With the launch of the BlackBerry Torch from AT&T, consumers finally have their hands on BlackBerry 6 and we thought now a good time to publish an in-depth look at the new OS. If you’re a long time BlackBerry user, this OS will be very intuitive. BlackBerry 6 isn’t an entirely new experience, but rather a greatly improved experience over OS 5 with some new bells and whistles. Just like the Torch motto, BlackBerry 6 is “Less an evolutionary leap, more like a triple axel.”
The new BlackBerry 6 has several new features that make the BlackBerry experience faster, more streamlined and generally more fun. These new features can be grouped into the following categories:
Homescreen and User Interface
Social Integration with Social Feeds
BlackBerry 6 Apps
Who is getting BlackBerry 6?
Hit the jump for a full breakdown of these new features and some insight as to what you can expect in BlackBerry 6.
BlackBerry 6 features an entirely updated set of homescreen icons that are a huge hit with users. All you have to do is look at the success of BlackBerry 6 themes to know that these icons are a success. Whether you’re an experienced BlackBerry user or new to BlackBerry, you’ll find all of the icons recognizable.
One of the coolest user interface features in BlackBerry 6 is the context menus. With a touchscreen, a touch and hold movement brings up a context menu that offers you some of the menu items you would expect from pressing the BlackBerry button (menu key). On trackpad BlackBerrys, holding the trackpad will also bring up the context menu.
In the context menu, the user is given a different set of options based on what type of item is selected. For example, the user receives the following contextual options with these items:
Email: Reply, Forward, Reply to All, Mark Opened, Open, Flag for Follow Up, File, Delete, Full Menu.
Contact: Call Contact, Text Contact, Email Contact, Edit, View, Full Menu.
Homescreen icon: Mark/Unmark as Favorite, Move, Move to Folder, Hide, Launch, Delete, Switch Application, Help, Full Menu.
BBM Contact: Send Picture, Send Voice Note, Send File, End Chat, Open Chat, Full Menu.
BBM Group: View Group Details, Open Group, Full Menu.
Twitter Item: Compose Tweet, Favorite, Reply All, Retweet, Reply, Quote Tweet, Switch Application, Help, Full Menu.
Facebook Contact: Send Contact a Message, Write on Contact’s Wall, Request Contact’s Phone, Poke Contact, View Contact’s Profile, Connect to BlackBerry Contact List, Switch Application, Help, Full Menu.
SMS Item: Reply, Forward, Mark Opened, Delete, Open, Full Menu.
App World Item: Strangely no context menu.
Address: Copy, Forward, Fordward As, Add to Contacts, View on Map, Navigate To Here, Switch Application, Help, Full Menu.
Web Link in Browser: Open Link in New Tab, Add Link to Bookmarks, Send Link, Copy Link, Open Link, Back, Refresh, Switch Application, Full Menu.
Video: Search, Delete, Rename, Properties, Play, Full Menu.
Picture: Assign to Contact, Set As Wallpaper, Delete, Send…, Open, Properties, Cut, Copy, Full Menu.
Podcast Item: Play, Search, Delete, Subscribe/Unsubscribe, View, Full Menu.
Music: Add to Playlist, Set As Ring Tone, Delete, Search, Play, Properties, Switch Application, Help, Full Menu.
Currently Playing Artist in Music App: Add to Playlist, Set as Ring Ton, View Artist, View Album, Pause, Delete, Search, Switch Application, Full Menu.
Calendar Item: Delete, Send as Text, Search, Select Calendar…, Open, Full Menu.
The context menu demonstrates BlackBerry’s advantage over the competition: full integration. Everything in BlackBerry 6 can talk to each other in a way that is totally streamlined and based on user preferences. Having used BlackBerry 6 on the Torch for some time now, I rarely use the Full Menu and find that the context menus provide all the navigation I need. The only downside to this context menu system is that it seems to be set by RIM and isn’t customizable. One of the most helpful aspects of third party BlackBerry apps was their ability to alter the menu structure and add new features to the device. Apps such as “Forward with Edit” would allow you to select “Forward with Edit” from the menu, and it seems they will be relegated to the Full Menu on BlackBerry 6 whereas it would have been great to see them in the context menu.
