There is a lot riding on the new operating system RIM announced at the Wireless Enterprise Symposium this spring. This is the first significant operating system upgrade BlackBerry has had since Android and iPhone have exploded in popularity, and will mark RIM’s first concerted defense as reigning champion of the North American smartphone market. AT&T announced the BlackBerry Torch 9800 slider more recently, which is a pretty big departure in form factor as far as BlackBerrys go.
In many ways, the hardware is secondary in importance to BlackBerry 6, as older devices like the Bold 9650, Bold 9700, Pearl 9100 and all future devices (like the 9670 clamshell, Curve 9300, and the 9780) will be privy to the facelift. However, in order to really draw attention to the upgrade, RIM needed a new device to properly introduce BlackBerry 6 to the public. Some may say that a portrait slider is a little unoriginal; the Palm Pre isn’t that far from memory, and this could be seen by cynics to be little more than slapping a Bold keyboard onto the back of a Storm. However, there are some finer details in the device itself that set it apart from other BlackBerrys – the lack of SurePress definitely makes it a first for RIM, if the slider form factor doesn’t strike you as a particularly big deal.
There are a lot of things that we still want to see from RIM, but right now this is what they’re offering. At very least, it will sate existing BlackBerry loyalists who are hurting for something easier on the eyes, but does the BlackBerry Torch 9800 offer enough to sway buyers sitting on the fence, or even those comfortable with Android or iPhone?
AT&T BlackBerry Torch 9800
Available for $199.99 w/ 2-year contract on AT&T
Specifications (Specs – sheet)
- 3.2-inch (480 x 360) capacitive touchscreen
- 624 MHz processor
- 5-megapixel camera with LED flash
- WiFi (b/g/n)
- HSPA 3G (UMTS 2100/1900/850/800 MHz; EDGE 850/900/1800/1900 MHz)
- microSD (support for up to 32 GB)
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- BlackBerry 6 operating system
- 4 GB internal memory with a 4 GB card included
- 14 days standby, 5.8 hours talk time
- Still has extremely efficient and reliable messaging
- Smooth and crisp user interface updates
- Excellent virtual keyboards
- Simplified menus and setup
- Display and processor fail to meet the competition
- Some function gaps and glitches in software
- New home screen layout needs some polishing
- Pinch-zooming can be chunky
P.S.: I’ve only had the BlackBerry Torch 9800 for a little over a day. If I change my conclusions over the course of the week or two using it, I’ll be sure to update at the end. We had some time to delve deeper into the Torch 9800 – check out our impressions after a week here.
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is, at least from a form factor standpoint, a big departure for RIM. The slide mechanism is smooth and has some good spring to it, though it’s a bit hard to catch from the bottom. You get over that quickly once you start pushing it open by pressing on the screen instead. Many of the design elements will be familiar to those who have had a BlackBerry Storm 2 in the past; the right side convenience keys are in the exact same style, and the keys around the trackpad follow a similar unified, one-piece look.
The keyboard itself feels kind of cramped after moving from the Bold 9000, though anyone who feels the need to upgrade from the 9700 for some reason will probably feel right at home. Like I said in my unboxing and initial impressions, I had to adjust my typing to be a little bit higher on the thumbs to avoid hitting the upper sliding mechanism. So long as we’re talking about keyboards (though it’s not really hardware), the virtual keyboard I have found to be exceptionally sharp and responsive. You can tell that RIM put some extra man-hours into its development, since SurePress is out the window and the virtual keyboard missing the usual second-layer of touch confirmation.
Now, there are a handful of fairly significant changes that are new to BlackBerry on the 9800. Notably missing is the left-side convenience key. Usually, the right side key kept the default camera function, leaving the left side open to your imagination. Personally, I liked keeping it for Vlingo voice control, though I rarely used it. Part of the exclusion of a right side convenience key might be because BlackBerry 6 lets you turn the whole physical keyboard into shortcuts for applications. A smart move, but you have to pick between launching apps or universal search when typing from the home screen.
Another missing feature is the charging contacts at the bottom of the device. These are an often-overlooked feature that enable cool charging solutions, either by way of RIM’s dedicated pods, or cool holsters from Case-Mate. Inductive charging is pretty cool, and even RIM thinks so, but until they implement a wireless charging solution in a handset, open contacts were a fine alternative. In any case, I’m sure it’s something few people used anyway, and there were some savings to be had in manufacturing for cutting the contacts.
The top-mounted lock and mute keys employed on BlackBerrys continue to bother me for accidental presses, and are even more prone to activating when closing the slide from the top. The back battery door has a rubbery texture and is ridged, providing some solid traction for opening and closing the slide, as well as decent comfort when typing. Weight-wise, it’s got some heft, and is about as heavy as the BlackBerry Storm.
BlackBerry 6 is the biggest evolution the OS has seen, but how much has really changed? BlackBerry vets will find plenty that’s familiar, but that sameyness might turn off people looking for a proper revamp. As ever, the primary selling point with BlackBerry is instantaneous push e-mail, and a wide variety of IM clients and social networkers that can all plug into the single Messages app.
