Friday, 18 February 2011 by nely fuy
You thought sliders were played out? Well think again. Research In Motion may not have invented the slider, but by working hand in hand with AT&T on its development since the project took root in late 2008, they have come very close to perfecting it. With some major upgrades and many subtle refinements throughout the user interface and under the hood, BB6 plays catch up in the smartphone wars. With the Torch, it now delivers to BlackBerry users a modern feeling experience that takes messaging and social media to a new level while placing much more emphasis on traditional media (photos, music, video, podcasts, etc.). The best news of all is the new WebKit rendering engine, which is the same web browser technology behind the iPhone, Android, webOS, and Nokia phones. You can finally enjoy browsing webpages on a BlackBerry.
There's a lot to cover in this review, so let's get to it!
BlackBerry Torch 9800 Overview
A whole bunch of BlackBerry newness is making its debut on the Torch 9800, which for the moment really sets it apart from other BlackBerry devices on the market. It's the first and only slider BlackBerry. It's the first BlackBerry to feature a 'proper' touchscreen (no SurePress clicking on the screen required). It's the first BlackBerry to get the bump up to a 5 megapixel camera. It's also the first BlackBerry device model to have BlackBerry 6, which ushers in a bunch of new features, including the new WebKit rendering engine.
While there is a lot that is new to the BlackBerry Torch 9800 hardware, it actually is somewhat evolutionary when it comes to each individual component: the chipset is the same as the BlackBerry Pearl 3G, the display is the same as the one found on the Storms, and the overall design is clearly in line with the rest of the BlackBerry lineup.
With BlackBerry 6, however, the overall experience is very new. Watch the BlackBerry 6 video below for a hands-on look and for a full details on everything new in BlackBerry 6, be sure to check out our BlackBerry 6 Review.
Why would AT&T want a BlackBerry slider?
In the world of smartphones, it is easy to think that the manufacturers make all of the decisions in developing a new device, and once built they start working with the carriers to bring it to market. In many cases that's true, but in other situations the carrier will tell the manufacturer what they want and work together on turning that idea into reality. Such was the case with AT&T and the BlackBerry Torch 9800.
AT &T told me that they conducted massive amounts of market research and identified a large group of people who simply need to have a physical keyboard.
When I was told this the first thought that popped into my head was Why?. After all, AT & T is the exclusive carrier of the iPhone in the United States, which appeals to a large user base and obviously sells well. Wouldn't AT&T's release of a 'SliderBerry' be targeting the same people the iPhone is already appealing to? So why would AT&T want to work with RIM to build the Torch 9800? AT&T told me that they conducted massive amounts of market research and identified a large group of people who simply need to have a physical keyboard. Furthermore, for these users, the killer app on their phone is people - they are are the CrackBerry addicts who are constantly on their device, communicating, socializing and sharing.
Thus, the ask from AT&T to RIM was to find a way to marry their best-in-industry keyboard to a larger touchscreen display. Block models determined the vertical slider to be the form factor to go with due to its efficiency, a decision I'm told was made in 2008, prior to Palm unveiling the Pre at CES 2009 (just in case you were thinking they borrowed the design from them!). Marrying this form factor to the next generation messaging, media, web browser and overall more modern user experience offered by BlackBerry 6, and AT&T is confident they will have a winner on their hands with the BlackBerry Torch 9800 (view AT&T Press Announcement).
What's in a name: why Codename 'talledaga?' Why 'Torch?'
Regular readers of CrackBerry.com will know that the BlackBerry Torch 9800 has gone through quite a name game these past few months. The pre-release codename for the device was 'talledaga' or Mr. T for short. No, RIM didn't go with this codename because they liked Will Ferrell or the A-Team. This device was built for AT&T. Who's the president of AT&T Mobility? Mr. Ralph de la Vega. It wouldn't be much of a codename if they called it de la Vega so they rhymed it with the closest cool-sounding word they could think of, talledaga. Yup, it's Ralph's phone. Pretty clever way to pay homage don't you think?
While talledaga was a cool codename, the actual product name game of this device has been a big question mark for months now. When the slider photos first emerged, another website first labeled them as the Storm3. We quickly followed up saying it's definitely not a Storm3 but maybe could be part of the Bold family given the design of the keyboard. More recently we broke the news to the world that a new name was being considered for the slider, and that name was Torch. Lo and behold we were right on that one and RIM has introduced the Torch brand for their slider devices to join the ranks of the Pearl, Curve, Storm and Bold (Tour family now consolidated into Bold). You know what that means right? Let the Torch2 rumors begin!!
The story behind the Torch name is pretty simple. The word 'Torch' entered everyday BlackBerry vocabulary back in August last year when Research in Motion acquired Torch Mobile, a company that developed the WebKit-based Iris browser. As part of RIM's global organization, Torch was tasked with getting WebKit rendering into the BlackBerry platform. Names are often tossed around RIM HQ, and at some point the word torch went up the chain as being potentially suitable for a product name. The brand teams and upper level guys liked the connotations of torch as a product name and the rest is history!
Which carriers are getting the BlackBerry Torch 9800?
While the story above really shows that this phone was built for AT&T and will launch exclusively with AT&T in the United States, we will also see the device roll out internationally on other GSM carriers. Shortly following AT&T's press release regarding the Torch, we saw Rogers, Telus, Bell and Virgin all confirm they will soon have the Torch available, so it's only a matter of time before a Torch is available on a carrier near you. And if waiting isn't your style, there is always the option to purchase it outright from AT&T and unlock the device to run on your carrier. As for other US carriers getting the Torch 9800, that isn't looking likely right now. However, the Torch is a brand family name, so I'd think at some point in the future we will see Torch family devices hit the other carriers in the USA - just not the 9800 specifically. Though you never know - AT&T is still the only carrier in the USA to have the iPhone, so maybe they've locked down the Torch for the long haul as well - at this point we're not certain.
BlackBerry Torch 9800 Hardware Impressions
A 'Portrait Slider' that fits
When the first prerelease photos of a sliderberry surfaced in our forums back in early March, I have to admit I was a little skeptical and not all that excited - mainly because I have not liked slider devices in the past. Some, like the HTC Tilt or the Motorola Droid had wide keyboards that felt unwieldy; others, like the Palm Pre were too small and felt cramped (and couldn't make it past 4pm on a battery).
With all those slider disappointments behind me, a week spent on the BlackBerry Torch 9800 has me sold on RIM's implementation of the vertical sliding form factor. With the Torch, RIM 'right-sized' the components for an expansive experience in a relatively tight form factor.
The combination of touchscreen, optical trackpad and full qwerty keyboard simply fit the BlackBerry experience more than I would have ever imagined. I've owned and used every BlackBerry device model for the past five years (since the BlackBerry 7290), and I can easily say the Torch is my favorite to date. Even the Bold 9700 feels old-hat by comparison.
The combination of touchscreen, optical trackpad and full qwerty keyboard simply fit the BlackBerry experience more than I would have ever imagined.
The Torch's physical keyboard and trackpad maintain the one-handed ease of use that traditional BlackBerry users value but adds a large touchscreen display that makes the experience more engaging and intuitive all around. Not only can you see more on the display, but you can tap pretty much everything on the touchscreen. You don't have to think about how to use or hold the Torch. You just use it. The device really does feel natural to use whether the slider is open or closed, portrait or landscape. Even the software touch keyboard works well. Adding to the overall experience is another characteristic that is a bit of a novelty to BlackBerry devices - it's fun to use! It could be a case of simple things pleasing simple minds, but I literally could sit there all day just sliding the Torch open and closed.
