BlackBerry Torch 9800 Review: Hot Hardware but Software Lukewarm

CIO.com's BlackBerry Black Belt Al Sacco reviews the BlackBerry Torch 9800, RIM's first BlackBerry smartphone with both a touch-screen and traditional, full QWERTY BlackBerry keyboard. Verdict: The slider hardware is sure to impress, while the software may actually depress BlackBerry enthusiasts. Here's why.

The word "BlackBerry" used to bring to mind mostly images of bulky, brick-like handhelds and busy executives in tailored suits. Today, BlackBerry smartphones are all over the place, in the hands of teenagers, parents, businessmen and everyone in between. And they come in all shapes and sizes.

The BlackBerry Torch 9800 Slider
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 Slider (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion's (RIM) latest creation, the BlackBerry Torch 9800, sports an entirely new form factor for the company: It's the first BlackBerry "slider" device with both a touch display for on-screen navigation and typing, as well as a full QWERTY BlackBerry keyboard/optical trackpad . And it's meant to bridge the gap between people who value messaging over multimedia, which comprise the bulk RIM's user base today, and those who prefer a first-rate multimedia experience.

In contrast to some of the initial Torch reviews already out, this evaluation delves deeper. I dedicated more than a week to really use the Torch, completely customize it, and thoroughly test its performance under the daily rigors of a BlackBerry "Power User."

The additional time to review made a definite difference. My impression of the device changed entirely after only a couple of days with the Torch and after I added my various enterprise- and Web-mail accounts, downloaded a handful of apps and tweaked my settings, etc.

BlackBerry Torch 9800 Rear Side, Open
BlackBerry Torch 9800 Rear Side, Open (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

Overall, I've really come to appreciate the BlackBerry Torch 9800 hardware. But unfortunately, the software, RIM's brand new mobile OS, BlackBerry 6, leaves something to be desired, to say the least, despite a number of valuable enhancements and feature-additions.

Keep moving for specifics. And check out my BlackBerry Torch unboxing video and my pre-review post, "BlackBerry Torch 9800: 10 Things You Didn't Know About RIM's New Slider."

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BlackBerry Torch 9800 Hardware: The GOOD

One of the first things you notice after spending some time with the BlackBerry Torch 9800 is that the hardware feels quite solid; it's durable, yet not too heavy at 5.68 ounces--about an ounce more than both RIM's BlackBerry Bolds 9000 and 9650; the slider mechanism is smooth and there's very little horizontal-"give" while open vertically, which typically bodes well for its durability over time; the battery cover sits snuggly in place, even if you attempt to wiggle it around; and there's little-or-no squeaking or "creaking" if you squeeze and/or press various sections of the device, which hasn't necessarily been the case with other recent BlackBerry devices--except for the top panel and trackpad, but I'll get to that in the next section.

BlackBerry Torch 9800 with Slide-out Keyboard
BlackBerry Torch 9800 with Slide-out Keyboard (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

The BlackBerry Torch is great looking open and closed, with its shiny silver edges, glistening 3.2-inch screen, and "fretted" BlackBerry keyboard. And though the device is a slider, it's not overly large; it packs a lot of functionality into a relatively svelte package. Even the most image-conscious user should be pleased with how the Torch appears in hand.

Its keyboard isn't just for looks, either; it's probably the best keyboard I've ever seen on a vertical slider device. Anyone familiar with RIM's recent BlackBerry Bold and Tour devices will recognize the keyboard, as it looks almost identical to the keypads on those handhelds. However, it's just the slightest bit smaller, and with mobile keyboards every little bit counts; due to the smaller size and the uplifted sides and bottom "chin," the Torch keypad feels more cramped than the Bolds and Tour, but it's still quite useable, especially if you don't have particularly large digits.

Its 480x360 HVGA+ touch screen is responsive and mostly a pleasure to employ...except for those on-screen keyboards. (More on that coming up.)

The device's three right-side keys, volume up/down buttons and a user-programmable "convenience key," are all seated firmly and work just as you'd expect.

The Torch battery cover is thin and light, and it stays in place with little wiggle-room, unlike some other BlackBerrys of late. The battery cover's outer surface is composed of black rubber with horizontal lines, which serve to add some "grip" to the smartphone, whether it's in hand or placed on a surface.

