Phone and Data
It's ironic that years ago BlackBerries made such poor phones that folks carried a BlackBerry for messaging and a feature phone for calls. These days BlackBerry smartphones tend to be much more phone-centric than competing smartphones running iOS, Android and even webOS. The dedicated call send and end keys, smart dialing, easy conference calling, a solid speakerphone, speed dial and voice dialing all conspire together to yield a wonderful calling experience. And as tends to be the case with high end GSM BlackBerry models, reception and call clarity are top notch. If you do a lot of calling, the BlackBerry 9800 beats the pants off of the iPhone 4 and Samsung Captivate. Reception is strong with the Torch getting significantly more signal (as measured in -db rather than bars). In the same locations, the Torch typically got a -20 db stronger signal than my Captivate and iPhone 3GS, and that's a big difference in reception. Call quality was extremely clear on both ends, and call recipients commented on how good I sounded, though my voice lost some clarity when the DSP kicked in when calling from noisy environments like big box store.
The usual BlackBerry push email experience is alive and well, with support for HTML email. Unlike the iPhone and Android phones, rich text email messages with attached pictures don't automatically load the image, you must select it for download. Bummer, but we assume RIM does this for security to avoid malware attachments and tracking by spammers. The Torch worked very well with Gmail and using the Google Sync plugin for BlackBerry, I had no trouble keeping contacts and calendar entries in sync. The Torch can also sync with Outlook on the desktop using the new BlackBerry 6 desktop software (the app can even sync music over WiFi). The phone works with POP3 and IMAP email, BIS (BlackBerry email service that's hosted by your carrier) and BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server hosted by your company). The phone will not sync Exchange calendar and contacts items using Exchange ActiveSync, you'll need BES (if your company uses it) or you'll have to sync using the desktop software.
BlackBerry OS 6.0 and Performance
The Torch runs on a 624MHz XScale CPU that doesn't look good on paper compared to the top smartphones on the market with their 1GHz CPUs and graphics acceleration in some cases. A streamlined OS doesn't necessarily need a top dog CPU (that's Apple's argument for their computer line vs. Windows machines), but OS 6 does a lot and the Torch sometimes slows down for a second or two to think. As we mentioned, photo zooming 1 meg JPEG files could be faster as could pinch zooming in the browser. The Torch isn't a slow phone, it's just not as chronically peppy as the iPhone 4 and Samsung Captivate. We hope RIM ups the CPU speed in their next flagship model, if battery life can be preserved. The Torch 9800 has 512 megs of RAM (no complaints there and we didn't run into low memory issues) and 4 gigs of internal storage complimented by a 4 gig microSD card slot that's pre-installed (the slot is under the back cover near the SIM card slot and is hot swappable).
The OS improvements are many, though most of them deal with the user interface. RIM has done a fantastic job of revamping the UI into something that's thoroughly modern, enjoyable and efficient. It's extremely consistent (much more so than Android), yet it has more options than iOS. You can tap and hold to bring up additional functions, use the mouse cursor via the d-pad to select text for copy/paste as with Berries of old, count on the BlackBerry menu key to bring up a list of all possible functions in an application and switch between multi-tasking applications by holding down the menu key for a few seconds. The home screen offers quick and timely access to Twitter, Facebook, email, BBM, calendar items, podcasts and RSS feeds. Universal search is awesome, thorough and fast. It did a better job than our Droid X and Captivate at finding every local instance of a search term nearly instantly (admittedly, Google's search focuses more on Google web searches). Watch our video review to see the new UI and features in action.
The app story isn't nearly so rosy. RIM has yet to counter the iTunes store and the Android Market in terms of available applications. BlackBerry App World is easy enough to use, but with under 10,000 apps, and with apps sometimes being more expensive compared to those on the competing platforms, this is no software junky's phone. As a consolation, the most popular apps are available on all platforms, including BlackBerry. If you want Flixster, The Weather Channel, AP News, Kindle and Google Maps, they're available. AT&T has put their own app store on the phone, but while there are a few decent apps, many are generic Java games and the like.
Speaking of AT&T, their usual bloatware is here along with the good stuff like AT&T Navigator. Mobile Banking, Where, Yellow Pages Mobile, AT&T Maps and other assorted junk are on board, though at least the BlackBerry OS lets you hide icons for unwanted applications.
Camera and GPS
The BlackBerry Torch has a 5 megapixel camera with autofocus lens and a bright LED flash that can illuminate subjects in a dark room. It takes sharp photos with good color saturation. Still photos are on par with the 5 megapixel Captivate, and lag behind the iPhone 4 only for bright sunlight shots where the Torch is prone to modest whiteout. The camera focuses quickly: simply press the side convenience key half way to focus, then all the way to take a shot in single shot focus mode. We suggest you change the default continuous auto-focus to single shot focus for sharper shots. There are plenty of photo options and the photo viewer is quite capable. The phone can shoot VGA video at 24-30fps. Video looks quite good, but in terms of specs, it's not as impressive as the HD capture available on other high end smartphones. That said, quality counts more than pixel quantity and the 9800 takes sharp video. There's an option to direct upload videos to YouTube as well.
The 9800 has a built in GPS and it ships with AT&T Navigator (powered by TeleNav) and the less useful AT&T Maps. Navigator provides spoken turn-by-turn directions, POIs, traffic information and more. It's a solid application that provides reliable directions and it costs $10/month (you can add and remove it from your account at any time). AT&T Maps does not provide spoken navigation but it's free. Honestly, Google Maps is better if you're looking for a free solution. The GPS had no problem getting and maintaining a fix in our tests, and the speakerphone, though not as stellar as the Bold 9000's, was loud and clear enough for in-car directions.
The BlackBerry Torch has a 1270 mAh Lithium Ion battery that's user replaceable. RIM places great importance on battery life, and we assume that's the reason they didn't go with an even faster CPU on the Torch. We found that the Torch had no problem lasting through the day with heavy use, and it managed two days with light use. If you use the GPS for long road trips, expect shorter runtimes. While the Torch doesn't last as long as the Bold 9700, it does outlast the Captivate, EVO and Storm 2.
The BlackBerry Torch is undeniably the best BlackBerry yet. RIM has managed to keep it familiar, yet fresh, to paraphrase their CEO. That should be good enough to hold onto existing BlackBerry users (and there are a lot of you), but we doubt they'll steal many iPhone and Android customers. The philosophy and features simply don't align: the iPhone and Android are fun phones first, and are still undeniably more entertaining and consumer oriented than the Torch. If you want a large touch screen, lots of downloadable apps and games and are less concerned with calling features, push email and security, then we doubt the Torch will win you over. If you want a capable smartphone with a touchscreen, modern webkit browser, a hardware keyboard and excellent calling, messaging and notification features, the Torch beckons. It's good to have choices, and we're glad to see RIM offer an updated and more competitive product.
Price: $199 with a 2 year contract, $499 without contract extension.
Websites: www.blackberry.com, wireless.att.com
Above: the Bold 9650 and the BlackBerry 9800.
The Torch has a large and easy to use on-screen dialer with shortcuts to call history and contacts.