By Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
During a recent visit to New York, we were surprised to find tons of posters and ads for RIM's BlackBerry Torch. It quickly became apparent that the company is proud of what it has achieved with its newest smartphone which debuted a whole new form factor as well as the next version of RIM’s smartphone OS.
It also became obvious that expectations for this device and its platform are very high. The BlackBerry Torch ($199 on 3-year contract from Rogers) comes at a time when RIM needs to be innovative, regain market share and establish its relevance in the global market.
The once dominant RIM is now facing a deluge of competition from an advancing army of Android handsets as well as the surging popularity of Apple's iPhone 4. 2010 has seen the largest number of handset launches in the marketplace and while most of these have been Android devices, the iPhone, Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 and Nokia have all made significant 2010 releases. The bar has definitely been raised.
What do most of RIM’s competing handsets have in common? They are smartphones centered on intuitive touch-enabled operating systems, a thriving app economy and are capable of offering a robust mobile web surfing experiences.
RIM's BlackBerry Torch, as a flagship device, has the daunting task not just to secure its position as the hot product of a leading smartphone maker, it needs to entice new BlackBerry users into the fold as well as retain loyal users looking to upgrade their handsets.
To anyone who has used a BlackBerry, the new BlackBerry Torch (AKA 9800) improves on all the stylistic and functional strengths of the platform adding an enhanced touch-friendly OS as well as offering a slide-out keyboard for the best tactile typing experience.
This convertible approach seems designed to please the larger base of users. Those who find the new touchscreen and BlackBerry 6 OS sexy but aren’t willing to give up the famed keyboard.
Fit and Finish
The BlackBerry Torch is the first hybrid touch and QWERTY smartphone from RIM and it is an attempt to improve on the company’s less than successful forays into touchscreen smartphones, namely the Storm and Storm II. The Torch also integrates the popular optical trackpad that debuted in the popular BlackBerry 9700. It is a combination of this trackpad and the multi-touch screen that makes up most of your navigation options. Users can quickly thumb through recent applications and get from one place to another with minimum fuss, a departure to previous versions of the BlackBerry OS which were often tricky to navigate.
The BlackBerry Torch feels Spartan in comparison to previous models but it does feel functional. Gone is the leather treatment we saw with the Bold 9000 and the chrome that enveloped the Bold 9700.
The Torch has a grippy rubber backing covering the battery and the SIM card and muted chrome accents in front. Corners are rounded and buttons are highly receptive. Deploying the QWERTY keyboard is as easy as pushing forward the screen to reveal the keyboard which snaps into place once fully engaged.
The problem with many vertical sliders is that the wear and tear on this mechanism eventually takes a toll on the device making it feel flimsy and affecting functionality. The Torch, however, feels rock solid but only time will tell if the slider design will endure.
Using the Torch and BlackBerry OS 6
We enjoyed using the BlackBerry Torch purely as a touch screen device. The reason being, that the new OS is a lot faster and more receptive than what we’ve experienced in the past. The screen is large enough to enjoy pictures, movies and album artwork that puts it in the league of competing smartphones.
The new webkit powered browser leapfrogs any previous BlackBerry mobile web surfing experience we’ve had before. It is fast, renders pages more accurately and with fewer errors than before. When compared to an iPhone 4, the BB Torch was still slower, but not by much.
Other standout OS 6 features include Universal Search, which scours contacts, messages, music, pictures, appointments, operating system options and search results from various online sources.
Multitouch gestures as well as kinetic scrolling are well implemented and while not particularly impressive to iPhone and Android users, will certainly delight most BlackBerry users coming from the more static trackball and trackpad based navigation experiences.
The new media player is also a fresh improvement although it mimics Apple’s Cover Flow interface, it does make music playback on the Torch more palatable. RIM knows that with its rich messaging and email apps it has the corporate set in the bag, what the BlackBerry Torch is aiming for are savvy and media-focused consumers.
The camera app also has a gamut of surprising new features and better integration with the built-in 5 Megapixel camera and a greater range of control for picture taking on the go.
Judging from the new recent BlackBerry Torch TV adverts, it is clear that they are targeting not only their traditional business users but regular consumers as well.
One of the spots features a bicycle messenger tearing down the streets of San Francisco using the Torch as a GPS to get to where he needs to go.
Another advert shows a slick Euro DJ or music impresario gloating about how he can’t believe he gets paid to put on shows all over the world and that the Torch makes all of it a lot easier.
Upgrading BlackBerry users who like the new form factor will enjoy the BlackBerry Torch and the impressive OS 6 as well as all the cool new features and speed improvements.
Buyers looking for their first smartphone and whose needs are heavy on email and text but who also want the added flexibility of improved web browsing and multitouch might gravitate towards the BlackBerry Torch.
More evolutionary than revolutionary, the BlackBerry Torch show’s RIM’s desire to compete in the market it dominated for so long. It may not convert iPhone or Android users en masse but new customers seeking a new smartphone experience might be enticed to try it out.
Rating: 4 out of 5