Presenting a review of the BlackBerry Torch 9800 for AT&T
When you think of BlackBerry the first thought that comes to your mind is either email or full qwerty keyboard. The last thing that users think about is touch screen and user interface. For years BlackBerry has been known for their stellar solutions that provide seamless push service like email, web , contacts, and calendar all in a small productive device. Each year new devices come out typically with minor enhancements to adjust from any user complaints from the previous models. Very rarely do we see an entirely new form factor from the Canadian company Research In Motion. The latest change that was arguably a success was the BlackBerry Storm which boasted a new technology named surepress, allowing users to feel the screen click as they pressed on the user interface elements. The Storm may be popular by volume but it wasn’t the game changing device that BlackBerry wanted it to be.
RIM went back to the drawing board and came up with what is now known as the BlackBerry Torch 9800. The Torch, as I will call it from here on out, has a unique form factor in that it contains both a large capacitive touch screen as well as a full slide out qwerty keyboard. The screen measuring in a 3.2″ has a resolution of HVGA 480×360, providing light-sensing as well as proximity-detection to handle those embarrassing face dials that would occur without the feature present. The screen provides a bright and vivid image which allows for easy viewing inside or out in the sunlight. On the back of the phone the first thing you will notice is the 5MP camera along with an accompanying flash. Aside from a newly introduced form factor for BlackBerry the biggest difference on the Torch is the introduction of the new operating system BlackBerry OS 6. RIM claims that the new operating system boast better media capabilities, an all new finger friendly interface, faster web browsing, and an overall better experience than previous versions. Let’s put these claims to test as we review the Torch ourselves.
The OS Experience
The hardware can wait what we all want to know is will BlackBerry OS 6 live up the claims of being a better, faster, more user friendly operating system. To do this we are going to go over some key differences on the platform. First up being the navigation and menu structure. On previous BlackBerry devices you had one row of home screen shortcuts and a hardware menu button that takes you into a menu with your applications displayed as icons. With OS 6 the entire navigation has changed. You now have a navigation bar at the bottom that allows you to display one row of 5 shortcuts, two rows of 10 shortcuts, or fill the entire screen with a easy to use touch scrolling panel. All of this can be achieved without touching a single hardware button. You simple need to slide the menu with your finger to the desired position. Alone this is nice but nothing to write home about, good thing BlackBerry thought about this too. Included in this same menu is the ability to slide your finger across the top of the menu title to move between your favorites, media , downloads, frequent, and all applications. Using this new system was fluid and worked well. Over time you learn to appreciate the benefit of having different types of menus which allow you to get the most out of your device.
In the middle of the review process a firmware update came out promising to address some of the performance issues that many had been talking about. Prior to the update launching applications wasn’t as quick as you would expect from a fresh OS but the update addressed these issues nicely. Launching some of our favorite applications such as Poynt, Browser, Yelp , and of course email were all performing close to same speed as we were accustomed to on OS 5.x. It should be pointed out that OS 5.x still seems a bit quicker in some areas but overall the performance is on par now between the two.
Email, email, email – it is the king of communication and BlackBerry is known for its fantastic push based email services. With OS 6 comes several changes to the email interface which allow it to be much more touch friendly. At the bottom of each message you have a touch menu that allows you to bring up the on-screen keyboard, reply, forward, reply to all, or delete. This same menu can be found at the bottom of the messages application with a few adjustments. In the messaging application you have compose, search, reply, forward, and delete. Those of use that are used to using keyboard shortcuts may find this a bit slower but for newcomers to the platform the added usability improvements make using messaging of all types much easier.
Due to the new webkit engine being used for the browser email messages can now be displayed in their full HTML glory on the Torch. The rather annoying “get images” security feature is still in place which prevents images from loading by default but BlackBerry, being a secure platform, has to uphold their reputation. Messages look better but the great email experience hasn’t changed. If you are already a BlackBerry fan than this is just an added bonus. If you are new to the platform you won’t feel like an outcast for having horribly rendered email anymore. Like most BlackBerry integrated applications there are several options that you can adjust to make the experience your own.
Multitasking on the Torch was efficient and worked very well. The 512MB of RAM never seemed to run out as I switched between several open applications. Prior to the firmware update I noticed some slow downs when moving between applications but after things were running smoothly. BlackBerry has been multitasking for years and with OS 6 it seems better than ever.
The best feature, in my opinion of OS 6 is the newly added universal search. Just start typing and you can find what you are looking for. If you want to load the BlackBerry twitter application type twit and in real time you will see results update on the screen. This makes finding whatever it is your looking for simple and very fast. My hat is tipped to the folks at RIM for implementing this and getting it right the first time.
Having a phone that is constantly being pushed information is great but how do you manage the information? This is where the newly revised notification system comes into place. At the top of the screen in between the profile selection and universal search icon is a notifications bar. Clicking this bar reveals a wealth of information including unread messages, missed phone calls, social feeds send to you and more. The system works well because it doesn’t become invasive and put a huge blue square on your screen interrupting what you are currently doing. Nor does it have a limited amount of back log. If you miss it, it will be there. Clicking each element in the notification bar will open the corresponding application. For instance if you click an unread message it will actually open the message for you. The only downside that I found was there doesn’t seem to be a way to clear all notifications in one press. If it is there I missed it. This means you must respond to every single notification if you want it to be removed from the notification bar. Sounds like more of a pain than it really is but it is something that needs to be addressed in the future releases.
