With all the buzz surrounding the latest Android phones and Apple's new iPhone, it's easy to forget that Research In Motion's BlackBerry devices are some of the best smartphones around. The new BlackBerry Torch, however, is designed to remind you. This slider-style smartphone is RIM's first BlackBerry to feature both a touch-screen and a hardware-based QWERTY keyboard, and will be the first phone to ship with the completely redesigned BlackBerry 6 operating system.
Price and Availability
The BlackBerry Torch will be available exclusively on AT&T's network beginning August 12. It will cost $199.99 when you sign a new two-year service agreement, and requires that you subscribe to one of AT&T's data plans in addition to a voice plan. The Torch will be available in AT&T stores and online, and will also be sold in Best Buy, Radio Shack, and Wal-Mart stores.
RIM has tried to introduce touch-screen BlackBerry phones in the past, but the response to these devices -- the Storm and the Storm 2 -- has been tepid, to say the least. With the Torch, however, RIM is adding a touch-screen to a BlackBerry phone while keeping the QWERTY keyboard, rather than replacing it.
The Torch features a slider-style design that is similar to that of the Palm Pre. When closed, you see the phone's touch screen, below which you get an optical trackpad and a few touch-sensitive buttons. A full QWERTY keyboard slides out from below the display for easier typing. While I have yet to try the Torch, I think this design is a good one: you get the style (and roomier screen) of a touch-screen device while retaining the convenience of a hardware keyboard.
The Torch's touch screen measures 3.2-inches diagonally, and the phone itself measures 4.4 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by .6 inches thick when closed. When open, the phone's height increases to 5.8 inches.
RIM didn't just redesign the outside of the BlackBerry Torch; the software on the inside features an all-new look, too. The Torch will be the first phone to ship with version 6 of the BlackBerry OS, which has been completely redesigned to compete with today's best mobile OSes, like Apple's iOS and Google's Android.
One of the most notable changes to the BlackBerry 6 OS is the new home screen, which offers notifications with previews, so you not only see that you've received a new message, but also who that message is from. You can add content and bookmarks right to the home page, and you can swipe to the left to access your most-used apps and to the right to access your favorites.
BlackBerry 6 OS also features a 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. In addition, you get a universal inbox that catalogs not just e-mail, but also information from services like Facebook, Twitter, and BlackBerry Messenger.
The Torch will ship with BlackBerry's App World pre-installed on the phone; this is a welcome step, as you had to download the app store to your phone in the past. The updated App World will feature 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.
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.
Browsing the Web
The new BlackBerry 6 OS comes with an all-new WebKit-based browser, which is design to offer faster and "more robust" performance. The browser is designed to render HTML pages accurately, and features an 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. The browser also features tabs for accessing more than one site, and the ability to zoom in and out on a page by pinching and spreading the screen.
The Blackberry Torch supports AT&T's high-speed 3G network, as well as 802.11b/g/n wireless networks, so you have plenty of options for speedy Web access and downloads.
The BlackBerry Torch features a 5-megapixel camera with some advanced features, including a flash, auto-focus, zoom, scene modes, and image stabilization. It also has a geo-location feature than can put the name of the city where your photo was taken into its file name. The camera will capture video clips at resolutions up to 640 by 480 pixels.
BlackBerry 6 OS is supposed to offer an enhanced multimedia experience, according to RIM, with features like AT&T's new Web Video Search, an app that allows you to search for video content from more than 70 Web sites. You also get a dedicated YouTube app, a new Podcasts app, as well as access to a variety of third-party apps, like Slacker Radio and Prime Time 2 Go, which lets you download TV shows to your phone.
RIM also has revamped its BlackBerry Desktop Software with new features, like Wi-Fi music sync, which allows you to sync music, photos, and videos from your home computer when you are in range of your home wireless network.
The BlackBerry Torch sounds like the device that both RIM and AT&T need. For AT&T, the Torch is an attention-grabbing smartphone that could be a solid alternative to the problematic iPhone 4. For RIM, the Torch could be the device that proves a BlackBerry can be more than just a staid business-friendly phone. Stay tuned for a complete review to see if the Torch can earn a spot on my list of today's best BlackBerry phones.