BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: BlackBerry Torch 9800

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.