Application Switcher Redesign
The Application Switcher is pretty much the same as it was in OS 5 but it’s a little more visual. When you hold the menu key, a list of all the currently running applications is presented in icons on the screen. You can use the app switcher to easily transfer between apps. Something that would be nice to include in the app switcher is just a little more information about the apps running. It would be cool to see some stats about any apps that are hogging resources or finished processes they’re running.
The tabbed browsing feature was a must-have for BlackBerry users. Tabbed browsing allows you to open multiple browser sessions and navigate between web pages very easily. The built in RSS options make a lot of the browsing experience easier as well, because you can very easily select to subscribe to a website’s RSS feed and it is available on your device through the Social Feeds application.
There is a lot going on in the background that makes this browser light years beyond its predecessor. One of these ways is that the BlackBerry browser leverages multiple transport options such as BIS, BES, MDS and WiFi, and the user is no longer required to change and configure these settings manually. With BlackBerry 6, the browser will automatically leverage the optimal transport available at any given time, to ensure optimal performance and minimal impact on the network.
BlackBerry bookmarks have always been a pretty lame experience and they haven’t really changed in BlackBerry 6. One of the biggest complaints for the BlackBerry bookmarks was that there were an unusual amount of folders with useless links. This has been somewhat addressed in that the number of folders and preloaded links has significantly diminished, but the usefulness of the bookmark experience hasn’t changed. Even with the bookmark experience reduced to 2 folders, you still ask yourself “what is the point in having a WAP folder and a ‘BlackBerry Bookmarks’ folder?”. It would have been cool to see some innovation here and RIM had the opportunity to implement a useful bookmark system. For example, it would have been nice to have a bookmark system similar to “read it later” that worked with your rss feeds to remind you of articles you meant to read.
iPhone-Style Pinch and Zoom controls
The browsing experience is greatly improved by iPhone style pinch and zoom controls. There was talk a while back about Apple owning the patents to the pinch gesture and event if RIM paid for it, it’s a great investment. The pinch zoom has become a gesture embedded in every smartphone user’s brain and it feels natural to browse the web with it.
BlackBerry 6 features a Universal Search which allows a user to find contacts, calendar appointments, emails, IM or social messages, phone calls, apps, on-device help info and more. The search feature is really easy to use, just start typing. The idea behind the Universal Search feature is awesome but I found it didn’t live up to the PR hype. For example, the above screenshot shows a search for “BlackBerry Torch”. The search field does a great job of finding the emails that have the keyword “BlackBerry Torch” but it definitely is not searching my IM or social messages. Not only do I have BBM messages that talk about the BlackBerry Torch, but I have a ton of Facebook and Twitter messages that use those keywords. BlackBerry is all about integration and while these apps are integrated everywhere else, I didn’t find the integration with Universal Search to be perfect.
With BlackBerry 6, you can group messages by subject. This is really helpful because it gives you a threaded style of emails to better track the discussion. To enable threaded messages on your BlackBerry Torch or BlackBerry 6 enabled device, go to Options > Message Display and Actions > Display Style > Group by Subject.
Another big update in BlackBerry 6 Messages is the HTML email view. It seems the Messages folder makes use of the Webkit engine to render the HTML, whereas before we needed a third party app to help with HTML emails.
Email has always been the cornerstone of success for BlackBerry and BlackBerry 6 does a good job of giving a small improvement to what they do really well. Context menus make common tasks a little faster when managing your email. My BlackBerry Torch was loaded with 7 BIS accounts and they sync, set up (more on that later) and are easily managed in BlackBerry 6. BlackBerry 6 provides all the security and efficiency you expect of a BlackBerry and the email experience is still unparalleled.
