The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is RIM's latest -- and greatest -- attempt to tackle touchscreen technology. RIM has revamped its software to be more finger-friendly and kept the beloved BlackBerry keyboard, but a chunky design and low-resolution screen prevent the Torch from unseating the best of its smart-phone rivals.
The Torch is available for free on a £35-a-month contract, or for around £480 unlocked and SIM-free.
Screen and keyboard
The classic BlackBerry has a landscape screen with a Qwerty keyboard underneath, like the BlackBerry Bold 9700. But rather than stick with the landscape look for its new touchscreen Torch, RIM has opted for tall and thin instead. The keyboard slides out from below the screen the long way, which makes it narrower than it has to be. It also makes the phone feel top-heavy when you slide it open. Indeed, the Torch feels bulky, weighing in at 161g and porking out at 15mm thick.
The keyboard itself is okay to use, but we don't love it quite as much as the one on the Bold 9700. That's because it's got a lip around it that hindered our thumbs, and the keys didn't have the firm response that we like. But we still enjoyed typing long missives on the physical keyboard.
The on-screen keyboard is also very usable when you're feeling too lazy to pop open the slider. We had no trouble tapping out accurate messages, and the predictive text was helpful when we made mistakes. We also liked the built-in spell checker and the cursor, which made selecting parts of text easy.
We think you'll probably stick with the physical keyboard, otherwise you'll be wasting one of this phone's biggest advantages. But, if you want to type on the screen, you have the option of portrait and landscape Qwerty keyboards, a 12-key alphanumeric keyboard, and the SureType option, which offers two letters per key.
The phone's menus provide a smorgasbord of choice, like everything on the Torch. There are ten different ways to do everything, from typing a word to checking your email. Whether you find this approach exhaustive, or just exhausting, depends on how your mind works. They may both be touchscreen devices, but the Torch is the antithesis of the iPhone, which can seem excessively simple, with its unchanging home screen of icons, single home button, and large, almost childlike, user-interface buttons.
The Torch's home screen is a good example of the excess of choice on this phone. RIM has done a good job of revamping its BlackBerry software to take advantage of the touchscreen, and it has made almost everything pokeable and proddable.
On the home screen alone, you have a sliding menu that goes up and down, revealing icons related to the phone's features. It also runs side to side, to reveal sub-groups of your favourite and most-used apps. There's a notification area that slides open with a touch to show your various emails and Facebook updates. Tap the speaker icon to set the phone to one of seven sound modes, from silent to tooting like a one-man band. Tap the connection icon on the other side of the screen to control Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and alarms. The number of options provided by the home screen is almost overwhelming.
If you don't fancy using the touchscreen, you can control most things with the optical trackpad, keyboard shortcuts, and menu and back keys. Over time, we think you'll find a rhythm for moving around the Torch in a way that works for you.
But this isn't a phone that's easy to master. Even our usual method of exploring -- random poking, combined with pressing the menu key when we see anything interesting -- often left us confused, as we were presented with long menus of choices. It's an information firehose, which could be fun if you hate being mollycoddled by childish user interfaces, or could be overwhelming, especially if you've never used a BlackBerry before.
A new feature that should help with the information overload is called 'universal search'. Just start typing a word and it brings up search results from your contacts, messages and apps, as well as giving you the option to dial the text as a number or search for it on YouTube or Google.
RIM has taken a punt at making a touchscreen phone in the past, with the BlackBerry Storm, but it was a flop. The software didn't feel well-designed for use with a finger rather than the traditional BlackBerry trackball, and the clicky SurePress screen felt flabby. RIM has ditched SurePress on the Torch, and added multi-touch features, so you can zoom in and out of a Web page with a pinch of your fingers, for example.
Along with BlackBerry 6 OS, the latest version of the BlackBerry operating system, this makes the Torch feel more like a phone designed for touching, rather than one that has had a touchscreen slapped on at the last minute.
The touch experience still isn't quite as smooth as the one on phones like the HTC Desire or the iPhone, however. When scrolling through lists of status updates, for example, the phone occasionally became confused about whether we were tapping or scrolling. It's not a deal-breaker, because the phone's still very usable, but the Torch isn't as slick as some of its competitors.
The Torch's 3.2-inch display is also something of a disappointment, due to its low resolution. We've got used to the insanely great screens on the likes of the iPhone 4 and the Samsung Galaxy S, and the Torch's looks blurry and underwhelming in comparison. It's still readable, but we had to do some serious zooming in to make Web pages readable. At least the multi-touch zoom makes that a breeze.
Browser and apps
The Web browser on the Torch has received a major overhaul, which is good news, especially since BlackBerry's older browser was our least favourite way to surf on a mobile phone. The new browser is a big improvement, and it does a good job of rendering Web pages accurately.
RIM has also included a new Social Feeds app for keeping track of your social whirl. It bundles up an RSS reader with Facebook, Twitter, MSN Messenger and plenty more.
But, like most of the attempts we've seen on mobiles so far -- on the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10, for example -- the app doesn't hold a candle to the apps dedicated to the specific services. For example, to reply, retweet, comment, or otherwise interact with your updates (which is surely the whole point of this social-networking malarkey), you have to open a message in its own app.
If you don't like the apps that come pre-installed on the Torch, you can pop over to the BlackBerry App World to download more. There are a handful of winners in there, but nowhere near as many as in the iPhone or Android app stores, and they tend to be more expensive.
You can also get your social-networking updates sucked into the famous BlackBerry integrated inbox, along with your emails from multiple accounts, and text messages, not to mention your BlackBerry Messenger missives. With BlackBerry Messenger, you can IM other BlackBerry users for free, anywhere in the world.
BlackBerry devices are the masters of mobile email, but you do need a BlackBerry contract to take advantage of their powers. Push email means that you'll get your messages right away, without having to wait for the phone to check the server, although most smart phones have caught up to BlackBerry in offering this feature.
We found that adding new email accounts to the Torch was easier than ever, and we were impressed by how it handled our Google Apps account without any fuss or advanced set-up required. The email program even handles functions specific to Google, such as the ability to archive a message rather than delete it. But we had no luck getting it to sync our calendar -- although the account showed in the calendar, none of our events did. Our Facebook events, on the other hand, arrived safe and sound on the Torch.
We certainly had no trouble getting connected to the Interwebs, with the Torch offering the latest 802.11n Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity. It also includes 512MB of memory built-in, along with a 4GB microSD memory card, which can be upped to 32GB.
Even with this power on-board, we were impressed with the Torch's battery life, which RIM claims will give you 5.5 hours of talk time and 18 days on standby. And, as for the all-important feature of actually making calls, the Torch can do that too -- even in a noisy pub, our calls were easy to hear on both ends. One advantage of the Torch's beefy case is that it feels like a real phone when you're using it.
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 offers the convenience of a touchscreen without losing the brand's beloved Qwerty keyboard, and the update to the phone's OS is as welcome as a clean towel after bog snorkelling.
But rather than simplifying the user interface, the touchscreen adds complexity to a type of phone that's never been known for ease of use. Combined with its chunky appearance, the Torch lacks fun factor.
Nevertheless, if you need an email powerhouse, your company insists on the security of a BlackBerry, or you love the feeling of total information awareness, the Torch has plenty of pluses.
Edited by Charles Kloet