For a full exploration of what’s new in OS 6, I encourage you to check out our walkthrough of the launch video – it captures a lot of what you need to know about the next generation. The short version goes something like this: icon categories are browsable by sidewards swipes and hideable with downwards ones; universal search works across apps, web, and local content from the home screen; pinch-to-zoom for pictures, web pages, and e-mails; setup and menu items are shuffled for user friendliness.
With all of that said, does it work? There are a few kinks, some intentional, some not. For one, switching between icon categories doesn’t kick in until you complete the gesture. Yeah, you can get the icons to follow your finger for a more fluid transition, but that only starts once you’ve stopped swiping for half a second, at which point the icons rush to catch up. The result is a delayed sensation, which is bad when you have five categories (Downloads, Media, Frequent, Favourites and All) to chug through to find what you’re looking for. There can also be redundancies when you have the showing icons reduced to four or eight, sometimes making it not quite worth the trouble. In most categories you can rearrange what’s at the top, but Frequent changes regularly, and for some reason you can’t shuffle stuff in Downloads. In a perfect world, either the top eight across all five categories would be mutually exclusive, or switching categories would be a lot faster. Neat idea, especially in light of the cut and dry way of BlackBerrys of yore, but the whole thing still needs work. User-created categories would be really great, especially if you could set rules for automatically populating them.
A few smaller functional gaps: any messages opened through the notifications bar won’t let you skip forward or backwards through sideways swipes. Too bad, because you’ll often have several new items, and swipes are the easiest way to cruise through them. Though BlackBerry Messenger notifications show up as a home screen icon, they don’t seem to show up in the notification bar for some reason. Also, there are some points where the virtual keyboard doesn’t summon, like the search bar in media for any category other than All Songs.
Wishful thinking aside, universal search is freaking sweet. You start typing, and you can get access to roughly 4.3 hojillion different kinds of information: apps, contacts, pictures, voice notes, instant messaging buddies, YouTube search, podcasts, or shoot off into a Google search. There are so many different flavours encompassed within universal search, and I was worried it could become overly bloated as more third-party apps plugging in to the utility (the Yellow Pages preload from AT&T in my case), but there’s a handy option to remove certain apps from search.
A rather prominent app RIM has cooked up for BlackBerry 6 is Social Feeds. This jams together status updates across all of your networks and instant messaging clients into a big ol’ cornucopia of social news. That can obviously be overwhelming under certain circumstances, so you can drill down into particular networks, and switch between them with swipe gestures. Clicking in on any individual update will launch its respective app. Again, there’s a bit of redundancy here; why would I open the Social Feeds app and filter into, say, Facebook, then have to launch the real Facebook app to do any real interaction when I could have just opened the dedicated Facebook app in the first place? Don’t get me wrong, the amalgamated mash-up is nice, and more robust than, say, Sony Ericsson’s Timescape thanks to the inclusion of instant messaging status updates, but even that part can get spammy. Updating multiple networks in one blast is a nice touch, though.
Social networking does plug in to a few new places elsewhere in the OS, though. On top of associating address book contacts with social network profiles as usual, you’re prompted to sign in to instant messaging clients when setting up related e-mail addresses (like Yahoo! and Windows Live). Contacts also show the latest updates in the address book from whichever networks you have paired up.
On top of that, a dedicated RSS reader has been folded into Social Feeds for some reason. I don’t quite understand why it wasn’t just made a separate app, since the desire to read news and to keep up to date with friends are distinctly different. If that wasn’t enough, the RSS feeds app isn’t even particularly good; there’s no read/unread count, you can’t import Google Reader (or even an OPML file holding all of your feeds). It offers little more than the ability to launch into the browser for the full story, or forward the story to a handful of outlets.
BlackBerry App World 2.0 is another significant update, but also coming to older BlackBerrys. It includes carrier billing, a new BlackBerry ID system, and a few visual tweaks to fall in line with the OS 6 carousel style. As nice as the new on-device application market is, prices are still relatively high, selection still relatively low, and the lack of 3D graphics support on the 9800 makes third party apps a dim attraction for now. The only thing BlackBerry needs more than the visual facelift that OS 6 provides is a significantly improved toolset for developers. A full overhaul of the application platform seems unlikely given how much RIM has already invested, which will work in BlackBerry’s disadvantage since iPhone and Android handsets were built from the ground-up with apps in mind.
The new BlackBerry Desktop Software deserves a nod, it being the PC-based component you’ll end up using with the 9800. Like much of the Torch, Desktop Software 6 is predominately a repackaging of existing functions with a few new functions. There’s an option there to activate the smartphone as modem feature there, and you can backup and restore data on your device, and sync multimedia. Speaking of which, the one significant update is the enabling of music sync over local Wi-Fi networks.
