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BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: BlackBerry Torch 9800

BlackBerry Torch 9800

Bonnie Cha Former Editor
Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.
Bonnie Cha
13 min read


BlackBerry Torch 9800

The Good

The RIM BlackBerry Torch combines both a touch screen and full QWERTY keyboard. BlackBerry OS 6 brings such improvements as a better user interface, universal search, and an improved browser and multimedia experience.

The Bad

The smartphone can be sluggish. The Torch has a lower-resolution screen. Applications can be saved only to the phone's main memory. Camera shoots only VGA video.

The Bottom Line

Though performance could be better and it could stand for some hardware upgrades, the RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800 and BlackBerry OS 6 offer much-needed improvements to stay in step with the competition, and keep BlackBerry enthusiasts happy.

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 BlackBerry Torch is the first slider phone for RIM.

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.

We found the Torch's keyboard pretty easy to use. It came in particularly handy when typing longer e-mails.

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.

With BlackBerry Internet Service, you can also access up to 10 personal/business POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts, with both separate and combined in-boxes. There's a setup wizard to help you sync your accounts, and it's usually just a matter of entering your log-in ID and password. We were able to sync our Gmail and Yahoo accounts with no problem, but did run into two-way synchronization issues with Gmail over BIS. Though RIM rolled out this feature this summer, it didn't work on our device. For example, if we read or delete an e-mail from Gmail on our PC, this was not reflected on the Torch, so we were constantly cleaning up our smartphone's in-box, which got to be pretty annoying.

Nowadays, e-mail isn't enough. People also want access to their social networks, and the BlackBerry Torch is up to the task. The smartphone not only comes preloaded with Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter clients, but also a new Social Feeds app, which aggregates updates from these sites, as well as instant-messaging clients, into one spot. You can pick and choose which sites you want pulled into the feed, and also adjust notification and display settings. In addition, the app also acts as an RSS feed aggregator.

The BlackBerry Torch comes preloaded with a number of other apps and games, such as DataViz Documents To Go Standard Edition, a memopad, a calculator, BrickBreaker, Word Mole, and Bejeweled. You'll also find AT&T services and apps on the device as well, including AT&T Map, AT&T Navigator, AT&T Music, Yellow Pages Mobile, and Where.

You can download additional apps from the new BlackBerry App World 2.0. The store offers more than 9,000 apps, which pales in comparison to iTunes and the Android Market, but the upside is that the store now supports carrier billing (AT&T will be the first to offer this) and the new BlackBerry ID service, which keeps track of your downloads and purchases so the next time you get a new BlackBerry, you can enter your BlackBerry ID and password and automatically reload your apps to the new device.

RIM said most existing apps should work with BlackBerry OS 6, but initially, there might be some variation on how well all the features of an app work with the new platform. Also, keep in mind that you can save apps only to the phone's main memory (512MB Flash memory).

Web browsing and multimedia
It's no secret that the BlackBerry browser has been RIM's Achilles' heel. Sluggish and limited in functionality, Web browsing on a BlackBerry was no walk in the park. To its credit, the company acknowledged the problem and acquired Torch Mobile in August 2009 (it's no coincidence that the phone is called the BlackBerry Torch) to develop a WebKit-based browser for the BlackBerry platform, and we're finally seeing the fruits of that labor.

The result is a combination of simplified processes, such as a cleaner start page and easier bookmarking, and new and improved features like tabbed browsing and enhanced URL sharing. There's also support for pinch-to-zoom and text reflow, so if you double-tap on a part of page to zoom in, the browser will automatically adjust the text to fit the screen. Another improvement is better HTML and JavaScript rendering, and partial support for HTML5 and CSS3, which might be a too much techno jargon for some, but it's important as it improves the speed and performance of the browser. Unfortunately, there is no Flash support and RIM would not comment on whether it would be added in the future.

In real-world use, we definitely felt the browser was much more functional than the previous version. We really liked the tabbed browsing setup, as it minimizes your current page and brings up thumbnails versions of all your open pages at which point you can swipe through until you find your desired page. For the most part, the text reflow function works as advertised, but if there's any type of in-line tables or graphics, some scrolling might be involved; there's also a slight redraw delay when you zoom in using the pinch-to-zoom gesture.