Going through each application would make for one very long read so we will sum up the experience as good with room from future improvements. The OS responds quickly to touch and many of the key features have been greatly improved over the last release. If you enjoy BlackBerry currently chances are you will adjust quickly and grow to love the new features. As a new user I wouldn’t hesitate to give the Torch a try, the experience may surprise you.
Next on the menu is the reason many people buy smartphones these days. The movies, music, and camera that allow you to pretend your doing something important on your phone. The newly updated media applications on OS 6 look much like those on other platforms with nice touch screen buttons allowing you to never have to reveal the actual slide out keyboard. Loading music on the Torch was simple with the included BlackBerry Desktop Manager. For my test I used the integration with iTunes which allowed me to select which playlist I wanted to sync and was only a matter of waiting. The downside of doing it this way is that you would be required to setup your playlist with an external application but lets be honest here most of us do this any way so this shouldn’t be a big deal.
With the music on the Torch we loaded the media menu and touched the Music application icon to see if our newly sync’d music was in place. As expected our music was listed in the media player’s main menu. The main menu is split into easy to navigate lists, each allowing you to view your music in your preferred method. The list available are All Songs, Artist, Albums, Genres, and Playlist. Being impatient I jumped right into All Songs to see the music album art and all. A single tap on a song starts it playing immediately. Changing the orientation of the phone the screen changes quickly to match your viewing perspective. There is a very short delay in the transition from portrait to landscape but hardly anything worth getting upset at. The screen elements, including buttons change size to fit the screen nicely. Changing between songs was quick proving the new Music player was a worthy contender.
The sound quality was good and would easily meet the requirements of almost all listeners. The Torch also contains one external speaker that is decent but nothing special. As a music player the Torch is an easy to use device that easily allow you to ditch that standalone player if you don’t mind shelling out some money for a larger SD card. If I had to complain about one thing it would be the menu system which requires you to close each page before finally being able to exit out of the application. With all said and done, it works, is easy to use, and provides good enough quality and audio format support (MP3, AMR-NB, AAC-LC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA, WMV, Flac, Ogg Vorbis)
Movies have always been somewhat of a hassle to play on BlackBerry devices for many different reasons. One being the hardware just hasn’t been fast enough and another is the media player simply didn’t support many formats. Out of the box the Torch support H.264, h.263, MPEG4, and WMV3. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to test every format but both MPEG4 and H.264 worked great without dropping frames. Video playback is smooth but due to the size and shape of the screen, 3.2 inches, the aspect ratio is a bit odd when watching widescreen content. Very few phones have a true 16:9 aspect ratio so this is nothing new. Like other popular video players you have the option to change how you view the video. You can change to Fit Screen, Full Screen, or Actual Size. Depending on your preferences and content type you will find what looks best to your eyes. As the video plays all control slide off of the screen with a very nice effect leaving you to watch you movie without controls hindering your view. Video player isn’t the best but will do the job. If you are buying your phone primary to watch movies this probably isn’t the device for you.
The Torch houses a 5MP camera with flash which is putting BlackBerry in the same ballpark as the iPhone 4, numerous Android devices, slew of other phones that have been out for some time. When it comes to taking pictures the Torch does a great job in natural light but not so good when the flash is required. A positive is the Torch has a dedicated shutter button on the right side that makes snapping pictures feel more natural. Take a look at some of the pictures that were taken with the Torch and decide for yourself how they turned out.
I still do not understand why BlackBerry continues to record their video in 3GP. This format takes up too much room, doesn’t have the best quality, and is an extreme pain to work with. Sure capturing video with the Torch is easy and works but with a format like 3GP, need I say more. The video is recorded at 640 x 480 and offers nice options like image stabilization and a video light but again, 3GP.
Call quality on the Torch was great for me as I live in areas with outstanding coverage. The speaker is clear and everyone that I spoke with seemed to be able to understand me without repeatedly saying, what, what what? If you actually plan to use the Torch to place calls you will not be let down by the quality it provides. With OS 6 came a new touch friendly dialer which offers nice large numbers. No longer do you have to dial on those tiny little keypad numbers. Being a capacitive screen dialing is fast and accurate and doesn’t require you to press the screen hard like previous models.
The BlackBerry Torch was a risk to put out but I’m glad they did. The phone is solid in your hands and the physical keyboard is fantastic. Several of the new additions make using BlackBerry more user friendly without sacrificing stability that BlackBerry users have all grown to love. If your a business user you will love the always on email and outstanding battery life. If you are using the phone as a personal phone you will love the new fast browser and wonderfully integrated social features along with the updated media tools. If you are both than life doesn’t get much better.
The Torch isn’t going to be the multimedia powerhouse some of the other phones out there are but then again those phones aren’t going to the productivity powerhouse the BlackBerry can be either. The Torch sits on the line between both worlds. It allows you to have fun but stay serious and get things done at the same time. All depends on how you walk the line. We leave that choice up to you.