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Shedding light on the BlackBerry Torch

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CRAIG JOHNSTON gets his hands on RIM’s latest BlackBerry and gives us a rundown of what it is all about. Although it is not all positive, he does believe that BlackBerry has made some significant headway with its new Torch.

I have been using a BlackBerry Torch 9800 for a few weeks now and wanted to see it and use it so I could get the experience first-hand, instead of through the eyes of other reviewers.

Cellular data usage was almost non-existent until late 1999, and in early 2000, when Research In Motion released its first BlackBerry devices, they were only available in the US and Canada as they operated on old data-only networks, and not cellular networks.

The devices were merely devices to synchronise email and couldn’t be used to make phone calls too. However, that was all they needed to do, because they synchronised securely and worked with corporate email systems like Microsoft Exchange. The corporate world fell in love with the BlackBerry and the rest as they say is history. Eventually, in late 2001, the first GSM BlackBerrys phones were released, and they started to become known in the rest of the world.

In South Africa though, the carriers didn’t warm to BlackBerrys. Nobody saw the point, and so while they grew exponentially in popularity elsewhere, in South Africa people still thought that SMS was a great way to communicate.

Finally, in 2005 BlackBerrys started showing up through local carriers. It took a few more years for them to become mainstream, or as popular as they had been for years elsewhere. So as you read this article, bear in mind that most people have been using BlackBerrys for about ten years now. That same interface, the small improvements over the years, the lackluster graphics, and the navigation by scroll wheel, then trackball, then trackpad.

BlackBerrys killed Windows Mobile and Palm OS phones which forced people to use a stylus on a screen that responded to pressure. But then in 2007, the mobile phone world got a wake up call. It came from a company who has always led and innovated, Apple. The iPhone burst onto the scene and millions and millions of people switched from their BlackBerrys, Palm OS, Nokia Symbian, and Windows Mobile phones. Why? Because the mobile marketplace was boring and stagnant. The iPhone offered a capacitive touch screen, a fast processor, amazing graphics, and an all-round mind-blowing experience never before seen in the mobile space.

People asked RIM if they were going to address the iPhone. RIM told them that Apple wasn’t a threat and that they were not going to make an “iPhone killer””. This I think, was that defining moment in history where a decision was made that changed the direction of the company. While RIM sat back to continue down the path of building the BlackBerry as we have always known it, Google created Android, Palm created webOS, and everyone started copying the iPhone. Everyone went to full capacitive touch screens, faster processors, applications, and beautiful graphics. Everyone saw that copying the iPhone or trying to better it was winning people’s hearts. RIM still sat back, but then one day they decided they were going to make a revolutionary smartphone. They built the BlackBerry Storm. It suffered from day one for a number of reasons. First, RIM decided that they wanted people to click the screen when making choices or selecting something. While everyone else had an operating system that worked with full touch screens, RIM’s BlackBerry OS couldn’t handle touch, so they compromised. What they should have done is overhaul the OS to support full touch, but they didn’t.

Later RIM made another attempt with the Storm 2, but still with a clicking screen. At this stage RIM had lost a lot of ground against its competition. The field had now grown to include Apple, Google, and Palm.

Now, here we are in 2010, a full three years after Apple introduced the iPhone, and RIM has released the BlackBerry Torch. Let’s take a look.

Torch Concept

The concept of the BlackBerry Torch is a full touch screen with a slide-out keyboard.

We have seen this before, more recently with the Palm Pre and the Motorola Droid/Milestone so it’s not new. However, RIM has always built the most amazing physical keyboards and they do not fail to deliver with the Torch. The keyboard has great tactile feedback. It doesn’t feel cheap and “”clicky”” but rather has a quality feel to it. Typing on it is a pleasure.

The screen is a full touch screen now. No need to click the screen to take actions on menus. Just touch them as you would on other touch screen phones. RIM has included the familiar call, end, menu, and back buttons plus a trackpad. When I first saw a trackpad it worried me because I got the feeling that it would be like an Android phone where you normally need this alternative navigation method, but on the Torch RIM has included it as a way for people to adjust to using the touch screen full time. In addition, there are still some actions that require you to press the menu key, so the buttons are actually needed.

As a concept, the Torch is very well executed. Quality build, great keyboard, and a full touch screen. As a current BlackBerry user, this is a great step-up for you.

BlackBerry OS6

The BlackBerry Torch is the first BlackBerry to support OS6, RIM’s new operating system. When we first saw OS6 earlier this year, all we got was a commercial showing quick flashes of it. Not enough to really see what it was like. At the time, most people saw it as the same old thing, just a bit prettier.

Well, now that we can see and use it on the Torch, we see that the initial impressions are partially correct, but there are some cool things that current BlackBerry users will appreciate.

OS6 has a much, much better web browser. Finally RIM has used WebKit to build their browser and the results are as you would expect. For some reason a bit slower than other implementations of WebKit browsers powering the iPhone, Android phones, and webOS phones, but a close second to them. One thing is for sure – no more struggling with the old antiquated browser that is about 7 years old on the old BlackBerrys. This new browser is enough reason on its own to buy a Torch. It’s really that good compared to what you are used to today.

