Armed with both an improved multi-touch display and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, the Torch 9810 builds on the design of the original Torch 9800 from 2010 with some much-needed upgrades in the hardware department. This includes “4G” HSPA+ connectivity, a 5-megapixel camera and BlackBerry’s updated OS 7 operating system – all for just $50 with a two-year contract. But even at that low cost, is it worth it?
Design and feel
In an era when touchscreens over 4 inches are quickly becoming the norm, the 3.2-inch Torch 9810 slider looks almost prehistoric. Especially considering that the design of the 9810 is all but identical to last year’s Torch 9800, which makes this phone quite literally a blast from the past. But that’s not to say the device is entirely out of date.
Construction of the 9810 is solid, and the phone feels nice and heavy in the hand. That means those of you who are looking for the lightest device possible should go elsewhere. (Official weight is 161g, more than most devices out there these days, like the 140-gram iPhone 4S.) At 0.57-inches thick, we could definitely tell when this sucker was in our pocket, though it didn’t feel much more cumbersome than the lighter and thinner iPhone 4S.
Despite the hefty feel, however, the (mostly) plastic casing likely won’t withstand years of carelessness particularly well. Seeing as we have to send this device back to BlackBerry in good condition, we didn’t put it through the full drop test, but our instinct tells us users will need to err on the side of caution.
As mentioned, RIM decided to change very little in terms of external design from the original Torch. The primary difference to the overall look is the removable back plate, which used to be black, but is now a polished metal (we’re guessing aluminum) with a grip-friendly checkerboard design pressed in.
In terms of buttons and ports, you’ve got the usual micro USB port on the left side; lock and mute buttons on top; 3.5mm headphone port, volume buttons and camera button on the right side. On the front, directly below the touchscreen, are the menu, back, power buttons and an optical trackpad.
When listed like that, it sounds like a veritable smorgasbord of buttons, but RIM has done a great job making the buttons appear unobtrusive in terms of total design. The lock and mute buttons are easy to access and intuitively placed, as are the volume buttons and a shortcut button that also acts as a shutter button for the camera. Anyone who’s familiar with other BlackBerry models will pick up on the other button functionality instantly.
Display and keyboard
Of course, the most notable design feature of the 9810 is the sliding screen, which reveals a full QWERTY keyboard when pushed upwards. The screen snaps into place, both up and down, with satisfying finality. Unfortunately, one of the first things we noticed about the 9810 was how top-heavy the phone feels when using the physical keyboard. And, as with the plastic casing, the addition of moving parts makes the 9810 feel slightly less sturdy than devices without that feature.
RIM has done an excellent job of making the 9810’s keyboard functional, despite its relatively small size, by adding strategically placed indentations into each button. All the buttons are responsive and well-placed, and back-lighting makes typing in the dark an easy task. Even for those of us accustomed to the touchscreen of the iPhone, we were typing at almost-normal speed in no time.
Part of us wishes RIM had opted for a landscape slider, rather than a vertical slide design, just to give a bit more room for the ol’ fingers. Had they done that, however, the Torch 9810 wouldn’t look like the design of any other BlackBerry, which would have likely upset long-time users.
Another thing RIM got right with the 9810 is the multi-touch display. With a 640 x 480 resolution, it’s a marked improvement over the 360 x 480 resolution of the original Torch, which was anything but impressive. Still, the 3.2-inch screen isn’t quite as spectacular as the 2.8-inch display of the Bold 9930, which has the same resolution.
The touch sensitivity of the 9810’s display is fantastic – quick, accurate and responsive. Another exceptional characteristic is its brightness, which makes it easy to see what’s on the screen, even in noon-time sunlight.
For some foolish reason, RIM tried to offer the best of both worlds with the Torch 9810 – one of the phone’s biggest downfalls – by including a software-based on-screen keyboard in addition to the physical one. It doesn’t work well. The on-screen keyboard is somehow too small to use easily, with poor predictive functionality, but still manages to take up too much of the screen. The problem is even worse in landscape mode, where most of the screen is keyboard. Anybody who doesn’t specifically want a physical keyboard should go with one of the many superior touchscreen-only options out there.
