BlackBerry Torch review

The BlackBerry Torch, or 9800 for those keeping track of the numbers, brings with it a design we don't see too often in mobile phone handsets - the full QWERTY vertical touchscreen slider. The most notable device of this design in recent times was the Palm Pre which was considerably smaller. The design means that things are going to get big once you open the screen up. Sitting a 3.2-inch screen above a BlackBerry keyboard means the Torch is 148mm tall when opened. For those not savvy with millimetres, that's nearly 15cm, almost 6 inches. That's a size that no one will miss when you whip it out on the train.

We can understand why RIM have created the Torch: it preserves what some say is their greatest feature - the keyboard - whilst opening up the option of touch as well. It also departs from the much criticised touch systems of the Storm handsets and should be the best of both words. As such, the BlackBerry Torch isn't being launched with the words "business" or "enterprise" anywhere near it. The highlighted features on the BlackBerry website are the camera, the browser, multimedia and social feeds. It's being positioned as a consumer device, or at least to have consumer appeal. In this review we are looking at both the hardware and some of the features of BlackBerry 6, so it is rather long.

With the screen closed the Torch is 111mm tall, fairly average for a smartphone, but both wide and thick, measuring 62mm and 14.6mm respectively. But that's not the be all and end all when there are smartphones on the market with 4-inch screens: the world is thinking big these days. The weight of 161g is on the heavy side, but isn't uncomfortable to carry around.

Taking in the design, it looks every inch the BlackBerry. You'll find the same touches around the handset that you will across the other handsets from RIM, the black rubberised side keys, the same use of panels and trim. It's not an unattractive device, in fact we like its chunky looks, but it isn't as refined as some of the neat QWERTY side-sliders we've seen around, like the HTC Desire Z.

With any sort of sliding handset it is important to ensure that the slide mechanism is up to the job and that the two halves of the device have been designed to sit happily whether open or closed. The BlackBerry Torch is almost there, let down by a degree of movement when you press on the display when closed. The result is that the display seems to bounce a little as you type, especially if you have a heavy finger action.

Slide open the Torch and you are presented with a full BlackBerry QWERTY keyboard. The sliding action isn't the most refined or defined. It lacks the pop of the new HTC Desire Z or the positive action of the Motorola Milestone (accepting that these are side sliders, not vertical like the Torch). We'd like it to be a little more positive and have the feeling that it will last the likely 2-years of your contract. It's just not crisp enough for us.

The screen is perhaps one of the surprising disappointments of the Torch, because it just isn't up to the standard that rivals offer. A 480 x 360 pixel resolution is all you get from the 3.2-inch display, compared to the average 800 x 480 display most high-end devices now sport. The result is that nothing is as sharp as you want it to be. Sure, the interface has been designed for this display, but we don't expect to see a device appearing boasting consumer credentials at this resolution.

It's also a surprise to see discover that there is a 624MHz processor at the core, lacking any sort of 3D support. This sort of makes sense with the screen limitations, but we wouldn't be surprised if lurking around the corner was a fully specced BlackBerry Torch waiting to come out if this model is a success, but we digress.

The on-screen keyboard is easy enough to use though and seemed responsive in our tests. Mistakes are ably wiped out with some predictive spelling guesswork and generally we experienced no problems with it. In portrait mode we found the keyboard response to be fast, although a little cramped, especially when hitting the small return key. In landscape you can get two thumbs working and the experience is much better.

The physical keyboard apes the Bold 9700, although the keys are matte rather than glossy. It's perhaps a surprise then that the keyboard experience isn't as good as the Bold. On the Torch, the keyboard sits recessed in the base of the handset, so there is a ridge that runs around the keyboard which forms part of the handset construction. We found this and the additional weight of the phone meant that one-handed use was less comfortable than we were expecting. We're sure you will get used to the weight and things will become more natural, but we think it is down to the extra travel your thumb has to go through to hit the keys. Two handed it isn't such a problem.

But with this being an initial complaint from us, it drops away as you get to grips with all the different interaction options you have on the Torch. You get full touch control as well, and if you prefer, you never have to open the handset up. The optical trackpad can be used to navigate around the screen and around menus, or you can simply press what you want. You'll also find that keyboard shortcuts sometimes work (although we didn't exhaustively test this) on the on-screen keyboard (e.g.: t for top and b for bottom).

Being offered these choices of navigation means you'll spend the first few days with your Torch getting to things in different ways, but things are easy to get to and that is due in no small part to the inclusion of BlackBerry 6, the new operating system. As a launch device, the BlackBerry Torch is designed to be a showcase for BlackBerry 6, a vision of the future.

