The BlackBerry Torch 9860 is a 3.7-inch touchscreen smartphone, sweeping aside the Storm name to give RIM another crack at a keyboardless device. It arrives with BlackBerry OS7, the same as the BlackBerry Bold 9900 which we reviewed recently, but offering a large screen BlackBerry experience.
Touchscreen devices are the most competitive category of smartphones. With big players producing increasingly sophisticated devices and refining the user experience at such a pace the BlackBerry Torch 9860 faces a huge challenge. Can BlackBerry still make an impact on the consumer space, or does forgoing a keyboard leave the handset toothless?
Design and controls
BlackBerry devices have been consistent in their design over the past few generations. One glance and you know the Torch 9860 is a BlackBerry. The framing of the two halves of the device with the silver band reflects a design highlight BlackBerry have been using for a couple of years. The soft curve at the top of the phone means you don't get a hard edge against your ear when you make a call.
By contrast, there is a sharp, hard, edge at the back of the phone and given the location of the lock/unlock on the top of the device, it's almost impossible to unlock the display comfortably using one hand. It's a small point and one of the first things we noticed. Even so, after about a week of use it stopped bothering us.
Running across the bottom of the display are a familiar selection of controls and all are physical buttons that stand proud of the body of the phone, unlike the flattened controls of the Bold 9900 or Torch 9810. Having pronounced controls might seem a little retro but at least you don't knock them as you use the device, so accidental presses are almost non-existent.
The screen tapers off to the left and right too, which makes it nice to swipe across the entire width of the phone, something that BB7 will let you do, thumbing through the menus or your messages.
The delicate contouring of the body of the phone around the 3.5mm headphone jack and the Micro-USB look great. It's nice to see attention to detail, especially design detail, but it does makes the BlackBerry Torch 9810 look a little unloved.
Measuring 120 x 62 x 11.5mm it's a good size too, although we feel the 120mm height is perhaps a little larger than it needs to be - we don't know how many extra millimetres went into those ends that feel just a bit too sharp.
We've mentioned main controls running across the bottom of the screen. These give you proper calling buttons, although BlackBerry now doesn't colour the call accept and reject buttons in green and red respectively, instead they are all white. Then there are menu button, the clickable, optical, navigation key and finally the back button.
Running down the side of the handset you'll find the usual arrangement of volume controls, in the centre of which is an additional button which will act as play/pause for your music, although, annoyingly, it won't launch the music player if it isn’t already open. Finally there is the convenience key that can be programmed to launch an app of your choosing.
Screen and hardware
Being a touch model and offering a large 3.7-inch display mean that the screen has to be good. It offers you resolution of 800 x 400 pixels, making it comparable to a number of Android and Windows Phone 7 devices. One thing is clear here: BlackBerry has figured out that people do care about specs.
What we find interesting, however, is that this gives you a different aspect to the BlackBerry Torch 9810, so across all the current devices you have different screen ratios. In the Torch 9860's favour, this is at least fairly conventional, so when you pair it up against something like the HTC Desire S your screen real estate is effectively the same.
It is a bright and vibrant screen. In direct sunlight we had no problem making out the details, with colours staying authentic, which is great. At the other end of the scale, however, it doesn't seem to want to dim to save the strain on your eyes - and battery - as the light drops, so you'll find that at night it can be a little dazzling.
But we're impressed with the performance. It is sharp, video playback looks good and the colour is impressive - a little on the warm side of the colour scale, but that brings a nice vibrancy to reds.
Elsewhere on the hardware front you'll find a 1.2GHz processor under the hood, along with 768MB RAM and 4GB of internal memory. This internal memory can be further boosted by microSD card. Hardware specs aren't the measure of a mobile phone, but with more and more people seeking out these sorts of numbers, at least the Torch 9860 comes to the track with the right kit.
Software and keyboard
Hardware can only get you so far however, if your software isn't optimised then the user experience will suffer. Refining software is something that RIM has been doing for a number of years, resulting in the most recent iteration of the operating system BB7. It isn't significantly different from BB6 visually, more of a refinement of the changes ushered in with the last generation.
There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but a doubt hangs over these new BlackBerry devices with ongoing discussion of a move to the QNX platform next year. As it is, the user experience on the Torch 9860 is somewhat marred by the software: at times it will drag its heels or stop responding for reasons you can't quite determine.
Some things obviously do have an impact on it: installing apps seems to tax the phone, locking you out of pretty much everything else and we've found that the homescreen and the browser would both regularly hang. We would often have to pull the battery to get it going again.
Of course the feature that BlackBerry owners get excited about is email, and you'll find everything present and correct. Setup out of the box is a breeze and within a few minutes you'll find yourself connected, receiving email and logged into your Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Giving the nod to Google users, you can set up syncing to pull over your contacts and calendar too, which were swiftly handled. Unfortunately, as we've seen before, if you have more than one calendar associated with a Google account then you can't access them all: so we had to resort to Google Sync (the app) to bring the other calendar into line.
Take this step with caution, however, as we subsequently found that our PC calendar then had the appointments in triplicate, with no logical discernable method of easily tidying things back up again.
BlackBerry 7 offers up a respectable user experience and is more adept at touch control than in the past. A long press often brings up the pertinent menu controls, but you'll still find yourself needing the full menu to really get things going.
