The BlackBerry Torch has been in the office for a couple of weeks now and we’ve had a long time to think about some of the intricacies of using this device for both business and pleasure. The Torch is the first BlackBerry to feature BlackBerry 6, a touchscreen and a QWERTY keyboard and RIM employees have been quoted saying it’s the best BlackBerry to date. Touchscreen devices are likely a sensitive issue with RIM as the company has had a lot of negative press over the BlackBerry Storm. The Torch has a touchscreen that has dropped the infamous SurePress technology and there is a lot of buzz about this device given the heated consumer smartphone competition. Have these improvements made it the best BlackBerry to date? Lets take a long, hard look at this device (that’s what she said).
Table of Contents
- Size, Weight and Feel
- Slider Mechanism
- General Impressions on Torch Input
- Battery Door
- WebKit Browser
- Phone Call Quality
- Messaging (Email, SMS, BBM)
- AT&T Torch Preloads
- Pros and Cons
- Where to Buy the Torch?
- Closing Thoughts
Unboxing the BlackBerry Torch is a much better experience than with previous BlackBerry devices. RIM has done a great job of updating their device packaging so it isn’t stuffed with manuals, CDs and giant chargers that take up space. The new BlackBerry packaging is about half the size and doesn’t come with a case like they used to. It’s a little lame to not get a case but it makes a lot of sense not to include it anymore. By not giving the user a free case, RIM has really opened up the third party case market. One accessory RIM did include in the box was a “BlackBerry Polishing Cloth”. As you would expect, the Torch touchscreen finds itself covered in smudges. This is standard with any touchscreen and it’s awesome that RIM included a cloth to help keep your device nice and shiny. Another great update to the standard BlackBerry accessories is the charger. The new charger is just a little socket piece that a USB cable plugs into. This new charger saves a lot of space and is great to include with the Torch. Now, if only the standard BlackBerry earbuds could be updated.
Size, Weight and Feel
When you first pick up a BlackBerry Torch, you immediately realize that it’s a big device, especially when compared to the Bold 9700 or the Curve 8900. If you’re a Storm2 user, it will probably feel pretty natural in your hands because they’re similar in size and weight. Personally, I enjoy a large smartphone and think the Torch’s size is more of an advantage for smartphone power users that want a large screen and ample finger space. At the same time, I can imagine a lot of users that are very particular about the device’s size being turned off by such a boat of a BlackBerry.
One of the first things I wanted to try when I powered up the Torch was the accelerometer. On the Storm and Storm2, the accelerometer is pretty weak and the device takes about a second to realize that it needs to change from portrait to landscape. On the Torch, changing from portrait to landscape is very fast and consistent. One thing to note about the accelerometer is that when the keyboard is lout, the display is locked in portrait mode. This makes sense because you don’t want to be composing an email with the keyboard slide out and accidentally find yourself in landscape mode.
A slider form factor for a BlackBerry was bound to happen eventually and it’s good to see it come with a touchscreen. With the slider form factor, you essentially get two styles of BlackBerry packed into one. If you’re on your device simply to browse the web, listen to music, watch videos or play a game, you don’t need to slide the device open and can get around easily with the touchscreen (more on that below). If you’re using your device to get some real work done, or communicate with someone, you can slide out the device and you have a functional keyboard at your disposal (again, more below). This slider form factor is nicely summed up by the AT&T Torch commercial “Business Meets Fun”.
The downsides to the slider form factor is that it takes some getting used to and I find myself accidentally pressing the screen constantly. There are really two ways you can open your Torch: by sliding the device open from the touchscreen with your thumb, or pushing it open from the bottom of the screen near the trackpad. In both of these instances, I find myself accidentally pressing buttons. I have seen other phone manufacturers get around this scenario by adding an ergonomic groove near the bottom of the screen to help you push up the slider without pressing any buttons. Perhaps RIM could have used a something like this.
When sliding the device open and closed, you can feel that the quality of the device is pretty solid, but there is a little bit of a “wiggle”. When you slide the device open, you can feel the screen being pushed by a mechanical force and locked in place once it’s fully opened. On the other hand, with the device fully open, you can feel it wiggle side to side a little, which worries me that this problem would be seriously exacerbated over time. Closing the slider gives a similar feeling of satisfaction as closing a clamshell phone, except for the fact that you don’t end the call.
