AT&T Blackberry Torch 9800 Review

A lot of focus is now being placed on Research in Motion’s (RIM) role in the ever-growing world of smartphones and how its phones fit in. With new powerhouses Apple and Google leading the attack on the years-long stronghold RIM has enjoyed with its Blackberry phones, it appears that RIM is losing relevancy at an incredibly rapid pace. The criticism lies in the fact that while Apple and Google continue to innovate with updated software and hardware, RIM has remained rather stagnant, typically releasing new phones that feel as though they should have come out last year.

RIM knows this, and is finally starting to fight back with a brand-new OS complete with new hardware designed to feel much more like its thriving competitors. The main concern is, however, that this new push to retain relevancy in an ever-changing smartphone universe might be coming too late.

Sure, there are still millions upon millions of Blackberry users that have subscribed to the “Crackberry” mentality — one that has been likened unto an addiction by some psychologists — and will continue to use Blackberry products no matter what comes out. But the problem is that very few people shopping for a new smartphone are actually choosing Blackberry over iPhone and Android option.

So with a new flagship product in the Blackberry Torch 9800 along with a large marketing campaign (large displays covered and shrouded in secrecy, for instance), RIM aims to take back its rightful spot in market share that it has enjoyed for so long. Many in the tech industry claim that the Torch is RIM’s last-ditch effort to get back in the game; that the company is looking at the Torch to save it from disappearing off the map completely. After all, RIM execs have labeled the Torch as the best Blackberry so far. That’s certainly saying a lot.

I don’t believe the Torch is RIM’s last shot. If the Torch fails, Blackberry products are still everywhere, and they’re still beloved by millions. The issue, however, lies in the fact that if Blackberry products aren’t moving forward in innovation (and if RIM can’t be future-thinking), they’re going backward. Android, iOS, WebOS and even Windows Phone 7 are all updating at a faster rate than Blackberry is. And yes, the argument can be made that Blackberry doesn’t update as often because it’s built on a solid OS and thus doesn’t need fixing. But the masses also want the latest and greatest device with the most modern stuff, and RIM isn’t viewed as having the “latest and greatest”. So if the Torch fails, RIM needs to be ready to follow it up with an even better, more forward-thinking flagship product. It needs to progress.

The Blackberry Torch 9800 is the most forward-thinking handset that RIM has put out in quite some time. The Blackberry Storm was the last major attempt at revolutionizing its lineup, throwing in a unique touchscreen with its SurePress technology, but was not loved by everyone. So with that, we dive into a closer look at this so-called “make it or break it” device, the Torch 9800, and the new Blackberry OS 6.

Unboxing the Blackberry Torch 9800

RIM has built a solid brand in its Blackberry lineup ever since it was first created. No matter how new or old it is, it’s easy to tell a Blackberry apart from any other phone. The company prides itself in keeping a trademark look and feel for all of its devices, and the Torch is no exception. The crazy thing is that this is the first slider phone that RIM has ever made, so it doesn’t look exactly like any other Blackberry, yet just at first glance you can tell it’s made by the same company.

The Torch is presented in a small all-black box that looks like it wouldn’t be large enough to fit all of the accessories Blackberry phones usually come with. Everything is packed in very nicely; each box comes with a 3.5 mm stereo headset, charger/USB cable combo (the charger is just a wall module with USB port, which is the same style being used by most smartphones nowadays; I absolutely love this new trend), battery, 4 GB MicroSD card to complement the 4 GB internal storage, cloth to clean fingerprints off the screen, and included software CD and various quick start booklets. The only thing missing is a standard case with belt clip. I’m curious as to why, since the Bold series came with one. My theory is that it was left out to make room for the MicroSD card which did not come included with the Bold series.

Not only is everything packaged in a classy manner, the phone itself looks very classy as well. Just by looking at the exterior I can tell there was a lot of care put into designing it. But we’ll get into the design in just a moment.

Hardware of the Blackberry Torch

My main concern at first was how a slider phone would hold up, given the type of demands a Blackberry user would have for it. Obviously it has to be a large enough touchscreen to make it worth having, slid on top of a keyboard just about as large as its predecessor, the Bold 9700. But RIM has mentioned that this phone has been 3 years in the making, and I can tell that there has been a lot of preparation involved on this one.