On other BlackBerry devices you have the advantage that you can easily get things going with the keyboard by using universal search. That advantage has now gone because you have to use the on-screen keyboard, although universal search is still in place, along with voice search.
Voice searching did a good job of picking out for contacts, but once you get into more difficult language, like the name of our local vet for example, the success ratio drops off rapidly. At least you get the run of universal search applications to choose from, be it BlackBerry Maps, Twitter, YouTube, etc.
The default keyboard itself isn't especially good. We're spoilt from using great third-party Android keyboards, which make BB7's keyboard look rather prehistoric. But with some tinkering you can probably find the right settings for you, the first port of call for us was speeding up the response from the keyboard as the default is rather sluggish.
Of course the keyboard opens whenever you enter a text field and can be closed with a quick swipe down the middle. After that you'll either have to find another text field to open it, or you'll have to open the menu and hit the "Show Keyboard" option. You might want to do this to take advantage of some of the BB shortcuts, like "T" for "top", for example.
In portrait we found the full keyboard was just too cramped and too inaccurate, meaning text entry slowed right down. Fortunately the reduced keyboard is also an option, the same as appears on the likes of the Pearl 8100 series, with two characters on each key. The phone can then sensibly pick out the words you're trying to write and the whole experience gets much better, as long as you don't need too many special characters. Some of the traditional BB shortcuts still work too, like a double space for full stop, or a space for inserting the @ into an email in an address field.
The core BlackBerry applications work well enough: universal inbox pulling in messages from all sources, including apps, and in many cases we've found the BlackBerry Facebook app to be much faster than the equivalent on Android. Being able to compose a message and get an option of just about all message types to send to is useful too.
We're not huge fans of BlackBerry Maps, which looks a little dated compared to most other mapping services like Google or Bing Maps on Windows Phone 7, but will just about do the job and Google Maps can be installed if you prefer. We found that there was no link from the calendar locations through to maps, leaving us to copy and paste. At least copy and paste is relatively simple to control, but can be a little too eager, for example selecting text in the Twitter app, when all you really want to do is scroll.
Browser and apps
The biggest change, however, is the browser. BlackBerry knew they had to improve it, and it really has done. It is now much faster than previously, so straight website browsing is a pleasure, with pages quick to load.
However, it isn't without problems. We've already mentioned that we experienced a lot of lock-ups when using the browser and this is a problem compounded by one of the other issues that faces the Torch 9860 and BB7 devices: apps.
Without dedicated apps, you'll spend more time using the browser to access those services, or that information, to get what you need. Although BlackBerry has BBC iPlayer, Spotify, eBay, Skype apps, for example, they aren't available for the Torch 9860. Head to the BBC iPlayer website and you'll get the standard "Your phone isn't supported" message.
What this points to is the immediate need for apps to be updated to give the Torch 9860 the best fighting chance as a competitive handset. Of course we found the same position with the Bold 9900 when we reviewed it in August and we're no better off. With the spectre of QNX hanging over this generation of devices, we can't be entirely confident it'll get the attention it needs to shine.
Camera and multimedia
With 3.7-inches of screen on offer video certainly comes to the fore. Despite the very obvious omission of Flash video support limiting your consumption of common online video, we found that local content was handled nicely. HD media from the memory card was delivered smoothly, so if you happen to have a stack of MPEG4 movies, then you'll be able to easily enjoy them on your phone. There is no sign of DLNA support however.
The 5-megapixel camera on the rear of the device is supported by an LED flash, suffering from the usual shortcomings you'd expect from a phone. Low light shots aren't great, but in good light, the Torch 9860 will give you reasonable results. Being an autofocus camera, you'll get nice sharp images.
It does lack some excitement though, not offering anything by the way of effects. Video is also impressive, churning out good quality 720p footage at 30fps. Again, during video filming you'll find that you get continuous autofocus, so we don't have much to complain about.
Plug in a set of reasonable third-party headphones and you'll find that the BB Torch 9860 sounds sweet. The external speaker also provides good quality and volume, be that for sharing your tunes at the bus stop or that ad hoc conference call in your hotel room.
Finally, we never had a problem getting through a day on the battery. We did come close to emptying it during a normal working day, but we never felt that we needed to leave the house on a full charge in the same way we often to with similar spec Android devices.
Some areas of the BlackBerry Torch 9860 feel a little antiquated as a consumer device. Diving into the menus you still need to "save" as you make changes. We also can't help feeling that, although the sliding app tray, and the choice of homescreen menus is useful, it isn't as dynamic as other operating systems. Without the app tray up, you're looking at a simple wallpaper, so you don't get the same sense of immediate control as you might from widgets, notification bar controls or lockscreen controls.
But some aspects of BB7 shine on the Torch 9860. Messaging, be it SMS, email, BBM, Facebook or Twitter, continue to be strong and integrated. We've also found that those essential apps work well. Sharing (or sending as it's referred to) works as well as it does anywhere else. So barring a few exceptions, the Torch 9860 is every bit as effective a social communicator as any other device.
Pair that with strong camera performance, great video, and good screen and speedy browser, all packed into a phone that's actually rather attractive to look at and there is something going for the 9860. It's a shame then that minor software details are what really let the package down: the lack of app support for BB7 and tendency to become unresponsive are challenging, but not insurmountable, problems.