The first thing you'll notice about the Torch, obviously, is that it looks very much like the current crop of BlackBerry
devices. Besides that fact that yes, it slides open, you're basically dealing with the same industrial design that we've come to know from RIM over the past two years or so. Sure, there are variations on a theme, but side-by-side with the Bold 9700, it's obvious to see where Torch got its looks from.
The size and shape of the device is nearly identical to the 9700, and in fact, its dimensions (4.4-inches up and down by 2.4-inches across when closed) are within spitting distance of the simpler, portrait QWERTY model. The thickness differs by a tiny margin (the Torch is 0.57-inches thick, while the Bold is 0.56-inches), though for some reason it feels much more significant when holding the two in your hand. Compared to more streamlined devices like the Captivate or iPhone 4... well, it has a full keyboard, okay? The Torch keeps the familiar, metal-like (it's plastic) bezel around the edges of the phone, looping around back just as with the Bold, though this time it's split in two pieces due to the separate screen and keyboard portions of the phone. The front of the device is mostly taken up by the Torch's 3.2-inch capacitive touchscreen (480 x 360, just like the Storm and Storm2), though you'll find the familiar BlackBerry call, menu, back, and end buttons and optical trackpad just below the display. Along the right side of the phone is a 3.5mm headphone jack, volume rockers, and user-assignable convenience key (it defaults to the camera), while the left side houses only the Micro USB jack. Up top there are mute and lock buttons, while the phone's 5 megapixel camera and LED flash sit in a familiar spot along the back of the phone.
As you should know by now, the screen slides up on a nearly invisible metal track to reveal a rather traditional BlackBerry QWERTY down below. The sliding action feels quite solid, though it's got some resistance, and we did have trouble quickly popping it open with our thumb once in awhile. The width of the keyboard is about the same as the Bold 9700, but slightly narrower, and the keys are more depressed than previous devices in RIM's arsenal. Still, using the QWERTY was completely natural and our confidence while typing was nearly as high as it is when using the 9700. Nothing really compares to the spacious keyboard of the original Bold, but for a device packing a larger touchscreen, there's little compromise. It blows the Pre's keyboard out of the water, for sure.
In all, we were impressed with the technical aspects of RIM's design here -- the company certainly built a solid, capable device from a hardware perspective. Still, one can't help but feel that the look of the Torch is woefully dated in comparison to some of the newer phones previously mentioned in this review. Next to the current crop of touchscreen-only devices (and even in comparison to the company's 9700), it looks old and bloated, strongly reminiscent of something like the iPAQ 110 -- and that's not a good thing. There's nothing daring or lust-worthy about this design. When we first spied images of the Torch, the rumor was that the model we were seeing was an older prototype that had been discarded, and we kind of wish that had been true. From a design standpoint, it's not enough to just iterate in the smartphone market -- you've got to ignite a buyer's desire to own something on a visceral level, and the Torch misses the mark by a long shot.
The GSM device is launching on AT&T's 3G network (UMTS 2100 / 1900 / 850 / 800 MHz), though we would expect to see the handset eventually roll out to other carriers in one form or another.
As we said, the Torch sports a 480 x 360 capacitive display, which is adequate for the device but already a generation behind the competition in terms of resolution and pixel density. In fact, almost every smartphone we've reviewed this year -- save for a few low-end models -- sport a higher res display than the Torch. We're unclear as to why RIM didn't bring the screen up to at least 480 x 800, but we suspect it has something to do with backwards compatibility with apps. Compared to other displays, text looked blocky, and images didn't have the clarity we would have expected from a smartphone in 2010. Touch sensitivity wasn't outstanding on our review unit, making for a real lack of confidence when it came to finger tracking. We feel like there's polishing to be done on the software side that would greatly improve the experience, particularly when attempting more precise pinch-to-zoom and swipe gestures (more on that in a moment). Oh, and SurePress? Nowhere to be found on the Torch.
Inside, the phone packs 512MB of RAM (doubling that of the Bold 9700 but the same as the 9650) and 4GB of hardwired storage, with a microSD slot for additional storage up to 32GB (you get a 4GB card in the box). As you would expect, there's 802.11b/g/n WiFi on board along with Bluetooth 2.1 support, as well as an AGPS chip for when you get lost. Disappointingly, RIM is still using the same Marvell CPU found in the 9700, clocked at 624MHz (though the company claims this is a newer generation chip). In our testing, performance was sluggish in some areas, and we can't help but wonder if it was a fault of the software or the slower processor speed. Not to harp on this, but with competition like the Nexus One and Droid X, it seems logical that RIM would put a little more horsepower into these phones.