I also appreciate how easy it is to remove the battery cover, even though it sits firmly while closed, as well as how simply the Torch microSD card can be removed/inserted without turning the device off or removing the battery.

BlackBerry Torch 9800 Slider
BlackBerry Torch 9800 Rear Side (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

As far as storage goes, the Torch has the most built-in storage space of any BlackBerry ever, with 4GB of internal storage. It also ships with a 4GB microSD card and supports memory cards up to 32GB for a total capacity of 36GB.

The Torch supports 802.11n Wi-Fi, which should be valuable to many users, especially in the future when more people purchase routers that support the relatively-new standard.

Finally, the Torch is the first BlackBerry to pack a 5.0 megapixel camera, up from 3.2 megapixels in most other current BlackBerry models. And at $199.99 with a new two-year AT&T service contract, the price is right.

Next up: The not-so-good stuff about the BlackBerry Torch 9800 slider hardware...

RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800 Hardware: The BAD

The BlackBerry Torch 9800's HVGA+ 3.2-inch 480x360 display is functional, but it isn't always pretty. In fact, I noticed some clear pixilation in certain wallpapers and images, which doesn't exactly scream "high-end device," especially since RIM's competitors included some very impressive displays in their most recent wares, particularly Apple.

The Torch's less-than-impressive display isn't a deal-breaker for me personally, but I do wish RIM had included a higher-quality screen.

BlackBerry Torch 9800 and Bold 9700 Keyboards
BlackBerry Torch 9800 and Bold 9700 Keyboards (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

Similarly, the processor packed into the Torch, thought to be the 624Mhz Marvell PXA930, the same processor used in many other recently BlackBerry could be faster, to put it mildly. And it shows. The BlackBerry Torch lags and displays the dreaded BlackBerry "hour-glass" quite frequently, especially when running lots of apps or particularly intensive programs like AT&T Navigator or the Bitbop streaming music service.

RIM seems to have skimped a bit on both the Torch display and processor, and while it might not mean much to your average smartphone user, power-users like me will definitely notice. And that's a bad thing.

After using the BlackBerry Torch extensively for a week and speaking with other Torch users, it's clear that the device's top panel, which is composed of a screen-lock button, a mute key and a space for the device's speaker, could be problematic over time. That's because the top panel is already slightly loose and it creaks a bit when pressed, mostly on the lock-side, but that could be because that's the side I used most often.

It's not a huge issue, and honestly it doesn't really bother me much, but if it keeps loosening up it could certainly flip many a Torch owner's smile upside down--and lead to returns or exchanges.

The trackpad, which is used for navigation, in addition to the touch screen, is also slightly crooked and uplifted on one side, which caused it to get scuffed already, probably while bouncing around with other objects in my pocket. And since the Torch doesn't come with any sort of case or holster, this probably isn't exactly a rare occurrence. (On that note: It's a good idea to pick up some kind of case for the Torch upon purchase.)

The BlackBerry Bold 9650 I reviewed in June also had similar trackpad issues, so the problem is not Torch-specific.

Though the Torch slider mechanism itself feels quite solid, the bottom right side of the sliding touch-screen panel has started to lift slightly, more so than on the left side, which is a bit worrisome. Again, it's hard to tell whether or not this will become a problem in the future, but it's worth noting.

Unfortunately, the BlackBerry Torch 9800 only supports HSPA data transfer speeds up to 3.6Mbps, i.e., no HSPA+ up to 7.2Mbps, which is available on many other comparable high-end smartphones, including Apple's iPhone.

The Torch has only one customizable convenience key, on its right-side, which is unfortunate, because it really should have at least two in my opinion, like its Bold brethren. If you move to the Torch from a device with only one convenience key, or no such keys, this probably won't be an issue, but I definitely missed the second button.

One thing that I really appreciated about the first two BlackBerry Bold devices, the 9000 and 9700, was the external speaker quality, which made for great music-listening and speakerphone experiences. The Torch speaker definitely leaves something to be desired, I was disappointed to find that my music sounds tinny and hollow via Torch. Speakerphone call-quality similarly suffered.

I also noticed that the Torch's proximity sensor next to its LED coverage indicator, which serves to disable the touch screen while the phone is in use and placed against your ear, strangely flickers red during calls, while held away from your face. I imagine this is a bug, since I can't really think of any reason for it to blink. And it's annoying since it catches my eye during speakerphone calls and makes me think I have a new message.