Something that needs to be addressed with the Torch and BlackBerry 6 is the lock mechanism. With BlackBerry 6, RIM separated out the Lock and Password Lock functionality. The Lock button on the top of the device locks the unit, so there are no accidental key/screen presses, while Password Lock and Timeout requires users to enter their password. Unless my device was locked with a password, I found the Torch would often do some strange things in my pocket such as open applications, send accidental emails or turn the music on when the mute button was pressed. This frustration may be more of a BlackBerry 6 issue, and less to do with the Torch.
Overall, the slider mechanism was fairly well implemented and while the accidental button pressing is a setback, the benefits of having essentially two phones outweighs the small frustrations.
The keyboard on the Torch looks to be about the same size as the Bold 9700, but with a very different feel to it. Maybe it’s because the device is a slider, but it feels like the keys on the Torch are a little recessed, perhaps to allow a screen to roll over it. The slider form factor has a significant impact on the way the keyboard feels as well. When you use the keyboard, you obviously have to open the slider which changes the weight balance of the device. While this doesn’t necessarily make for a bad typing experience, it takes some getting used to. A downside of the Torch keyboard is that the top row of keys are a little too close to the bottom of the touchscreen. Personally, I find that big thumbs feel a little cramped when using the top row, but it’s nothing too significant. Overall, the keyboard on the Torch is just slightly less efficient than my Bold 9700, which in the end makes it a really solid keyboard.
For the longest time RIM has been trying to reinvent the touchscreen and stick it to Apple. They did this by creating a new technology they called SurePress, which is implemented on the Storm series devices. While a lot of users are really happy with the Storm, I personally wasn’t a fan of SurePress. While the typing experience was a little more confident than on an iPhone, it was still difficult to send out emails at anywhere near an acceptable speed. The touchscreen on the Torch is more like an iPhone and it makes you wonder if RIM is ditching SurePress altogether.
Using the touchscreen on the Torch is a very refreshing experience. The touchscreen really revolutionizes the way you navigate around your device and makes the experience not only faster, but much more fun. Browsing through homescreen tabs is a smooth experience, albeit some lag, and the touchscreen lets you have more control over the experience with the swipe and pinch gestures.
In terms of resolution, the Torch’s 480×360 display is nothing new but not necessarily anything to kvetch about. While the iPhone 4 may have a 960×640 display, I’ve seen it myself and there is no discernible difference between the iPhone 3Gs. Watching videos on a 480×360 display looks very clean and even browsing the web, I’ve never come across a situation where I was looking for more pixels. Higher resolution display seems like one of these features that looks great on a spec sheet, but doesn’t do much for your eyes when actually viewing it.
Typing on the Storm’s virtual keyboard wasn’t great and I’m inclined to say that the Torch isn’t better or worse, but equally bad. The keys on the virtual keyboard are cramped and the interpretive text isn’t great. If you’re going to be writing any colloquialisms, they’re not going to come through on the virtual keyboard. Also, the key layout is stagnant on the Torch’s virtual keyboard. When you’re entering data into an email field vs a web field, you’re looking at the same keyboard layout. This issue has been addressed ages ago on other smartphones and I’m surprised RIM didn’t realize you need a different key layout depending on what information you’ll be entering. Another strange thing about the virtual keyboard is that there is a button dedicated to changing the input language. Did RIM really think that Torch users would be changing languages so much that they needed to take up precious keyboard space with a language shortcut key? Users would have clearly preferred a shortcut to the ‘@’ symbol. Perhaps this is something they can change with a Torch OS update.
There isn’t too much to say about the trackpad as it’s the same as any other BlackBerry trackpad. One thing that is interesting is the fact that there are three input methods (more on that below). With the trackpad, there are specific functions that make a lot of sense to use the trackpad for, but it takes a while to realize this. For example, when you’re composing a message, you may be inclined to use the touchscreen for cut and paste – don’t. The trackpad makes cut and paste much easier as you have more control over the selection process. Cut and paste on the touchscreen is the same as with the Storm and it’s just too fickle and uncoordinated.
