, , ,

BlackBerry Torch 9800 Review


When the arrival of the BlackBerry Torch 9800 came knocking, I was pretty much psyched to see if this snazzy new BlackBerry with its Palm Pre form factor (albeit much hardier) was going to offer me the best of both worlds. Could I finally enjoy a touchscreen and QWERTY keyboard together in a single device? I’d grown tired of using an onscreen keyboard and had suffered enough at the hands of onscreen keyboard typos. Yet, at its core the BlackBerry Torch 9800 is really still just a BlackBerry Bold 9700 with some nice enhancements courtesy of the new BlackBerry OS 6 and its new touchscreen. So why would anyone want it? Because folks-  it has a keyboard and at the end of the day it’s simple to use! We know many business people who have transitioned to iPhones and Android phones, but for them, their hero still remains the BlackBerry when it comes to simple communication via email and long long battery life.

In the Box:
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 box comes with a polishing cloth, 4GB memory card, hands free 3.5mm stereo headset, charger and USB cable, quickstart and safety and product information booklet. Lastly there is a MiniCD included that has BlackBerry User Tools on it. From past experiences – the MiniCD disks always seem to get jammed or stuck in my computer…so I’m kind of surprised RIM just didn’t spring for the typical 120 mm CD. The one thing that is missing in the box is a holster or case for the BlackBerry. In the past they have always included some type of holster or case with their phones… but this time not.

Design and Build Quality:

The design of the BlackBerry Torch 9800 is not all that masculine and the general consensus amongst the women that I showed it to is that they appreciated its subtle curves. These same women actually cooed at the fact of how nice it looked and that it had a touchscreen and a physical keyboard. Unlike many smartphones with the sliding form-factor that have come before it, the overall construction of the device is very solid with its chrome metal casing and rubberized back. It also doesn’t look like this chrome finish will peel, unlike my old BlackBerry Curve 8900 did after lots of use. The slide-out QWERTY keyboard doesn’t feel one bit chintzy or like a toy in comparison to the Pre. In fact, I slid it in and out repeatedly just for the heck of it because it was fun – till it flew out of my hands that is. The form factor is easy to hold in the palm of your hands and feels nice cradling in your sweaty palms.

[nggallery id=388]

However we do foresee limitations in accessories for the BlackBerry Torch because of its design, it has always been traditionally hard to find cases for phones with slide-out keyboards. So I can’t imagine that this model won’t have difficulty either. The cases always seem to cover one side of the phone more than the other. Most folks just end up going with a pouch in these instances. However skins will probably suffice. Just recently, AG Findings announced BlackBerry Torch cases, and as predicted they are offering pouch like cases or ones with style at pretty much a minimum ( only two colors available so far) and it doesn’t cover the entire phone from head to toe when the keyboard is slid out.

For those who loved the keyboard on the BlackBerry Bold 9700 – then you will really dig it on the BlackBerry Torch because it’s basically the same. Ladies, especially with long nails, will appreciate the keyboard because it’s actually easier to type with longer nails instead of stubby ones. However I was a bigger fan of the BlackBerry 8900 curve keyboard – the keys felt more solid and since the Torch’s keyboard is similar to the 9700 keyboard, the construction seems a bit tight and squished together. However, in regard to ergonomics – the keyboard does feel a bit clumsy to type with in both hands and since the keyboard is slimmer than the top of the BlackBerry, it tends to feel a bit top heavy when the keyboard is slid-out, however, this is certainly not a deal breaker.

Meanwhile, the onscreen keyboard suffices to make phone calls, quick texts or replies via Blackberry Messenger, if you are too lazy to slide out the keyboard. However using it as a full scale keyboard is certainly cumbersome and I found myself making many typos with it. You’ll want to stick with the tactile keyboard as much as possible.

In comparing the BlackBerry Torch to the BlackBerry Bold 9700, besides the keyboard being similar – so is the display. The Torch has a dismal low-res display with a 480×360 resolution. Back when the 9700 launched we were completely impressed with this screen, but now that so many smartphones have been released since then with high res displays – the Torch’s display just seems like a step backwards. In comparison to the Nexus One or even the iPhone 4, the Torch doesn’t stand a chance in terms of color vibrancy and sharpness. However for those who have an older BlackBerry, they will probably be impressed because of the increased physical real estate. Still, it truly is a shame that they didn’t spring for a better display when just about every smartphone out now has a better one than this.  This is especially annoying since there is so much more screen real estate this time around – the BlackBerry Torch could have really shined in this area with a hi-res display.  Instead websites, and even emails look watered down. But the upshot is that you can actually see your display in the bright sunlight, which is next to impossible on my Nexus One.