And now, the BlackBerry Torch 9800 "BlackBerry 6" software. First up, my positive impressions...

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BlackBerry Torch 9800 Software: The GOOD

BlackBerry 6 has been called "fresh but familiar" by many, including RIM's co-CEO Mike Lazaridis. And it is both, though the emphasis should definitely be on familiar. Current BlackBerry users who've spent time with past versions of RIM's OS will find themselves flying around the new software, since it really is very much like BlackBerry OS 5.0...a little too much like OS 5.0, if you ask me, but I'll hit on that in the next section. (Note: The AT&T version of RIM's Torch currently ships with BlackBerry OS v 6.0.0.141.)

BlackBerry Torch 9800 Right Side
BlackBerry Torch 9800 Right Side (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

First up, the brand new BlackBerry Webkit browser. It actually works the way a mobile browser should. Finally.

The BlackBerry browser has largely been the bane of RIM's entire OS in the past, but I'm honestly impressed with the new BlackBerry 6 Webkit software. It's relatively fast; it features tabs; it's intuitive; and it scores a very impressive 100 out of 100 in the Acid3 Test, a way to evaluate a browser's Web standards compliance.

You also no longer need to adjust your browser settings between BlackBerry browser, Internet browser and Wi-Fi browser constantly, like the old BlackBerry browser, and that puts a smile on this reviewer's mug.

I already find myself using the browser on my BlackBerry more than in the past, and I applaud RIM's effort in this regard. The Webkit browser also integrates quite well with the Torch's touch-screen display, so you can easily zoom in/out with a pinch, etc.

My favorite new feature in BlackBerry 6, besides the browser, is the universal search function, which lets you quickly and easily search your entire device, as well as various online destinations and apps, like Google, YouTube, Slacker Radio, etc. from one location. The universal search function is truly valuable, and in my experience, it works like charm. The feature isn't exactly exciting or unique to the BlackBerry OS, but it's one I'll use constantly in the future.

BlackBerry 6 also features a revamped "Setup" application that's meant to help new or less-than-advanced users easily get up and running and customize their BlackBerry devices. The Setup app helps you add enterprise- and Web-mail accounts; setup BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and other IM apps; manage connection settings, and much more, all from one central location. And it even provides cool video tutorials to demonstrate various processes, tips and tricks, etc. It's a great new addition, and one that many will appreciate, since customizing BlackBerrys in the past wasn't exactly intuitive.

The most significant enhancements in BlackBerry 6 definitely relate to the multimedia applications and multimedia management. (Check out this detailed list of new multimedia-oriented features in BlackBerry 6.)

BlackBerry Torch 9800 Top Panel
BlackBerry Torch 9800 Top Panel (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

The camera app has a whole new, polished UI, with many more custom image-settings that let you use both portrait and landscape orientations and face-detection technology. And a new "sports mode," among others, meant for capturing live-action shots, helps BlackBerry users capture a wider variety of images in better quality. Additionally, you can better manage pictures with a new feature lets you select multiple images for bulk-management.

The multimedia experience in BlackBerry 6 is vastly improved and I give RIM credit on that account. The Torch is by far the best BlackBerry for capturing and consuming media, and it's sure to help RIM further shed its image as company that caters mostly to business-users.

RIM's new "Social Feeds" app in BlackBerry 6 collects your various social networking information, from sites like Twitter and Facebook, RSS feeds and IM apps like BBM and AOL's AIM. It's a cool addition, though I really don't find myself using it very often. I prefer to use the specific applications, like the Twitter for BlackBerry or Facebook apps, instead, but perhaps that's just because I'm already used to employing them separately.

That's a lot to like, but on the flip side...

BlackBerry Torch 9800 Software: The BAD

Without beating around the bush, I'll say that I'm a bit let down by BlackBerry 6. RIM has been hyping the software for months, and its efforts worked: I was honestly excited for the new OS release. Looking back to just a couple of weeks ago, I'm not really sure what I expected from BlackBerry 6, but it was more than I got...at least for now.

BlackBerry Torch 9800 Right Side
BlackBerry Torch 9800 Right Side, Open (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

The problem: BlackBerry 6 is just like BlackBerry OS 5.0, but it's better looking. Sure, there are many multimedia enhancements, that cool new browser, universal search and probably lots of new stuff going on behind the scenes, etc. Still, I can't help but think that BlackBerry 6 feels nearly identical to BlackBerry OS 5.0, just with a fancy "theme" sitting on top. (Perhaps that's why RIM has been so quick to lash out at developers who made BlackBerry-6-like themes for OS 5.0 in the past...)