BlackBerry Messenger, while it’s a separate application that’s independent of BlackBerry 6 in terms of updates, seems to run a little smoother on BlackBerry 6. With the BlackBerry Torch, you have the ability to swipe between conversations, which may not be a feature for trackpad devices with BlackBerry 6 because the Torch trackpad doesn’t offer this feature. Other than that, there are all the standard options available including Shat Style, Contact List Style, Save Chat History, Automatically Receive Files etc..
Social Feeds is basically a first party, native SocialScope with a different UI. Social Feeds is an incredible feature that is representative of why BlackBerry is the best smartphone on the market: integration. On BlackBerry platform, apps can talk to each other better than on other smartphones and Social Feeds leverages this very effectively.
Social Feeds aggregates your IM (Gogole Talk, Windows Live Messenger, AIM etc) and social networks (Twitter, Facebook and Myspace) into a single place. Once you have put in your credentials for each network, your social notifications are fully integrated into your device and universally accessible. Not only can you browse your feeds from one location, but you can get inbox notifications as well. With Social Feeds, you start to think you may never have to download another 3rd party social app ever again.
One of the funny things about BlackBerry 6 is that initially it feels almost too connected and integrated. After logging in to all your social networks, IM accounts, emails and get your SMS set up, the notifications start flowing in like Hoover Dam just exploded. Immediately after setting up BlackBerry 6, you realize how connected your BlackBerry lets you be.
RSS feeds are a big component of Social Feeds as well as BlackBerry 6. The RSS feeds built into BlackBerry 6 allow you to easily follow news headlines and your favorite websites. Not only is the web browser much nicer, but Social Feeds takes a lot of work from the browser and gives you a sort of integrated Google Reader. On that note, the Social Feeds app RSS reader lacks the ability to import RSS feeds from your browser or Google Reader account.
The Calendar app is very akin to the entire BlackBerry 6 experience: intuitive and slightly improved. The Calendar now features an updated Day View, Agenda View, Event Details, Month view, an updated Week view as well as context menu support.
Managing contacts hasn’t really changed from OS 5. BlackBerry 6 provides some context menus to the experience which makes contact management easier, but it’s nothing unfamiliar. The new OS also makes the experience a little more visually rich, which looks great on the Torch. A cool feature of BlackBerry 6 is the ability to add contacts quickly to the homescreen for fast access. A better contact management system for prosumers would be helpful. If you sync multiple BIS accounts with the device, you can expect extreme duplication of contacts on the device. Some third party apps have been built to deal with contact duplication, and BlackBerry 6 could benefit from these options.
Managing pictures on your device is just a little faster and easier with BlackBerry 6. With pinch and zoom, you can view pictures with a little more scrutiny which is helpful. Selecting multiple pictures to email is also a little easier with BlackBerry 6.
The Camera app in BlackBerry 6 has had a pretty significant update. The camera features a row of buttons for quick access to common options you would use in the camera app. These buttons are as follows:
Previous Picture: In the bottom left corner is a thumbnail of the last picture taken with the camera.
Geo Tagging Toggle: In the new Camera App, you can toggle geo-tagging photos with 1 click.
Shutter Button: There is a large button in the middle for taking the pictures. Once you press it, the picture is taken right away with almost no lag.
Flash: With a single button you can toggle the flash.
Scene Modes: BlackBerry 6 has a wide range of camera environment settings. With Scene Modes, you can quickly select Close-Up, Snow, Beach, Night, Sports etc.
The camera is a lot more responsive in every way. Previously, the camera app was very slow to take a picture and with BlackBerry 6 there is continuous focus (can be toggled) so when you press the shutter button, the picture is taken immediately.
The Music Player in BlackBerry 6 is much more visual, much like the rest of the BlackBerry 6 experience. The Music Player app is offered in both portrait and landscape, as well as it’s designed around a cover-flow style. Assuming you get all your music legitimately with album art, the Music Player is a more rich experience.