The Torch has a 5 megapixel camera along with an LED flash, which is certainly a contemporary arrangement. There's nothing particularly notable about the lens itself from what we could discern, though it's clear that RIM has put a lot of time and energy into making the photo-taking experience on the Torch a more seamless experience than on its previous phones. It's certainly easier to pick from a variety of preset modes, like portrait or sports, though we found the default setting to be fairly bad at capturing steady looking shots. For some reason, the camera was set to shoot in "continuous" mode, when single-shot provided much better results. As far as the photo quality goes, the device does an excellent job of capturing images -- particularly close-ups, though colors and black details looked a bit washed out to our eyes (you can see a selection of shots in the gallery below).
On the video front, the camera can shoot up to 640 x 480 resolution clips, still not competitive with most top-tier smartphones hitting the market right now (720p at 30 FPS is quickly becoming the standard). Again, here's a spot where we can't help but think that a faster CPU might have allowed RIM to take it up a notch -- instead the company is just treading water with its offerings.
The updated pictures app on the phone makes it easier to organize your collections, though we were a little bothered by the time it takes to render zoomed-in views of shots taken. One nice addition is pinch-to-zoom in the gallery viewer, since RIM is keeping up with the Joneses.
Call quality and speakerphone
Calls on the Torch were crisp and clear, and as with previous BlackBerry devices, getting into and out of calls was a breeze. We also found the speakerphone quality to be reasonably high, though the midrange of the audio felt a bit shrill at high volumes. Overall, making and receiving calls on the phone was a pain-free and most importantly fast
As far as antenna concerns go, we didn't notice any outstanding issues with signal loss or an unusual amount of dropped calls. We suspect that we're in particularly good range of a cell tower, but our guess is that most users' experiences with the phone will be similar. We don't see an Antennagate cropping up for RIM.
Of course, the real story with the Torch is not the hardware. Rather, it's RIM's next play in the OS department -- BlackBerry 6. While it's not the radical departure some were hoping for, the revamped operating system takes some extreme steps to deal with issues that have plagued BlackBerry phones for quite awhile. In particular, the company has canned its awful web browsing experience in exchange for a new Webkit-based browser, and Webkit also serves as the new underlying framework for email on the phone, as well as a new class of applications coded using web standards (sound familiar?). Additionally, RIM has gone to great lengths in 6 to reduce the "menus within menus" experience of the previous operating system and has included a powerful universal search alongside a social networking tool which allows you to aggregate RSS feeds and services like Twitter or Facebook into a single view. There are a lot of changes, so we're going to go step-by-step through what we consider the biggest changes for the BlackBerry platform.
Look and feel
Overall, if you're a BlackBerry user coming off of a OS 5 device, you won't feel totally freaked out when you see the homescreen on 6, though there are some notable differences. RIM has cleaned up and smoothed out a lot of the iconography and text in the UI, making the whole OS feel much more cohesive and consistent. Graphically, BlackBerry 6 occupies the same space as OS 5, though it feels softer, more polished, and a bit more upscale. Nearly every part of the interface has been altered in some way, though the most notable changes are present in the homescreen.
In the previous version of the BlackBerry OS, you had two basic views, the first being a screen with your favorite (or top) apps, time, date, and message alerts, and quick access to sound profile settings. The second screen was basically your entire collection of apps and folders with little information otherwise (think: the iPhone homescreen). RIM has now joined these two views together by stealing a move from Android's playbook: a window that slides up from the bottom of the display showing your apps. You can notch this window into place to show everything (four rows), or any variation between all and nothing. We kept ours at the standard view of four apps at a time (one row), though it's easy to toggle between sizes. Not only can you bring this window up onto your homescreen and scroll vertically through it, but you can also swipe side to side for different groupings of apps, like "favorites" or "media." You can also swipe on the top bar of this window when its reduced to move through groups of apps. RIM has also added a persistent notification alert to this screen via a small row of icons at the top of the page. This allows you to see social networking, email, SMS, call, and calendar alerts all in one place. Like Android, this drops down a separate window showing your most recent activity, and each notification can be clicked on to transport you to the app.
