RIM debuts its first touchscreen slider and an updated OS (August 19th, 2010)
After slowly losing share in the smartphone market, Research in Motion has launched its new Torch 9800 handset alongside BlackBerry OS 6. The pairing represents RIM's latest effort to attract a new category of customers, while also helping to prevent current BlackBerry owners from defecting to competing Android and iPhone platforms. Our review takes a closer look at the Torch and how the "best BlackBerry ever" stacks up against the wide range of other high-end smartphones.
Product Manufacturer: Research in Motion
- Familiar BlackBerry QWERTY and optical trackpad.
- Solid construction.
- Full touchscreen, without SurePress.
- Refined OS.
- WebKit browser.
- Good social networking integration.
- Long battery life.
- Average display resolution.
- Slow processor.
- Lacks 720p video recording.
RIM's first touchscreen handset, the Storm, was criticized for dropping the hardware QWERTY keyboard and forcing users to type on a virtual keyboard. The Torch bridges the gap between the Storm and Bold, retaining the familiar BlackBerry QWERTY keyboard tucked underneath the touchscreen. The portrait slider design is similar to that of the Palm Pre.
The Torch's overall size and proportions are very close to the Bold, despite the additional slider mechanism and larger screen. The new design is several ounces heaver than the Bold, while weighing in almost an ounce heftier than the iPhone 4. Overall, the Torch feels like a solid device that matches the quality of RIM's other handsets.
The keyboard is very easy to use, as the key sizes and arrangement are extremely close to the Bold's layout. The slider action is smooth, although there is not much of an edge along the bottom of the display to push against. Pressing a thumb directly on the display provides another option. The OS ignores the touch if the slider is opening, helping to prevent accidental input.
We expected RIM to integrated an 800x480 resolution touchscreen, leaving us disappointed to find that the 3.2-inch LCD is actually a 360x480 component. The screen is not terrible, but it is definitely a step behind the iPhone 4 and many Android offerings. The low pixel density became obvious when attempting to read website text and detailed images.
Aside from the resolution, the display was bright enough to be used in sunlight without a problem. RIM also declined to bring SurePress haptic feedback to the Torch. We welcome the standard touchscreen experience, as many Storm owners considered SurePress to be more of a hinderance than a benefit.
The Torch integrates a 5 megapixel camera, without a second front-facing sensor for video calling. The camera takes decent pictures that are similar in quality to most other smartphones, while LED flash helps provide short-distance illumination in dark settings.
Many companies use a 5 megapixel sensor to capture HD video in 720p quality, which is becoming commonplace in the smartphone market. The Torch only supports 640x480 video, which is yet another aspect that is merely average and falls short of the competition.
The camera is paired with a revamped interface that provides several new options for different environments. Users can take advantage of several scene modes for various lighting conditions or moving subjects, along with face detection for autofocus.
BlackBerry OS 6
While the Torch serves as RIM's answer to the latest hardware, BlackBerry OS 6 is an equally important introduction that aims to compete with the latest Android and iOS builds. The latest version offers a significant transformation in user experience for the aging platform, while also bringing universal search and a WebKit-based browser that overcomes many of the limitations that sent customers to Android, iOS or WebOS if they wanted to use a proper browser.
At first glance, OS 6 has more of a refined layout and improved visual elements. Users are greeted with a fresh homescreen that integrates an Android-style collapsible menu. Pulling the bottom bar upward presents a variety of apps, which are organized into different sections. Lateral swipe gestures quickly switch between several groups: all apps, favorites, media, downloads, and frequently used apps. Unlike Android, users can pull the menu up by increments -- each showing an additional row of apps.
We didn't run into any issues with the new browser, except for slow pageloads compared to the iPhone 4 and many Android handsets. Aside from the speed, however, the experience seems to be on-par with competing platforms. RIM even retained the cursor, controllable using the optical trackpad. The cursor is handy in a few situations, although its presence is likely geared for non-touchscreen BlackBerries that will soon receive the OS 6 update.