Along with new music options in BlackBerry 6 is a WiFi Music Sync service that comes with BlackBerry Desktop Manager 6. The new WiFi sync allows you to sync your library of music with your BlackBerry over a wireless connection. Songs can be managed and marked/unmarked for sync too.
Tip: Don’t forget the context menu for artists:
Currently Playing Artist in Music App: Add to Playlist, Set as Ring Ton, View Artist, View Album, Pause, Delete, Search, Switch Application, Full Menu.
The Video Recorder app has been slightly updated but it’s nothing all that new. The UI is pretty much the same and the only real difference is the folder. The Video folder now features a separate section for Video Services too.
Launching the Video Camera app is easy from the homescreen or videos application. Each video generates a thumbnail for easy gallery viewing and previewing a video you’re taking is easy with a new full screen mode.
BlackBerry 6 features a native YouTube app that allows you quick access to YouTube Mobile in the browser as well as the ability to quickly upload a video from your device to YouTube. The upload feature is probably the coolest part of the app in that it lets you grab a video right from your device, upload it with info about the video, and check the upload status of the video from your email inbox. Again, BlackBerry 6 does a great job of showing just how integrated the BlackBerry platform can be, and being able to check your upload status from the inbox is just one example of this.
It would have been good to see a little more of a native video viewing experience with the YouTube app. Rather than sending the user to m.youtube.com, the app should really be pulling video content into the app and letting you view videos from there. This would make the video browsing experience a lot more fluid.
The BlackBerry Podcast app has been available in the Beta zone for some time and is now available in App World as well. The native podcast app in BlackBerry 6 is pretty good but it has a long way to go. First of all, you have to apply to have your content featured in the app which seriously cuts down the amount of available content. Ideally, this app would pull in content from the iTunes database and allow you to listen to any podcast out there. The whole point of a podcast is that it’s a public form of content creation that is highly accessible. Podcasts can only be downloaded over WiFi which is also a shortcoming of the app. While the app has a few updates needed before it’s really killer, it’s good to see RIM acknowledge podcasting as a cool form of content that BlackBerry users will want access to.
BlackBerry 6 provides a host of new APIs available to developers to help them create compelling apps for modern devices. Since there is only 1 device on the market right now with BlackBerry 6, there aren’t too many, if any, applications that are specifically built with BlackBerry 6 APIs. RIM did a great job of making apps easily ported from OS 5 to BlackBerry 6, so we’re already seeing a significant number of apps that are available for BlackBerry Torch users. It’s a bit of a shame that BlackBerry Themes aren’t available for the Torch and therefore aren’t available for BlackBerry 6, but we know they’re coming. Themes will be a little different with BlackBerry 6, and we’ve heard the official word from RIM on this subject is:
“The development of custom Themes will be supported on BlackBerry 6 however, the breadth of customization of the Home screen experience will be limited due to the integration of new functionality, including the status UI, expanded notifications, application tray and integrated search.”
This seems to suggest that themes will be able to leverage unique icons and wallpapers, but the general icon and homescreen placement for BlackBerry 6 is pretty set in stone.
One app market that we have yet to see is the Web App Development market which is going to be a big part of BlackBerry 6 content. RIM is currently looking to attract web app developers to their platform to build web apps that are wrapped in a COD file to help boost App World numbers. RIM has already put out an SDK to help convert web apps to CODs that can be loaded on a BlackBerry and hopefully this addresses concerns that the BlackBerry platform is hard to develop for.
Currently, there are a few great places to get third party BlackBerry 6 apps including:
Once you have your BlackBerry 6 enabled device loaded with apps, you’re going to want to manage them effectively. BlackBerry 6 features a new Application Management app that is available in the options menu under Options > Device > Application Management. There are a few tabs in the Application Management app and they can be cycled through much like the Social Feeds app. The tabs include:
Applications: The applications tab gives you a quick glance at the applications you have loaded on your device and their version number.