Everything on the homescreen seems designed to help you get to your most used functions quickly, which is wonderful. Tapping on the time brings up your network connection manager and alarm settings, tapping on the profiles icon lets you choose your sound setup, and hitting the search icon naturally brings up your search window (more on that in a second). It all works really well, and we feel like RIM has made the right amount of compromises here to make getting around the OS cleaner and easier. Of course, there are still lots of ways to do things in BlackBerry 6, so sometimes moving from place to place can get a little confusing. You have the choice of using the touchscreen, trackpad, or search for finding items, and in addition to the standard menu key to bring up contextual menus, long-pressing on items all over the OS reveals a separate context menu with many (though not all) of the menu key items. Just as with Windows Phone 7
, the long press is a kind of mystery meat in this user experience -- it does what you'd expect it to do, but there's a weird overlap with the menu key, and it's inconsistent throughout. We're guessing this has a lot to do with the fact that RIM is planning to update its older, non-touchscreen devices with the new OS -- while not necessarily a bad thing, it does create sometimes-chaotic interaction.
Menus and messaging apps have all been given the once over as well, and there's now Storm-like inertial scrolling in lists. RIM has also altered the manner in which you adjust settings on the phone, giving you a more graphic-heavy menu to navigate preferences, which is a huge improvement over the lists seen in the last version of the operating system. While most applications will look familiar to BlackBerry users, there seems to be less clutter (we'll look closer at specific apps below). One of the nice touches we liked in the OS is a method of selecting text by tapping at the beginning and end of the section you want with two fingers -- a really smart and useful idea.
If you're a Bold fan, then you're probably used to a pretty snappy UI... but you're also probably used to seeing some freezes and ticking clocks. That doesn't change with the Torch. As we said previously, the phone is running atop a fairly slow CPU (given the current climate) and RIM seems to be throwing a lot more at it -- in terms of functionality and graphics -- than in previous phones. The result is a mixed bag: sometimes you feel like you're blazing through the device, while other times you're presented with an aggravating freeze. What makes it worse is that you'll get the clock in some scenarios and not in others, so you may be frantically tapping on the screen while the phone's display is totally static. In most modern smartphones, this is not a common experience. In fact, on almost every new Android device we've reviewed and certainly the iPhone 4, we never ran into issues where the device simply stalls out. It feels like the Torch is already butting up against the limits of its abilities, and nothing genuinely CPU intensive seems to be going on. It's not like the phone is running 3D games in the background, that's for sure.
One of the biggest -- and probably the best -- new feature in BlackBerry 6 is the universal search function. Basically, you're able to find just about any piece of content on the phone simply by beginning to type the name into the device. That goes for apps, music, contacts, notes, emails... hell, it's just about everything. You can set preferences for what you do and don't want to search, but it's fast and simple enough that we didn't feel the need to kill any categories. Since the Torch offers lots and lots of ways to get somewhere, this seriously simplifies things -- think Spotlight on a Mac, but on your phone and way faster. It's actually the best search we've seen on any mobile device; it really delivers on the "everything at your fingertips" promise. In terms of new features that work the way they're advertised on the box, RIM's universal search is one of the few.
Mail, messaging, and social networking
Research In Motion trades primarily on the strength of its BlackBerry email and messaging services, so you would expect a reasonably good experience here -- and if you're plugged into the RIM way of doing things, your experience will be better than ever before, most likely. The problem comes if you're not
plugged into the RIM way of doing things. Then, you've got a problem.
Let's look at mail first. Now, we're primarily Gmail users, which means we're not syncing this phone with a corporate mail account humming along on RIM's servers. It also means that we're in luck because the BlackBerry platform is pretty much the only place outside of Android that you can get a reasonably good Gmail experience. Archiving, threaded conversations, labels, starring, spam management -- it's all present in a built-in plugin made specifically for Gmail. Getting started is easy, as it only requires your standard Gmail login. You're then given an option to sync your contacts (it will sync your mail calendar whether you like it or not). So far so good. Once your email is setup, it's pushed to the phone instantly, and changes you make on the phone (creating labels, archiving, labeling, etc.) are pushed back to Google's servers almost immediately. Unfortunately, there's one piece of this puzzle missing, and it's a doozy: when you make changes directly in your Gmail account (in a browser), the changes take ages to get pushed back to the phone. In fact, sometimes the changes never seem to make it back to the phone. So if you just triaged your inbox on your computer, your phone will still make it look like you've got an inbox full of unread messages -- and they are
unread on the phone. There seems to be a fundamental breakdown in this stage of Gmail for RIM devices, and it makes dealing with Gmail accounts on the phone a royal pain. Now, that may not bother a lot of users, but if RIM wants to attract the everyman to this phone -- the person who actually uses Gmail
-- it's going to have to do a little better than this.