As you can tell, I really am sold on the BlackBerry Torch. It is the best BlackBerry to date. But that doesn't mean it is perfect. While I believe both longtime and new BlackBerry owners who buy the Torch 9800 will be very satisfied with the overall experience, there are a few areas on both the hardware and software side where RIM has left room for improvement.
Appearance, Form Factor and Build Quality
It's no easy task to describe the appearance of the BlackBerry Torch 9800. I wouldn't call the design industrial nor would I call it sleek or contemporary or even sexy. That's not to say it looks old or ugly, because it doesn't. The best single word I could come up with to describe the Torch 9800 is unpretentious. Sitting on the desk with the slider closed or slid open in the hand, the Torch exudes a sort of understated vibe. It's not trying to grab your attention via unnecessary bling, it's just there to be a reliable phone and get the job done. Though if the Torch becomes available in more colors like white or red I'm sure it will turn some heads.
That said, the Torch still maintains its BlackBerry DNA. It's easily recognizable as a BlackBerry and when you pick it up for the first time it still feels like a BlackBerry, albeit a slightly porky one. At 5.7 ounces according to RIM (which I confirmed on my crack scale with battery, sim and microSD inserted), the Torch is definitely on the heavier end of the smartphone scale. Comparatively, my Bold 9700 weighed in at a lean 4.2oz, the iPhone 4 in the middle at 5.1oz and the Evo 4G at 6oz. The physical footprint of the Torch is similar to that of the Bold 9650, which makes it a little wider than the Bold 9700. While the additional weight compared to my Bold 9700 took a little getting used to, I really appreciate it. This density gives the Torch 9800 the feeling of a quality tool rather than a phone, making the Torch name even more apt.
Spending time using the Torch begins to reveal the design details RIM paid close attention to in making this a polished consumer device. I absolutely love the horizontally-ribbed battery door cover which feels just perfect in the hand and reinforces that quality tool feeling. They nailed the action of the slider mechanism and I appreciate ample room was left above the top row of keys on the Bold-like physical keyboard so your fingers don't jam into display. An issue that can plague phones with a slider form factor is a feeling of top heaviness when the slider is open. RIM took care to ensure this isn't an issue on the Torch and the device does in fact feel very well balanced when open in everyday use. The only occassion where I've noticed device balance can play an issue is when lying in bed with arms stretched to the ceiling. When typing on the physical keyboard in this position the inverse balance point now causes the top of the device to want to fall into you, an issue easily rectified by simply holding onto Torch a little more tightly or better yet, closing the slider and typing on the touchscreen keyboard.
One noticeable omission from the Torch's design is the left side convenience key typically present on BlackBerry devices. I wasn't sure if this was simply a case of running out of room or if RIM wanted to simplify the device experience so I inquired and was told it in fact was omitted from the Torch to streamline the user experience. With the right side convenience key used as the camera shutter button, I can see how having one less convenience key would be a benefit. Though everytime I pick up the Torch to use twitter, I find myself mindlessly tapping the left side of the phone, only then realizing there's no convenience key to launch my twitter client. Pretty funny. Suffice to say it makes the left side of the phone very clean (aka. empty), with the exception being the microUSB port. The right side of the phone features the standard 3.5mm headset jack, convenience and volume keys.
Below the fixed capacitive touchscreen on the front of the device is the standard BlackBerry navigation area, featuring the optical trackpad and physical buttons for the send / end / menu / back functions. Accompanying these very function-related design decisions it's interesting to note some of the aesthetic design choices RIM made as well, such as a slightly smaller round LED notification light and the brushed steel on the back side of the display that is mounted in a vertical direction to match the sliding motion of display (I'm really happy they didn't stick a mirror here!). One slight annoyance is the hidden lock button on the top of the phone. With the slider open, depending where you place your hands, you may find yourself accidentally hitting it. Likewise, when carrying the device around it's apparently a bit easier to unlock the device - on one occassion I found I sent a random BBM message (full of dafklds#$@#adfdf).
Your previous device history will play the deciding factor in just how small or big the BlackBerry Torch 9800 feels to you. It's not quite as comfortable in the pocket as the Bold 9700 or Pearl 3G (which is so small you lose track of where you're keeping it), but after carrying the 9800 around quite a bit -- including a couple of nights out on the town wearing my ...errr... tighter jeans -- I can honestly say I haven't found it uncomfortable. AT&T doesn't include any sort of pouch or holster for the Torch in the box, so they're leaving it up to the owner to either go naked with it or fully choose how to best accessorize it.
So long SurePress!! I'm happy to say BlackBerry finally has a proper touchscreen experience. I know some of the BlackBerry Storm and Storm2 owners out there are actually quite passionate about the clickable touchscreen found on their devices and conceptually there are some arguments for it (see Storm review and Storm 2 review). However, for RIM to continue to grow in the smartphone market and appeal to a wider audience used to touchscreens that don't click, SurePress had to go.
As it was explained to us by RIM, the Storm's 4.7 and 5.0 operating system had a user interface paradigm that required a click, akin to the input provided by a trackwheel or trackball. So to my mind the existence of SurePress was more of a bandaid solution for RIM to push a touchscreen out the door (by Verizon's request as the now-ancient story goes) rather than be the intended longterm approach to how RIM builds touchscreens.
For RIM to continue to grow in the smartphone market and appeal to a wider audience used to touchscreens that don't click, SurePress had to go.
RIM has obviously overcome the touchscreen hurdle with BlackBerry 6 and the Torch delivers a very smooth user experience, including support for gestures including tap, pinch, slide, touch and hold and double tap. The swiping and flick scrolling is predictable and the tapping experience is natural - I haven't found myself opening apps or links by accident. As with the BlackBerry Storm, you can dial in the feel of the touchscreen by adjusting the Tap Interval, Hover Period and Swipe Sensitivity via the Options menu if you find the default settings don't quite cut it. For the most part the touchscreen experience gives off that prized feeling of sliding a piece of paper under a sheet of glass, where the amount of movement on the display is correlated 1:1 with your finger's movement. Odd to me though, I have noticed some inconsistencies with this in-sync scroll feeling in different parts of the OS, especially within the email client. When scrolling really slowly up or down an email within the main inbox view, the message will track in sync with your finger's movement (the message stays under your finger). But as soon as you start to move your finger faster on the screen, it outpaces the message. I wouldn't call it lag, because there's no sign of lag, it just seems like the ratio of screen movement to finger movement is much less, which makes the scrolling here feel heavy. Conversely, the new Social Feeds app feels incredibly light, where you can move your finger as fast as you want on the display and that 1:1 finger movement to display movement it maintained. It could be the case here that RIM hasn't yet fully optimized every application within the OS as much as they'd like to for the touch input, or maybe there's something else going on here (different teams working on different apps). It's a minor thing and it took me days to notice it, but it is a little odd. If there is something out of whack here, I'm sure it's nothing a little OS update wouldn't fix.
