BlackBerry Torch Review
BlackBerry Torch Review

The Blackberry Torch has been launched recently with relatively little fanfare, but signs point to the fact that it has taken the position of “best blackberry ever” from the Bold 9700. The Torch is now available on AT&T’s network and other carriers will undoubtedly follow. Because it features a touch screen, a physical keyboard and an updated OS + browser, the Blackberry Torch goes above and beyond any Blackberry before it. This is what the Blackberry Storm should have been, and this is Blackberry’s chance to stay firmly if the game. So, how effective is it really, and is that the phone that you would like to have? Let’s take a closer look

Context

Before you read this Blackberry Torch review, let me provide some context: I used the Torch as my main phone for 7-10 days. During that time, I was connected to an hosted Exchange account and used an AT&T Blackberry Enterprise plan. My work email, calendar and contacts were synchronized over the air. I kept tabs on my friends via the Facebook app, and I read emails continuously while on the go. I browse the web several times a day to check on news and the stock market. I don’t call much: only 10mn or so per day. Usage pattern is the single most important thing that affects battery life. It also shapes how we perceive, like or dislike features on a phone, so now you know.

Technical Considerations

Blackberry Bold 9700BlackBerry Torch 9800
480×360, 2.44″ display360×480 3.2″ touch display
Physical Qwerty KeyboardPhysical Qwerty Keyboard
256MB of storage + MicroSD4GB Storage + 4GB MicroSD (included)
256MB RAM512MB RAM
WIFI b/g, UMA (if carrier supported)WIFI b/g/n, UMA (if carrier supported)
3.5 Megapixel Camera5 Megapixel Camera with Image Stabilization
3G UMTS3G HSPA
BlackBerry OS 5.xBlackBerry OS 6.x
624Mhz CPU624 Mhz CPU
1300mAh battery1500mAh battery
3.5mm audio jack3.5mm audio jack
109 x 60 x 14mm, 122g (4.3oz)111 x 62 x 14.6mm, 161g (5.67)
Full specifications

Physical Design


This video shows how the BlackBerry Torch looks in the real world
BlackBerry Torch Review
The design is clean, but doesn’t look as edgy as the Bold 9700

The BlackBerry Torch fits more or less into the same form factor than the Bold 9700. It is just a hair thicker, but it is noticeably heavier (5.68oz/161.1g) when compared to its older 9700 cousin (4.3oz, 122g). You can form your own opinion of the design (see the photo gallery), but I personally find it only mildly attractive. It even reminds me of older phones like some Pantech models (scary, I know). If you ask me, i would say that the Bold 9700 looks better and edgier, and maybe Blackberry should have released a black version instead of a deep metallic blue one. The Blackberry and AT&T logo also add to the overall visual clutter.

Sliders are usually hard to design because they thend to be chubby. The Torch is indeed bigger than an iPhone 4, but RIM has done a great job of integrating the sliding keyboard in my view.

Keyboard (excellent)

BlackBerry Torch Review
Even with the challenges posed by a sliding design, the keyboard is excellent

The sliding mechanism feels solid, which is always a good sign. When the phone is locked, I just put my thumb in the middle of the screen to slide things out. However, if the touch screen is on/active, it’s harder to slide the screen up without unintentionally clicking on something. The next best option is to put your thumb where the earpiece is and slide up. It’s a bit awkward, but it works. The very round curve at the bottom of the screen makes it hard to slide by pressing there. Also, I noticed that users with long nails might get into trouble when using the upper key row because nails might bump against the sliding part of the phone.

Once the keyboard is out, you will find a familiar keyboard layout: it looks just like the Blackberry Bold 9700. However, the relief of the keys is a bit more shallow (well, it has to slide underneath the display!), but fortunately, this does not have a significant impact on my typing speed. After using the iPhone 4 for a couple of months, it’s really good to type on a real keyboard.

Blackberry has succeeded where so many others have failed: they created a excellent slider keyboard. This is actually the best sliding keyboard that I have ever tested, and I’ve seen my fair share. I hope that other brands will tune their own keyboard designs (come on, it can’t be *that* hard!).