On that note, what's also confusing about RIM's handling of mail is that you've got two inboxes -- your dedicated Gmail (or whatever service you use) inbox, and then your "messages" folder, which actually seems to catch more mail. That's all well and good, but none of the Gmail features are present in this inbox (not even threaded messaging). That would be fine if you could ignore this messaging folder and just manage your mail in your proper inbox, but RIM forces you into this inbox because it's the place those handy homescreen notifications take you if you click on them. Does this actually make sense to anyone in the world? Why does RIM give users two different inboxes with two sets of functionality to handle the same messages? The issue is further compounded by using searches within the Gmail inbox -- this also presents another, slightly skewed set of options. For instance, when you search for a string, you can archive a set of those messages. You have to back out to the main inbox and go one by one. It is a deeply confusing and unnecessary system for handling email (Gmail, at least), and we really would like to see the company clear up these obvious problems.
Hey, we get it, BlackBerry users love this unified messaging inbox where they see all their SMS, MMS, BBM, and email mashed up into one place. But not everyone wants to handle their communication like that, and RIM doesn't really give you a choice. It's like the company threw off the Gmail integration as a lark, and just kind of tolerates the idea that a customer would want to have a separate inbox. You can set options to exclude your messages from showing up here, but then you lose out on that new quick jump to your email from the notification bar. In a perfect world, you would get the option to choose where that jump takes you for what messages -- or perhaps have an option that says "always default to X mailbox." Just a thought.
Yes, we're griping, but the mail experience still has lots and lots of great features that make for a solid experience, despite our woes. For starters, the viewer now utilizes Webkit for messages, so your emails should turn up looking much better than they have in previous version of the BlackBerry OS. Furthermore, the search in mail is excellent, displaying results almost as fast as we could type them. And let's not forget that you're dealing with the folks that practically invented push email, so if you're impatient (at least about incoming
mail), this will be music to your ears.
And that brings us to the new social networking features of OS 6 -- namely, a new application called Social Feeds that combines all of your Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging (AIM, Yahoo!, and Gtalk), and RSS feeds in one handy place. The problem here is that, just like in other places on the phone, you feel like you're being handed too many options to deal with the same content. For instance, a dedicated Twitter app is still loaded onto the device which ties into your messaging inbox, so you end up looking at Twitter messages in two separate places (oh wait... three separate places). The same is true for Facebook. And what's really galling is that you can't even use proper application functions in Social Feeds -- if you want to respond to someone on Twitter, you have to view the message in the Twitter app. It's like RIM had an idea to combine every single service into one big silo, got cold feet, and gave us a half-step instead. We're not necessarily saying that we would have liked to see everything in one bucket, but between dedicated inboxes, the combined messaging view, plus standalone Twitter, Facebook, AIM, and Social Feeds apps, the landscape for communication on the Torch (and OS 6) is fraught with mixed... um, messages. What should have been distilled into a deeply threaded function of the new UI is now just a messy jumble of seemingly random ideas about how people communicate.
Let's be blunt -- the BlackBerry browser up until this point has been the biggest pain point in RIM's universe. No matter what good you could say about previous devices, there would always come a point when you had to talk about how abysmally bad the browser was. We're not going to spend much time here rehashing the past, but let's just say that RIM's browser was so bad that they had to buy a new company to fix the issue. It should come as no surprise that this new phone bares the name of that company -- that's how big of a deal it is.
So, BlackBerry 6 got itself a bonafide Webkit-based browser, but does it fix the problems? In a word: yes. For the most part, the browser on the Torch is leaps and bounds beyond anything that RIM has put in a phone before. If you're used to the experience of using a Pre, iPhone, or Android device, you'll feel right at home. Web pages display correctly and reasonably quickly, and all the standard accouterments are here, including pinch-to-zoom, tabbed browsing, and text reflowing. Basically, it's a pretty good mobile browser with some extra features that we really like (such as an actual cursor, which allows you to navigate sites the way god intended). But there are problems too, the main one being that it doesn't seem like the Torch's guts have the goods to pull off a seamless browsing experience, so when you're zooming in and out and panning around you get a lot of freezes while loading, artifacted content that takes ages to render, and generally choppy behavior (as you can see in the video below). There's also no support here for Flash or HTML5 video, so you're limited to YouTube if you want to watch video on the go.
It's an uneven experience, overall -- we're certainly happy to see RIM embracing Webkit, but we just wish the phone had the horsepower to deliver a really killer experience. We don't know if its memory constraints (less likely), RIM's method of bottlenecking data through its servers (somewhat likely), or the speed and power of the CPU (much more likely), but the browser doesn't feel as competitive as it should with other phones in this class and price range.
