There are now two BlackBerry Torch models in RIM's armoury: the 9810 we're reviewing here and the 9860 that we've previously reviewed. The 9810 is a slider phone packing a full QWERTY keyboard essentially the same design as the phone it replaces, the Torch 9800.
The 9800 was something rarity for BlackBerry when it launched, as the only other touch device on offer from RIM was from the ill-fated Storm family. Of course, the Storm has passed and we're left with two Torch models and touch across the range. But is this upgraded model a step up in experience?
The 9810 is practically the spitting image of the 9800 forebear. It looks the same, feels the same and measures the same, save for some very minor changes, such as the colour of the controls under the display. It is a slider, with the display sliding upwards to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard of the tried and tested BlackBerry formula.
It's somewhat chunky by modern standards, weighing in a 161g and measuring 111 x 62 x 14.6. Given that this is a slider device, we're not too worried about the size as it slips easily enough into any pocket or bag.
What's more of a concern is one of the points that irritated us about the last edition of this phone and that's the screen lock button on the top of the phone. The action is so soft that it will easily unlock itself in your pocket. On a non-touch phone that's not much of a problem, but we've pulled the phone out to find it setting new appointments, browsing the Internet, and even having changed the language to Greek.
Given the design there aren't too many sensible locations to place the 3.5mm headphone jack. On the side it juts out, meaning that the Torch never really sits comfortably in your pocket. If anything, this device is a questionable choice for sliding into the hip pocket of your jeans, because you'll catch the headphones, unlock the device and email your ex in the process.
On our previous review sample we found that the sliding action of the screen gave us a little wobble on every tap. This didn't appear to be a problem on our 9810, but we did find the plastic back panel would creak. The 9810 won't win any prizes for build or design, but aside from the ridiculously soft lock key, we can't complain too much.
Those upgraded parts
We don't want to spend too much of this review talking about the older version of this phone, but let's just say that RIM have addressed some of the major points of concern from a hardware point of view. The screen sees its resolution bumped up to 640 x 480 pixels, a welcome step-up meaning this is a sharper Torch, but with rival platforms pushing higher definition displays, the 9810 lacks impact and sharpness.
The OS fits well on the display as the icons aren't overcomplicated so the lack of resolution doesn't really matter, but it does mean that browsing the Internet involves more zooming and images don't looks as sharp as they could.
But we find ourselves wondering if the new 1.2GHz processor and upgraded 768MB RAM make that much of a difference. Sure, you can now capture 720p video thanks to the extra power to crunch the captured data from the 5-megapixel camera, but it's not the hardware that's explicitly at fault, it's the software.
BB OS showing its age
For several years we've been remarking that BlackBerry OS needs to start stepping forwards. There are some great things, and a great heritage, behind BlackBerry, but the pace at which its rivals are evolving doesn't shine a favourable light on BlackBerry. But this isn't news. Where BB6 made a few visual tweaks, BB7 makes a few more, but not so many that you'd really notice.
We often found that we'd touch the screen to drag or scroll the tray of apps and found it wouldn't respond. Finger tracking isn't great and dragging and scrolling things like webpages isn't as smooth or successful as it should be. Too often we'd be heading off to an extraneous link, rather than scrolling. This applies in apps and menus too, so we'd often resort back to the optical trackpad, or keyboard shortcuts.
The way we use current devices now plays a part here. The fewer apps you have on your platform, the more people are going to need to use the browser to access online services. Although the browser is much better than it was prior to BB6, it still doesn't match those native browsers of iPhone or Android in daily use.
The biggest problem we had was stability; it would frequently fail or refuse to load a page and it would regularly freeze, rendering the phone unresponsive, so we had to pull the battery to get things going again. BlackBerry users are probably all-too familiar with battery pulls and upgrading the hardware in this model doesn't seem to have got round this problem.
Of course the jewel in the crown is email, and stepping into the BlackBerry world from regular Android and iPhone use reminds us of just how convenient and powerful the BB email system is. The speed, the searching the ease with which you can communicate via email is fantastic.
However, the keyboard on the Torch isn't a patch on the Bold keyboard, or even that of the Curve. It's slightly too recessed into the body of the base of the phone so it feels like a strain to use. The on-screen QWERTY keyboard is poor too. Where other on-screen keyboards will let your fingers fly, the BB keyboard seems to struggle to follow what you're trying to type, even on this relatively large screen. As such, it’s much better to use the compact keyboard in portrait, because it's relatively good at figuring out what you're trying to say.
BlackBerry Maps is rather antiquated and lacks the powerful search that Google Maps offers. Searching for a meeting location from the calendar returned no results; pasting the same details into Google Maps found the location quickly. Whilst on the subject of locations, it's also frustrating that not all synced calendar locations will be live links, depending on how you arrange your calendars.
When it comes to apps, of course, the BlackBerry isn't the best served. Most of our essentials are covered however, and you'll find your social networks present and correct, although the app design doesn't seem as impressive as other smartphones, and they lack that snap and immediacy contemporary smartphones offer. In many areas, the BlackBerry Torch doesn't stand up to its rivals, which is a shame.
It's not all doom and gloom. If your primary interest is in communication, then the BlackBerry still does rather well. We've mentioned that the email experience is good, and it is. The universal inbox makes it easy to jump to messages and alerts, although it could do with more options. Being able to sign into your accounts and have information sync to your device is very welcomed, and even though it stumbled with multiple calendars from our Google accounts, that was easily avoided with the Google Sync app.
The connectivity is also remarkably good for servicing email, especially when re-joining a network, stepping out of the underground for example. BlackBerrys will pick up emails on the merest hint of a GPRS connection, something that not all smartphones will do.
The arrangement of the Torch does give you a sort of best-of-both worlds with its keyboard and larger screen. Smartphones with keyboards aren't as common as they were a few years ago, and this is in part testament to how good on-screen keyboards now are and how well mobile operating systems have been designed to incorporate intuitive control.
With the BlackBerry Torch you can, at least, use the phone in either mode. You can casually browse Twitter with it closed, re-tweet a message, then slide it open to use the keyboard, giving you plenty of space for text entry. Although the keyboard isn't as good as other BlackBerrys, you do get used to it after time.
You also get more screen space to enjoy media, although we can't help feeling that the other Torch, the 9860, was a better device for consuming video content.
The 5-megapixel camera on the rear is good enough. By that, we mean that it offers average performance for a smartphone. Shots in good light are reasonable quality, adequate for sharing online or sending to friends, but low light photos will be soft and noisy. Video capture is also pretty good too, with the new 720p offering noticeably better results than the 640 x 480 video of the past.
The battery life is also pretty good, perhaps because you're less likely to have so many apps looking to gobble data. We managed to get through a day easily in average use. After a day of heavy use, you will see it complaining towards the end of the day, but it out-performs many smartphones when it comes to endurance.
The BlackBerry Torch 9810 feels like an incremental step for RIM. The previous handset had obvious problems, some of which are addressed here, but we also feel that the 9810 is the phone the 9800 should have been. That sets this handset behind the times a little and that's certainly not helped by a user interface that lacks the consumer ease that you'll find in iOS, Android or Windows Phone 7.
That may all be set to change with the advent of BB 10, which should make an appearance at Mobile World Congress 2012. As such, we can't strongly recommend the BlackBerry Torch 9810 if you're interested in upgrading now.
If you're happy with the BlackBerry experience and value both screen space and a physical keyboard, then this style of device might be for you, but we'd suggest you bide your time and see what's coming next, before committing.