RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800
Review BlackBerry manufacturer RIM has been struggling to keep up with the main innovators at the head of the smart phone pack. So far, it's been keeping pace rather than edging in front. It appears that's unlikely to change with the Torch 9800, which has some very good features, including the latest BlackBerry OS 6, but has a few drawbacks too.
Burnt offering: RIM’s BlackBerry Torch 9800
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is essentially two phones in one; combining the big touch screen of the Storm 2 and the physical Qwerty keyboard of the 9700 Bold. It does without the Storm's love-it-or-hate-it clicky SurePress screen though, replacing it with a 3.2in multi-touch, capacitive touchscreen with a 360 x 480 resolution and 16m colours. The slide out Qwerty keyboard is a good size – just a smidgeon smaller than the Bold's.
The slide-out Qwerty keyboard will seem superfluous to hardened touch-screen users, especially since there's a perfectly fine on-screen virtual version too, which, in both the portrait and landscape modes, is very good, with well-spaced keys, highlight flags and intelligent, editable AutoText.
Anyone buying the Torch 9800 is likely to prefer a physical keyboard though. It’s a good one too, with 35 well-spaced keys, angled in RIM's uniquely thumb-caressing way. There's a nice degree of feedback and it's easy to get up a head of typing steam with one or two thumbs.
A physical keyboard slides out when needed
The handset is big, but not outrageously so at 111 x 62 x 15mm and 161g and beneath the display is a row of clickable buttons for call start and stop, back and menu, with the same adjustable optical trackpad featured on all recent BlackBerrys in the middle. On the sides are a micro USB power/sync slot, camera shutter button, volume rocker and 3.5mm headphone jack. On top are touch sensitive mute and screen lock buttons while the rear casing boasts a nicely tactile rubberised plastic back.
The Torch 9800 is the first device to market with BlackBerry OS 6, which offers a few updates on the previous version, and all for the better. The user interface is familiar… but different. It still displays the standard BlackBerry icons and the full menu can be pulled upwards from a bar at the bottom.
Changes to the OS are subtle and useful overall
You can choose how many rows of icons you show (one, like HTC Sense, through to four), then you can brush to left or right to arrange them across five separate screens: All, Favourites, Media, Downloads and Frequent use. It's easy to rearrange the order they appear in too.
The toolbar at the very top of the screen displays connectivity info and, when you touch it, you have instant control of your network, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections. The message bar at the top flags up the number of messages you have waiting from various sources, including mail, text messages, Facebook and Twitter. Press on the bar and you'll get a drop down menu of all your pending messages, sorted by source.
It's an intuitive and easy way to keep up with your social obligations but, unfortunately, it doesn't highlight your latest messages – you'll have to open the menu each time to view them. This section also contains the Universal Search icon, which lets you search both phone and web for whatever you're after.
App World has much more on offer to expand the handset's functionality
BlackBerry App World is still far behind Apple in terms of numbers of course, but there is a good range of useful productivity apps available now, including the free Social Feeds app, which organises your social networking feeds and Snaptü, which pulls together a range of online services including news and sport updates, social networks, TV, film and restaurant details.
Need for speed
Web access is fast with HSDPA or Wi-Fi and the Webkit-based browser incorporates automatic search and pinch to zoom. Responsiveness was good and pages generally rendered well, with text reflowing smoothly when you zoom. However, unlike smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S, HTC Desire or Apple iPhone 4 that pack 1GHz processors, the Torch 9800 makes do with a 624MHz CPU. Consequently, there are occasional signs of lag, when you're pinching to zoom on pics or web pages, for example, or opening new apps. It's not disastrously slow, but it's not ideal.
The camera is a 5Mp model with autofocus and LED flash. There's a basic 2x digital zoom, image stabilisation and face detection, as well as macro and night modes and geotagging. Yet despite these nifty features, you'll need to be mindful of lighting and not rely too much on the image stabilisation. It's certainly not a bad effort, but there are better 5Mp camphones out there. The video recording shows significant loss of quality with its VGA resolution though. Fine for emergencies, but hardly sufficient as a holiday movie camera.
In the picture
Pre-recorded videos look good rather than brilliant on the large screen, which lacks the definition of its Apple and Samsung rivals. It's nice to see a couple of options to zoom in on videos so they fill the screen, though sometimes the drop in quality can be a bit too noticeable. It can handle MPEG4, H.263, H.264 and WMV3 files.
A versatile smartphone, but hardly a leading light
The music player can handle MP3, AMR-NB, AAC-LC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA, WMV, Flac and Ogg Vorbis files and includes a 12-setting equaliser to help you get the sound how you like it – you'll probably want to activate one of the bass boost settings to counteract the tinniness of the supplied headphones.
The Torch 9800 comes with a 4GB microSD card and will support up to 32GB for media storage, though you're stuck with the 512MB of onboard memory for adding additional apps. Battery life, in keeping with much of RIM's BlackBerry stable, is a notch above average, and I got close to two days of fairly heavy use out of the Torch 9800.
Against its competitors – big-screen smart phones like the HTC Desire, Samsung Galaxy S and the Apple iPhone – the Torch 9800 falls behind in terms of display resolution and processing power. It's a premium price handset too, which doesn't really help it to stand out. Still, it is a BlackBerry, with excellent push e-mail facilities and corporate compatibility, which will certainly appeal to the faithful, but I'm not sure it's quite enough to win over many new users. Moreover, for how much longer can RIM’s offerings continue to be good enough for BlackBerry users? ®
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