Overall, the touchscreen works well, though its small size certainly cramps things together a bit much. Customers looking for some multi-touch goodness with the added benefits of a physical keyboard will likely be happy with both. Still, we can’t help but feel the hybrid design is something of a dying breed, as it requires sacrifices from both ends of the usability spectrum.
Power and specs
The Torch 9810 originally launched in August 2011, when dual-core processors were just starting to creep into smartphones. Now, however, every new, self-respecting device has dual-core. And yet, the 1.2GHz CPU and 768MB of RAM packed into the 9810 still gives the device a quick and powerful functionality. Add in the improved graphics processor (RIM calls it “Liquid Graphics,” the same GPU included in the gaming-centric Sony Xperia Play) and you have quite the zippy device in your hands. RIM has also upped the internal storage from 4GB in the original Torch to 8GB in the 9810, and it can take up to a 32GB microSD card.
In short, anyone who switches to the 9810 from an older device will be pleased with how quickly everything works. But it still can’t compete with the newer generation of devices, like the Samsung Galaxy S II or the iPhone 4S.
One of the biggest drawbacks to the 9810 – and to BlackBerry in general, at least for the time being – is its operating system. BlackBerry OS 7 was supposed to be a step forward for RIM. But the UI still feels antiquated and overly complicated when used next to basically any other current OS, like Android 2.3 Gingerbread, Windows Phone 7.5 Mango and especially Apple’s newly released iOS 5.
That’s not to say OS 7 isn’t an improvement, in both speed and polish, over OS 6 – it is. Where this change is most noticeable is with the new WebKit browser, which is very fast, even when compared to dual-core devices. Support for HTML 5 comes standard, and the pinch-to-zoom works seamlessly. We must point out that, like Apple’s handsets, the BlackBerry 7 browser doesn’t support Flash, which will certainly be a downside for anyone thinking of transferring over from Android.
Another quality feature is OS 7’s Twitter integration. The app comes pre-loaded, and tweets can be posted from a number of places in the phone, including from the email app. BlackBerry Messenger is, thankfully, as solid as ever.
The notification system of OS 7 isn’t bad – alerts appear at the top of the screen, much like Android or iOS 5. But you can’t simply tap the banner alert to access the message, and no notification appears if you’re anywhere in the device other than the home screen. This means an annoying red notification light will be going off suddenly, and you’ll have no idea why until you exit an app.
If you can’t tell, we’re not fans of RIM’s OS design. It feels woefully outdated, which is likely one of the primary reasons why BlackBerry is struggling to compete against Apple’s iPhone and the rising tide of Android devices. The only thing worse than OS 7 is…
Apps and features
We can barely talk about this without getting visibly upset. BlackBerry App World is, how do you say, embarrassing. Category organization is a mess. Functionality is clunky. And selection is pitiful; not only is the place filled with Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja rip-offs, we could barely find an app that we genuinely wanted to try. That’s likely because there are only about 5,000 of them, total. This means many of the apps Android and iOS users take for granted, even things like Google apps, are nowhere to be found. And many of the ones that have made it on there are poorly-concocted replicas of their Android and iOS counterparts.
One glimmer of hope is the Social Feed app, which comes pre-loaded on the 9810. This handy app shows all your incoming tweets, Facebook News Feed items and messages, as well as BlackBerry Messenger, Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger messages, all in one place. You can even respond straight from the app.
Like BlackBerrys of yore, the OS 7-powered Torch 9810 handles email spectacularly, far better than any other device we’ve ever used. Support for Microsoft Office documents comes standard, something enterprise users will appreciate. Data security remains a major selling point for RIM. But nothing really stands out about the 9810 for enterprise users over other BlackBerry handsets.
In other words, RIM is still winning in the areas it has historically excelled: email and security. Elsewhere – well, let’s just move on before we say something nasty, shall we?
While more modern handsets, like the Motorola Droid Razr, Samsung Galaxy S II and iPhone 4S, now sport 8-megapixel cameras that rival dedicated point-and-shoots, the 5-megapixel camera of the 9810 still manages to pump out clear, crisp and vibrant photos – most of the time, at least.
RIM has built in a number of scene modes, like landscape, party, close-up and auto mode, which can add some mild improvements to your pictures.