BlackBerry 6 isn't a complete redesign, but it does make touch on the Torch work nicely, making some essential changes to bring features to your fingertips, rather than having them hiding in a menu. Visually BlackBerry 6 changes the way the up-front menus are handled around the home screen. We're used to the top row of the menu appearing on the bottom of the screen as shortcuts from BlackBerry 5. Rather than entering a menu like you did previously, it can now be pulled up onto the screen to scroll through. It also sticks where you put it, so if you want one line of icons, you can have that, it you want three lines, that's no problem either. 

The smart thing about the menu is that it also swipes from side to side. Previously your BlackBerry menu would be full of folders and now things get the chance to break out a little. Swiping across the menu will see you move into Frequent, Downloads, Media, and Favourites sections, meaning it is much faster to get to what you want, which is most welcomed.

Much of the content of BlackBerry 6 is the same as it was before, broadly offering the same features in the same places. If you've used a BlackBerry in the past you'll find that you can get to everything with minimal fuss and you'll know where most of the controls are. We like the fact that the top of the screen is more interactive, so you can press the top status bar and change the connections and alarms, or tap the next bar down for a drop-down set of alerts, so you can preview all the people you missed calls from, glimpse at the calendar and see who has emailed – it fleshes out what was previously a run of alert icons.

 

This is also the location of the new universal search features. Just tap the magnifying glass and it will then search whatever you type in across the device. If you are using the keyboard, then from the home page you just start typing and it springs into action. Local results are returned immediately, so if you type in "BlackBerry" it will return results from your inbox and your calendar, contacts, as well as offering to search Google and YouTube and offer up your browser history too and so on. It's a great feature and one we already love.

One of the new headline features on the BlackBerry Torch is new Social Feeds. The BlackBerry wasn't especially anti-social before, with the Twitter and Facebook apps integrating nicely with your inbox and contacts where appropriate. Now they have their own app – Social Feeds – which will also pull in the other services that BB6 offers, covering AIM, BBM, Google Talk, MySpace, Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger. It's a shame that Skype doesn't get in on the action too, as we'd love to see Skype Chat in the mix too.

We sort of like Social Feeds because it is a one-stop shop for all this information and it is also RSS friendly, even if scrolling up and down the lists is a little jerky. It will let you view all of your feeds (minus RSS) in one stream, like FriendStream or MotoBlur on HTC and Motorola devices, or even like SocialScope on the BlackBerry. But you can delve a little further, and filter these into the source lists, so you can then swipe from side to side to view each individually - Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc - a little like Sony Ericsson's Timescape. If you don't use a service you can remove it from the lists so you don't hit a blank patch.

  

The slightly strange thing is that if you click on a link you move through to the native application for that service, with Social Feeds only offering minor options, so you can post new updates, but it is a text only system so if you want to send out a picture, you'll need be in the right application, or select the Send option from the menu on that particular picture. The same applies to re-Tweeting and replying as well – Social Feeds won't let you do it. The result feels very much like using HTC's FriendStream where you have a connection but not full integration with the applications behind the list-based face that you see, which is slightly odd, and could go much further so you don't end up always snacking on these updates in different places.

BlackBerry 6 takes a mixed approach to presenting you with options. Sticking with the Social Feeds application, this presents a clean straight list, with all the options being contained within the menu. You'll have to press the menu button to get at them. There is a degree of consistency as to what you get in the menu, as there was before with BB5, so it not only offers contextual options, but also some overriding options too, like the option to switch applications.

In most of the core applications – phone, messages, email, calendar, contacts – you get a line of options across the bottom of the display that makes navigation and interaction easy. The menu can be a little tight and occasionally we'd hit the wrong option, so we much prefer the on-screen icon options. Those with larger fingers might also find they are forever hitting the call button rather than the menu button, but that's good reason for having real buttons here rather than touch buttons.

Multitasking has been in place on BlackBerry handsets for some time, the easiest method of entry is pressing and holding the menu button. This will bring up a list on-screen so you can quickly jump to a different application by touching the icon, rather than having to use the optical trackpad as previously. Of course, the optical trackpad works as it did on previous devices, giving you an additional option for navigation and interaction, although we found we used it sparingly.

Generally we found that moving around the operating system was fast and didn't show many signs of slowdown, but wasn't entirely consistent. Some applications – such as Google Maps particularly – seem to slow the Torch down (as they did on the Bold). Switching to and from Google Maps usually throws up the spinning clock as it works out what to do. That's a real shame because Google Maps is far better than BlackBerry's own maps offering, although to be fair, there was no sign of BB Maps on the device we reviewed.