General Impressions on Torch Input
There is a bit of a learning curve when it comes to managing multiple input methods but it actually works quite well. When we first heard about the fact that the Torch would have multiple input methods, the first thing that came to mind was “that’s too bad, you’re giving developers additional porting work which could affect the content available.” From a user standpoint, having several input methods actually makes for a better overall experience so it’s probably better in the long run. Here is an example of the scenarios where you would use each input method:
Touchscreen: Navigating the homescreen tabs is easier with touchscreen gestures.
Trackpad: The trackpad is perfect for anything that requires precision. Copy and paste as well as navigating text to make an edit is best with the trackpad.
Physical keyboard: The BlackBerry keyboard is well respected for banging out emails. With the slider, you feel like you’ll be able to send timely messages.
Virtual keyboard: phone calls are faster with the virtual keyboard. You don’t have to open the slider to make a call and the virtual keyboard has nice big numbers to dial from.
Also worth mentioning is the lack of a second convenience key. The convenience key is placed on the lower portion of the right side of the device and can be set using in the options menu. Two convenience keys has always been important to me and I’m not elated about only having one, slightly awkwardly placed convenience key.
Battery doors have always been a sticking point in a device review here at BlackBerryCool. While it’s not a huge deal with regards to the rest of the device, it’s still an important piece that is constantly changing and RIM hasn’t really settled on any one design.
The battery door on the Torch is sort of like the Bold 9700, but without a sliding rail and instead a latch at the top where the door slides in. The benefit of this battery door style is that the door is very secure and doesn’t shift around in the slightest. The downside to this battery door style is that removing it requires you to pull down in the opposite direction as the slider mechanism. It’s almost impossible to not slide the battery door open without sliding the device open a little. It’s not necessarily bad, just a little awkward. According to the above battery door review, I would give it the following rating:
There is a lot to say about BlackBerry 6 but it doesn’t necessarily have a place in a BlackBerry Torch review since it will come with other devices. For everything you want to know about BlackBerry 6, be sure to read the full BlackBerry 6 review.
BlackBerry 6 on the Torch doesn’t run as smoothly as you would like it to. When swiping through menus, there is an obvious lag that shouldn’t be there. If you watch any advertisement of BlackBerry 6 on the Torch, you’ll see people swiping between homescreen tabs as fast as their fingers move but this isn’t the case when actually using the device. When you swipe to another homescreen tab, it feels as though you’re asking the device to switch screens and waiting for it to accept the command. It takes just under a second to shift screens when it should be moving as fast as your fingers. When moving around the iPhone 4’s homescreen, you can go back and forth between screens as fast as you want with no lag at all. It’s possible that RIM could update BlackBerry 6 to be more responsive to gestures but as of now it is a little frustrating.
The WebKit browser is another major component of BlackBerry 6 and the Torch experience. Again, for more about the WebKit browser, head over to the BlackBerry 6 review and guide. In terms of the WebKit browser on the Torch, the biggest advantage comes with a touchscreen and gestures. The pinch to zoom feature, which may or may not be an Apple patent, goes a long way to making the browser a smooth experience. Another awesome feature, not specific to the Torch, is the ability to download large files over the browser. With BlackBerry 6 and the WebKit browser you can download large files, even upwards of 100Mb. Overall, the Torch browser is a must have for any BlackBerry device and it’s a welcomed addition to the device.
Other than the usual BlackBerry specs such as Bluetooth, WiFi, trackpad etc., the Torch has the following specs:
- 3.2” HVGA+ touch screen (480×360)
- VGA (640×480) video recording
- 5 MP camera with 11 scene modes
- 1300 mAHr removable/rechargeable lithium-ion cell
- Talk Time: GSM – up to 5.5 hours, UMTS – up to 5.8 hours
- Music Playback: up to 30 hours
- Video Playback: up to 6 hours
- 512 MB flash memory / 512 MB SDRAM
- Expandable memory – support for microSD card up to 32 GB
- 624Mhz Marvell PXA930
The Torch’s internal specs are one of the biggest talking points when mainstream media say the Torch was “unimpressive” or that it “isn’t up to par with the iPhone and Android”. It’s true that RIM does reuse a lot of its internal hardware and while this helps them reduce the cost of manufacturing the device, it doesn’t do a good job of “wowing” the hardcore gadget users.
