direct competitors, Android and iOS.
We're not sold on the screen, though. At 480x360, it's now dead-last in fidelity for the high-end smartphone market. Nokia's N8 has a 640x360 screen, most Android devices use at least 800x480, and Apple's iPhone 4 now has almost invisible pixels with a 960x640 display. Some may be disappointed to get technology warmed over from the original 2008 Storm, especially as it's the "face" of the Torch for most users.
Social networking integration has been vastly improved, with the new universal inbox that combines feeds into one area. This is a clear step up from the e-mail and SMS focus of BlackBerry OS 5, but it's not a new invention pioneered by RIM. The system behaves much like Motorola's Motoblur skin for some of its Android devices.
BlackBerry owners who have been tempted to depart from the platform because of the browser may be drawn back by the WebKit-based revision in OS 6. In limited testing, the experience seemed to be on-par with Android and iOS browsers. Users can take advantage of gestures such as pinch-to-zoom, double tap and tap-and-hold. The double-tap gesture automatically resizes fonts to standard sizes for easier viewing, another feature common with Android and iOS browsers.
After playing around with the Torch for a while, it appears as if RIM has sufficiently addressed many of the drawbacks that likely drove customers to buy Android handsets or iPhones rather than the Storm. The QWERTY slider still allows the device to be used as an extremely quick e-mailing device, while the large touchscreen is beneficial for browsing the Internet or viewing other media. Only time will tell if the handset can reel back customers or developers who already departed for competing platforms.