With all the buzz surrounding the latest Android phones and Apple's new iPhone, it's easy to forget about Research In Motion's BlackBerry phones. The new BlackBerry Torch, however, is designed to bring attention right back to these still-popular devices.
This slider-style smartphone is RIM's first BlackBerry to feature both a touch-screen and a hardware-based QWERTY keyboard, and is the first phone to ship with the completely redesigned BlackBerry 6 operating system. The Torch is easily the best BlackBerry smartphone on the market today, but can it compete with the iPhones and Droids of the world? That depends.
Price and Availability
The BlackBerry Torch is available exclusively on AT&T's network, and costs $199.99 when you sign a new two-year service agreement. AT&T requires that you subscribe to one of their data plans in addition to a voice plan.
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 taking a different path: where both Storm phones replace the standard BlackBerry keypad with a touch screen, the Torch offers both. And, thankfully, the Torch also lacks the SurePress technology found on the Storm, which caused the screen to actually depress when you tapped it. The result is a more user-friendly design than either Storm could offer.
The Torch features a slider-style design that is similar to that of the Palm Pre. When closed, you see the phone's 3.2-inch touch screen, below which you get an optical trackpad and a few touch-sensitive buttons for accessing menus and sending and ending calls. The Torch's screen slides up easily, revealing a full QWERTY keyboard for easier typing.
But there are trade-offs to the Torch's design. The screen is smaller than the big displays found on many of today's smartphones. And the Torch's keyboard is slightly more cramped than some of RIM's other, excellent keyboards. Overall, though, I think the trade-offs are worth it to get the style (and roomier screen) of a touch-screen device while retaining the convenience of a hardware keyboard.
The Torch's screen isn't just smaller than the displays found on many of today's best phones; its resolution is lower, too, at 480 by 360 pixels. That's the same resolution that RIM offers on the BlackBerry Bold 9700; while that phone's 2.4-inch screen looks great, the Torch's bigger screen could benefit from more pixels. It lacks the sharpness of the displays found on rivals like the Droid Incredible or iPhone 4.
The Torch measures 4.4 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by .6 inches thick when closed, which is how you'll hold it when making calls. The phone was pretty comfortable to hold during calls, but it's a bit hefty at 5.7 ounces.
The Torch's call quality also left a bit to be desired. In my test calls, made on AT&T's network, I noticed some voice distortion and sometimes had trouble getting the volume loud enough. On other calls, though, voices came through loud and clear.
RIM didn't just redesign the outside of the BlackBerry Torch; the software on the inside features a new look, too. The Torch is 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. And the new BlackBerry OS is a winner.
One of the most notable changes to the BlackBerry 6 OS is the new home screen, which has a completely new look. At the top, 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. At the bottom of the screen, you'll see the new navigational bar, which takes advantage of the touch screen. 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.
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 also ships 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 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.
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 designed to offer faster and "more robust" performance. I tested the new browser side-by-side with an older version of BlackBerry's browser on a Curve 8530 smartphone, and the new browser was noticeably faster. Pages 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.
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 Torch retains the excellent messaging features and e-mail handing found on previous BlackBerry phones. Corporate users will like the familiar ability to sync with BlackBerry Enterprise Server, while home users will like the ability to sync up to ten business or personal POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts using BlackBerry Internet Service. You get both a unified inbox, as well as individual inboxes for each account. I found the Torch's 3.2-inch screen provided much more real estate for reading messages and scrolling through my inbox than did the 2.4-inch screen on the BlackBerry Curve 8530.
RIM has upgraded its text messaging interface, too, as the Torch offers a threaded view for reading SMS and MMS messages. In addition, the Torch comes with several instant messaging options, including BlackBerry Messenger, AIM, Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger.
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. In my tests, picture quality was good, though some snapshots looked a bit dim. The camera also captures video clips at resolutions up to 640 by 480 pixels.
According to RIM, BlackBerry 6 OS offers an enhanced multimedia experience, and its features are pretty good. They include AT&T's new Web Video Search, an app that allows you to search for video content from more than 70 Web sites, as well as a dedicated YouTube app, a new Podcasts app, and 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. While the multimedia offerings are impressive, they're held back a bit by the Torch's screen; if the display offered a higher resolution, many of the video apps would benefit.
If you use RIM's BlackBerry Desktop Software, you'll appreciate its 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 is an attention-grabbing smartphone, and it's one that clearly proves a BlackBerry can be more than just a staid business-friendly phone. If you're loyal to BlackBerry phones and are looking for an upgraded device, the Torch is well worth your time. If only it had a slightly bigger and better display, the Torch would be able to rival more of today's best smartphones.