The slide itself is incredibly solid. It doesn’t feel loose at all while sliding, and when slid open it doesn’t feel like it is just randomly going to fall apart. This is always a good sign when using a slider — not having to worry about whether or not it will run right off the slider’s tracks. One other key that shows how solid the slider mechanism really is becomes evident as I try to open the slider with one hand. Unless I grip onto the screen itself tight, it’s practically impossible to open with just one hand. The easier it is to open one-handed, the less comfortable I feel about the phone’s durability. Once the slider opens, you can hear and feel it click into place. One final note on the slider: it doesn’t feel off balance or top heavy when slid open. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The Torch utilizes a 3.2” capacitive touchscreen that does not involve Surepress. Sorry if you are a Surepress fan, but most people I’ve talked to much prefer the ease of use on a full capacitive screen instead.

Colors are black on both front and back, with chrome on the top and bottom and on the sides. The battery cover for the Torch has a very classy look in its display that I’ve been told is like a brushed aluminum. I love the look of all the lines on the back, though whether it adds to the robust nature of the phone has yet to be seen. It just looks tougher.

The keys on the phone very similar to most, if not all, of the Blackberry devices on the market: on the front, underneath the screen, we find the call button, menu button (affectionately called the “freckle button”), trackpad, go back button, and call end/power. The volume adjustment keys on the right side of the phone, right next to the convenience key (which by default is the camera, but I much prefer the voice command feature as my favorite shortcut). The left side only boasts a MicroUSB charging port, and the top part of the phone has screen lock on the left and mute on the right.

When looking at the keyboard, I find it incredibly reminiscient of the Tour and Bold 9700, both in look and feel. The buttons I think are a smidge smaller, and uses the same style where there is no separation between keys and instead opts for slightly raised edges on each individual key. On the first few uses I noticed I wasn’t quite used to the smaller size, thus causing me to smash my fingers on different keys than intended. I adjusted after a short while and got used to the keyboard well enough to make it enjoyable.

If a physical keyboard isn’t your thing, the Torch gives you access to an on-screen keyboard as well. On a 3.2” screen, the buttons aren’t very large; I definitely recommend going to landscape mode if you are doing any heavy typing and refuse to use the physical keyboard for some reason.

Other aspects of the phone’s hardware design are a mixed bag. Some are huge improvements to the Blackberry lineup (the 512 MB internal flash memory doubles that of the 9700) and remain competitive with the other big boys; some aspects are downers in that they stay the same as older devices. No progression equals a loss of significant ground to Android and iPhone.

For instance, much has been said about the Torch’s lackluster screen resolution. At 480×360, it’s not terrible. But when compared to Retina Displays and Super AMOLED screens available en masse now, the Torch’s screen doesn’t hold a candle. To me, this could be a major disadvantage of planning 3 years out; obviously in 2007 the Torch’s screen quality would have been rivaled by none other. Now, it’s just mediocre. Still lovely to look at, but there’s no “wow factor” there. And these things may seem little, but are in reality important enough differences that will likely affect the decision of many customers.

Let’s go on to Blackberry’s new OS 6.

User Interface of the Blackberry Torch

Blackberry devices have always had a reputation of being one of the most complex devices to master. I believe that if you can learn to use a Blackberry (especially OS 4 and 5), you can learn any phone on the planet. It may be a small exaggeration but the bottom line is that RIM has, up until now, been focused squarely on the business and enterprise user instead of the average consumer. The company has been quite successful with this until recently, when Apple and Google began finding ways to make phones that appeal to Joe the Plumber in terms of user experience, yet throw in all of the necessary functionality for Richard the CEO. So the point of OS 6, especially when you see the commercials and teasers for the update, is to try finding a solid middle ground where plumbers and CEOs can frolick together in perfect harmony, blending ultimate functionality with an easy UI. Can it be done?

OS 6 certainly has the same cool modern look to it as its predecessor, and is optimized to work well on a touchscreen like the Torch. Everything on it is just as customizable and much easier to access your favorite apps and settings since everything you need is on the screen in front of you.

