Whether or not you believe the new BlackBerry Torch 9800 from AT&T is as revolutionary as RIM’s TV ads imply, depends on what side of the smartphone divide you’re on. If you’re a current BlackBerry user, you’ll find the Torch a quantum improvement over RIM’s last touch-screen attempt, the Storm, and an amusing alternative to BlackBerry’s suddenly quaint non-touch interface. If you’re an iPhone or Android user, however, a few minutes touching Torch will make you chuckle patronizingly before returning it to its chastened owner. In other words, BlackBerry users will find it a huge step up, but it still won’t staunch the bleeding RIM continues to suffer from defections to the iPhone and Android phones.
Features and Design
Even though RIM touts the Torch as revolutionary, it’s a doppelganger of the Storm, only with the addition of a vertical slide-out keyboard – same size screen, same basic design and layout.
The Torch would have been revolutionary – or at least competitive – even a year ago, but now suffers badly in comparison with the latest wave of iPhone and Android superphones. It has just a 3.2-inch screen, the same size on the Storm, but now suddenly considered small, considering the iPhone has had a 3.5-inch display since for more than three years and the 4-plus inch screens available on the Samsung Galaxy S, Motorola Droid X and HTC EVO. A 600 MHz processor compared to the 1GHz engines on all recent superphones. VGA rather than HD video recording. The Torch does offer a modern 5-megapixel still camera and 3G tethering – nice, but hardly comparable to the mobile hotspot capabilities of the Droid X from Verizon, or 4G hotspotting on the EVO and the upcoming Galaxy S Epic from Sprint.
BlackBerry is building its own App World app store, but the Torch also includes AT&T’s own AppCenter app store, which is slightly confusing.
BlackBerry’s biggest attraction has and always will be its highly responsive, sculpted physical QWERTY, but the Torch compromises this prime feature. To slide comfortably under the Torch’s top screen half, RIM flattened the keyboard, and as a result, the keys are nearly flush and don’t have Blackberry’s deep, firm response. Even though the keyboard is around the same approximate size as on previous BlackBerry slab phones, you’ll find now trying to hit ALT and the adjacent 7 key nearly impossible.
As compared to the iPhone and the current crop of Android phones, the BlackBerry’s Torch’s knack for dealing with music, photos and video is limited.
While smaller than current superphones, the Torch’s screen is nonetheless big and bright enough for casual video viewing. But MobiTV offerings are pixelated, and instead of a dedicated YouTube app, the YouTube icon instead simply takes you to the YouTube Web site, and I could find no way to watch videos in high quality, as you can on Android or iPhone. AT&T’s own video service doesn’t seem to be pre-loaded on the Torch, but you do get PrimeTime2Go.
Like previous BlackBerrys, the Torch gives excellent, crisp voice conversation with plenty of volume. For speakerphone and media playback, it also delivers plenty of volume, albeit thinner aural quality.
Torch maintains BlackBerry’s excellent functionality, in some ways thanks to, and in other cases in spite of, BlackBerry OS 6. App icons are laid out across swappable vertical screens – All, Favorites, Media and Downloads, Frequent – that can be pulled up like Android’s vertical app and notification screen. Icons can be moved within a screen or from one screen to another – but not all. It seems each app has its own set of user customization options. Even with some of these built-in restrictions, the Torch offers can more customization than the Storm or previous BlackBerrys.
With pages filled with app icons, it looks as if the Torch comes pre-loaded with lots of functions. But many of these apps are pointers only; you still have to download the full apps. And some of the icons aren’t actually apps. The CNN and ESPN icons are merely pointers to those Web sites.
But the Torch is filled with anachronisms left from the days of scroll wheel, jog dial and trackpad control. For instance, options have to be highlighted before activated with a second touch, and some menu items remain too small and too tightly bunched to ensure consistent clean and correct taps, hence the continued need for an optical trackpad.
BlackBerry 6 also isn’t as intuitive as its competitors; keyboards on both the iPhone or Android phones adapt depending on the app. The Torch’s landscape and portrait touch keypads, however, remain static, which is annoying since the “@” key is always on a secondary screen, even when used in an e-mail app.
RIM will eventually figure out what Microsoft discovered: You can’t take an OS designed for a physical button or stylus-based interface and map it to a touch. If you have a touchscreen, you shouldn’t need a separate optical track pad. RIM should just take an ax to its current OS and start all over to create a completely new OS founded completely on touch, as Microsoft finally did with Windows Mobile 7 after realizing adapting Windows Mobile 6 and 6.5 to full touch wasn’t working. Unlike Microsoft, (initial looks as Windows Mobile 7 on the Kins isn’t encouraging), RIM has enough goodwill and a large enough installed base to be successful.