Performance and UI:
A 624Mhz processor is certainly nothing to sneeze at nor is the Torch’s 512MB of ram, but sadly those specs are just not enough for the BlackBerry Torch to process its Apps or even websites. I found that the device often hanged when it came to pinch zooming and switching between apps. It’s not a complete snail, but it certainly is missing that pep in its step. Still, once again – older BlackBerry owners will see a difference for the better and appreciate the multitasking capabilities. When the processor doesn’t hang you can easily move between apps and go to your Twitter, Facebook, or snap a quick pic. However because of the occasional hangs, it does take the fluidity out of the process of switching from app to app to home screen etc…but not so much that it left me completely crippled and unable to do tasks. They should have just modified the OS to make it less draining on the processor, which would have prevented it from operating like an overclocked device. Perhaps an eventual OS update will help speed things up.

Camera and Video Camera:
Oy, the camera and video quality – what can I say – no autofocus (unless flash is on), lack of color vibrancy, poor white balance indoors, and a video resolution of 640×480.  I was seriously disappointed by the camera and video quality. On my BlackBerry Curve 8900 I had filmed basically a whole documentary of my father in and out of the hospital before, during and after his triple bypass. The Curve 8900’s footage was high quality with deep crisp colors and great detail. Many didn’t believe I actually filmed it on my BlackBerry and that was with a 3.2 MP camera! However the same experience couldn’t be felt with the BlackBerry Torch, irregardless of its 5 megapixels.  However, I do appreciate the Torch’s dedicated camera button, that the shutter works fast enough between pics and certainly that the software is easy enough to use. You can scroll up or down on the screen to zoom and or just press the optical trackpad to snap a pic. Easy.

[nggallery id=389]

Calling Quality:
Guess what, I can make a call on it and it doesn’t drop!!  I don’t need bumpers, I don’t need to hold it in a perpendicular fashion or even need to stand on my head to make a call without a call dropping. I didn’t experience one dropped call while trudging through the busy streets of Manhattan, I was heard loud and clear and crisp. I actually had a conversation longer than 10 minutes and didn’t get disconnected. Is this modern marvel wonderful or what! The updated OS 6 makes it easy to switch between calls or conference others in. The speaker was loud and clear as well – perfect for filming a Bravo reality show. Everything is laid out very simply for any BlackBerry novice to understand. The one caveat I had was that at times my cheek would hit the mute button on the display and mute calls midway in between conversations – so note to self, don’t press cheek on display.

Battery Life:
Another modern miracle! The true testament of a great BlackBerry- besides its keyboard, is its battery life and the BlackBerry Torch delivers in spades. I used the phone hardcore playing music, social networking, made calls ( yes phones do that), and downloaded apps, and the phone battery lasted almost two days. YES ALMOST A FULL TWO DAYS!! Without me having to recharge and even on red, I still was able to squeeze out one last tweet before the battery discharged and the Torch said goodnight.

Yes, besides the actual hardware, the crux of the BlackBerry Torch 9800 is the new OS 6. Now people, this still isn’t the iPhone OS or Android FROYO OS- because folks who like the BlackBerry (yes there are still quite a few of us) enjoy some familiarity when going from model to model of the same series of devices. OS 6 doesn’t completely overhaul its intuitiveness – it just relocates the same shortcuts and functions you use into different menu screens on the home screen.That, combined with touchscreen, make the BlackBerry OS more intuitive to use than ever. There are no more shortcuts just hanging around on the homescreen for you to scroll through. Everything has been dropped to the bottom and broken into separate sub menus. But you can easily access everything by just selecting ‘all’, and if you need to access certain applications quickly they are broken down into submenus called favorites, media, downloads, and frequent. These are easily accessible at the bottom of your homescreen. Just swipe left or right with your finger to access them and then up to lift all the items within the folder into view. The BlackBerry OS basics are also still very much intact like easily setting up your email, the pre-installed BrickBreaker, and your trusty calendar.

[nggallery id=387]

One of the several significant additions however to the BlackBerry OS 6 is the incorporation of unified social networking feeds – i.e. Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds etc…which will give you notification alerts at the top of your homescreen when there is an update. The new universal mailbox integrates Facebook, Twitter and all your social feeds. Also, there are now built-in social apps that are now included inside the OS like Twitter and Facebook. The universal feed feature, while quick and dirty – doesn’t really let you do anything major but read what has been going on. To actually do anything useful – you will have to actually jump into the dedicated social media apps to declare how drunk you truly are. The other major improvement to the OS is universal search which can also be accessed on your homescreen.

Web Browsing:
Based on the web kit engine, while the OS 6 browser is certainly an improvement from past BlackBerry browsers – it certainly could use a bit more polish. A neat new feature for the web browser is Auto-wrap text zoom. This makes it easier to read web pages. All you have to do is double tap on the text on a web site, and the font automatically grows, while the page reformats itself so you can read more comfortably.