The accelerometer is accurate and responsive, allowing the device to switch quickly between portait and landscape use. Take note though, when the keyboard is slid out, the display locks into portrait mode. I think RIM made the right decision here - when the keyboard is out you're typically in communicating mode which means you'll want the display to be in portrait, so having it locked in place prevents any accidental screen rotations from occuring. There is the occasional situation where having the keyboard slid out and having the screen in landscape can be handy. For example, when browsing the web I have now found myself a couple of times wishing I could browse in landscape with the keyboard extended to take advantage of the good 'ole T and B shorcuts (which is now an option that can be enabled/disabled within the web browser options).
To keep the weight of the device as low as possible, the Torch's display rests in a magnesium tray. This tray also adds some structural strength to the device. When it came to designing the slider action for the 9800, the engineering team spent a lot of time investigating the best in class mechanisms for this type of use. Believe it or not, their inspiration for the targeted feel of the sliding action was actually kitchen drawers - those high end drawers that have that super sweet self-closing feel to them. As for tying the display back to the main CPU board, RIM used flexible circuits akin to that used in a high-end DSLR camera. The final design for the mechanism is based on proven principles and we're told the slider is graded for at least 150,000 cycles. Suffice to say, the slider should even outlast the crackiest of CrackBerry Addict's abuse over the life of a contract. To see it in action, watch the video below:
While I'm overall very pleased with the performance of the touchscreen experience on the 9800, the display itself is an area where I'd like to see RIM take things to the next level. While the 480 x 360 screen resolution (in landscape) is ok for the majority of tasks you'll perform on the Torch, when browsing the web you get the sense that extra pixels would further improve the already-improved experience. The iPhone 4's 960 by 640 definitely puts the Torch's pixel count to shame, as do some of the high end Android devices.
Oh yeah, one last thing. Smudges. They happen. If you've never owned a touchscreen phone before it'll take a bit of getting used to. Luckily you only notice them when the display is turned off and a cleaning cloth is included in the box so you can polish the display and device to a shine whenever you want.
Who buys a slider? Somebody that wants to type on a physical keyboard instead of a piece of glass!! The great news for the BlackBerry Torch owner is that in addition to the physical keyboard kicking ass, the touchscreen software keyboards are actually pretty easy to type on too.
The sliding form factor of the Torch demanded RIM to design their thinnest keyboard to date. While it looks like the same keyboard found on the Bold 9700/9650 or Tour, the 9800's keyboard has a noticeably different feel to it. To maintain strength while being extremely thin, the keyboard is attached to a piece of stainless steel. The design results in tighter feeling keys that have less movement to them in all directions. There's no real left / right / up / down wiggle to the keys and the press motion is a bit shorter and very crisp (not a sloppy keyboard at all). It almost feels more akin to Curve keyboards than Bold keyboards, in that there is a definite "clack" to the keys as you type on it. I personally love the keyboard on the Torch though I'm certain we'll hear mixed reactions on it in the forums once the device is publicly available. The crisp clack of the keys provides a feel and audible rhythm that guarantees your typing will be fast and accurate.
The crisp clack of the keys provides a feel and audible rhythm that guarantees your typing will be fast and accurate.
While the benefits of a physical keyboard over a touchscreen are apparent to anybody who has ever used a BlackBerry with a full qwerty before, there are actually a couple of benefits to having a proper touchscreen keyboard one could easily overlook. Touchscreen keyboards are both effortless to type (in the literal sense - it takes no physical effort to type on one) and quiet to type on. The Torch's vertical sliding form factor provides the best of both worlds. When your fingers get tired of pounding out messages or you're lying in bed next to your significant other and need to keep it quiet, you can fully turn to the touchscreen keyboards.
In practice, I've found the touchscreen keyboards (both portrait and landscape) to be quite good. In portrait mode, I find it easiest to hold the Torch in my left hand and tap out the letters with my right hand, while the landscape keyboard accommodates two thumb typing very well. Having used the iPhone's software keyboards and played around with some Android devices, I'd put the software keyboards a bit behind that of the iPhone's and in the mix with some of the better Android 2.0 keyboards. What's that mean for the would be Torch owner? It means the keyboards are good enough that you'll be able to become very proficient with them, but when really in hardcore messaging mode will want to be sure you're sliding out the physical keyboard.
All in all, I'm very pleased with the BlackBerry Torch's keyboards.
Chipset / Processor
Under the battery door cover, the Torch 9800 is built upon the same Marvell chipset as in the Pearl 3G, with the processor clocking in at 624MHz. I know some of the smartphone fanboys out there reading this are going to be saying "No 1GHz Snapdragon processor? #Fail!" and the response to that is simply maybe one day, but not yet. The RIM perspective on this is that it's not about MHz but rather it's about user experience. To power an Android device smoothly, you are required to have a fast processor - the OS is demanding. 624MHz in an Android device means you're in for a really sluggish experience. That same CPU speed in the Torch delivers a mainly snappy BlackBerry 6 user experience. More MHz typically means worse battery life, so from the perspective of a mobile user the ideal situation is really to have the minimum amount of MHz that deliver a satisfactory level of performance. Is 624MHz in the Torch enough? My honest answer is officially yes no maybe. In using the device so far, the only time where I've really felt a faster processor is necessary is in re-rendering photos after you zoom in on them - it takes a few moments longer than you'd think should be necessary for those pixels to smooth out. I also think the new web browser, which is much faster, would be even faster if there were more MHz under the hood. These situations are pretty specific, so I haven't been feeling that the Torch 9800 is slow. But at the same time I realize I'm not the average consumer - I tend to run my device fairly clean, closing apps I don't use and never running too many data pulling apps in the background at once (the habit of a long-time BlackBerry user). BlackBerry 6 is evolutionary, which while it's greatly been optimized means it's still susceptible to things that can happen in OS 5. In other words, if you run every app and never close them, you can slow things down a bit. That all said, I do think we'll see RIM up the MHz down the road as the OS and apps being run by it demand it and they continue to progress through their hardware upgrade cycle.
While I'll defend the speed of the Torch's processor to a point, what I find completely unacceptable (it's sort of embarrassing quite frankly) is the lack of Open GL support for 3D graphics. The Marvell chipset used in the Bold 9000/9700/ and upgraded for the Pearl 3G and now used in the Torch 9800 still lacks a dedicated GPU and therefore doesn't get the Open GL support found in the latest CDMA BlackBerry devices which utilize a Qualcomm chipset, including the Bold 9650, Storm2 and Curve 8530. In layman's terms, this means that the Torch cannot support 3D games and other graphically intensive apps. This is totally bogus considering the Torch has a big display that makes you want to experience 3D apps and games.
Is this enough to make somebody thinking about the Torch not buy it? In all honesty it should be, but really is not. To date we haven't seen that many BlackBerry apps or games take advantage of 3D graphics. With the Torch, you will be missing out on a few of the 3D games available on other BlackBerry devices like PBA Bowling 3D, Need for Speed Shift 3D, and Tank Recon 3D, but it's not as if there is (yet) a massive library of 3D games available. Once there are more BlackBerry devices with 3D graphics capabilities in the market I'm sure we'll see developers ramping up their efforts here.
Yes, that's a 'chicken or egg' excuse, but it's the truth. I do get the feeling RIM is working on their next generation of GSM chipsets though, so I wouldn't be surprised to see a Torch refresh hit sooner rather than later that brings more MHz and along with it a dedicated GPU.