We saw a bump in speed, too, but there is still room for improvement, as the BlackBerry browser wasn't quite as fast as some of the other mobile browsers. Over a Wi-Fi connection, the Huffington Post's full site loaded in 50 seconds on the Torch, while the mobile sites for CNN and ESPN came up in 7 seconds and 6 seconds respectively. By comparison, the Android browser on the Nexus One brought up the same sites in 15 seconds, 3 seconds, and 4 seconds, respectively and the Safari browser on the iPhone 3GS delivered in 35 seconds, 6 seconds, and 5 seconds.

Moving on to the multimedia features. Much like Android, BlackBerry always provided an acceptable multimedia experience, but provided a rather lackluster user interface. This all changes with the Torch and BlackBerry OS 6, as you now get a Cover Flow-like presentation that utilizes the touch screen for navigating through tracks and playback. The video player also gives you more playback options, ranging from actual size to full screen.

The Torch supports MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA, FLAC, and OGG music files and MPEG4, H.263, H.264, and WMV video codecs. To get files on the phone, you can use the Torch as a mass-storage device and simply drag and drop files. Alternatively, the new BlackBerry Desktop Software 6 can sync your media libraries from Windows Media Player or iTunes, and there's also a Wi-Fi Music Sync feature that, among other things, will allow you to download songs to your smartphone over your home's Wi-Fi network. The Torch has 4GB on onboard memory and comes with a 4GB microSD card, though the expansion slot can accept up to 32GB cards.

Other entertainment goodies include a dedicated YouTube player, Slacker Radio, MobiTV, and a new podcast app that offers content from the QuickPlay podcast catalog.

The Torch features a 5-megapixel camera with auto focus, 2x zoom, and an LED flash. It's the highest camera RIM has ever put on a BlackBerry but the company says it's not about the megapixels. It's about little details like providing the right tools for taking pictures indoors and capturing action shots. As a result, the company added new camera options such as face detection, additional scene modes, and a simplified camera interface.

The new camera options did a good job capturing images in different environments, but indoor shots came out a bit soft.

We appreciated all the new camera options, and most of the scene modes did their job. For our standard indoor shot, we switched the scene mode to Party, which is recommended for "dim, indoor environments," and the setting definitely helped in terms of lighting and color performance. However picture quality was a bit soft. Outdoor shots came out nice, and we were able to capture fast-moving subjects using Sports mode. You can check out some image samples in our photo gallery. What's disappointing, though, is that the camera only records VGA video, whereas phones like the HTC Evo 4G and Motorola Droid X now offer HD video recording. That said, recorded clips on the Torch were pretty decent.

We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) RIM BlackBerry Torch in New York using AT&T service and call quality was generally good. On our side, the audio was clear with minimal background noise. Occasionally, there was a bit of voice distortion, making callers sound slightly robotic, but it didn't stop us from continuing our conversation. Meanwhile, our friends reported good results and didn't have any major complaints.

Speakerphone quality definitely could be better. Calls sounded hollow and several friends said they could hear an echo. Also, even at the highest level, the volume was low, making it quite difficult to hold a conversation in a louder environment. We had no problem pairing the smartphone with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset or the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active headphones.

We had pretty good 3G coverage throughout Manhattan, but we did have two dropped calls in Midtown. Data speeds were decent. CNET's mobile site loaded in 15 seconds, and we were able to download a 1.5MB app from BlackBerry App World in less than a minute. YouTube videos buffered within several seconds, and played back continuously. However, audio and video weren't always synced up. Videos from our own media library played back nicely with no synchronization problems, but we were definitely pining for a better screen.

If there's one area where the Torch trips up, it's general performance. Armed with a 624MHz Marvell processor, the smartphone can be sluggish at times. Though most applications launched pretty quickly, we encountered delays when switching between tasks. There were a couple of times they were significant enough that we thought the system might have frozen, but eventually it came back to life.

The BlackBerry Torch's battery has a rated talk time of 5.5 hours (2G)/5.8 hours (3G) and up to 17 days (2G)/13 days (3G) of standby time. In our battery drain tests, the smartphone was able to provide 5 hours of continuous talk time on a single charge. With moderate use (some Web browsing, music, and video playback, and e-mail), the smartphone was able to last a little more than a day before needing to recharge. According to FCC radiation tests, the Torch has a SAR rating of 0.91 watt per kilogram and a Hearing Aid Compatibility rating of M3/T3.


BlackBerry Torch 9800

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 8