Virtual Keyboard (so-so)

BlackBerry Torch Review
I’m not a big fan of RIM’s low-contrast virtual keyboard design

While the physical keyboard is excellent, I’m not a big fan of the virtual keyboard design. On one hand, it is simple and not visually cluttered. On the other hand, the dark keys over a dark background was the best idea of the day, especially outdoors. Fortunately, the dictionary does a very good job at shortening the typing of known words. Also, the overall relatively low responsiveness of the system makes the virtual keyboard less effective than on a handset on which the OS responds at 60 frames per second.

Display (average)

BlackBerry Torch Review
The display might could use more pixels, but RIM does make the best out of it

The 3.2″ 480×360 display doesn’t break any records, and it is a fact that the competition can boast having much sharper screens with twice as many (or more) pixels. It’s unfortunate that RIM did not increase its screen resolution, because it is a seemingly “easy” upgrade that doesn’t affect the whole design. Users are stuck with the Bold 9700 resolution – but stretched over a screen that’s almost twice as big! In the grand scheme of things, this display is (just) “good enough” to display emails with clarity but this is a dangerous
choice for RIM. The iPhone 3GS once faced similar criticism, and it was addressed with the iPhone 4. Let’s hope that RIM does the same – very soon.

Trackpad

BlackBerry Torch Review
The trackpad is very handy, also because the OS itself is not totally built for “Touch”

Trackpads are common on Blackberry devices, and they’ve done a very good job at replacing trackballs. It is great if you want to move the text cursor just in-between two characters, or if you want to simulate a mouse cursor. It also allows “hovering” (for supporting apps/sites). You can definitely get by without a trackpad, but when you manipulate a lot of text, it becomes extremely handy.

Misc

BlackBerry Torch Review
This USB location works for the dock, but I can’t type when I charge with a cable

The USB port can be found on the left side of the phone. While I love micro-USB as a charge/sync option, this one is placed in a way that prevents me from using my left hand effectively while charging. This is frustrating if you have to type emails during a charge cycle. The port should be moved higer on the side or to the top or bottom… and it would still work with a dock.

Basic Phone Functions

Dialing (easy, quick)

BlackBerry Torch Review
Dialing and all basic functions are easy to use, and fast

Finding a contact is very easy. Just start typing a name, and the universal search will find your contact right away. From there, you can click to open the contact and choose a number to call. You can also enter a number directly, a “call” button will be displayed right below the edit field. There’s no need to open a phone app (or a dialer app), but if you want to use a dialer on the screen, just click on the “call” button and the “phone app” will open. Calling someone can be done quickly an efficiently – I wished that we could create direct call shortcuts though. Android has it and it’s great.

Call audio quality (good)

BlackBerry Torch Review
Audio quality is very decent, and loud enough from the earpiece

The audio quality is good, although a bit on the muffled side in my opinion. The volume is also loud enough, even in a relatively noisy place like a bar or a busy restaurant. The speaker volume during call is OK in a relatively quiet place (office, home) but in a public place it would gain to be more powerful. No complaints here.

Photo/Video Capture (Average)

BlackBerry Torch Review
The camera is above average, but not as good as the iPhone 4

Photos look decent, but when I compare them side by side with what the iPhone 4 can snap, the Blackberry Torch doesn’t do as well, mainly for two reasons: first, the photo don’t look as good in dim lighting, and secondly, the BlackBerry Torch has the “sharpness” post-process filter cranked-up a bit for photos taken in bright conditions. This is fairly common in smartphones and is used to make photos look “crisper” — maybe too much for my taste. I’ve uploadedphotos on Flickr so that you can see for yourself.

BlackBerry Torch Review
The photo quality in daylight is decent, but in dim lighting, the iPhone 4 is clearly ahead

The video capture is “OK”. Unlike others, RIM doesn’t claim to record in 720p when they really don’t, but there’s a decent 640×480 (VGA) video capture mode in (4:3). The 640×480 videos run at only 24 frames per second (versus 30fps for other platforms). The result is satisfactory in bright lighting but I found the camera app to be a bit slow sometimes.More videos on Flickr.