A redeeming benefit of the current GSM chipset is that RIM invested a lot of time and effort into writing their own 3G stack (radio code), which gives them very granular control and delivers great worldwide connectivity - ever notice when the plane lands and everybody turns their cells back on its typically the BlackBerry users who are on the network and getting their messages first? Coupled with this, RIM puts a lot of work into their battery management, which as most GSM BlackBerry owners will attest to results in solid battery life as compared to other smartphones (more on battery life below).
Like the BlackBerry Bold 9650, the Torch 9800 gets a bump in internal device memory, from the 256MB found in the previous generation of devices up to 512MB. In addition to providing more room for app space, the 512MB helps smoothly power BlackBerry 6.
RIM has also included 4GB of built-in (non-removable) storage space for files such as pictures, music, movies and podcasts and a 4GB microSD card is included bringing the storage space out of the box up to 8GB (hence when you plug the Torch 9800 into a computer two drives pop up). The external memory is expandable so if you need more memory you can swap out the 4GB card for a larger one, right up to 32GB. There's no limitation from BlackBerry on this one, so if they ever make a bigger than 32GB card in the microSD format it will work on the Torch. The microSD card can be found under the battery door and is hot swappable - you can easily insert and remove the memory card while the device is running (no need to remove the battery first).
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 gets its power from the new F-S1 1270mAh battery. [note: I've noticed some tech sheets have also labeled this as 1300mAh, but the battery itself says 1270mAh right on it. Apparently it is a 1300mAh rated battery, but they put 1270mAh on it as the lowest side of the tolerance + or - scale). The F-S1 is smaller than the M-S1 1550mAh battery found in the Bold 9700 and D-X1 1400mAh battery found in devices like the Bold 9650 and Storm2. RIM rates the Torch's battery life at the following:
• GSM Talk Time: 5.5 hours, GSM Standby: 17 day
• UMTS Talk Time: 5.8 hours, UMTS Standby: 13 days
• Audio Playback: 29.8 hrs
• Video Playback: 6 hrs
In short, it gets me through a full day of fairly heavy usage.
I was a little concerned the F-S1 wouldn't have the juice to power the Torch through the day, but after a week of decent use and fairly long days with the phone off the charger at 6am and back on after midnight (with a new device like this and in review mode I'm using it more than I typically would) I've only hit the red a couple times. In short, it gets me through a full day of fairly heavy usage and so I don't think it will be a problem for most people under normal conditions. It's not an all-weekend phone like the Bold 9700, but it still outclasses many comparable touchscreen Android or webOS devices by a country mile. It seems in BlackBerry 6 RIM has reduced the low battery warning a bit - I noticed now it seems to kick in just at 10% battery and go straight to the red zone vs. kicking in sooner with yellow then red.I **think** this is the case anyways - I honestly wasn't paying attention to this and just noticed it the other night. Either way, if this is the case it tricks you into thinking your battery life is longer, by going a longer time before entering the low battery zone. Definitely sneaky.
As always for the heavy users out there you can remove the battery from the BlackBerry Torch, so keeping a charged spare handy is a viable option.
Phone Quality and Signal Attenuation
No worries, it's all good!! Normally when I review a new BlackBerry I do so from my home in Canada with the device running on the Rogers network, which tends to have awesome coverage and yields solid voice quality. For the AT&T BlackBerry Torch 9800, however, I wanted to make sure I used the device on its native network, so I spent the week in Florida out of our Miami offices.
ps. 1800CRKBRRY isn't a real # - just makes for a nice screen cap!
I have been really pleased with the phone quality on the Torch 9800 so far. When I called my parents from the 9800 the first words out of mom's mouth were where are you? She said it sounded like I was in the room next to her I sounded so clear rather than 2200 miles away. I've duplicated that experience many times now on the Torch. Voice quality is equally good whether the slider is open or closed - opening or closing it during a call makes no difference to the caller on the other end of the line from my testing. Over three dozen calls and 4 hours spent talking later, the experience has been nothing but good. I've had zero dropped calls on the Torch 9800 in Miami. I checked in with local residents, including SPE's Dieter Bohn, to see if that was the norm in Miami for AT&T. Dieter relayed that his AT&T Palm Pre never drops calls while his iPhone 4 drops calls on occasion.
Noise cancellation on the Torch appears to work well for the most part - callers on the other end of the line reported I was coming in loud and clear even while walking outside with Tropical Storm Bonnie's high winds skirting the Florida Keys. Though when talking to Miss CrackBerry from the Miami airport one evening she was hearing a lot of background noise (airport intercom, people running by in flipflops, etc.). I'd still vote it at least as good as any other BlackBerry device model. As is typical of a BlackBerry, the speakerphone quality on the Torch is also satisfactory.
As you might expect of a device with a sliding form factor, you can set to have the Torch answer phone calls upon sliding out the keyboard and end calls by sliding it closed. The default setting is for sliding action to have no impact on phone calls, which is how I personally left it set after experimenting with both options. Related to the phone, now is a good time to point out the vibrator motor on the Torch 9800 seems to be a winner. It fits into that sweet spot of yielding a firm vibration but still being relatively quiet.
It makes me angry that I have to even mention signal attenuation in this review, but now that it's the hot topic of the phone world no review will be complete without addressing the topic (thanks El Jobso for making more work for us bloggers!). The Torch's antenna design is sound. As shown in the photo, you can think of it as a bumper that attaches to the board which takes up quite a bit of real estate within the bottom portion of the phone. As I've found with other BlackBerry device models I have tested recently, the BlackBerry radios are pretty resilient. If you're in an area of very strong signal strength, it's difficult to make the the signal drop at all (even when you're cupping your hands over the entire device). In areas where the coverage is getting a little weaker but you still have full bars, you can cause the signal to drop temporarily, but after a few seconds the radios kick into overdrive and the bars climb back up.
Of course, if go high enough up the building or deep enough in the basement or far enough away from a cell tower, you eventually hit a point where your signal strength begins to drop. This is the way things are supposed to work. If you cover up an antenna with more stuff (be it a case, your hands or the walls of a building) or move further away from a cell tower, your signal strength is going to drop. Remember, the real issue iPhone 4 owners are having isn't natural signal drop but rather that a signal drop can be caused by one finger even in a high coverage area as you cause a bridge between the device's antennas. The Torch suffers from no such issue, nor should any phone.
Camera and Video Recording
A few photos snapped with the BlackBerry Torch 9800's 5 megapixel camera
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is the first BlackBerry to make the jump up to RIM's new five megapixel camera that features continuous autofocus, face detection and geotagging. While market research shows that the majority of the photos people take on their phones tend to stay on their phones, RIM's goal for the new and improved camera is to capture photos of a high enough quality and accuracy that they will look great while printed. As most of us now realize, more megapixels doesn't guarantee better photos, and that's why you don't see RIM simply trying to cram as many megapixels into the device as they can.
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is the first BlackBerry to make the jump up to RIM's new five megapixel camera
The new camera is a welcome upgrade to BlackBerry. For the most part you'll be able to simply leave the camera in Autofocus mode and take good pictures, but spending some time getting to know the different scene modes will help you take better pictures. I did find switching between camera scene modes can make a big impact to the photo - so it's obviously doing something magical to adjust for specific conditions. Also fitting to the Torch name, the camera flash is incredibly bright.
