Just when we were wondering when BlackBerry would end its smartphone dry spell, RIM announced not one, but four new smartphones for U.S. release, including the BlackBerry Bold 9930 and the full touch-screen cousin to the Torch, the BlackBerry Torch 9850. (AT&T has a version of the latter called the Torch 9860.)
RIM's history with all-touch handsets that don't carry its trademark keyboard has been spotty; it flew by the mark with its inaugural effort, the BlackBerry Storm, which turned us off with its lack of Wi-Fi and its awkward SurePress screen technology that required you to click the touch screen to select, the way you would a button. The revised Storm 2 was an improvement, with Wi-Fi, double the memory, and some performance fixes, but it still struggled to stand up to the competition.
Two years later, RIM has thankfully learned from the embarrassing mistakes and has wisely left the Storm brand name whirling in our memory, even though the Storm series is more this full screen touch-y Torch's true ancestor. Regardless, the new attempt has a nice 3.7-inch display, a 5-megapixel camera with 720p HD video capture, a 1.2GHz processor, and dual CDMA/GSM mode for international travelers.
The specs place it in the upper middle range of smartphones, and the price matches fairly well at $149.99 with a new two-year contract. However, its debut cost is the same, $50 less, or $50 more than a handful of more dressed-up Android handsets like the HTC Evo 3D, the Samsung Epic 4G, and Samsung Nexus 4G, respectively. That said, prices do drop with sales, and penny-pinchers may see the Torch 9850 recede a bit with future promotions if they're patient. The Torch 9850 will be available August 21.
In terms of looks, the Torch 9850 is the maverick of the BlackBerry family, and that's no bad thing. While the most recent crop of BlackBerrys feature squarer corners, including the slide-up Torch 9810 for AT&T and Sprint's Bold 9930, this full-screen Torch 9850 embraces sharp angles, with top and bottom edges pointed enough to slice through soft cheese in a pinch. The glossy black front is framed in shiny silver along the spines and back. A soft-touch finish smoothes out the black back cover. It's one of the sexier BlackBerry designs, and despite those sharp tips, the Torch 9850 is comfortable in the hand and on the ear.
While it's no jolly black giant, the Torch is no miniature, either. It stands 4.7 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.45 inch thick and weighs 4.8 ounces. This Torch has the largest BlackBerry touch screen to date, at 3.7 inches. With a WVGA screen resolution (800x480 pixels) and support for 16 million colors, the Torch 9850's screen looks very sharp and clear. We were also impressed with how the screen handled direct sunlight. From most angles, the screen was bright enough at 70 percent to easily send e-mails.
Directly above the screen is an LED indicator light that glows red when you've got a new message waiting. At the top is the lock button. Beneath the screen, five raised hardware buttons correspond to the dialer, the Menu, the Back, and the Power/End buttons. The center select button doubles as an optical track pad for navigating the screen without smudging it up.
The phone's sides are slickly contoured. On the right are three thin, almost sharp protrusions of a rubberized material; together they make up the camera shutter button (which you can also set as a convenience shortcut key) and the volume rocker. It's a very stylized look that proves RIM is branching out with an edgier industrial design, but we can't say the buttons are our favorite to use. The right spine is also home to the 3.5mm headset jack. On the left you'll find the Micro-USB charging port.
The back side houses the 5-megapixel camera lens and the flash. Slip off that back cover to reveal the microSD card slot that accepts up to 32GB external memory. If you're traveling abroad, you can slip in a GSM SIM card for quad-band support, which makes the Torch 9850 a convenient world phone for business travelers.
The BlackBerry Torch 9850 runs RIM's new BlackBerry OS 7 operating system, with its new Liquid Graphics display, voice-activated universal search, and more. You can read about it in greater detail in this review of the BlackBerry Torch 9810.
Since there's no physical keyboard, the Torch 9850 employs just the virtual keyboard. Onscreen buttons were on the smallish size overall, but on par with the onscreen keyboards we've seen time and again on many other smartphones. Although accuracy is hard to achieve when typing quickly on a small, flat screen, the virtual BlackBerry OS 7 keyboard did a very good job making correct suggestions and replacements, even with contractions. Spell-checking was a breeze and placing punctuation didn't interrupt our flow. Although a physical keyboard would probably be more comfortable for longer compositions, we felt confident texting and e-mailing.
Before we drill down to particulars, let's get the basics out of the way. The Torch 9850 is equipped with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth support, and GPS. The communication tools include the signature BlackBerry e-mail that supports Web mail as well as support for the BlackBerry Enterprise Server that secures and encrypts corporate e-mail. There's also text and multimedia messaging, instant messaging, posting to social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and an integrated inbox that lets you compose a message using any of those aforementioned channels.
In addition to voice calls, there's a voice recorder and support for voice commands. OS 7 also adds voice input to its universal search, a feature that lets you control when to stop recording by pressing a button when you're done. It worked well in our tests.
As with the Storm 2 before it, the Torch 9850 boasts a dual-mode functionality for its globe-trotting faithful, which will allow it to automatically switch from Sprint's dual-band CDMA network (you're locked into this while Stateside) to the international quad-band GSM networks. Just keep in mind that you might be tied to Sprint's overseas roaming partners while abroad.