From the homescreen, users can deploy the keyboard and begin entering text into the universal search field. Results are populated as text is entered, helping to quickly find content without fully completing the search terms. The OS searches through apps, e-mails, messages, contacts, and media content. Users can also configure the utility to filter certain types of content. Overall, we found the universal search to be a great addition and one of the functions that RIM seems to have refined beyond similar features of Android or iOS.
OS 6 also approaches social networking with a focus on unified access to various services. Users can quickly configure the device to access AIM, BlackBerry Messenger, Facebook, Google Talk, MySpace, Twitter, Windows Live Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger. All of the social networking updates are presented on a single feed, which we found to be intuitive and efficient. RIM did a great job integrating the apps for each service. Clicking on a Facebook post instantly switches to a view that allows the user to submit a comment, "like" the post, or access other Facebook features -- all without switching to a browser or interrupting the experience.
Notifications for social networking feeds, e-mails and messaging are all combined in a unified bar at the top of the homescreen. Different icons are dedicated to each type of feed, allowing users to determine the source of each notification before opening the feed list. The function is another feature that seems to take inspiration from Android, although RIM provides more screen area for displaying various icons.
RIM chose to make a second utility to serve as a common inbox for e-mails, SMS messages, BBMs, and direct messages from social networks. The portal provides a great way separate any messages specifically addressed to the user, without requiring each app to be opened separately. The integration seemed to work well on the surface, although Gmail users are still forced to switch to the dedicated e-mail inbox to access threaded correspondence, labels and other management features. Full management functionality would be a sensible addition to the unified inbox, or an option to go directly to the dedicated inbox from the notification toolbar. Hopefully this is an issue RIM will quickly resolve with future updates, especially if it wants to attract Android owners.
The media features have been redesigned for OS 6, which takes advantage of more visual elements when presenting lists of content. The new layout is another minor improvement over earlier versions. The BlackBerry Desktop software arguably offers more of a jump in functionality, as users can sync music via Wi-Fi. The desktop companion is currently only limited to Windows computers, although simple drag-and-drop migration works via USB on any platform.
We initially expected RIM to outfit the Torch with a powerful processor capable of running OS 6 without any performance problems, however the new device uses an updated version of the 624MHz component used in the Bold. Although navigating the UI remained smooth and uninterrupted most of the time, the handset seemed to struggle at random times.
The lackluster performance is most apparent when using the browser, which seems to take twice as long as the iPhone 4 or Galaxy S to load certain websites. Navigating to the standard Electronista site took 50 seconds on the Torch, compared to 21 seconds on the iPhone 4 and 22 seconds for the Galaxy S. Even Motorola's first Droid was able to load the same page faster by 10 seconds. Many simpler sites showed less difference, but the Torch still lacks the raw performance of its competition.
The only benefit to the slower processor appears to be battery life. We were able to run the Torch for almost two days of typical usage. The company promises nearly 6 hours of talk time and up to 17 days of standby time on 2G networks, or 13 days on 3G towers. The battery is also easily swappable for users that need an extra boost when charging isn't practical.
After spending time with the Torch and BlackBerry OS 6, it became apparent that RIM is headed in the right direction. The company has labeled the new OS as "fresh, but familiar," which we found to be accurate. BlackBerry diehards now have a RIM smartphone that offers the best of both worlds, the familiar hardware QWERTY and a full touchscreen experience with a proper mobile browser.
Despite our positive impression of usability and overall design, many of the particular specs fall short of other smartphones. We would struggle to find a fault if the Torch offered an 800x480 touchscreen, 720p video recording, and a processor capable of powering OS 6 without struggle. Even with those specs, however, the hardware would only be on-par with the iPhone 4 and a slew of high-end Android offerings.
For BlackBerry diehards who are willing to settle for modest hardware specs to stick with a familiar platform, the Torch has a variety of features that make it a great upgrade from RIM's other offerings. For existing owners of iPhone and Android devices, however, the Torch does not provide much of an incentive to switch platforms. RIM's decision to sell the device initially as an AT&T exclusive is also a downside for many potential customers.