While the 5 megapixel camera captures images with a resolution of up to 2592 x 1944 pixels, unfortunately the video camera recording caps out at only 640 x 480 resolution. I have a hunch the actual camera hardware is capable of recording in higher resolutions (I bet it can do HD), but again this is a limitation of the current chipset used in the Torch. Case in point, the BlackBerry Pearl 3G with its 3.2 megapixel camera also records at 640 x 480 pixels. Comparatively, the Bold 9700, which lacks the n WiFi that the Pearl 3G and Torch 9800 have, only supports 480 x 360 resolution for video recording. Obviously it's not all about camera hardware here for determining video recording resolution. It could be that this is all the current board can handle. I definitely wish the Torch had HD video recording capabilities and will anxiously wait for the day we see it available on a BlackBerry device.
left: Continuous Autofocus turned on by default; right: Camera app now features scenes
In terms of the software experience with the camera, big changes have been made to offer the user more control over their photo taking, including the ability to choose scenes such as Portrait, Sports, Night, Text and Party Mode (there are others too!). Sports mode actually features a ZERO LAG shutter, which guarantees you can capture the moment. Be sure to visit our full BlackBerry 6 review for full details on improvements made to the camera app.
Direct Comparison: BlackBerry Torch 9800 camera vs. iPhone 4 camera
I was straight up pleased with the Torch's photo taking capabilities, but for the sake of this review figured we'd better put it head to head against the iPhone 4 to see how it stacks up to the competition. Answer: Pretty well! Other than resizing them down a bit, the photos below are unedited (click photos to launch in new browser tab). Both devices are capable of taking some great shots. We noticed the iPhone 4 tends to overexpose images a little bit more in comparison (depending on the lighting situation), which has the effect of brightening them but also washing out some of the detail. The Torch camera really does a great job of picking up detail and colors really well. Bottom line - if you're one of those people people who carries around a little point and shoot camera in addition to your BlackBerry right now, if you get the Torch and get to know the camera you should be able to leave that point and shoot at home.
Direct Comparison: BlackBerry Torch 9800 Video Recording vs. iPhone 4 Video Recording
While the Torch 9800's photo taking capabilities are up to par with the iPhone 4 and arguably better, that's not the case when it comes to video recording. With BlackBerry 6 now offering a native youtube app with video uploader, it really is a shame the Torch's recording resolution is 640 x 480 pixels. The end result of 640 x 480 isn't horrible, as you can see in the video below, but it's not HD. I want HD. I'm anxiously waiting for the day when I can use my HD recording BlackBerry to do all of the review videos for this site.
Other Internals: WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, Speakers
The rest of the BlackBerry Torch's internals are on par with the usual high standard expected of BlackBerry devices.
WiFi - Like the BlackBerry Pearl 3G, the BlackBerry Torch adds the n standard to b and g and as we observed on the Pearl 3G, it definitely offers an improved WiFi experience compared to devices like the Bold 9700 and 9650 which don't have the updated WiFi. No ability to create mobile hotspots yet either, but we've seen that this should be coming to the Odin (Storm2) refresh later this year. Hopefully that's a sign most BlackBerry device models will offer it in the future.
GPS - The GPS performance on the BlackBerry Torch 9800 seems up to par with other devices. RIM has been putting a lot of work into improving the BlackBerry platform for location-based services. They're using more cellular tower data to augment the GPS experience, and have made the cell site / geolocation api available to developers. The useful estimated time of arrival module is supported. While cell tower location is fast and pretty accurate (depending where you are), it still takes longer than I'd like for GPS location to hone in. It's not bad, but I'd love for that to be instant.
Bluetooth - There's no real need to mention this one, but just like other BlackBerry Smartphones today the Torch is Bluetooth 2.1 compliant. You should be good to go for using it with most Bluetooth headsets, speakerphones or other Bluetooth accessories you want to pair the Torch to.
Speakers - It could be in my head, or ears rather, but I don't think any new BlackBerry has quite matched the BlackBerry Bold 9000 for speaker loudness and clarity. Not having a Bold 9000 handy to compare to as I type this but rather a Bold 9700, I can definitely say the Torch 9800's built-in speakers trump those in the Bold 9700. With the volume cranked, the Bold 9700's speakers tend to get a little tinny/twangy on the higher notes which forces you to turn the volume down, but the Torch 9800 seems to always keep the sound in check even with the volume turned to max. In other words, you won't get annoyed listening to the Torch if you sit it on your desk for an afternoon and play some background tunes for everyone in the office.
BlackBerry Torch 9800 Accessories
Like any BlackBerry Smartphone, a number of OEM and third party accessories will be available for the BlackBerry Torch 9800. No BlackBerry Torch case is included in the box from AT&T, but Torch owners will receive a cleaning cloth to rid the display of smudges, a basic stereo headset, microUSB cable and new power adapter that debuted in the Pearl 3G.
While the wear-your-BlackBerry-on-your belt look has faded away the last couple of years, I think the Torch 9800 may be the device that brings it back in style. With it's unpretentious yet retro/futuristic look and quality tool feel, I think users won't be shy to display the Torch for all to see. After all, where does one wear tools? On a tool belt! If that's not your cup of tea, I'm sure a plethora of other Torch cases, holsters and skins will quickly become available, though it will be interesting to see what sorts of designs accessory manufacturers come up with given the sliding form factor. A case or screen protector or invisible shield will be a smart investment for the Torch and will save yourself from a lot of agony.
According to a CrackBerry poll we ran recently, over 80% of BlackBerry users have dropped their BlackBerry at least once (some 26% have dropped their phone more than 5 times). Sure enough, during the week I have been using the Torch I managed to accidentally drop it in a parking lot. I'm not quite sure what I did - but it flew from my hands when getting out of the car. It landed HARD on the ground and I was seriously worried I did some major damage. Luckily the Torch is tough and no serious harm was done, but it did sustain a small nick from the fall - if you look hard in the device photos you might be able to spot it. Suffice to say, if you want to keep your Torch in mint condition you'll want to protect it.
Extra cables and batteries are always handy to have, and car kit mounts, car chargers and headsets help you go handsfree in the car. And of course the BlackBerry bedside charging pod will be a must-have for every BlackBerry Torch owner. You'll want to check back regularly to ShopCrackBerry.com for the latest and greatest in BlackBerry Torch 9800 accessories.
BlackBerry Torch Hardware Wrap Up
All said and done, I think anyone who buys a BlackBerry Torch 9800 is going to be very pleased overall with the hardware experience. It's clear RIM's design and engineering team paid close attention not just to the visual design of the device, but more importantly to how an owner will use the device in their everyday lives. Seriously, I went from being a slider hater to a slider evangelist after only two days on the Torch 9800, and every day that passes my fondess for the Torch's form factor increases.
I'm not sure I'll ever be able to use a BlackBerry without a touchscreen again.