In order to cater to people for whom apps and multimedia are of the utmost importance, RIM has preloaded the phone with a healthy handful of apps. RIM contributed BlackBerry Maps, BlackBerry Podcasts, BlackBerry Messenger, BlackBerry App World, Password Keeper, and BlackBerry Protect. There's also YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Documents To Go, Slacker Radio, Wikitude, and a Social Feeds app for aggregating your networks. BrickBreaker and Word Mole are two preinstalled games, but many more apps and games are available through the BlackBerry App World.
The basics are still there, too, of course. They include the calendar, a calculator, a clock (with an alarm, bedside mode, a timer, and a stopwatch), a memo pad, tasks, and files.
The browser, long RIM's weak spot, does see improvements in OS 7, including support for HTML5 video, and improved scrolling, zooming, and page loading. We also liked the ability to choose a search engine from within the URL. It loaded a text-only, mobile-optimized version of the New York Times in a speedy 6 seconds and the mobile-optimized ESPN site in 7 seconds. While the load speeds are impressive, the browser is set to mobile view by default and it was intuitive getting to desktop view.
The built-in music player is straightforward and functional, with play/pause, stop, skip, forward, and back controls below the song's album art, when available. The artist and song title are also listed, and there are onscreen controls to loop and shuffle. Additional menu controls let you add songs to a playlist on the fly, set as a ringtone, activate Bluetooth speakers, and choose a headset equalizer mode, to name a handful. RIM believes in multitasking, so the songs will play even as your browse the phone.
RIM has bestowed the Torch 9850 with a nice 5-megapixel camera that takes sharp, clear pictures with relatively true color reproduction that still looks good seen in its entirety on the computer. Indoor photos were surprisingly vibrant, although the camera didn't always know how to process scenes with multiple light sources. For instance, the carpeting on one side of a co-worker looks blue-gray and the other looks brown-orange. Outdoor photos were also sharp and saturated with color. Text looked crisp and the autofocus did its job.
Outdoor video was equally high quality with smooth 720p HD recording and playback that also captured sound well. Indoors, the camera was slightly less astute at capturing video. Switching from the camera to video mode magnified the subject, so we needed to take a step or two back. It also struggled a bit more with autofocus, and there were a few moments when a movie jumped a bit as we panned around, just trying to readjust.
There are just four buttons on the camera interface: geolocation, the shutter, the flash control, and one of eleven shooting modes. There's also a thumbnail image that serves as a shortcut to the image gallery. In the menu, you'll find more controls, and the way to switch to the video camera. The camcorder has a meter to show you how much room is left on the microSD card. There's also a timestamp counter and a flash control in addition to the record button. However, we miss the gallery shortcut.
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900; UMTS 2100), internationally quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) BlackBerry Torch 9850 in San Francisco using Sprint's network. Call quality was acceptable, but less than perfect. On our end, the line was mostly clear with no white noise, but at times we heard brief clipping. Volume was slightly low as well; we needed to boost it to hear our friends. While we wouldn't call voices muffled, we also couldn't say they were exactly clear.
On their ends, our friends agreed that call clarity was good, but also noted that our voice didn't always sound natural, and it sometimes sounded fuzzy where our voice frequency peaked. Another caller noted that we sounded garbled and clipped at times.
Speakerphone calls also started off quieter than we liked, but increasing the volume also made our callers' voices constantly fuzzy, an audio distortion that became much less perceptible when we lowered the volume again. Thankfully, there was no background noise breaking up the call. Our callers' experience with speakerphone seemed to vary: one said we sounded muffled; another noted a hollow quality and lots of echo, but thought we otherwise sounded OK.
BlackBerry Torch 9850 call quality sample Listen now:
RIM is proud of the updated processor it put into its latest crop of smartphones. While the 1.2GHz processor works much faster than on previous models, there were still some moments of lagginess, when we weren't sure if we needed to exit out of an app and start it again in the hopes it would work. While the Torch 9850's onscreen controls were responsive most of the time, we also noticed that sometimes we had to tap the screen a few times to get a touch to register.
The Torch 9850's battery has a rated talk time of up to 6.8 hours and a rated standby time of up to 13.4 days. According to FCC radiation tests, the Torch 9850 has a digital SAR of 0.9 watt per kilogram.
RIM boasts that it has raised its latest crop of BlackBerry smartphones up a notch, but the phone maker has also struggled to keep up with the development pace of other manufacturers, and has fallen behind. The Torch's 1.2GHz processor and the camera and camcorder technology are very welcome and for the most part deliver the promised quality and smoothness. There were, however, some disconcerting snags that we'll continue to look out for as we spend more time with the phone.
More importantly is the fact that RIM's specs place it in the upper-middle range, but the company has still not succeeded in bringing forth a super premium phone to stand against rivals. There's still no dual-core processor, no front-facing camera, and no 4G support, although there is theoretically NFC support in OS 7. While we think that the Torch 9850 has much to recommend it, including an intriguing and actually successful full touch-screen design, at the end of the day, RIM has an uphill battle to win fans to its operating system amid Android dominance from a variety of tough device-making competitors. With a reasonable starting price point and an attractive design, though, the Torch 9850 represents one of RIM's better chances to expand its appeal beyond the RIM faithful.