Editors' note: We have adjusted the ratings since our original publish date to reflect new devices that have entered the market.
Though BlackBerrys continue to be extremely popular, it's no secret that RIM needed to step up its game and really work on improving and advancing its operating system. Over the past few months, the company has given us previews of a refreshed OS, but now, we've finally had a chance to put it to the test.
The RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800 is the first device to ship running BlackBerry OS 6 and will be available starting August 12 for $199.99 with a two-year contract. We actually got the smartphone a few days before the official unveiling to put it through its paces, and we found a lot to like about it. The slider phone--a first for RIM--brings together a touch screen and a physical keyboard into a solid, compact design. The new OS brings some much-needed and welcome additions, including a better browser, an enhanced multimedia experience, and improved user interface. Sure, in the grand scheme of things, none of this is new but at least it puts RIM back on track. It's just unfortunate that RIM didn't upgrade other parts of the phone, such as the display and processor, as the Torch doesn't quite stack up to some of the latest smartphones. Still, there's enough there to keep BlackBerry fans happy.
The BlackBerry Torch marks new territory for RIM. It's the company's first slider phone and isn't meant to be a one-off design, but rather, the start of a new series. RIM and AT&T actually began work on the device about a year and a half ago, and when creating the phone part of the goal was to offer a design that not only combined the best of all worlds--touch screen, full keyboard, and track pad--but also a familiar experience to previous and current BlackBerry users. For the most part, we think RIM was successful in doing so.
The Torch's shape is a little bit BlackBerry Storm and a little bit BlackBerry Bold. We wouldn't call it sexy but the look is certainly appropriate for the corporate scene, where BlackBerrys still dominate. In its closed state, the Torch measures 4.4 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick and weighs 5.7 ounces. It's a rather hefty handset, but it feels very solid, with a textured soft-touch finish on back. It's also thin and short enough to comfortably slip into a pant pocket.
On front, the Torch features a 3.2-inch half-VGA (480x360 at 188 pixels per inch) capacitive touch screen. Overall, the display is clear and bright enough for reading text and viewing Web pages, photos, and video. However, compared with many of today's smartphones, such as the HTC Droid Incredible and Samsung Captivate, the difference in resolution is noticeable and Torch's screen falls a bit flat.
What's noteworthy about the touch screen, however, is that it doesn't use SurePress technology like the BlackBerry Storm models, so you don't have to "click" on the display to register touches. Funnily enough, though, when we first started using the Torch, our instinct was to press down on the screen like it was the Storm, so we had to get out of that mindset.
For the most part, the touch screen is responsive. Apps launched as soon as we touched the icons, but the scrolling experience, as well as the pinch-to-zoom gesture, isn't quite as smooth or fast as some other systems. The display has a proximity sensor, so you won't have to worry about an errant press while on a phone call, and the built-in accelerometer was quick to change the screen orientation when we rotated the phone.
The Torch offers both portrait and landscape onscreen keyboards, which is suitable if you're writing a quick text message. However, if you're doing any more than that, it'd be a good time to slide the phone open and make good use of the full QWERTY keyboard.
The slider mechanism to expose the keyboard is smooth, and the screen locks into place securely. There's a pretty good distribution of weight when the phone is open, so it doesn't feel too top heavy when you're typing out messages. The Torch's keyboard is actually the thinnest one on a BlackBerry yet. As such, the buttons don't feel quite as good as the Bold, but the keys are still solid and a decent size. We also appreciate that there's a good amount of space between the top row of keys and the bottom edge of the screen, to prevent your thumbs from mashing up against the edge. Overall, the Torch provided a comfortable typing experience, though people with larger thumbs might need some time to acclimate. Still, it's certainly a roomier solution than the Palm Pre Plus, and came in quite handy for composing e-mails.
Below the display, you'll find some of the familiar BlackBerry parts, such as the standard navigation controls--Talk and End keys, BlackBerry menu button, back, and an optical trackpad below the display, and the lock and a mute buttons on top of the device. As with other BlackBerry devices, holding down the menu key will bring up a task switcher so you can easily toggle to a recently used app.
The right spine features a 3.5mm headphone jack, a volume rocker, and a customizable convenience key, which is set as the camera activation/capture button by default. There's a Micro-USB port on the left, and the camera and flash are located on back with the microSD card slot behind the battery door.
AT&T packages the Torch with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a 4GB microSD card, a wired stereo headset, a polishing cloth, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.
User interface and software
The RIM BlackBerry Torch is the first model to ship running BlackBerry OS 6, and much like the phone's design, when revamping the BlackBerry platform, RIM wanted to present something both fresh and familiar. There's a good bit of the familiar but a greater amount that's new, so this is definitely a major overhaul of the platform and not just a few added features.
Right off the bat, you'll notice a new home screen. On top, there's a Quick Access area where you can see the date, time, signal strength, battery life, and where you can manage your wireless connections. Below that is a new notification bar that includes one-touch access to change your phone's profile and to conduct searches. It will also alert you to new messages, missed calls, upcoming appointments, and so forth. Tapping on the bar will expand the tray so you can view more details and go directly to the appropriate app.
Most of the action, however, takes place at the bottom of the screen, where you'll find a new navigation bar. It makes good use of the touch screen, as you can swipe from left to right and vice versa to access apps and content based on five categories: All, Favorites, Media, Downloads, and Frequent. In addition to swiping sideways, you can tap on a category to expand it and see the full list of associated apps.
The categories themselves are fairly self-explanatory, but we should note that Favorites isn't restricted to apps. You can also add contacts and Web sites by going to an individual address book entry or Web site, pressing the menu key, and then selecting Add to Home Screen and selecting Mark as Favorite (should be checked off by default). Meanwhile, the process for adding favorite apps simply requires you do a long-press and then select Mark as Favorite from the contextual menu.
Overall, this system does a good job of making it easier to access and manage apps, and improves the user experience on the whole. With the contextual menus and improvements to the Web browser and multimedia features (more on this below), we got a sense that RIM really took advantage of touch-screen capabilities this time around, whereas the Storm models felt a little half-baked.
Yet, despite all this, one of our favorite things about BlackBerry OS 6 came down to a simple thing like universal search. RIM makes good on the "universal" part, as the search function scans nearly the entire contents of your phone, including contacts, messages, calendar, music, and pictures. In addition, you can extend your search to Google, YouTube, BlackBerry App World, and third-party apps, so you're getting a very robust search experience here. It was rare that we weren't able to find what we were looking for using universal search on the Torch.
The RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800 is a quad-band world phone featuring 3G support, Bluetooth 2.1, Wi-Fi, and GPS. Other phone features include speakerphone, voice-activated dialing, smart dialing, conference calling, speed dial, visual voice mail, and text and multimedia messaging. Text and multimedia messages are now combined into a single in-box and supports threaded chat view, inline addressing and group chat. You can also instantly connect with friends through BlackBerry Messenger as well as through standard instant messaging clients like Windows Live, Yahoo, Google Talk, and AIM, all of which are preloaded on the phone.
Of course, what's a BlackBerry without e-mail? The Torch can sync with your company's BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), with support for Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Domino, or Novell GroupWise, to deliver corporate e-mail in real time. Recently, RIM also released BlackBerry Enterprise Server Express, a free but limited version of BES, that allows individuals and small businesses to sync their Exchange Calendar, contacts, and tasks and access files store on your company's network.