The LED flash and autofocus worked reasonably well. And the quick-access camera button on the right side of the device is an excellent feature that makes snapping a quick shot simple and easy. In low-light scenarios, the 9810’s camera struggles, and the flash makes photos taken in low light look a bit over-exposed. Strangely, in particularly bright settings, it was difficult not to shoot a photo that didn’t look as though the lens had light leak issues. This, of course, is impossible, as true light leak can only happen with detachable lenses that aren’t seated properly. But the effect was, sadly, the same, making some photos look washed out.
The 9810 can also capture 720p high-definition video, which looks solid. When shooting video, we found that the autofocus had trouble in high-movement situations, but that was only a minor qualm. Our main complaint about the video feature is that it is entirely separate from the still image camera functionality, something we found counter-intuitive and mildly frustrating.
That said, the image stabilization is definitely useful, as is the ability to turn on the LED for low-light shooting. We also liked the ability to name your video files as soon as you created them, which makes it far easier to remember which clips to keep and which to discard when you’re sorting through them later.
Call quality and data speed
As a phone, the Torch 9810 is fantastic. Every call we made was crystal clear, and never dropped, despite some instances of sub-standard AT&T signal strength. Which brings us to the issue of AT&T’s “4G” HSPA+ connection. While the 9810 is marketed as a 4G device, anyone who has used Verizon’s LTE network is going to be disappointed, as AT&T’s HSPA+ speeds are a fraction of what Verizon offers, and slower than either T-Mobile’s enhanced HSPA+ or Sprint’s WiMax connection.
Despite this, we were still pleased with how well the 9810 crunched through the data. It was still faster than our iPhone 4 on Verizon’s 3G network when in a well-covered area like New York City. The 9810 is advertised as having a maximum download speed of 14.4Mbps. In our tests, we achieved an average download speed of about 5Mbps, with a full HSPA+ signal, which isn’t bad for AT&T’s network.
Seeing as 4G LTE is still a developing technology – or, at least, the networks are still developing – the 9810 offers respectable usability in the data speed department, especially for users moving up from standard 3G. But that’s unlikely to still be the case two years from now, when a new AT&T contract would expire.
According to RIM, the 1270mAh battery of the 9810 is supposed to pump out about 6 hours of talk time on 3G and around 295 hours of standby time – not great, but not the worst, either. While we didn’t try to talk on the phone for 6 hours straight, of course, we did test the limits through a combination of calls, Twitter usage, email, average to light web browsing and shooting some pictures and video. After all that, the phone still had around 30 percent battery at the end of the night.
Over the course of a few days, we found that the 9810 more or less drained after about a day’s usage, on average. What we did find surprising, however, was the terrible standby time. Left sitting on our desk, the 9810 went dead after less than two days, consistently – nowhere close to the supposed 295 hours RIM claims. Oddly enough, it seemed to hold up better when we actually used the thing. Not that the battery actually lasted longer, but the drainage seemed disproportionate to usage (or lack thereof). All-in-all, the battery was OK, but certainly not a main selling point.
Casual BlackBerry users will likely find the Torch 9810 pleasantly fast, quirky and a little bit charming. Those who love physical keyboards will adore that of the 9810 – but it’s not any better than the keyboards on other BlackBerry handsets. The touchscreen, while bright and responsive, is a bit too small to really be taken advantage of. Call functionality is excellent, and data speeds on AT&T’s HSPA+ are better than 3G, but far slower than other carriers’ 4G options.
In general, we felt that the slider form factor simply tries to do too much; rather than do one thing exceptionally well, it does two things just OK. But the real downside to the 9810 is the already-outdated BlackBerry OS 7, and the near-complete lack of quality apps available through App World. This alone would make us opt for nearly any other brand of handset.
To be fair, the Torch 9810 only costs $50 with the signing of a two-year contract from AT&T. Problem is, with AT&T rolling out its LTE network as we speak, is anyone really going to want to be stuck with August’s technology for the next two years? We know we don’t.
- Bright, responsive display
- Full QWERTY keyboard
- Fast browser
- Small touchscreen
- Far outdated OS
- Terrible app selection
- Plastic construction, fragile moving parts
- Short battery life