When Research in Motion released its latest and most sophisticated smartphone to date in August it was met with mixed reviews from critics. But over-enthusiasm for the latest product from the world’s dominant smartphone manufacturer is to be expected. A month later when I received a Blackberry Torch (9800) to test as an AT&T brand ambassador, I immediately noticed people staring, knowing exactly what I held in my hand.
Complete strangers were coming up to me at the bookstore and I was getting glared at while filling up the car.
“Is that the Torch? Can I see it?”
“That’s the new Blackberry, isn’t it? Is it awesome?”
I would respond to such unexpected queries a question of my own. “What do you want this Blackberry to do that your current phone can’t?”
As a dedicated Blackberry user for the past few years I was anxious to try out the latest operating system – 6.0 – which is currently available exclusively on the Torch. My reason was similar to the answer I got to the question above: I want to be able to browse the web and access more than just stripped-down-for-mobile versions. Blackberry OS 6 introduces a WebKit browser to a RIM device for the first time. Using open-source languages and technology, WebKit enables faster browser speeds while rendering better displays for mobile. It’s the engine powering Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS browsers.
First thing I did was open the browser to find that some pages that wouldn’t open in my Blackberry Bold (running OS 5.0) would open without a pause on the Torch, thanks to the upgraded browser. I was always impressed with the vivid display on the Bold’s screen and the Torch provides the same 480 x 360 resolution over a larger area. The screen switches quickly between portrait and landscape navigation depending how it’s held.
The slideout keyboard is full QWERTY and should be very familiar to any Bold or Curve user, although it is slightly recessed into the body — it took a little getting used to before I could thumb away emails at full speed. The virtual keyboard, which appears when the keypad is not out was a bit tentative at first, but its response quickened — as did the browser speed, with the recent firmware upgrade pushed over-the-air (22.214.171.1245 — check at AT&T or RIM to make sure you have the latest update).
I’ve never been a fan of virtual keyboards but I did find that I had as much success typing (with medium-sized fingers) on the Torch’s on-screen virtual keyboard in its standard or wider (landscape) form as with iPhone or Android keyboards.
The browser can be navigated with the trackpad (identical to the trackpad on the newer Curves and Bolds), with the touchscreen, or both. Throw in a 5 megapixel camera with flash and video recording capabilities (see end of post) and it’s the only gadget you need.
What I love most about the Torch is where Blackberry remains best-in-class: email, SMS, Outlook server integration, Blackberry Messenger, and the tactile full-QWERTY keyboard. It’s every bit as much for the Blackberry purist as it is for the consumer who seeks more, and at the same price as a Bold, I’d definitely recommend it.
The Torch is also the first Blackberry phone to have an integrated app to manage your online social networks. This gives you the option to have updates from Twitter, Facebook, and instant messenger clients like AIM and Google Chat, interspersed with your other messages, or — as that may be a bit overwhelming — within the Social Feeds app, which can also aggregate RSS feeds and display (or sound off) alerts. Personally, I prefer to manage these apps and services separately and I’ve disabled the Social Feeds feature — opting to take advantage of the Torch’s multitasking capabilities and with 512MB of RAM – double that of my Bold 9700 – it’s been a breeze. A few of the apps that I use on the Bold, such as Viigo, are not yet available for OS 6.0 but that is changing. I just downloaded the OS 6 version of Socialscope and am impressed with how much more can be done with apps customized for 6.0 (most other Blackberrys use OS 5.0).
The Torch is not meant to revolutionize the smartphone as a gadget — there are other smartphones available that shoot video in HD, have larger displays, and can be co-opted as video game controllers. The Torch represents a broad leap in RIM’s Blackberry evolution with the new browser, operating system and form factor and should satisfy consumers that have been waiting for the right time to buy a Blackberry — and die-hard aficionados alike — for months to come.