Hands-on with the BlackBerry Bold 9900, BlackBerry Torch 9810 and 9860

RIM gave fans a preview of its upcoming BlackBerry OS 7 devices at a special event in Toronto. CNET was on hand to get a closer look; check out some of our first impressions here.

RIM BlackBerry Torch 9810
The BlackBerry Torch 9810 offers some improvements over its predecessor but is it enough? Bonnie Cha/CNET

TORONTO--To celebrate the announcement of the new BlackBerry OS 7 devices, RIM put on a special event for BlackBerry fans tonight to come check out the new models. Select media were also invited, and of course, we jumped at the chance to get a closer look at the BlackBerry Bold 9900/9930, BlackBerry Torch 9810, and BlackBerry Torch 9850/9860 because despite all of RIM's recent woes, we want to see the company succeed and offer compelling and competitive products.

From what we saw tonight, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that these new handsets brings some much-needed hardware and software improvements, and generally speaking, we liked what we saw. The bad news is that there doesn't seem to be enough there to push it past, or even catch up, to its competitors. To be fair though, we haven't been able to do a deep dive with OS 7 or these devices, so we won't deliver a final verdict just yet. For now, here are our first impressions of the three models and be sure to share your thoughts on the phones and BlackBerry OS 7 in the comments section below.

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BlackBerry Bold 9900
As a former BlackBerry Bold owner, I was particularly interested in this model and at the end of the day, it might be my favorite of the three. The Bold 9900 (Sprint's version will be the 9930) takes the slate QWERTY design that made the BlackBerry famous and adds a touch screen. The 2.8-inch, 640x480-pixel display looks sharp and feels responsive. The addition of the touch screen is particularly useful when browsing the Web and viewing pictures, since you can now use the pinch-to-zoom gesture to easily zoom in on text and images. Though we never had problems navigating through the BlackBerry interface (which doesn't change much between OS 6 and OS 7) on a non-touch display, it's nice now to have the option to simply swipe or tap the screen to complete an action.

The keyboard remains excellent. Similar to previous Bold models, the keyboard has a roomy, wide layout with good-size buttons. They have a slight ridge to them, so they're easy to press, and it, along with the navigation controls, is also brightly illuminated so it's easy to type in darker environments.

The general design of the smartphone takes after its predecessor, but RIM says that the Bold 9900 is its thinnest BlackBerry yet at 10.5mm thick. It indeed feels pretty slim and lighter, while still keeping a premium feel with its brushed stainless steel accents and smooth back. BlackBerry loyalists should find a lot to like in this refresh of the Bold.

BlackBerry Torch 9810
The Torch 9810 also offers some nice improvements, but it doesn't feel like the most exciting upgrade. Part of the reason why is because the overall design is very similar to the original Torch. It keeps the same shape and portrait slider design and though I understand that you can't completely change the look of a series, it wouldn't hurt RIM to shake things up a bit. A fresh paint job doesn't really cut it. Even worse, I thought the phone didn't quite have the same premium build as its predecessor and felt more plasticky.

It's still a very solid phone, and I was happy to see that RIM included a better display. The Torch 9810 features a 3.2-inch, 640x480-pixel touch screen, which isn't much compared to the competition, but I noticed pixels were less visible and text and images just looked smoother and brighter than before, so that's appreciated. I was able to quickly navigate through the phone's menus and launch applications, thanks to the faster 1.2GHz processor and improvements of BlackBerry OS 7.

The slider mechanism used to expose the keyboard is very fluid and strong as the screen locks into place when pushed up. RIM said it made some slight tweaks to the keyboard; more specifically, it's slightly wider, but I can't say I noticed a huge difference between this model and the first Torch. Thus, my opinion of the keyboard is the same--it's generally comfortable and easy to use but users will larger thumbs will need some time to adjust and acclimate. One good thing is that the handset doesn't feel top heavy with the screen open, so the phone doesn't feel like it's going to tip over while you're typing.

RIM also gave me a demo of the use of augmented reality and the Wikitude app on the Torch 9810, and I have to say it's pretty cool. Its integration with BBM is probably most interesting for BlackBerry users. Basically with the app and the phone's magnetic compass, you can point your phone's camera at a location and see any nearby BBM users and interact with them. If a contact has a personalized avatar, that will even show up on screen. Though augmented reality is certainly nothing new, its integration with BlackBerry-specific features is some of that uniqueness we're looking for from RIM.

BlackBerry Torch 9860
RIM's history of all-touch-screen devices hasn't exactly been stellar. The BlackBerry Storm 1 and 2 had their fair share of problems, from sluggishness to buggy software to clunky hardware, so I was both a bit weary and anxious to check out the new BlackBerry Torch 9860 and after spending some brief time with it, let's just say I'm cautiously optimistic.

The Torch 9860 (and its Sprint counterpart, the Torch 9850) features a 3.7-inch touch screen, which is the largest display yet for a BlackBerry. It's a very clear and bright screen that again, isn't the sharpest on the block, but still, is a very good-looking screen. I watched a couple of video clips, and the images looked smooth and colors were bright. That said, the onscreen keyboard felt pretty cramped, especially in portrait mode. It was hard to type messages at a pretty quick rate without making mistakes.

On the bright side, I have to say that these are some of the fastest BlackBerrys I've ever used. The combination of the 1.2GHz processor and BlackBerry OS 7's Liquid Graphics technology allowed me to easily swipe through the various menus, and apps launched quickly. RIM also touts the fact that OS 7's Web performance is 40 percent faster than BlackBerry OS 6 and 100 percent faster than BlackBerry OS 5. Personally, I didn't experience this, but there were network connectivity issues at the event. I did notice pages were loading slightly faster than what I've seen on BlackBerrys before, but this is something we'll really have to test once we get a review unit.

 

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