Video: sample video from the BB Torch. Shows how “macro” you can goOverall, the optical quality of the BlackBerry Torch is about average when compared with recent smartphones, but it can’t touch the iPhone 4, especially in low-light.

Blackberry OS 6 (New!)

As we always say, the (real) value is in the software, and BlackBerry OS 6 is an important step forward for BlackBerry. There were high expectations for this major OS release but BlackBerry OS 6 isn’t as revolutionary as many had hoped for. But to their credit, RIM has addressed some of the most important features that was precipitating its market share slide. This is probably the right strategy to adapt from a practical point of view. A total overhaul is usually a techno-geek “fantasy”, that just doesn’t happen in the real-world. Below are the most noticeable changes:

Look and feel (improved)


Video: BlackBerry OS 6.0 look and feel

BlackBerry Torch Review
The new user interface design is nicely done. I hope it inspires Android…

The new user-interface look isn’t *radically* different so BlackBerry users will find their marks quickly (“fresh but familiar” was the marching order). However, it’s a nice refresh and some things like the setup have been significantly improved (more later). Users can now make gestures to expand the app section, or switch to “Favorites”, “Media” and other sub-sections. I was surprised that views can’t be customized, which is what I really want. Next time, maybe.

Web Browser (Finally good!)


Video: The BlackBerry OS 6 Web Browser in action
BlackBerry Torch Review
Web browsing has *finally* reached an acceptable level – phew!

The new web browser is based on the WebKit open source browser that is also used by Apple and Google for their mobile browser. It is much (oh, so much!) better than the previous Blackberry Browser that was just terrible. Now, most websites work, and the browsing experience is on par with the best competitors.

The browser also features double-tap zoom and pinch+zoom gestures, so this should be familiar with most people. While RIM is touting high benchmark performance numbers, the perceived performance of the browser is not higher than the best competitors – it is slower. I believe that this has to do with overall system performance, but at this point, I’m just glad to have a normal web browsing experience… (sic).

Social Feeds (Efficient)

If you have a busy digital life, BlackBerry OS 6 comes with Social Feeds, an aggregator that compiles feeds from different services. You’ve seen that elsewhere, but what I like with this particular implementation is that you can comment (or like) very quickly – without going to the social network’s app or page. Much more productive.

Universal Search (Welcome)

Also new with BlackBerry OS 6, the universal search does what it says: it looks for stuff on the whole phone based on keywords, with the option to extend the search online. You can search a contact, a song, or a photo. Interestingly, apps like Email still have their dedicated search boxes, and that’s a really good idea. Some Android flavors rely only on the universal search and that’s annoying. If I’m searching for an email, I don’t want to my music files in the results.

Home screen, App Screen (Clean)

BlackBerry Torch Review
You can tweak the home screen, but you can’t completely customize it

Now, you can decide how much room the icons are going to occupy on the phone homepage (25% to 100% of the surface). You can tweak this with a simple drag gesture. Despite the relatively low resolution, the graphic designers at RIM did a remarkable job. The user interface is clean and very readable. Well done.

I wish that we had things like widgets, direct phone number shortcuts, or contact shortcuts on the desktop like Android does. That would speed up the dialing of my frequent numbers. I guess that I could also setup a speed dial (1-9), but again, I would need to pop the dialer app or the keyboard.

Setup (Better)

BlackBerry Torch Review
The setup now features icons. Previously, it was all text-based and not always logical

The setup has been greatly improved. The old setup screens were text-based and you could sense that things had been added “organically” over the years. Now that the feature list has (more or less) stabilized, RIM has done some clean up, and the setup/option menus are much easier to navigate.

Not fully “touch” yet

Despite the integration of a large touch display, the BlackBerry OS 6 and its applications have not been designed to be fully finger friendly. There are still many small items to click/tap on and sometimes, the trackpad will do a much better job than a finger. Right now, the touch screen is an “accelerator” – it makes specific tasks faster, which is great, but the trackpad is still very handy.

Keep in mind that Blackberry will still have many devices that aren’t touch-enabled, and some of them will have a smaller screen, so RIM needs to take that into account. This is probably a necessary tradeoff for now so that apps don’t need to exist in two forms (Touch/No-Touch).