CPU: The CPU tab is helpful as it gives you a breakdown of the CPU usage per app. This section will be helpful for finding process hogs.
Usage: The usage section is fun because it shows you basic device stats and how much you use certain apps by day or week.
Memory: Everyone knows BlackBerrys are in need of much more memory. The Memory tab shows you how much memory you have and what you can spare.
Application Storage: The Application Storage tab shows you how much memory is used per app.
The Application Management app has been requested by users for some time now and it’s great to see RIM implement it. What’s strange is that you can’t put the app icon on the homescreen, and you’ll always have to click through several menu items to get to it. There is no context menu available for the Application Management app and you can’t add it to your homescreen favorites.
Setting up a BlackBerry 6 device is much easier than an OS 5 device. When you first boot up the Torch for example, you’re presented with a fun intro video showing you the new gestures and a basic walkthrough of the device. Gone are the days where the device walks you through a boring setup process that asks you to type an ‘@’ symbol and press ‘next’.
Desktop Manager 6
Part of setting up a BlackBerry 6 device involves using the latest Desktop Manager 6 software for your PC. Currently, there is no Mac solution available and while Desktop Manager 6 is an improvement over 5, it’s not exactly the ideal solution. Plugging your BlackBerry into a PC or Mac needs to be scrapped immediately. The whole process means you have to manage USB cables, use frustrating software and it’s generally no fun to be tethered to a computer. Hopefully RIM will implement a wireless cloud based solution that would do away with cords forever.
We know the BlackBerry Torch comes loaded with OS 6, and all high-end devices moving forward will almost certainly ship with BlackBerry 6, but what else? It looks like a few devices such as the 9700 will be getting 6 as well as the Bold 9650 and Pearl 3G. It’s possible that all BlackBerrys that are CDMA with 512MB of flash memory and GSM devices with 256MB and the latest chipsets will be getting an upgrade too. Generally, RIM wants to give as many devices as possible the upgrade, but you have to take into account the fact that BlackBerry 6 requires a lot of memory and you can’t compromise the user experience.
BlackBerry 6 has made the BlackBerry experience much faster, fun and it’s very familiar. While the upgrade isn’t anything revolutionary, it does a great job of building on the platform users have come to love.
BlackBerry 6 takes a lot of the common user frustrations away and streamlines the most common processes in a visually pleasing manner. When you start using a device running 6, it feels just like someone has taken apart OS 5 and replaced all the small annoyances with a more helpful user experience. Both consumers new to BlackBerry and die-hards who have been with BlackBerry for years, will appreciate all the small changes made in 6.
- Visually pleasing.
- Everything is done faster with menu structure and context menus.
- More consumer friendly.
- Lots of new APIs for developers.
- Social Feeds is definitely a Super App.
- Web Browser is exactly what we’ve been waiting for.
- Much more media rich with YouTube, Podcasting and better media management.
- Lag – even on the Torch, BlackBerry 6 doesn’t run as smoothly as you’d like it to. Menus and icon trays move with a little hesitation throughout the experience.
- Missing some show stopper moments. A lot of small improvements but nothing we haven’t seen before.
- Inconsistencies – there are features such as the context menus that don’t extend 100% throughout the platform. For example, why can’t I put options menu items in my Favorites section? Why aren’t context menus available in App World? Why can’t the Universal Search access Twitter feeds?
BlackBerry 6 is a welcomed addition and it’s going to make all of their devices moving forward much more appealing to both hardcore users and first time smartphone users. We’ll have a review of the Torch, the first BlackBerry 6 device, up very shortly so stay tuned.
UDPATE (January 12th, 2011): After using BlackBerry 6 for some time, it’s worthwhile updating this review to include a frustration regarding redundancies in the OS. Read more about BlackBerry 6 redundancies at this link.