My most notable issue with the software is that it still freezes up fairly constantly and "lags" almost as much as BlackBerry OS 5.0. And that's simply not good. It may have to do with the processor. It could relate to the available application memory I have on my particular device. It could be that the software's just not perfect yet, and RIM plans to work out the kinks in future builds. But the bottom line is that I expected a much smoother user experience on the Torch and BlackBerry 6.

The Torch lags less than my Bold 9700, so users upgrading from one BlackBerry to the 9800 will probably see an improvement. But RIM's really targeting a new user-base with the Torch, and those folks won't see that the device lags less, only that it lags.

Last week, I wrote a post on things you might not know about the BlackBerry Torch. In that piece, I mentioned that the BlackBerry 6 start-up process on the Torch was significantly faster than my 9700 start-up, but it looks as though I may have jumped the gun. The Torch did start up faster than my 9700, significantly...until I fully customized the Torch, adding various apps, e-mail accounts, security settings etc. Now the boot-time is roughly the same on both devices, which is a letdown.

Torch call quality and battery life were both average; RIM says the Torch should get about 6 hours of call-time on 3G, though I saw slightly less. Regardless, the Torch has weaker battery life than the Bold 9700, so I really noticed the difference. I suppose with future software releases call quality and battery life could change, but for now, I'm not particularly impressed with the Torch on these counts.

I found the on-screen keyboards frustrating, and having large fingers made it difficult to type a sentence without making multiple errors. You can, however, use a full QWERTY on-screen keyboard in both landscape and portrait mode, as well as RIM's SureType-style keyboard in portrait, so at least you have options. (Note: I also dislike my iPhone's on-screen keyboard and every other touch keyboard I've used, so I may not be the best judge of virtual-keyboard-quality.)

And you still cannot store and access BlackBerry applications on your microSD, which means the total number of apps you can store on your device at a given time is restricted to how many you can fit in the relatively small portion of the BlackBerry memory, called "application memory." BlackBerry App World, RIM's mobile software shop, lets users "archive" applications for storage on media cards, but those apps must be "restored" and reinstalled on their handsets to work.

And now (inhale deep breath) my conclusion...

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BlackBerry Torch 9800 Review: Conclusion

First of all, it's warranted to state the BlackBerry Torch really shouldn't be compared to other high-end modern devices with only a full QWERTY keyboard or just a touch-screen. It's a slider device with both touch-screen and traditional keypad, and as such, its overall functionality should really be compared to other slider devices like Palm's Pre--which, by the way, is a nothing more than a toy, compared to the Torch, at least from a hardware perspective.

BlackBerry Torch 9800 Slider
BlackBerry Torch 9800 Slider (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

If you don't like sliders, you're probably not going to like the BlackBerry Torch. It's that simple. I'm not really a big slider fan, and as such, I think the BlackBerry Bold 9700 still holds the title of RIM's Best BlackBerry Ever, despite AT&T's claims to the contrary.

The hardware is impressively solid. The software looks and feels very much like BlackBerry OS 5.0 with a jazzy theme, but I like BlackBerry OS 5.0, so that's really not a problem for me. I wish I could write I was blown away by both the hardware and the software, but that simply wasn't the case.

Is the Torch the best full-QWERTY device available? Nope. Is it a better touch-screen device than, say, the iPhone 4. No, it isn't. But the Torch is probably the best slider available on the market today, despite its software woes. And if the BlackBerry keyboard and messaging experience are important to you, but you also want a bigger screen and more multimedia features, you'll surely find a friend in the BlackBerry Torch 9800.

Will I stick with the new Torch and abandon my trusty BlackBerry Bold 9700? It was a tough decision, but yes, I will, though I'll be using it on T-Mobile's network for now, which provides better overall coverage for my particular needs--just no 3G. My Bold 9700 is already collecting dust, and I'm embracing the Torch...at least until RIM releases the BlackBerry Bold 9780, an upgraded version of the Bold 9700 that's better suited to run BlackBerry 6.

AS

Al Sacco covers Mobile and Wireless for CIO.com. Follow Al on Twitter @ASacco. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Al at ASacco@cio.com.

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