Loading websites was almost painful at times – as if I were on a Edge network (blasphemy) instead of a 3G one. But still significantly faster than loading websites with the Bold 2 9700 – and in some cases, even twice as fast. However, when sites do finally load, images tend to look washed out, zooming and pinching seriously lags at times, especially when I attempt this mid way before the page fully downloaded. However the pages do load as they would on a standard browser – no missing boxes (unless it is flash) or weird layouts. I do like that you can switch between multiple websites like on the iPhone or Android phones. That is certainly a welcome change. Below is a run down of some popular web site sand their loading times – on both the BlackBerry Bold 2 9700, and the BlackBerry Torch 9800 for comparison.

BlackBerry Bold 9700 with OS 5
13 seconds for NYTimes.com (mobile version)
10 seconds for CNN.com (mobile version)
1:10 seconds for ChipChick.com
2.8 seconds for Google.com (mobile version)
7 seconds for YouTube (mobile version)
16 seconds for ESPN (mobile version)
17 seconds for TMZ.com
35 seconds for SmashingMagazine.com
44 seconds for Bensbargains.net

BlackBerry Torch 9800 with OS 6
7.1 seconds for NYTimes.com (mobile version)
9.9 seconds for CNN.com (mobile version)
30 seconds for ChipChick.com
2.1 seconds for Google.com (mobile version)
19 seconds for YouTube (mobile version)
15 seconds for ESPN (mobile version)
11.5 seconds for TMZ.com
31.5 seconds for SmashingMagazine.com
17 seconds for Bensbargains.net

BlackBerry OS 6 now offers users the ability to view pictures by folder or date, and you can even rearrange folders all on the device. Multiple selections can be accomplished using a two finger tap that enables you to select multiple pictures at once. The camera also now automatically names pictures by location using geo-location. So anything you take in New York City, will automatically be named New York City.

OS 6 also features WiFi Music Sync once  you install Desktop Software 6 on your computer. Using my home network, I was able to wirelessly synchronize my computer’s music catalog onto my Torch device. This is a highly desirable feature that is not available yet on the iPhone or Android phones – so take that! WiFi Music Sync even includes support for iTunes, as well as Windows Media Player. The Torch’s multimedia app also displays album art. Plus, a podcast app is also preloaded. The podcast app lets you download podcasts wirelessly, without syncing – via 3G or WiFi. This is unlike the iPhone which requires you to connect your iPhone to your computer and sync. Update 08/12/10: AT&T has just announced their U-verse Mobile app for the Torch which lets lucky U-verse customers set recordings and watch TV shows right on their Torch. Pretty neat stuff! We hope other cable providers follow suit.

I have been pretty much a BlackBerry lifer for awhile now. Try as I might to deviate from it – I always end up back where I started from. The battery lasts longer than any other smartphone, the keyboard while on some models left me frustrated, have basically stood the test of time because it’s actually a real keyboard! But recently I made the jump to my now expired Nexus One – it’s called peer pressure. So will the BlackBerry Torch have me taking the leap again? At its core, the BlackBerry Touch is really a BlackBerry Bold 9700 with a new look.  You really do get the best of both worlds with its onscreen keyboard and physical one, that satisfies any frustration you might have when you have to spend more than 15 minutes typing an email on some dopey onscreen keyboard. It fits nicely in a pocket and for women always on the go, it’s simple to use and a pretty sexy device. No it’s not an Android phone – nor an iPhone but it is faster, slicker and better than ever. The BlackBerry App store is still not up to par with that of the Apple App Store store but there are many promising multimedia apps on their way soon.

Granted we are disappointed with the Torch’s low-res display and camera quality. Then again, the Torch’s primary targeted audience which are business professionals are more concerned about getting their work done then they are in producing a high quality video or photos – although it certainly would be nice to have everything and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to have everything. Still, we think that the BlackBerry Torch sports a wealth of welcome improvements over its predecessors that should be enough to keep BlackBerry loyalists happy. So if you are looking for a device that does what it does best, when you scrape away all the frills like send emails, takes pics easily (if nothing else), provides a great calendar, makes phone calls, and lasts a long time, then this is it.  Overall, the BlackBerry Torch 9800 is a welcome addition to the business professional’s arsenal and we’re pretty confident that some OS updates will help speed up the interface and improve its usability even more so. The BlackBerry Torch 9800 will launch at AT&T exclusively on August 12th.

Update 08/17: The BlackBerry Torch has dropped in price to just $99 with a new contract at Amazon and LetsTalk

The Good: Solid construction. Staple Blackberry features like keyboard, email, call quality, and battery life are still intact. Found the option of having a tangible keyboard and onscreen one extremely useful as well as sanity pleasing. OS 6 is intuitive to use with its new Homescreen design, universal inbox, and universal search, as well as its social media enhancements. WiFi Music Sync will even impress iPhone enthusiasts.

The Bad: Poor camera and video quality. Display (sigh) is old school. Device tends to lag at times when processing websites or switching in between tasks.