The BlackBerry Torch’s specs are good enough for your average user and everyday use, but it would have been cool to see RIM use a few key pieces of excellent hardware to give it an edge over other consumer smartphones. It doesn’t take much to impress with a few of key specs including a better camera, video recorder, processor, battery and memory.
The 624Mhz Marvell PXa930 processor is a good example of RIM constantly reusing old hardware to get better volume discounts with manufacturers. The Marvell processor has been used on the BlackBerry Bold 9000, Pearl 9100, Curve 9300, Storm 9500 and the Bold 9700. It’s a little disappointing to see a modern 2010 BlackBerry using the same processor found on a BlackBerry launched back in 2008.
While the processor isn’t 100% responsible for device lag, and the bottleneck could occur anywhere in the code, you definitely experience device lag often with the Torch that should have been addressed as best as possible with good hardware specs. When you download an application using App World, your Torch is rendered useless because of device lag. For all the bragging that RIM does with respect to its ability to multitask, you should be able to run a background process such as downloading an app without your device being bricked for all intents and purposes. This is yet another area where you can’t help but look at the competition and wonder why RIM can’t keep up.
Whatever reason RIM has for using the Marvell chipset, superior graphics is clearly not at the top of their priority list. The Marvell chipset lacks Open GL support that we’ve been seeing in devices such as the Storm2, 8530 and Bold 9650. While there are only a handful of developers out there using Open GL to make rich 3D games, BlackBerry users clearly want this content and if there were more devices supporting it, developers would be more than happy to jump on board. Here was RIM’s chance to go to developers and say “check it out, another 150,000+ devices support Open GL. Get coding and make some sweet games!”. Instead, developers are still sitting around wondering if there are enough devices out there to merit making these games and apps.
The Torch comes with 512 MB flash memory and 512 MB of SDRAM. The memory card on the Torch can be upgraded to 32GB which isn’t enough if you’re a music aficionado and store a lot of MP3s. Considering the amount of money and time RIM spends trying to attract developers to their platform and turn App World into an app marketplace that rivals the competitions’, the amount of memory available on the Torch isn’t enough. After installing all of the virtual preloads that come with the Torch, as well as a couple small favorites from App World and elsewhere, you will have used up around half of the available app memory. If RIM could figure out a way to get apps to run from the SD Card, users would probably never complain again about the lack of memory.
According to the official specs page for the Torch, you can expect up to 18 days of standby time, 5.5 hours of talk time, 30 hours of music playback and 6 hours of video playback. These numbers are a little better than the Storm2 but not as good as the Bold 9700. This is sort of understandable due to the amount of screen real estate, the touchscreen and processor power required to run BlackBerry 6. For the power user, you can expect a little over a day’s worth of battery. The average user will probably get 2 days worth of battery out of the Torch which is pretty standard for smartphones.
There are a couple of strange battery issues that have happened to me over the course of more than a week using the BlackBerry Torch. Twice, the battery has died on me while the phone still had a full bar. With what should have been at least an hour left on the device, the “Battery drained, shutting down handheld” message appeared. After charging the device, it booted back up with much less battery power than when it shut off. Perhaps this isn’t a battery issue but something to do with how the OS is reading the remaining battery life. Hopefully more users haven’t experienced this.
The media capabilities of the Torch are a combination of hardware and BlackBerry 6 working together to give a much smoother and functional media experience. Personally, I don’t share pictures outside of the web, and I rarely take video with my mobile that I’m sharing anywhere other than YouTube. If you’re printing pictures, watching video on a TV or large screen, or sharing media anywhere other than the web, not only would I not recommend the Torch, but I wouldn’t recommend smartphones in general. If you’re serious about video or photography, you’re probably better off with a separate device.
The camera on the Torch is 5MP, which is the new standard for modern BlackBerrys. Again, for the purposes of web sharing, 5MP looks very nice. Take a look at the below example of the same picture taken on a Torch and a Bold 9700:
The original picture, when displayed at full size comes in at 2592 x 1944 pixels. This is a pretty big file, around just under a MB, and considering you can only send 5MB down the RIM email pipe, that seriously limits the amount of pics you can send. Thankfully, you can change the file size on the go before you email, but it would also be good for RIM to open up their pipe a little to let more data through.