When first turning on the screen you’ll notice the usual date/time and profile information on top, with a whole lot of nothing else underneath with the exception of a arrow at the bottom of the screen pointing up. Clicking the arrow (or sliding your finger up) reveals a full app tray. The kicker is that this app tray is actually one out of five panels you can choose from; sliding your finger left or right ala iPhone or Android style will show the other four panels. The panels are broken down to Favorites, Downloads, Media, Frequent, and All. Each panel takes up the majority of the screen real estate, but you can slide your finger downward part of the way to minimize the panels down to your top selections (Remember how every other Blackberry uses the basic screen with just the top row of apps and you have to hit the menu button for the rest of the apps to show up? Same kind of idea for this one).

Get tired of the menu button that Blackberry users have grown to rely on so heavily over the years? Try holding down your desired icon and a little pop-up menu will appear, giving you options such as move, hide, mark as favorite, switch app, and more. This makes a huge difference to me in how I personalize and access various items on the Torch.

The notification bar is located between the date/time section and the app tray, and is a large improvement over the previous method of notifications. On earlier OS versions, you could see a notification showing that you have a new message, but spend a half hour looking through all sorts of subfolders trying to find a random browser service message that you never knew you had. OS 6 eliminates this hassle by letting you click on the notification bar, and a new tray slides down underneath showing off every detail of each one and letting you access that notification directly from that screen. What kind of notifications can you see? Messages, calendar appointments approaching, Facebook and Twitter updates, and more available from other apps. I absolutely love this feature.

Blackberry has also improved its search capabilities by introducing “Universal Search”. The concept is simple enough: touch the magnifying glass on the top right, start typing in whatever you’re looking for, and you’ll find search results from anywhere in the device. For example, by typing in “Bob” you’ll find all of your contacts by that name, any web search history with the word Bob in it, music from your Bob Marley collection, your friend Bob’s Facebook account, and more.

Speaking of Facebook, OS 6 also features extra social networking opportunities by including a Social Feeds app. In it you can peruse your favorite RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, and many more types of social networking. You can also opt to use the dedicated Twitter, Facebook and MySpace apps instead. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is refreshing to see Blackberry jump on the Social bandwagon and offer it to its users.

Included on the software CD, Desktop Manager 6 is a very robust piece of syncing software and is my favorite DM so far. The interface has a very minimalistic look to it and syncing contacts, applications, organizer and media couldn’t be easier. It’s almost as though the DM team took a few notes from iTunes and other third-party software. One interesting feature I haven’t seen before on a Blackberry is syncing over WiFi; by having the DM pulled up on the computer I can use my WiFi connection to wirelessly sync over fresh music without having to plug the Torch into my computer directly. With the WiFi sync enabled, in fact, my computer’s entire music library shows up listed on my Torch with all unsynced music grayed out. It’s easy enough to click on one of the grayed-out icons and the Torch will automatically sideload it into the phone’s library for you.

Features of the Blackberry Torch

One huge feature that should not go overlooked on the Torch is its included WebKit browser. Anyone who has used a web browser on a Blackberry knows how much of a pain it truly is to navigate and surf with, and has probably become well aware of easier browsers like Opera. Browsing no longer has to be a pain in the neck because WebKit allows true HTML browsing complete with tabs and pinch-to-zoom. In fact, the Torch is actually named after the company RIM acquired in order to develop WebKit capabilities on its new devices.

Blackberry devices are well known for ease of email setup and use, and the Torch follows the tradition well. When I booted up the Torch for the very first time, I was greeted with a setup screen that gave me several choices, including email setup. I point this out as another improvement in OS 6 that replaces the old style that forces you to go through each individual setup screen before finally letting you skip ahead to using the phone.

Email also works wonderfully on the Torch using touchscreen gestures. When in an email, using a left or right sliding gesture will navigate you through all of your emails, and it’s easy to get HTML emails to show up as well.

The music player performed well. The player has a nice interface that keeps everything minimal but still manages to throw in all the necessities. For instance, the music player shows the cover art with album and track info as well as the controls on the bottom of the screen, but the cover art is displayed in a fashion very similar to Cover Flow on the iPhone. It’s easy to scroll back and forth to whatever other songs you want to play. Options available via menu button will allow for different EQ settings. Using my Skullcandy headphones I was able to get great audio quality out of the music player.

