Research In Motion has announced a successor to the BlackBerry Storm and BlackBerry Bold, merging two of its flagship handsets to create a new line that offers both a QWERTY keyboard and touchscreen experience. But has it created a prodigal son, or a bastard child? We managed to get some hands-on time with the new device at the UK launch of the new smartphone in London.
The first things you'll think when you glance at the device is that it's big, that it looks like the Palm Pre, while at the same time looking very familiar.
That's all understandable. The BlackBerry Torch sports a 3.2-inch 360 x 480 capacitive touchscreen display. While that's smaller than the iPhone 4 or the HTC Desire, it's wider, giving the phone an overall measurement of 111 x 62 x 14.6mm and a weight of 161 grams. It gets even bigger when you slide the device upwards to reveal the 35-key QWERTY keyboard that is styled very similar to the Bold.
Size aside, the Torch offers all the usual buttons you would come to expect from a BlackBerry. Like the new Pearl 3G (9150) the model sports the rubberised hidden buttons on the side. Under the capacitive, rather than the clicky variant, screen we saw on the Storm are a further array of buttons: call, hang-up, menu, back and an optical trackpad giving you yet another way to interact.
There is also a 3.5mm stereo headset jack - handy as the multimedia capabilities have been vastly improved in the new BlackBerry 6 OS.
Around the back, is the classic "leatherette" cover and a 5-megapixel camera with flash. It will come with continuous auto focus, image stabilisation, scene modes, geo-tagging and zoom, as well as video recording at up to 640 x 480 resolution, but not 720p HD footage. We weren't able to test the camera.
Inside and you'll get a rather disappointing 624MHz processor with 512MB flash memory. Why RIM hasn't just gone for the speed boost and featured a 1GHz processor like the majority of its competition is beyond us. Will that decision be its downfall? It's hard to tell from our play with the handset as they were pre-production models, but we did see the odd bit of lag.
Storage comes in the guise of 4GB built-in memory plus a microSD/SDHD card slot that supports up to 32GB cards. RIM says you'll get a 4GB card included, boosting the storage total to 8GB out-of-the-box.
Connectivity includes 3G, Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n) and stereo Bluetooth. Yes, you will be able to tether the handset to be able to access the Internet from a paired laptop, but you won't be able to turn it into a wireless hotspot like you can with Android.
That's the specs, but how does it perform? We spent about an hour with the new smartphone and if you're a BlackBerry user you are going to be very happy and impressed. The BlackBerry Torch sports the new BlackBerry 6 operating system and that brings with it a load of new features.
RIM says that the focus of the new OS is to "Keep it fresh, keep it familiar, make it approachable", and its clear that's what RIM has done. That means a grid interface that you know and love, but with new bits and bobs to make it easier to use.
The biggest difference is that, rather than folders, you get tiles that you can swish through in a similar fashion to webOS and Android. These tiles (we aren't sure whether you can customise or create new variations of) include All, Media, Frequent, Downloads, and Favourite, with you being able to drag apps into the different areas just like you can with Android and iOS 4.
You'll also get universal search, so when you start typing it brings up everything in your phone related to what you are searching for. If it's a new search that has nothing do to with anything on the phone, you'll get links to YouTube, and Google, while if you've got web history, music, emails or other such stuff with references, links for those apps will appear instead. It's very simple, but very clever.
Perhaps hoping to ape Motorola and its Motoblur system. BlackBerry users get Social Feed, a built-in app that lets you unify your social networks in one place. Data, be it status updates on Facebook, or tweets on Twitter are automatically push/pulled into the new app so you can see what your friends are saying. Clicking on one allows you to reply directly within the app and creating a new message gives you the option to multiple post. Replying and keeping in touch with your friends has never been so easy.
Social Feed doesn't just deal with social networking though, it does RSS feeds as well with the ability to add and monitor your favourite feeds all in one location like Google Reader. We weren't able to determine from our brief play whether or not you would be able to organise the feeds beyond just having them in the one feed, but if you only follow a handful of sites it will very helpful none the less.
What's interesting about the Social Feed app is that it's all push. Using the available API's and creating some new ones themselves, RIM has turned RSS and Tweets into yet another icon on your homepage to get addicted to. You can even set a buzz or red flashing LED alert for the whole process.
A new interface, ability to search, and then the chance to tell everyone about it will please, but not half as much as the new Webkit browser that's been introduced. Here is the news you've all been waiting for ... it's now fast, it's now useful, and it now actually displays websites as they are meant to be seen.
That means we were able to load pages in seconds rather than minutes and they looked good. RIM has included pinch to zoom - remember it's a capacitive touchscreen on top - and double tapping on the screen zooms in forcing the text to auto-fit the page. Other features include dull HTML 5 and CSS support as well as tabbed sessions, so you can view more than one web page at a time.
In an interesting move you'll be able to set the default font and size that it auto-fits too, so as to "fit in with your BlackBerry experience". We struggled to understand why or what that means exactly in our play, but we are sure we'll get to the bottom of it when it comes to a more in-depth review - when we get our hands on a final unit for a greater length of time.
Finally it's worth mentioning some niceties that we noticed along the way. There is an accelerometer, but it's automatically disabled when watching videos, to landscape of course, while that same locking feature comes into play for portrait mode when the keyboard slides out. Then there are the improved settings and set-up page that isn't now just a menu of words, making it a lot easier to manage things.
Elsewhere, another feature we liked was the ability to see new notifications without launching the dedicated app. All you have to do is simply click on the notification icon at the top of the screen and it displays quick links to all that information, be it Twitter messages, emails, text messages, calendar dates or anything else you've got setup for that matter.
And yes, music has been improved to look and act more like the iPod interface and pictures now get the ability to view by folder and date amongst other new options.
With the help of a new OS - BlackBerry 6 - BlackBerry has been able to create a device that we suspect most BlackBerry Bold owners will want to upgrade to. Yes, the BB 6 OS will be coming to the BlackBerry 9700, but this brings with it a touchscreen that the Storm series could only dream about.
Build quality is solid, and the new OS is great, although it's not without its gripes - mainly that it's not overly intuitive for non-BlackBerry users and that there are just too many ways to do something - touchscreen, optical trackpad, and keyboard.
If you were to compare the BlackBerry Torch to other handsets on market it would have to be the Motorola Milestone vs Palm Pre Plus. If there were any BlackBerry users thinking of jumping ship to the Palm Pre Plus, this will definitely make them change their mind. The Milestone is a harder choice, mainly because of Android, but RIM is trying its best, and this isn't going to be a phone to woo the iPhone or Android owners back.
The BlackBerry Torch looks very promising, something that will whet the appetite of the BB faithful, and possibly allow RIM to stay in the race for Smartphone dominance.
The BlackBerry Torch will be available on AT&T in the US and Vodafone in the UK in the next couple of weeks.