Whilst we are on apps at this point in time you'll find numerous apps that aren't available to you on BlackBerry App World – even RIM apps, like eBay for BlackBerry can't be found. We understand that there does need to be some tweaking, but if you are looking to get yourself a Torch straightaway, prepare to be without some apps for a while. BlackBerry App World isn't quite the success that the Apple App Store is, or that the Android Market is nearly, and even when you get the full range of options, there is quite a way to go before BlackBerry App World will be as exciting as rival options.

As an interface itself we like BlackBerry 6, it works as a touch navigation user interface. The multiple methods of interaction can provide a degree of confusion and the use of the menu when in some cases a simple action icon would suffice does indicate that there is room for improvement here.

We know that the BlackBerry 6 is still going through revision. It is, after all, a new operating system on a new piece of hardware, so we expect some teething problems. We know some have been ironed out already, but there are still some hallmarks of BlackBerry old that let the experience down. We only had one significant failing with the Torch and that was the camera freezing and refusing to take a picture, requiring a battery pull to get going again, but it was an error we couldn’t reproduce. But we did experience a number of little freezes as we moved around. Occasionally an icon would flash as you pressed it but nothing would happen. Sometimes you'll open an app and have to wait while it thinks. It seems random and it's something BlackBerry users have been living with for a while.

The core BlackBerry services remain as good as ever. The email service is excellent and you'll be up and running with your email accounts in no time at all, with the option of synchronising contacts if you use Gmail, adding some of that Android ease of use. You get an integrated inbox on the BlackBerry, but, as before, it doesn't have the full functionality of the individual mail accounts you set up – especially as you lose the threaded messages, which is something of a let down.

The browser is an area that desperately needed attention and has thankfully now received it. Based on a Webkit browser, it is fast to load pages and does a reasonable job reproducing those pages you visit. You get multitouch support, so you can pinch zoom and drag pages around. There is also double tap zoom and text reflowing. The experience is just enough to get excited about, especially if you're used to the old slower browser experience from your BlackBerry and brings the Torch closer to other smartphones. It doesn't quite go far enough however, and it isn't as smooth as you'll get from the HTC Desire or the iPhone 4.

Around the back of the BlackBerry Torch you now have a 5-megapixel camera, supported by an LED "flash" which is something we're never keen on as they are never particularly effective. In daylight the camera is capable enough, but suffers from the normal difficulties in high contrast conditions, showing a level of purple fringing around edges. In low light images get a little soft and noisy, but both these things are typical of phone cameras. There is a selection of scene modes to choose from, as well as options to tweak the focusing, add geotagging and flash control. 

On the video front, however, BlackBerry hasn't stepped up to the current trend of offering 720p capture. Instead you are left with a now below average 640 x 480, leaving the Torch a step behind the other headline smartphones out there. In good light the return is reasonable and we found an average of about 23/24fps was normal.

The media player has had an overhaul so it is now easier to get to and play your music. There is no sign of any media controls from the homepage though and no external media keys, so you'll have to return to the player to make changes. Major audio formats are supported and we found the quality to be reasonable. The external speaker is surprisingly good, we suspect as a nod to those who want to use it for conference calling, rather than watching movies.

Video playback suffers because the screen resolution isn't really that good and there is no sign of Flash video support in the browser. The YouTube application will play that flavour of content as well as offer to upload your video direct from the device. Elsewhere video format support is rather weak, missing out on some of the more common and popular formats.

Needless to say, the BlackBerry Torch is a comfortable device for making and receiving calls and we found the quality to be good. The battery life isn't quite up to what we'd get from a regular QWERTY BlackBerry, as we found ourselves charging the phone overnight on most occasions, but in testing it lasted longer than some of the rivals that offer more functions.

Verdict

We can't help liking the BlackBerry Torch because it is unashamedly BlackBerry. Those familiar quirks that BlackBerry users grow accustomed to are still visible here. And that's also the biggest problem. There is little to really appeal to newcomers. It might keep the fans happy by improving their lot, but it does little to bring the BlackBerry family bang up to date. 

Essentially, the BlackBerry Torch has all the features you'd expect last year. The operating system and software will benefit from updates as time goes by, but the screen resolution and the processor already feel behind the times. We've found ourselves saying too many times in the course of this review that the BlackBerry Torch isn't as good as its rivals from Apple and Google. Whilst the Bold exhibits that excellent keyboard, the Torch doesn't quite match it; the Torch overall offers a better user experience so some may prefer it to the Bold, but as a large touchscreen device, it is still some way off the leaders.