The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is an important handset for RIM. New phone series, new slider form factor and the first time BlackBerry has gone head-to-head with its big rivals that use a bog-standard capacitive touchscreen, sans silly SurePress. We managed to nab a UK version of the flagship phone ahead of release for a closer inspection: find out what to expect in our BlackBerry Torch 9800 preview.
To call the BlackBerry series’ smartphone strategy occasionally conservative would be charitable. Most of the BlackBerrys we review every year are minor iterations on designs we’re already painfully familiar with. But we rarely complain, and neither do buyers, because most of the BlackBerry building blocks are rock-solid. Even the brand new BlackBerry Torch 9800 has a few fingers reaching for the past.
The slider form factor is new, but the QWERTY keyboard – a core part of any high-end BlackBerry – looks just like the one used in the classic BlackBerry Bold 9700. Under closer scrutiny, the BlackBerry Torch 9800′s keyboard is a little smaller, even though the phone itself is a little bigger. As such, it’s not quite as comfy under your fingertips, but against non-BlackBerry rivals it’s still fantastic.
The capacitive touchscreen of the BlackBerry Torch 9800 means that the physical QWERTY isn’t your only option either. That said, we’d pick it over the virtual keyboard for any extended scrawling – the touchscreen itself is highly responsive, but the keyboard isn’t as highly optimised as the iPhone’s, at least in the non-final build we tested. Plus, a 3.2-inch screen is no replacement for a lovely big 3.7-inch or 4-inch playfield when you’re typing away in portrait mode.
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Packing-in both a touchscreen and physical Qwerty has come with a price. RIM has never been at the forefront of making phones just a few microns larger than their core components, and while the BlackBerry Torch 9800 is only a millimetre or so larger than the Bold 9700 in each direction, it’s no featherweight contender. At 161g, it has clearly eaten a few more pies than celery sticks.
Similarly weighty phones include the larger 3.7-inch screened Motorola Milestone and the downright obese BlackBerry Storm phones. RIM clearly just isn’t very good at keeping the BMI of its mobiles in check, or just isn’t concerned about the race to being wafer thin: you could certainly argue it’s not as big a deal as companies like Apple make out.
Is this trade-off worth it when you could just opt for a Bold and forget the touchscreen? Typing may be more satisfying on the physical keyboard, but for day-to-day navigation of BlackBerry 6, the casual feel of a capacitive touchscreen under your digits is hard to beat. And BlackBerry 6 gives you several more reasons to, over its predecessor BlackBerry OS 5.
The main bonus of BlackBerry 6 is its new browser. The BlackBerry browser has infamously lagged behind smartphone rivals over the past couple of years. Clunky, cursor-based browsing in a world of tactile touchscreen navigation sticks out like a stick-wielding geriatric in a sixth-form gym lesson. BlackBerry 6, along with the BlackBerry Torch 9800’s capacitive touchscreen, finally – and we really mean finally – heals these wounds.
There is an easy-to-access bookmark manager and a full browser history log that sit within the menu that pops-up when you tap the menu button. This is all standard stuff in smartphone terms, but browsing on a Blackberry has finally become comfortable.
We’ll give RIM props for its implementation of tabbed browsing though. You flick through your tabs using a slick cover flow-style interface that has the luxurious smoothness we’d normally associate with Apple’s style rather than RIM’s. Multi-touch pinch zooming adds more Apple flavouring to this web-browsing pie too, which is always a welcome addition in our book.
BlackBerry 6 on the BlackBerry Torch 9800 model we tested also offers up solid social network integration – as long as you use Facebook, Myspace or Twitter rather than one of the less popular alternatives. The built-in apps are great by themselves (We’d go so far as to say that Facebook for BlackBerry was already the best mobile version of it), but what’s even better is the way the BlackBerry Torch 9800 brings together social networking updates, your IM updates, and even your RSS feeds, and lets you view them as a single stream.
This is the Social Feeds app, and there’s also a Messages app, which collates all your SMS messages and direct messages from Facebook and Twitter. The BlackBerry Torch 9800 may still drag behind some smartphone rivals in other respects, but it’s right up there at the front line of the social network integration revolution.
Another new feature of BlackBerry 6 is Universal Search. If you’re lazy it’s a great new addition, and who isn’t lazy these days? You tap on a little magnifying glass icon on the home screen to bring up a search bar, type away and the BlackBerry Torch 9800 comes up with a host of sources you can search through below. Several options, such as contacts, bookmarks and text messages are discounted on-the-fly as you type, but the staples of searching the web and YouTube always remain.
The lopping-off of options aside, Universal Search isn’t quite as clever as it culled be – you still have to perform separate searches if you want to search through your pictures and music – but it is handy. The days of heading into the browser to hunt for a video or simple search term are numbered.
But the bad? The weight of the BlackBerry Torch 9800 will soon be forgotten and you’ll get used to its bulk if your hands aren’t too tidily, but what of the rest?
The camera on the BlackBerry Torch 9800 prototype we tested disappoints, though it’s worth stressing that this could change come final software. Its five megapixels, LED flash and autofocus sound capable enough, but with “constant focus”, you have very limited control over your photos’ construction – in use it feels just like a fixed focus camera. Some of your photos will look like they’ve come from one too, as the autofocus starts honing-in on the wrong object. Where other cameras wait for you to compress the shutter button or tap the touchscreen before focusing, the BlackBerry Torch 9800 tries to focus all the time, every fraction of every second. And we don’t like it much, so we’re hoping this is dropped for release.
The screen might be considered an even more retrograde step. The now-classic BlackBerry Bold 9700′s display still looks fab, packing 172,800 pixels into a 2.44-inch screen, but the Torch uses the same number of pixels and stretches them out onto a 3.2-inch display.
We’ve seen worse screen abuses take place, but after seeing the Retina display of the iPhone 4 and the vivid AMOLED (and Super AMOLED) screens of HTC’s and Samsung’s Androids, the BlackBerry Torch 9800′s display just doesn’t cut the mustard. For a supposedly next-gen BlackBerry, it falls behind the standards upheld by BlackBerrys more than a year old, and emails, the BlackBerry’s supposed forte, are grainy on the eye.
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Finally, there’s a sense that, for all the positive social networking steps it makes, BlackBerry 6 only just scrapes towards the current state of rivals like Android and iOS. There’s very little customisation on offer, and painfully few USPs beyond BlackBerry Messenger (which still needs a proper overhaul, as it’s as ugly as sin.)
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 may be a bit of an experiment for RIM, and one that’s more successful than the Storm series with its over-thought (or perhaps under-thought) touchscreens, but The Torch’s lack of dynamism means it’s still largely good at the things BlackBerrys are usually good at, and not so good at the things that they’re not. The smartphone status quo remains, undamaged, and that could prove a little disappointing on launch.
But step away for a second and take a deep breath – if you love emailing, Twitter and Facebook more than anything else, and we know a fair few people who fit that bill, you could do a whole lot worse than a BlackBerry Torch 9800. We’ll bring you a full review come launch to see what, if anything has changed from our prototype.
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