Other Software Aspects

Instant Messaging

BlackBerry Torch Review
BlackBerry offers popular Instant Messaging choices out of the box

Blackberry OS is a very good platform for Instant Messaging (IM). Out of the box, you can use MSN, Yahoo, Google Talk and AOL Instant Messenger. There is still no decent *free* Skype support (Verizon BB do, but even then, it’s somewhat limited), that’s the only big thing missing for me. Of course, RIM users will prefer using BlackBerry Instant Messenger as it is just the best IM client on that platform.

Facebook (Just good enough)

BlackBerry Torch Review
I now mainly use touch.facebook.com

Now that the Blackberry Torch has a good browser, I much prefer to use touch.facebook.com to check on my friends. The app is usually slower (although it should not…), and I now use it mainly to post photos on the go.

Google Maps (Finally usable)

BlackBerry Torch Review
Google Maps is so much faster than on the Bold 9700… what about gestures?

Google Maps on the BlackBerry Torch is so much better/faster than on BB OS 5.x… thank you RIM for making this usable! (wait, why “thank you”?) Now, I don’t pull up Google Maps only as a last resort. I use it when I need it. Map tiles download much quicker and even traffic info appear in less than two seconds. We clearly went from hell back to the normal world here, but make no mistake, the Android and iPhone implementation are still better, faster and in higher-resolution.

Email (Excellent)

BlackBerry Torch Review
Email remains the killer app for BlackBerry

This won’t be a surprise to anyone: the Blackberry Torch is an excellent text/email device. It simply dominates in that particular area. I found the keyboard+touchscreen combination to be very efficient. I can quickly read and scroll to see what’s going on using the touch screen, and the keyboard allows me to reply as fast as it is possible with a pocket device. The “touch” functionality basically spares you a lot of trackpad usage, which is a good thing. The Email app keeps everything that made it good before like keyboard shortcuts, custom dictionary, etc…

Because everything has to go through a BlackBerry server, and because your carrier will setup only one Blackberry account, it’s not possible to use two Exchange account (personal+work). That’s OK for most people, but I think that BlackBerry should really do something about this as other platforms do allow having multiple Exchange accounts (work+personal), w
ithout the price burden of the BlackBerry service.

Office Documents

The BlackBerry Torch comes loaded with an office documents viewer. If you want to edit documents, there’s also Documents To Go, an App that can read and modify Microsoft Office’s documents (there’s a free trial). In any case, the Torch is good enough to check on documents, and edit them in a pinch. That’s clearly not my favorite way of working, but if your boss is breathing in your neck, this could be a lifesaver.

Multitasking

BlackBerry Torch Review
Press and hold the “Menu” button and you will see this App selector

Unlike the iPhone, BlackBerry OS 6 offers “true multitasking”, so you can leave stuff like IM applications and other apps running in the background – there are no restrictions or special cases. I have not noticed that apps in the background (mail, browser…) did deplete my battery extraordinarily (they do that real bad on Android). I think that Blackberry OS performs better than Android in this area. I really wish that there was an easy way to kill all the non-critical apps without going to each of them and find the “exit” option in the menu.

Switching from one app to another is now much easier: simply press and hold the menu button and the running apps icons will appear. From there, you can tap to switch (but not kill). With BlackBerry OS 5.x you had to hit menu and find the “switch app” option at the bottom of the menu. Things are much better now.

Stability

These days, I don’t worry too much about mobile OS stability. Whether it is Android, iOS or BlackBerry OS, it’s extremely rare that I would experience a “crash”. What’s more common, is a temporary “freeze” where the phone seems to hang for a few seconds. That’s mainly a performance problem and killing apps does often solve it on all platforms. iOS tends to do better because they have a very tightly controlled multi-tasking. BlackBerry OS can become slow, partly because its hardware platform is weaker, but also because it has additional security or encryption. In the past, I had noticed that leaving a bunch of photos in the device did slow it down significantly. Keep that in mind. How much content you have on the BlackBerry might play a big role in responsiveness.