OS6 has touch areas on the home screen. For example if you touch the time, a drop-down allows you to get to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth settings as well as the alarm clock. Touch the Profile icon to quickly change the Profile. Touch below the time to see your calendar appointments and Social feeds (which we’ll cover in a bit).

There is a search icon right on the home screen that when used, searches everything on your device plus YouTube, Facebook, Yellow Pages, and Google. This Universal Search is extremely useful.

Social Feeds are part of OS6 too and show yours friend’s posts on Facebook, Twitter, all IM clients including BlackBerry Messenger, and has the ability to subscribe to RSS feeds. It will even find an RSS feed on a web page for you.

The old style of BlackBerry icons have been rethought a bit. Now the icons are on a movable screen that can slide up and down on the home screen. Slide left and right to see you favourite applications (you choose these), media applications, applications that you have downloaded, and the most frequently used applications (which the BlackBerry populates itself based on how you use applications).

In general the menus all look the same as they do on current BlackBerrys, but many screens have been re-worked to look good with icons added next to choices making it easier to find things. OS6 also adds touch-and-hold actions. Touch-and-hold on something and a menu pops up with some useful choices.

The Processor

The Torch is run by a 624MHz processor that unfortunately cannot keep up with the demands of OS6. Anytime you swipe a screen left and right, you see a lag. This is really disappointing to see when other smartphones are run by 1 GHz processors that are easily able to provide fluid swiping and other graphic animations and improvements.

The Screen.

The screen is OK but a little disappointing in today’s Smartphone marketplace. Its physical size is good but its pixel count is low. 480×320 is all it has to offer while the iPhone 4 has a 960×640 screen, and your typical Android Smartphone has a 480×800 screen. This means that while it looks pretty good, it suffers when browsing the web as text is often too small to read unless you zoom in.

The Camera

The camera is good, but not amazing. It’s a 5 Megapixel camera with auto focus. Used in video mode it records video at a resolution of 640×480. It falls short here on two fronts. Firstly, it has not progressed to the level of the iPhone 4 camera with its better CCD that lets in more light, and secondly, it does not record HD video, something with iPhone 4 and many Android Smartphones do today. It’s still a good camera, don’t get me wrong, its jut behind the curve.

BlackBerry Torch camera picture

iPhone 4 camera picture

Corporate Use

RIM wants to sell to the consumer, but keep selling to the corporate user so all of its Smartphones work as corporate devices. The Torch is no exception. I have nothing to complain about here other than the Torch (or more likely OS6) has this weird behaviour where it acts like the emails are not on my device and I keep seeing the —More— message for a second or two before emails display. You normally only see this if you are out of coverage and only part of the message has downloaded.

Weight and Size.

This BlackBerry is a bit on the heavy side at 161.59g , and when compared to the BlackBerry Bold that weighs 138g, is noticeable, but not the end of the world.

Even with its slide-out keyboard, the Torch is not that much bigger than a Bold.

The Torch (closed) is 111mm x 62mm x 14.6mm.

Compare this to a Bold which is 109mm X 60mm X 14.1 mm.

Conclusion

Now the question is, do you buy it? Wel,l the answer I think needs to address two audiences. Those who already have a BlackBerry and want to keep it no matter what, and those who may or may not have a BlackBerry and are deciding what to buy.

Current BlackBerry users/evangelists

If you use a BlackBerry today and are hooked on it. You can’t give up your BlackBerry Messenger, or the keyboard, or the look and feel of a BlackBerry, then you need to rush out and buy this BlackBerry immediately. For a BlackBerry fan, this BlackBerry is the best BlackBerry. You get a nicely refreshed feel and added functionality, plus a touch screen, and a keyboard. OK it’s a bit sluggish but you are probably used to that by now.

Current BlackBerry users who are bored with BlackBerry or those who are just Smartphone shopping

If you fall into this category then I’m afraid the BlackBerry Torch is not that a revolutionary device you were hoping it would be. There are some great things that have now made it to BlackBerry but nothing that hasn’t already been done years ago on other Smartphones. Proper touch screens were done in 2007. Most Smartphones use a 1GHz processor while the Torch ships with a 624MHz processor, too slow to keep up. The screen is pretty low resolution compared to other Smartphones. The BlackBerry interface has not been refreshed enough so it can leave the physical buttons behind.

Applications available on the Torch, and indeed all BlackBerrys are terribly behind the times. They look old, and they feel old. Your selection of applications is tiny in comparison to Android and minute in comparison to the iPhone.

Smartphones that support Microsoft ActiveSync, like the iPhone, Android phones, and webOS phones can all wirelessly synchronise your corporate email, calendar, and contacts, in real-time. Your administrators can force you to use a password, require encryption, set password lengths, time-outs, and history. They can even remotely wipe your device. This then, is no longer the huge corporate benefit that the BlackBerry offered.

So if you won’t switch from BlackBerry, get a Torch, however if you just want a great, modern Smartphone, the BlackBerry Torch doesn’t have the X factor to compete with Android and iPhone.

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