Media player / WiFi syncing
The media sections of the OS have been significantly revamped along with the rest of the apps here, so it should come as no surprise that they seem more polished and capable than previous versions. In particular, we like the new Cover Flow-esque browsing options, though for day-to-day listening we found the standard list view of artists and tracks a little more useful. We had little trouble getting music on and off the device, though we ran into a couple of problems with file format issues when syncing, and for video playback, the device scoffed at some MP4 files we'd loaded up.
As you may have heard, the newest version of BlackBerry Desktop allows WiFi syncing with your phone, meaning you're able to wirelessly transmit music from your PC to your phone (Windows-only right now). In our testing we had mixed results. Some songs we couldn't get to show up at all in our sync list, while others didn't pass the litmus test for file format compatibility (word to the wise, if you're a Zune user, be prepared to leave your WMV files behind). The concept is obviously great, but the execution needs a little work here -- it's far more confusing and inconsistent than we would have liked.
App compatibility / App performance
This may come as a shock to some users, but you can expect your favorite apps to not
work with the Torch out of the box. RIM's new OS doesn't seem to permit much in the way of backwards compatibility, so we found ourselves high and dry for a few must-have applications (in particular, the entire suite of Google apps... and their web counterparts don't recognize the browser properly, either). We had quite a few issues with apps not working (or not working properly) on the new platform, and even though RIM has improved the App World experience, there's no differentiation in the store to tell you if what you're about to buy will function with the device. This may just be a review-period-only situation, but it was frustrating to be unable to run a lot of software we actually wanted to use on the phone.
Beyond that, the apps we did run seemed fine, but we do have to once again take issue with the performance of this phone as it relates to the rest of the smartphone market. For instance, the Torch comes preloaded with a number of pieces of bloatware and a handful of games, one of which is Sonic the Hedgehog
. Now, the game this port is based on is about 20 years old, and even our Treo 650 could run an emulator that played a pixel perfect version of the title (an arcade side-scroller). On the Torch, however, the experience is abysmal. Slowdowns, garbled audio, horrible controls. It's actually kind of sad. Now compare that to the kind of fully developed 3D gaming we see on the iPhone, Palm Pre, and even Android, and it's more than a little disheartening. It's 2010 -- if these are "super apps" (Mike Lazaridis' words), we're expecting a lot more than this. We know gaming might not be a focus of most users' needs, but they're a great indicator of how flexible and powerful a platform is, and what we've seen doesn't look promising. Coupled with the fact that RIM told us in a meeting that there would be no 3D APIs and no OpenGL 2.0 support for BlackBerry 6, we're not feeling psyched.
One ray of light here is that RIM is now pushing web standards-based apps (think: webOS) as a viable option for developers, and the new SDK will allow for deeper hooks into the OS (like use of notifications). That could breathe some new life into the platform, and performance should be consistent, though as we've seen with Apple's web apps and webOS, this isn't necessarily a strategy for market domination.
As with every BlackBerry we've used, the battery life on the Torch seemed exceptional to us. In comparison to most other phones we've tested recently, RIM's offering sits at the top of the heap in terms of longevity. There were actually a few days we tested without charging overnight, and when we awoke we were surprised to find that the battery indicator had barely moved -- even with lots of emails and messages coming down while we were sleeping. It's obvious that the company has put a lot of effort into making sure that the Torch sips rather than gulps battery life, and they certainly seem to have succeeded. If you're on the move a lot or a heavy user, you won't be disappointed -- and let's not forget that you can always get a second battery or larger third-party battery if you've really got to go the distance.
It's tough to feel really excited about the BlackBerry Torch and OS 6 after heavy testing. We had high hopes coming into this review that the new operating system would be more than a fresh coat of paint on an aging user experience -- that we were going to see substantial changes in the attitude and direction of the company. While there are notable improvements here and much that is laudable, what we're ultimately left with is, at its core, more of the same. For all the improvements in the browser, the more upscale fit-and-finish of the UI, and the thoughtful changes in basic functionality, we still feel like this device is a generation behind the market. Instead of meeting the rising stars of the smartphone world (Apple and Google) head-on, RIM has taken something more like baby steps toward innovation. The company seems convinced that it's got a better idea about what its customers want and how a smartphone should act in 2010, but we can't say we agree. The Torch seems sluggish, underpowered, and dated from a hardware design standpoint, and BlackBerry 6, despite its new features and polish, still feels woefully behind the curve. To call the Torch the "best BlackBerry ever" wouldn't be an understatement, but unfortunately for RIM and the faithful, their best isn't nearly good enough.