As you can see, the camera on the Torch is vastly superior to the older BlackBerry cameras. The colors are much more vivid and the quality is generally better. One of the more fun features of the Torch’s camera, which may be a BlackBerry 6 feature for all devices, are the Scene Modes. Scene Modes give you the ability to optimize the camera for the style of picture you’re taking. Some Scene Modes include: Auto, Face Detection, Portrait, Sports, Snow, Beach, Night etc. One particular Scene Mode I like is Text which allows you to capture text on a white background and enhances the detail and sharpness of the text. This is great if you’re too lazy to scan a document and just want to take a picture and email it.
The video recorder on the Torch is a less powerful than the competition, being able to record at VGA (640×480). Even though the camera has a 5MP lens, the video processing power of the Torch only allows it to record at the low end of HD. See below for an example of the Torch’s video quality:
The BlackBerry Torch’s video quality, while it’s not up to par with other smartphones such as the iPhone 4, is a good enough quality for the web. Sure, it would be nice to record in 720p, but for the majority of users, 480p looks really good. The video might look bad when it’s projected on a television, but for smaller formats, the lower HD standard comes across very crisp.
When it comes to music on the BlackBerry Torch, much of the experience is governed by BlackBerry 6, and there is very little that is Torch specific. One thing I can say about the music experience, is that browsing your music files on a Torch is much more fun with a touchscreen and keyboard. If you have the craving for a particular band, you can just start typing the name of the song or artist and the universal search will take care of everything. Once your song is playing, you can close the slider and browse albums with the swipe of a finger. The music listening experience in general is greatly improved by multiple input methods and BlackBerry 6 really nails it home.
A BlackBerry is a powerful smartphone that is so beyond a telephone or feature phone that you sometimes forget to review the basics. Here is a quick breakdown of the basic feature phone elements of a BlackBerry:
Phone quality is totally dependent on your network and in general, I don’t talk much on the phone. The phone, while it might be more personal than email, is probably the most inefficient ubiquitous form of communication we have in 2010. In any case, for the few times I use the phone, I found it on par with other devices in terms of quality with a few added Torch benefits.
For those occasions when you are using the Torch to make calls, the touchscreen and keyboard are a great duo. With the keyboard, you can quickly dial phone numbers such as 1-800-AIR-CANA by holding the alt key. If you’re dialing a number that is in the call log, or you know it by heart, the touchscreen keys and gestures make calling that number a breeze. Personally, I don’t use the contacts field in the Phone App because it’s faster to just use the Universal Search (another great Torch/BlackBerry 6 feature).
During calls, I found the sound quality on par with any other BlackBerry I’ve used. The noise cancellation is good and I’ve never had a problem hearing anyone on the other end. The speakerphone seems much more quiet than other BlackBerry devices I’ve used. Something I really enjoyed about the Storm2 was the loud speakerphone. I use the speakerphone at my desk a lot and I’ve found I almost always have to turn the Torch up 100%, whereas I could leave the Storm2 at 75%.
The slider mechanism plays a role in answering calls by sliding open to answer a call but doesn’t end a call by sliding closed. This was a little odd because the tendency is to slide the Torch closed to end the call since you slid it open to answer. I’m surprised I never had one of those moments where you think you hung up and go “man, that conversation was brutal. I hope I never speak to him again” while they’re still on the line.
I’m going to assume a lot of readers are interested in the antenna strength ever since Steve Jobs claimed BlackBerry had an antenna problem and a leaked video of an early Torch showed signs of a “Death Grip” scenario. Personally, I’ve never experienced anything like a Death Grip with the Torch and I think the video everyone refers to was of an early engineering device which isn’t indicative of a final product. The antenna on the Torch is great and it’s probably time to put this issue to rest.
Messaging on the Torch is a blissful experience. As I’ve mentioned above, the Torch is the perfect combination of the pleasure you get playing with the Storm and the business you get done with the Bold. Reading emails on the Torch is a quick and pleasurable experience with BlackBerry 6’s enertial scrolling, allowing you to scan over several emails with one flick of your finger. If you find an email you want to respond to, simply slide out the keyboard and get typing in a fast and efficient way like you did on your Bold. The combination of both touchscreen and keyboard have me very excited for upcoming devices such as the BlackBerry Pluto (Bold 9000 form factor with touchscreen).