We find a camera with 5 MP resolution and VGA video recording abilities. One thing I enjoyed on the Torch was the included LED flash. I think the flash should be included on every handset that offers a higher-end camera, even though I don’t use it a whole lot. It’s difficult to use in darker areas just because every picture turns out over-exposed, but typically it looks great in medium to low light situations instead. Video VGA recording is rather disappointing when you consider all of the newest powerhouse phones are equipped with 720p HD video recording. Still, the video recording is decent at 23-24 fps and is one of the best for Blackberry devices, but not for the competition.

I like the newly included Podcast app in the media section. I found it to be easier to use than the native iTunes app located on the iPhone, because it was simpler UI and I could find most podcasts that I normally subscribe to on a normal basis. I enjoyed how pleasant it was to download the latest podcasts that I have subscribed to.

The address book and calendars can be synced wirelessly through Google Sync if preferred, though you can take advantage of AT&T’s new Address Book service which allows you to back up your address book into AT&T’s servers and have it available to you if you begin using a different phone. Fortunately you have several methods at your disposal, as you can use these options on top of the typical Exchange or Enterprise accounts.

App World has been updated to 2.0, which has several improvements. The major difference between the two  is the opportunity to set up new Blackberry login codes, much like iTunes accounts; but instead of being restricted to PayPal payments only, credit cards are now accepted when downloading a paid app. It also throws in a top 25 section, showing off the most popular paid and free apps in the App World currently. Not finding what you need in App World still? It’s easy to download third-party apps through special websites or other related means. Don’t ask me why this can’t be done with Android phones on AT&T, but Blackberry phones can use third-party apps anytime.

Performance of the Blackberry Torch
As Blackberry devices are planned out years in advance, it’s no surprise that we still haven’t seen one crack the 1 GHz CPU barrier yet. The Torch, with as top-of-the-line that it is, still runs a 624 MHz processor. This doesn’t mean it’s slow. Far from it, in fact; I would argue that RIM’s excellent memory management definitely helps keep the Torch speedier than most smartphones packing the same processor. The CPU worked plenty fast for me, quickly and easily getting me into all the apps and using all the gestures I would need.

Battery life is a well-known strength of the Blackberry lineup, and continues to delight us with the 1,300 mAh battery in the Torch. Heavy users will notice the battery lasting most of the day, even with constant emailing, texting, calling and using the phone for other various activities such as Facebook or Twitter. Light users? Definitely two full days of use. It’s better than most Android phones out there, and outlasts the iPhone 4.

The signal was great on the Torch, as it’s also another Blackberry advantage (notice a trend here? Turns out the Blackberry is great for performance, overall). I didn’t drop any calls, I consistently noticed it getting 1-2 bars better service than my iPhone 3GS, and sound quality was above average. I do wish the speakerphone was louder, however.

My Final Thoughts on the Blackberry Torch

I had a very enjoyable experience on the Blackberry Torch 9800, especially in comparison to most of the device’s predecessors. I think RIM did a great job putting together a solid phone with decent components and a fresh OS that seems to make a large difference in the user experience.

It doesn’t have the best components or specs compared to the other powerful smartphones coming out this Summer. It’s hard for Blackberry to compete with the HTC Incredible or Samsung Galaxy S series or any of the other juggernauts we’ve seen this year because it’s not releasing the Torch with the state-of-the-art specs as we would all hope for. But let’s get something straight: RIM knows darn well how to make a good smartphone that performs great.

If you are looking for a fresh new smartphone with full physical keyboard, I fully recommend the Torch. The real competition there is in the Palm Pre Plus, but the Torch outshines the Pre Plus in overall performance and has a much nicer keyboard to use as well. For a touchscreen, though, it’s not any different than any other smartphone on the planet.

The Torch will mostly draw loyal Blackberry customers that won’t turn to anywhere else, and perhaps a small few will consider the Torch over the other powerhouse phones. It’s not going to turn heads or immediately put Blackberry back on top, but it’s a huge step in the right direction, one that can only be followed up with another, more powerful step. And if RIM keeps going at this pace, it may find itself back in the race for market share. The Torch alone won’t do it, but it’s a start.

Get BlackBerry Torch 9800 Phone (AT&T) from Amazon for FREE

Author: Brad Molen

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