The Torch 9800 retains the one-handed ease of use traditional BlackBerry owners so greatly appreciate and adds to it a big usable touchscreen that really improves the overall experience. Being able to use both the trackpad and touchscreen for navigation will quickly spoil longtime BlackBerry owners - I'm not sure I'll ever be able to use a BlackBerry without a touchscreen again. The overall hardware experience the BlackBerry Torch 9800 delivers should please anybody who buys it, whether they are a long-time BlackBerry user or first time owner. While loyal BlackBerry users on AT&T and other carriers getting the device will likely flock to the Torch -- it definitely is the best BlackBerry to date -- the hardware is lacking on some of the higher end specs that would help win over the tech journalists and tech savvy consumers in the marketplace. It's hard to get uber excited over a 360 x 480 pixels display (with no 3D graphics), a 624MHz processor and 640 x 480 video recording in the year 2010. While after using the device I'm happy with the overall performance of the harware, I just wish RIM would have been able to cram some components of higher specs into the Torch 9800. It's delivers a winning experience in my book, but some people may never give the 9800 a proper chance to win them over because up front it's not enough of a winner on paper, which is too bad.
Experiencing BlackBerry 6 Software on the BlackBerry Torch 9800
Let's be clear. If the BlackBerry Torch 9800 would have shipped with the same version 5.0 device software currently present on other in-market device models, the Torch still would have been a winner among BlackBerry fans. Simply having both the big screen and physical keyboard together in a friendly and usable form factor makes for a much more compelling BlackBerry experience. The fact the BlackBerry Torch debuts with BlackBerry 6 just makes it better. Way better.
BlackBerry 6 is no minor update for RIM. Yes, it's an evolutionary update vs. an all new operating system, but they've crammed more features into and pulled more performance out of the BlackBerry operating system than I would have thought was possible. They've fixed the web browser, made the BlackBerry operating system deliver a proper touchscreen experience, overhauled the graphics and user interface to give it a modern feel and added some new bells and whistles like Universal Search and the Social Feeds app. There is a LOT new in BlackBerry 6, so be sure to read our BlackBerry 6 Review, FAQ and What's New article for an in-depth look and our full thoughts (good and bad) on everything BB6.
New Homescreen experience, Universal Search, and UI changes
new homescreen experience exposes more of the BlackBerry operating system
When RIM says one of the key design priorities of BlackBerry 6 was to make it fresh but familiar, I give them points for succeeding. Upon first glance the Torch's homescreen doesn't look any different than that of the BlackBerry Storm. A few seconds later you start to notice some of the visual changes, like the Navigation Bar (a) and the magnifying glass icon for Universal Search (d). Once you start tapping around, you discover the Notifications Preview (b) and the Manage Connections quick access point (c). The default icons have been updated too (the calendar icon now shows the proper date too!) but that's just lipstick compared to the actual homescreen experience changes implemented in BlackBerry 6.
The addition of views to the homescreen experience exposes a lot more of the BlackBerry to you up front. The default views are All, Favorites, Media, Downloads and Frequent. As of now you can't customize/create your own views, though I'll put money on that functionality coming to BlackBerry 6 in a future maintenance release. I like the new view concept - it gives off the impression your BlackBerry is bigger than the physical piece of glass you're looking at, which to me is one of the key signs of a modern day operating system. Being able set how many icons are showing by dragging the navigation bar up or down is a nice touch too. I also love that you can now set contacts and webpages as homescreen shortcuts as well and set favorites - this brings a lot more power to the homescreen experience.
It would have been nice to see proper "widgets" hit the homescreen in BlackBerry 6 - so at a glance I could see how my stocks and sports teams are doing without actually having to enter a full application. My guess is this isn't something that's easy to do on the BlackBerry platform, or RIM would have done it (maybe we'll see it in BlackBerry 7). One gripe about the homescreen views is that it seems to take a little too long to toggle between views. I think RIM didn't want to put to much sensitivity into swapping views (it would be annoying if it was overly sensitive and you were switching views without wanting too), so on the homescreen they made changing views require a full swipe that then triggers the action to change a view (the view change doesn't happen in real time as you move your finger on the display). This gives off the impression of lag in switching views, although I don't think it actually is lag. I think RIM can easily speed up that experience based on how the rest of the operating system performs (maybe an option setting for this would be nice?).
left: Notifications Preview; right: Universal Search
The Notification Preview is a nice addition to the homescreen experience and is useful. Getting a glance of your incoming messages and upcoming appointments and being able to jump directly to them is a nobrainer on BlackBerry. And the Manage Connections drop down screen is a simple change that adds a ton of value - they should really just add this in to OS 5.
You can just start typing and Universal Search immediately begins displaying your results. It's actually a little ridiculous how much I love Universal Search.
To me the best addition to the BlackBerry 6 homescreen experience is the addition of Universal Search to the homescreen experience. You can tap the magnifying glass icon to launch it, but on a device like the Torch it's all about sliding out the keyboard and typing. Instead of hunting for icons to launch apps and then hunting through apps to actually do stuff -- be it finding a contact, doing up a web search, finding a song to listen to, changing a device option, etc. -- you can just start typing and Universal Search immediately begins displaying your results. It's actually a little ridiculous how much I love Universal Search. It makes the already quick BlackBerry user experience that much quicker. I can just whip the Torch out of my pocket, type a few characters, tap an icon and I'm done. Love it.
The Application Switcher screen received a nice update that makes multitasking on the BlackBerry a more pleasant experience, though it's still not as intuitive as it should be. To invoke the Application Switcher you still have to either launch it from a menu or hold down the BlackBerry menu button (the one to the left of the trackpad) for a moment. As long as you're aware of these options they get the multitasking job done, but they're not as apparent nor as seemless as I'd like them to be - both options sort of take you out of the user experience for a second vs. just flowing between experiences. I'm not sure what the optimal solution is here (some sort of magic on screen gesture - tap twice with two fingers??) but the way it is now I could still see some new to BlackBerry owners not realizing that their Torch can multitask.
left: Application Switcher updated; right: new contextual pop-up menu
New contextual popup menus provide a friendlier alternative to the sometimes daunting menus present throughout the BlackBerry operating system. By showing only the most popular menu items it adds a layer of simplicity on top of something that's a little complex. I know that sounds a little backwards, but it works. The only gripe here is that you need to think about using the popup menus. Somebody like our friend Rene Ritchie of TiPb.com (TheiPhoneBlog) would argue that relevant in-app options should be visually displayed. As for the main device Options, RIM went through them and consumerized them a bit more. They're now categorized in a more meaningful way with icons and descriptions, and the more daunting options are buried a bit deeper. Though to be honest, I've found myself using the Universal Search to get to Device Options now vs. re-learning where specific options now live.
There's a lot more going on in BlackBerry 6 which for most users should be a good thing. I could see some people who use their BlackBerry purely as a work tool (phone, email) being turned off by the added features in BlackBerry 6 - if an existing BlackBerry owner just wants to stick to their old way of using the device they may be better off sticking with OS 5.0, which is why I think for the time being RIM will keep it available on devices like the upcoming Curve 9300 (I'm not sure BlackBerry 6 would be so hawt on 320 x 240 pixels anyways). A device like the Curve 9300 becomes your basic BlackBerry, while BlackBerry 6 delivers a slightly busier but much more complete user experience.
Browsing the web on the BlackBerry Torch 9800
left: WebKit renders webpages more accurately; right: BlackBerry browser now with tabs!