As previously mentioned, the Torch does not come with any accessories except for a small charging piece, cables, headphones and polishing cloth. While I’m not one to wear my device on a belt, I find a simple case can go a long way to prolonging the device’s life. Here are some places you can find accessories:
Applications on a new device are always a bit of a frustration. It takes developers time to support the device, and if RIM has implemented a new input method or a new screen size then it takes developers much longer than you would like. This is exactly where RIM could lead the charge and show developers exactly what you can do with BlackBerry 6 and inspire them to create some cool apps. While there aren’t as many apps available for the Torch as for say, the Bold 9700, there is still a lot available since the screen size is the same as the Storm. Here are some places you can grab apps for your Torch:
The Torch comes with a ton of virtual preloads as well as a App World 2.0 completely preloaded. It’s not obvious what devices and carriers have signed up for the App World preload, but it looks like all AT&T Torch’s will be for sure getting one. App World 2.0 comes with some great additions such as carrier and credit card billing, as well as $0.99 and $1.99 applications. In the end, it’s best to have many different sources to download applications because you should always shop around for the best deal. Of course, we would love it if you bought from BlackBerryCool, but we also want you to save as much money as possible.
Once place you may not want to ever purchase apps is from the AT&T AppCenter. Not only is the AppCenter a poorly coded app (it’s slow, freezes and often can’t connect), but the apps tend to be much higher priced than anywhere else. Given that the apps are so expensive and the app itself is so terrible, you have to wonder why they would even bother. AT&T has agreed to an App World preload, but at the same time they’re selling the same apps in a worse environment for a higher price. The truth is probably that nobody really knows what’s going on and management hasn’t really figured out the app ecosystem yet.
AT&T Torch Preloads
The number of virtual preloads on the Torch is a little crazy. The AT&T Torch comes with the following virtual preloads:
AT&T Maps and Navigator
Personally, I found the preloads pretty weak, especially those offered by AT&T. The AT&T Music app is one of those services that is so expensive and ridiculous it’s almost offensive to see it on your device. The one preload which is nothing but awesome is obviously Slacker Radio. It would be great to see more apps like Slacker preloaded on the Torch as it would go a long way to making first app impressions positive.
Pros and Cons
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 can be summed up with the following Pros and Cons:
- The accelerometer is very responsive.
- The slider form factor is an awesome way to combine the touchscreen and keyboard.
- The touchscreen, trackpad and keyboard make for a pleasurable navigation experience.
- BlackBerry 6 does a great job of addressing the old OS frustrations.
- The new WebKit browser rocks.
- The touchscreen no longer uses SurePress!
- Keyboard is a little cramped but good nonetheless.
- Overall, does a great job of combining fun and business.
- The slider mechanism feels a little shaky and while proven for 150,000 cycles, it makes me skeptical of its long term life.
- BlackBerry 6 had a lot of noticeable lag throughout the device.
- The internal specs are simply boring.
- While the camera and video are good enough for the web, they should have at least matched the competition.
- Virtual keyboard is almost useless. Needs to be more adaptive.
Where to Buy the Torch?
The BlackBerry Torch is on sale from AT&T and there are several carriers that have announced the device who will be releasing it around the end of September. You can expect the Torch to be on sale from Rogers, Telus, Bell, Virgin and Vodafone.
Here are some places where you can pick up a new BlackBerry Torch:
AT&T’s BlackBerry Torch 9800 will be available for $99.99 (new accounts and upgrades) at Wirefly.com.
Wal-Mart is offering the device for $99 on a new service plan and a $100 LetsTalk discount.
AT&T online is offering the BlackBerry Torch for $199 on a new 2 year service plan.
The Torch’s slider form factor is much better than expected and the latest features come together nicely. The combination of a touchscreen, keyboard, BlackBerry 6 and a WebKit browser make this one of the most fun, interesting and productive devices in RIM’s product line. The downside is that it seems BlackBerry 6 isn’t 100% complete. The lag with BlackBerry 6 on the Torch is noticeable and if this is something that could be fixed with an OS update, it would make the Torch a 10/10 smartphone. If the BlackBerry 6 lag is inherent in the Torch’s hardware, RIM has made a huge mistake substituting volume discount hardware with something that would make the Torch responsiveness perfection.
Want to know anything specific about the Torch? Just ask in the comments.