RIM has overhauled its BlackBerry operating system with the latest version, called BlackBerry 6. The goal behind the redesign was to deliver a powerful, but still user-friendly platform that offers the bells and whistles needed to compete with today's best mobile OSes, like Apple's iOS and Google's Android. And, for the most part, BlackBerry 6 succeeds.
New Look, Better Organization
One of the most notable changes to the BlackBerry 6 OS is the new home screen, which has been redesigned. It retains the familiar BlackBerry icons, but presents them in a new layout. At the top of the home screen, you'll see a notification bar that alerts you to new messages, calls, and events. You simply tap on the bar to expand this view, where you can see more details, including the sender and subject line of new e-mails.
The middle of the home screen features a minimalist design that is a welcome change from past versions of the BlackBerry OS, which were too often cluttered with confusing folders and too many icons. At the bottom of the screen, you'll see the new navigational bar, which takes advantage of touch screens, such as the one on the BlackBerry Torch. You can swipe to the left or right to access apps or other content, organized into categories like Frequent, Downloads, Media, and Favorites.
Tapping on the category heading expands the view, so you can see more options. This is a welcome change from past BlackBerry OSes, which were unorganized and harder to navigate than it should be. This organization stemmed, in large part, from having too many folders. For example, past BlackBerry OSes would give one folder called "Applications" and another called "Downloads." Since many of your downloads are actually applications, it was not always clear which folder they should be in. The new layout of BlackBerry 6 eliminates this confusion.
While the home screen's new layout makes navigating a BlackBerry phone easier, it doesn't leave much room for customization. You can install themes to change the look of your phone, but you can't rearrange icons or add widgets, the way you can on an Android-based phone.
Better Web Browsing
BlackBerry 6 comes with an all-new WebKit-based browser, which is designed to offer faster and "more robust" performance than past BlackBerry browsers -- and it definitely succeeds. I tested the new browser on the BlackBerry Torch, side-by-side with an older version of BlackBerry's browser on a Curve 8530 smartphone. The new browser was noticeably faster, delivering pages that rendered much more quickly and displayed more accurately.
I also was impressed with the browser's new auto-wrap text zoom feature that can "intelligently wrap text in a column while maintaining the placement of a page's key elements," according to RIM. When I zoomed in on a Web page (which you can do by pinching and spreading the screen), the text automatically wraps the text to fit the screen.
One of the most hyped features in BlackBerry 6 is the new universal search that can locate results both on and off your phone; begin typing, and the universal search feature automatically looks on the phone, in RIM's BlackBerry App World, on Google, and in installed apps. It works fast and it works well.
Other new features in the OS include a Unified Social Feed, which lets you access sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace from one app; updated messaging capabilities, which includes the ability to send group messages; and a new podcast app. In addition, you get a universal inbox that catalogs not just e-mail, but also information from services like Facebook, Twitter, and BlackBerry Messenger. I also like the new look of the BlackBerry Music player, which has a new emphasis on album art, making it much more attractive.
As of this writing, BlackBerry 6 is available on only one device: the BlackBerry Torch. Thankfully, that phone ships with BlackBerry's App World pre-installed on it; this is a welcome step, as you had to download the app store to your phone in the past.
BlackBerry App World has been updated since I last reviewed it, and it's a much better -- and bigger -- store. Developers can now charge 99 cents or $1.99 for their apps; in the past, apps were free or were priced at $2.99 an up. The updated App World also adds carrier billing through AT&T, as well as new options for developers to monetize their apps, including in-app purchases, app subscriptions, and ads within apps.
But what's perhaps the most important aspect of an app store is its selection, and App World's has improved. The store that launched with around 700 apps now offers more than 5,000. While that number pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of apps available in Apple's iPhone App Store, it still represents a decent selection. Sure, App World could stand to grow, but it's current selection of apps is admirable.
BlackBerry 6 is easily the best BlackBerry OS to date. But what's perhaps more important is its ability to compete with flashier mobile OSes, like Apple's iOS and Google's Android. BlackBerry 6 lacks the customization of Android, but it's also far less geeky and confusing. And it lacks the elegance and simplicity of Apple's iOS, but it delivers enough features to keep current BlackBerry users happy, and enough to likely win over new users, too.