If there's one feature BlackBerry users have wanted to see improve on their devices more than anything else, it's the BlackBerry web browser. With BlackBerry 6 that wish can finally be crossed off the list, as the new web browser with WebKit rendering finally makes browsing the web on a BlackBerry an enjoyable experience. Comparing the Torch 9800 to my Bold 9700, it's a night and day difference. With the BlackBerry Torch's name being inspired by the company that brought BlackBerry a proper web browser, we'd better sum up the new features in detail:
• Enhanced Web Standards Support - the browser achieves an ACID 3 compliance score of 100 (http://acid3.acidtests.org/) and includes support for CSS3 and HTML5.
• Tabbed Browsing - simply tap the New Tab icon in the top right corner of the browser and you are prompted open another web page. With multiple pages open you can tap the same button to toggle between pages
• Add Webpage Shortcuts to the Homescreen - When you're on a webpage you want to create a homescreen shortcut for, you can find the Add to Home Screen option by tapping the Globe icon
• Bookmarks / Subscribe to RSS Feed - bookmarks can easily be added under the Globe icon. Also under the Globe icon is an option to subscribe to the RSS Feed, which adds it to the new BlackBerry 6 Social Feeds app (more on that below).
• Pinch Zoom / Text Auto Zoom - you can now use the pinch gesture (on touchscreens) to zoom in one pages. The browser also features an auto zoom mode. Double tapping on a block of text zooms in and re-flows the text for easy reading, eliminating the need to pan
• Updated Start Page - the web browser start page has been also been cleaned up. Instead of separate fields for Search/URL they are now combined into one.
• Updated Browser Options - the browser options have been simplified to a single page. You can now set a homepage of your choosing, set the default search client and manage content, privacy and security settings. The Clear Browsing Data section is at the bottom of options page, where you can choose to clear out passwords, history, cookies, cache and pushed content.
• Enhanced URL Sharing - when on a webpage, the Send Page Address option can be accessed from the menu, allowing page URLs to now be shared via the Social Feeds app, Facebook and Twitter, in addition to email, text message, PIN, group message or messenger contact.
• Automatic Browser Transport Selection - the browser now automatically selects the optimal transport mode based on the data connections available (no more having to first switch to the HotSpot browser in order to use WiFi). If the device is connected to WiFi the browser uses that connection and goes straight out to the internet. If WiFi isn't present, the browser goes through RIM's BIS Optimized WebKit Proxy (BES users go through the BES proxy).
All of these updates have me actually using the web browser on my BlackBerry, which is something I have historically tried to avoid unless necessary (time is money and I didn't have the patience to sit there waiting for the old browser). Obviously the web browser now renders pages a lot faster and more accurately and the pinch to zoom and text autoflow delivers a pretty smooth experience for navigating and reading a page once its loaded. The other improvements -- tabbed browsing, simplified options, adding webpages as shortcuts and to RSS -- those are all icing on the cake. The overall Torch 9800 web browsing experience for me has been satisfying. I just think it could be even better if the Torch had a higher resolution display.
Web Browser Shootout: BlackBerry Torch 9800 vs. iPhone 4 vs. Samsung Captivate
So how does the new BlackBerry web browser stack up to the latest and greatest devices from the competition? I wanted to know the answer to that myself, so with some help from Dieter we cleared the cache on the BlackBerry Torch 9800, Apple iPhone 4 and new Android-based Samsung Captivate and put the devices head to head to head in a one take, no messing around web browser shootout. We tested the browsers both over 3G and WiFi (note - towards the end of the video where I jokingly say the BlackBerry browsing is being 3x more efficient, keep in mind that only applies to browsing over 3G - when browsing over WiFi the data is pulled straight in to the device vs. over 3G when it goes through RIM's servers which optimize and compress the data over the air).
The results? Well... it's a good news bads new thing. The bad news: in our little test the BlackBerry Torch 9800 couldn't pull off even one victory against the iPhone 4 and Captivate. The good news is it held in there pretty darn well - close enough that I don't think you'll feel hard done. It's a matter of a few seconds, which is a massive step forward from our old native BlackBerry web browser. Reflecting on the results post shootout, Dieter and I both agreed this is probably an area where the Torch's 624MHz processor could be the culprit more than the web browser itself. If you put the same 624MHz into the iPhone 4 or Captivate the Torch would probably Torch them. Conversely, if you upped the processing power in the Torch it could probably match or better the competition as well. Final conclusion: it's a massive upgrade to the BlackBerry web browser and it paves the way for even more speed and performance as we see RIM move up to their next generation of hardware. In the meantime, as long as you're not doing head to head shootouts, you'll now enjoy browsing on your BlackBerry a lot.
BlackBerry Torch 9800 is a Messaging and Social Networking Machine
the new Social Feeds application rocks!
Surveys and stats have shown on the iPhone that the killer app is the web browser - it's the single most-used app on the iPhone. What's the killer app on BlackBerry? To me it's PEOPLE. BlackBerry really is a people phone. Whether by voice, email, text, BBM, twitter or IM, the majority of the time a BlackBerry is in a person's hand is because they are communicating with another person. And between BlackBerry's famous keyboards, push services and blinking LED light that puts the crack in CrackBerry, there's good reason why this is the case. BlackBerry really is the best communications device on the planet. It's also explains why more than any other device you see BlackBerry Smartphones in people's hands in public - they're not addicted to the device, but to the people device connects them to. And the BlackBerry experience makes it so easy to connect back to those people that there's no hesitation - you just do it.
I REALLY love the Social Feeds app. It's the best of both worlds - all in one viewing and none of the sacrifice you would typically see in an all-in-one application.
Why that long intro? Because not that they needed to, but RIM decided to make the CrackBerry experience even CrackBerrier by upping the messaging experience in BlackBerry 6. The new Social Feeds app brings your social networks and IM clients -- AIM, BlackBerry Messenger, Facebook, Google Talk, MySpace, Twitter, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger -- altogether in one place that's easy to view either altogether or individually. You can create new posts (status updates) and post them to one or all services in shot, and when wanting to reply to post on the feeds you get taken automatically into the native app so you have full functionality. I REALLY love the Social Feeds app. It's the best of both worlds - all in one viewing and none of the sacrifice you would typically see in an all-in-one application. The Social Feeds app also offers an RSS reader which makes following your favorite websites that much better.
Other updates in BlackBerry 6 further enhance the BlackBerry Torch 9800 as a communications tool. The new inbox search makes it easier to find old emails. SMS/MMS are now referred to as Text and get some new features, like the ability to group conversations and send your location. Other than that, it's all BlackBerry as it always has been, which means it's pretty awesome. As Dieter Bohn has pointed out in the Smartphone Round Robin the past three years, you sort of have to buy into the BlackBerry way of doing things, but for most people it's a good thing. There are some little gripes here and there -- the Gmail sync isn't syncy enough just yet -- but on the whole when it comes to the killer app of PEOPLE, I think the BlackBerry Torch 9800 just rocks (especially with that full qwerty keyboard!).