Boot time(Sleepy)

BlackBerry Torch Review
I’d like to know why it takes 3mn for this phone to boot…

The boot time for Blackberry OS is “better” (3mn versus 5mn for the bold 9700) but still ridiculous. competing phones can boot in less than 1mn. You may think that you don’t reboot so often, and it’s true, but usually when I have to reboot it’s because I need my phone to work – ASAP!

Apps Permissions (Useless)

Each time you download an app, you have to accept/assign permissions to define what it can do or not. From what I can tell, almost everyone says “OK” to everything that the app suggests by default. I’m not sure what the added value at that point, but it sure is confusing to users who don’t really know anything about what the security measures are about. For all I know, this is not very useful.

Blackberry AppWorld (Could use more apps)

BlackBerry Torch Review
Apps are a bit expensive and scarce compared to other platforms

AppWorld is the BlackBerry equivalent to the iPhone AppStore and Android Market. It is relatively easy to search applications and to download/buy them. My overall impression is that apps are relatively expensive when compared to their iPhone/Android equivalent. small utilities like Flashlights costs about $3 when they’re free on iPhone. Casual games can easily cost $5, while they might only cost $1 on iPhone or Android. This is definitely something that you should look into if you like to use a bunch of apps.

Gaming (Scarce)

BlackBerry Torch Review
Let’s put it this way: Nintendo has nothing to fear from RIM

The BlackBerry Torch isn’t very skilled in this area. Not only there are very few “real” games, they are mostly hindered by a weak hardware platform and OpenGL ES 1.1. Recent Android phones and the iPhone 3GS/4 will do much better in this area. This is not surprising for a “work phone”, but again this is a market where work and life/entertainment are blending more and more.

Multimedia (Fair)


The BlackBerry Torch playing my MP4 files and a soundtrack
When it comes to multimedia abilities, the Blackberry Storm does have a good feature list, but all the features will be dampened by its slower application processor and its lower-resolution display. The bottom-line is the Torch does a decent job, but that there are many better smartphones for this out there.

Music Player (Good enough)

BlackBerry Torch Review
Simple, nice, good enough

The music player looks pretty good, better than Android’s in fact. However, the functionality is similar to other smartphones’ music players. You can sort your tunes in many ways, but if you want to search by keyword, you will have to use the universal search. When the screen is locked there’s no playback user interface — that would have been very useful!

MP4 playback (Wide compatibility)

BlackBerry Torch Review
There’s an automatic conversion required, but all my MP4 files did work

I have copied the few movies that I test on all smartphones, and they all work, but… they did require a conversion process that was done automatically at copy time. I’m not sure what kind of conversion that was because it was very fast – much faster than a re-compression would take, so i don’t think that they were re-compressed. Whatever it was, it did work, and that was fairly transparent. I was able to copy PSP .mp4 files and a 720p file that I did myself. The compatibility is very good. Phew! I can keep my current library.

Media store (Which?)

RIM doesn’t have a music/video store per say, but you can buy stuff from Amazon, or directly on the device via apps like 7Digital. I haven’t tried the latter, but I think that it should be fairly straightforward and apparently, the tunes cost only 77c – not bad. The sames goes for videos, although I don’t have a particular app to talk about on this front. I can dig deeper if there’s an interest, just drop a comment at the bottom of the page.

YouTube (Good)

BlackBerry Torch Review
This is pretty good, but the low-resolution prevents it from being crystal clear

YouTube works quite well, but competing phones end up having a much better image quality because they use higher-resolution screens, including some with OLED technology that improves both contrast and brightness. There’s not much that the Torch can do against that: it just doesn’t have enough pixels to compete. The videos look “OK”, but you can find much better out there.

Accessories

There are a ton of accessories for Blackberry phones, but the one that I usually always enjoy getting is the dock. At least that was true for the Curve and the Bold 97000. I really liked RIM’s very sturdy and fool-proof charging connectors in the back. Those are gone, and the BlackBerry Torch Dock uses a micro USB port. You have to be more careful and “aim” a little. I think that you can’t just “drop” your phone in there, so it’s not as convenient as it used to be. The good side of it is that you can sync data from the dock, and that was clearly not possible with the old ones.

