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BlackBerry OS 6 hands-on

BlackBerry OS 6 is ready to make its grand debut on the RIM BlackBerry Torch. Is RIM's revamped platform enough to take on the competition? CNET takes a hands-on look.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The RIM BlackBerry Torch will be the first device to run BlackBerry OS 6, but you won't necessarily have to get a new smartphone to enjoy the revamped operating system.

RIM said that BlackBerry OS 6 will be available for a select number of older models in the coming months, including the BlackBerry Bold 9700 and the BlackBerry Bold 9650 (as well as new and upcoming devices like RIM BlackBerry Pearl 3G), so if you own one of these phones, you'll be able to experience some of the new OS features as broken down hereby CNET's Jessica Dolcourt.

Below, you'll find some of our hands-on impressions of the BlackBerry OS 6 as taken from our full review of the BlackBerry Torch. Though the Torch might not be the smartphone for you, you can at least get a sense of what the new OS has to offer in case you're looking to update your Bold or buy a BlackBerry in the future.

User interface
When revamping the platform, RIM wanted something both fresh and familiar and that comes through as soon as you hit the home screen. The interface looks like a BlackBerry but acts differently.

The top of the screen features the 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 where you can view more details and go directly to the appropriate app.

Expanded notifications tray Bonnie Cha/CNET

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 to 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.

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.

Messaging and social networking
Text and multimedia messages are now combined into a single in-box and support threaded chat view, inline addressing, and group chat. You can also instantly connect with friends through the widely popular BlackBerry Messenger.

Nowadays, e-mail isn't enough. People also want access to their social networks, and RIM now offers a 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. It's very much in the light of HTC's Friend Stream and Motoblur's Happenings widget, but Social Feeds isn't a widget per se, so it doesn't feel like the information is in your face all the time. In addition, the app also acts as an RSS feed aggregator.

Web browser
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 to develop a WebKit-based browser for the BlackBerry platform, and we're finally seeing the fruits of their labor.

Tabbed browsing in the new WebKit browser Bonnie Cha/CNET

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. 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. To be fair, the sluggishness might have been in part due to the BlackBerry Torch's processor.

Much like Android, BlackBerry always offered an acceptable multimedia experience, but provided a rather lackluster user interface. This all changes with the BlackBerry OS 6, as you now get a Cover Flow-like presentation that utilizes the touch screen for navigating through tracks and playback. It's both attractive and functional, so we were quite happy with the changes.

Music player on BlackBerry OS 6 Bonnie Cha/CNET

We were also pleased to see a new podcast app and enhanced camera options. The additional scene modes on the camera helped us take pictures in a variety of environments. The video player also gives you more playback options, ranging from actual size to full screen.

BlackBerry App World 2.0 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 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 also released a new SDK for developers so they'll be able to tap into the new features of BlackBerry OS 6, such as universal search. 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.

Some final thoughts
In general, BlackBerry OS 6 brings some much-needed and welcome additions, including a better browser, an enhanced multimedia experience, and improved user interface. Admittedly, none of this is new and at this point RIM is really only playing catch up, but at least it puts RIM back on track. The company will have to continue to push hard and fast if it's going to try to overtake Android and iOS, and hopefully, we'll see some better hardware from them in the near future as well.