Using the BlackBerry Torch for Multimedia - Music, Movies, Pictures and More
left: new YouTube app; right: new Podcasts app
While most BlackBerry owners have historically avoided the web browser because it sucked, a lot of those same BlackBerry users have never used the media capabilities of their device simply because they didn't know they had them. Instead of burying the media apps in a folder as has always been the case, BlackBerry 6 brings them to the homescreen with a dedicated View. A much higher percentage of owners will take advantage of the media capabilites of their BlackBerry Torch 9800 simply because BlackBerry 6 makes you think about using them all the time. A lot of solid updates have happened here in BlackBerry 6. The Pictures app gets some organizational improvements that make it more useful all around. The Music and Movies apps get a lot more visual with a greater use of album art for Music and auto-generated thumbnails for movies. The fact you can still flick through your albums while playing a song in the Music app makes the experience more engaging. The Music app also gets WiFi music sync, essentially allowing you to have all of your music library's meta data on your device and remotely choosing which songs you want to add/remove from your device automatically the next time you hit your home WiFi network (personally I'd rather just stick a 32GB card in the Torch and carry the majority of my music collection with me). The Podcasts app fills in this historical gap in BlackBerry's media offering and the native YouTube app allows you to upload videos from your device straight into your YouTube account. Unfortunately there's no native YouTube viewing app - aside from the uploader it's a shortcut to the m.youtube.com website. However, there is a new Web Video Search app that delivers a pretty decent video discovery experience. For more details, be sure to check out our full BlackBerry 6 Review. The BlackBerry Torch 9800 lacks the dedicated media buttons of the BlackBerry Pearl and Curve 8500 devices, but between the big physical display on the BlackBerry Torch 9800 and the media updates in BlackBerry 6, I'd argue it's the most media friendly BlackBerry we have seen to date.
Raising the Torch Higher with BlackBerry apps
left: App World 2.0; right: CrackBerry App Superstore!
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 from AT&T comes preloaded with App World 2.0, which includes carrier billing, so it makes getting third party BlackBerry apps on your device easier than ever. OK, shameless plug time... If you're reading this review you're obviously a knowledgeable person and a fan of CrackBerry, so the first app you should really install is our CrackBerry App Superstore. Not only can you find cheaper pricing on a lot of apps (developers can go as low as 99 cents if the want to) and take advantage of our Deal of the Day offering (a different half-price game, app and them each day!), the store is also backed by a dedicated order support team. You can learn more and download the CrackBerry App Superstore here.
The good news about BlackBerry 6 is that all of your previous BlackBerry apps will run just fine on it.
The good news about BlackBerry 6 is that all of your previous BlackBerry apps will run just fine on it. And with BlackBerry 6 RIM has introduced some new APIs developers can take advantage of to further enhance the experience - like tying into the Universal Search. In general the app experience remains the same on the BlackBerry Torch 9800 as on other devices, though the Storm-sized display is friendlier for apps than a Bold or Curve-sized display and the fact the Torch 9800 has a proper touchscreen makes all apps a little nicer to use.
The bad news here is that we're still waiting to see the day of iPhone-like games on BlackBerry. With only 512MB of device memory and no-ability to run apps off the storage memory/memory card yet, BlackBerry apps will continue to be small-ish in size, and therefore somewhat limited in sex appeal (this post on the difference between Need for Speed Shift on the iPhone vs. BlackBerry illustrates the point). I've sort of come to the conclusion that if it was easy to for RIM to add this app-ability into the platform they would have done it by now, which means there is obviously some platform stuff that prevents them from doing so. At least we have this notion of super apps, which are apps that integrate fully throughout the user experience.
BlackBerry Desktop Manager 6
With the release of BlackBerry 6 on the Torch 9800, it only made sense that RIM would release version 6 of the BlackBerry Desktop Software. In addition to revamping the graphics and user interface (which looks much better and is more clear), Media Sync is built-in for Music, Pictures and Video. As of the date of this review being published it's only available for PC, but we are told version 6 for Mac should be available shortly.
I'm still hoping and waiting for the day that RIM makes more of the BlackBerry experience cloud based so the average user never needs to worry about software like Desktop Manager.
Overall BlackBerry 6 Stability, Performance and Usage Experience
Application Management now provides more details on BlackBerry resources
So far so good. The fact BlackBerry 6 is an evolutionary upgrade to the BlackBerry operating system means those little BlackBerry annoyances can still pop up from time to time, though for the most part RIM seems to have done an excellent job in minimizing them in BlackBerry 6. In other words, we *hopefully* won't be seeing an app that performs a nightly battery pull as the top selling / most downloaded app for the BlackBerry Torch 9800. Using the device I get the feeling RIM has succeeded in addressing the memory management issues of the past. Knowing that the Torch 9800 has the same processor speed as the Bold 9700 and knowing that BlackBerry 6 is a bit heavier, I was sort of expecting the experience to be on the sluggish side, but I think RIM must have their best people working overtime on the operating system these days to squeeze every optimization and ounce of performance out of the platform that they can. It's not perfect yet though. I'd argue that while it's been shielded really well, the OS still has a little bit of a glass jaw where you can overwhelm it at times. I've experienced a couple of slow downs now where I've simply had too many apps running at once (but to be fair was literally trying to cause a slow down to happen). And when you're doing something like installing an application, you're still better off just waiting for the app to finish installing vs. trying to keep using the device while the app installs in the background. For the average everyday user, the device should pack ample performance.
One nifty feature RIM added to BlackBerry 6 is an expansion to the Application Management screen, which is now more of a full out app and offers views of not only the apps installed, but also the amount of memory resources they consume and percentage of CPU speed. A usage tracker has also been built-in, which allows you to see exactly how many time you have spent on your BlackBerry. Cool stuff!
All in all I've been very pleased with the overall performance of the BlackBerry Torch 9800 and BlackBerry 6. it's the best BlackBerry I've used to date, period!
BlackBerry Torch 9800 Closing Thoughts
Final verdict? At the end of the day, the Torch is a welcome addition to the BlackBerry family. The vertical sliding form factor really suits the BlackBerry experience, and with the Torch 9800 RIM has delivered a consumer product that not only puts the best of everything BlackBerry into one device. Between the sliding action of the hardware and the touchscreen experience on BlackBerry 6, the Torch 9800 is not just the best BlackBerry to date, but also the one that is the most fun to use.
The Torch 9800 is not just the best BlackBerry to date, but also the one that is the most fun to use
Bringing it all back to my now legendary Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs Theory, the BlackBerry Torch 9800 with BlackBerry 6 more completely fills in the hierarchy than any other BlackBerry device model before it. To me, that makes it the best BlackBerry dvice model to date and a worthy device for any would be smartphone owner, especially one that values having a full physical keyboard and also wants the modern day touchscreen experience that devices like the iPhone offer.
With the BlackBerry Torch 9800 Research In Motion has successfully addressed a lot of the major wants BlackBerry owners have longed for. The web browser is fixed. There is now a proper touchscreen experience. The operating system has a more modern feel. These are big things that RIM needed to deliver and did. And beyond that, they put a lot of attention to detail into how a person actually uses their BlackBerry which has resulted in a very polished consumer product. Sooner is always better and it would have been nice to see a device like the Torch 9800 hit two years ago rather than the debacle that was the Storm 9530. You can't change history though and sometimes you have to learn from your mistakes. The BlackBerry Torch 9800 and BlackBerry 6 is proof RIM is learning from their experience and is working harder than ever to produce consumer polished products that deliver more than just satisfactory experiences. Of course we'd always like to see RIM working harder - there is a lot of work left to be done to win over new customers in a smartphone game that is more competitive than ever. But if you're a BlackBerry fan you'll want to head to the store and play with a Torch - you'll see what we mean.