Battery Life (Very decent)

BlackBerry Torch Review
Battery life is faily good: about 1.5 day with my normal usage pattern

The battery life on the Blackberry Torch is very satisfactory. With my normal use pattern, I get about 1.5 days, with WIFI on. It’s a little less than what I got on the Bold 9700, but it’s very decent. I could turn the WIFI off to save a bit of juice, but I didn’t feel the need for it. Unlike Android, there’s not a lot of ways to know what uses more battery (Android has a little utility for that), so I’ll turn to the usual suspect: display, GSM and WIFI radio, Bluetooth, and Apps of course.

Things that could be better

Copy/Paste

BlackBerry Torch Review
Copy/Paste looks nice, but it is a bit more complicated than it used to be

I’m under the impression that the copy/paste functionality is not as convenient as it used to be. Sometimes, I need to actively go in “select” mode in the menu, or sometimes it just doesn’t work (for instance, in Facebook updates). RIM needs to make the behavior more consistent. That said, this has the merit to be there. Plenty of Android phones still have little to no copy/paste finctionality and Windows Phone 7 won’t have it at all (seriously??).

Can’t be a PDA

BlackBerry Torch Review
With BlackBerry devices, you need to subscribe to the BlackBerry service or you won’t be able to access the net, even over WIFI

I’ve said it in previous reviews: because everything relies on having a BlackBerry subscription, you won’t ever be able to use a BlackBerry phone as a PDA. This means that if you don’t have a wireless connection and a BB subscription, simple stuff like browsing the web can’t be achieved – even over WIFI. Most people don’t know that, so I want to make this clear. Obviously, the Blackberry network does have some great perks like security, but it comes with some caveats.

Performance (Slipping below average)

Blackberry phones have never been known to be blazing-fast phones, but I think that the time for cheaping out on the hardware should end. With a 624Mhz CPU, it has much less horsepower than competing phones, and it shows. The overall experience feels a bit slower than the best phones out there, and the phone freezes for a few seconds every once in a while. Given that the BlackBerry Torch retails for about the same price than other phones, and given that running a Blackberry device with the Enterprise plan can be more expensive on a monthly basis, it is hard to tolerate using a previous-generation processing platform.

This has worked in the past for RIM, but now is the time to throw everything they’ve got at the problem. The Blackberry Torch could really use extra horsepower.

Conclusion

BlackBerry Torch Review
A good phone, a great BlackBerry, but not a danger for Android, iOS.

The Blackberry Torch does provide significant improvements over previous generations, but it is not the “discontinuity” that so many had hoped for. On the software side, it brings much needed improvements on critical aspects (like the browser) that RIM needed to fix urgently – simply in order to maintain their position. Things that used to be very outdated (like the setup), are now usable. It’s also true that the overall user interface has benefited from a much needed design refresh.

The hardware design missed the mark in my opinion. It’s great that it conserves the Bold 9700 volume and that the keyboard performs admirably, but the design looks a little “old” to me. Inside the phone, the application processor is too wimpy when compared to competitors. Smartphones are becoming zippy fast, and users will become much less forgiving as they get used to 60fps responsiveness.

The bottom-line is that the Blackberry Torch won’t dent the advance of Android and iOS, I’m certain of that. But it still brings a ton of value for heavy text-communication users: if you are a happy Blackberry user, this smartphone is a good upgrade. I liked the Bold 9700 very much and I sure wish that I had a Torch back then. The keyboard+touchscreen combo is a huge plus, and a functional Browser + faster Maps are much welcomed. In the end, the Torch is a formidable text communication machine, but not a top-of-the-line smartphone.

Links

BlackBerry Torch homepage, BlackBerry Torch at AT&T

Don’t miss these reviews:
Apple: iPhone 4 ReviewMacBook Air Review, iPad Review
AndroidNexus S Review, EVO 4G ReviewEpic 4G ReviewDroid X ReviewDroid 2 ReviewHTC Hero Review
BlackBerry: Blackberry 9700 Review
Windows Phone 7: Samsung Focus Review, HTC Surround Review

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