Overall, I found the BlackBerry Torch 9800’s software to be nice, but occasionally glitchy. The camera app wouldn’t respond at all at one point, on two occasions there were only the two bars at the top (no icons or something drag up at the bottom), and and when reduced to 1 x 4 or 2 x4 view, icons within a given folder get cut off at the bottom due to the extra space required by the folder header. Still, on the whole, the user interface, transitions, and animations are really smooth and catch the eye – a nice change of pace.
Web browser, Multimedia, Camera
The BlackBerry 9800 earns its namesake from Webkit browser developer Torch Mobile, which RIM acquired a year ago. The native BlackBerry browser has traditionally been a thorn in the device’s side, so when the promise of a Webkit browser arrived, there were more than a few people renewed with hope for the future, especially since tabbed browsing was to be included, and it scored reasonably high on web standards tests.
How does it perform in the real world? Certainly better than the old BlackBerry browser, but by how much, I’m not entirely sure. Pages render accurately, if not quickly, and though pinching to zoom is implemented, rendering after a zoom can still be slow. Tabs are nice, and they’re implemented in the UI in a classy way. As is, I wouldn’t put the BlackBerry Torch’s web browser on the same page as the iPhone’s or Android’s, although they’re in the same book. The browser is one of the definite places where you feel like the 624 MHz is just a little lacking.
The Podcasts application is new and making its intro on the Torch 9800, although it’s been made available to most BlackBerrys. Sadly, it’s sub-par compared to the third-party solution offered by PodTrapper, namely in that you can’t manually type in podcast feeds to download, and RIM’s catalog is missing a few key shows, like the video feed for Diggnation, and TED Talks. Those are relatively small, fixable complaints, but considering how long it takes for RIM to patch stuff like that, I have a feeling that it will be a problem for awhile.
The music player has had a bit of a facelift, but offers the same functionality. Playlists can sync up with iTunes and Windows Media Player with the right desktop software, and album art is now presented in a roughly Coverflow style. Sound quality through the single sound port is decent, but I’m starting to get the impression that nothing will ever beat the quality of the BlackBerry Bold 9000’s external speaker.
Thumbnails in the picture gallery app load up more quickly than I’m used to, but pinch-zooming is about as rough as it is in the browser. It takes several seconds for images to show their proper resolution after a zoom – before that, it’s a highly-pixellated mess.
The HVGA display is distinctly mid-range. You’ll have a more enjoyable experience watching video on something larger with a bigger resolution, but that’s a sacrifice I would be willing to make for the sake of maintaining reasonable battery life. Personally, I’m perfectly fine with 480 x 360, but if you’re used to something higher-res, like the iPhone 4, the Torch will feel a little stale.
The Torch 9800 is the first BlackBerry to carry a 5 megapixel camera, which sounds pretty bad when 8 is becoming standard on many smartphones, and others are pushing the envelope with 12. Of course, we can never forget that sheer pixel count is by no means the end-all-be-all of picture quality, and that rendering software and lenses factor into the equation significantly. The camera software does include a whole lot more options for particular lighting and focuses: face detection, portrait, sports, landscape, party, close-up, snow, beach, night and text options are available. Personally, I wasn’t too impressed with the close-up, especially versus the macro setting on the X10 Mini Pro, and face detection is spotty, but here are a few samples for your consideration.
Call Quality and Battery Life
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 has a 1270 mAh battery, which is yet another BlackBerry first. I’ve only had it for a day, but the 9800 has been kept alive on a full charge from late morning until midnight with relatively heavy usage. With the larger screen, I’m a bit worried about it lasting a full busy day away from somewhere to charge, but tentatively I’ll say it will last a full day.
Call quality is respectable, and universal search offers really quick access to direct dialling or existing contacts. A visual voicemail app is included – a nice touch for those who hate chugging through phone menus.
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is far from flawless, but it still brings a lot of new features to the table; in fact, I would say that it’s the variety of improvements (rather than the depth of them individually) that make the BlackBerry 9800 Torch and specifically OS 6 a reasonable success. I’m still unconvinced that people are going to start hucking their EVOs into a lake and head over to the nearest AT&T store for a Torch, but for people who are still packing a Bold 9000 (like me) and are closing in on the end of their contract, the 9800 will be a huge upgrade. For those new to the smartphone thing and are assessing their options, the BlackBerry Torch 9800 will be able to sit earnestly beside Android and iPhone devices while not looking entirely out of place.
I’d recommend the BlackBerry Torch 9800 to hardened bureaucrats who have grown jaded with the smartphone that has in many ways defined their professionals lives, and to new users considering a jump into the smartphone game. The updated user interface and reorganized setup menus make life a lot easier for the noobies, and bundled instructional videos show all of the basics.
So far, I’ve held off on updating from the 9000, but the BlackBerry Torch 9800 presents enough of a leap that I may even suck up the extra year-worth of an early termination fee to get it. Hit up AT&T for all the details. Canadians, don’t worry, Bell, Rogers, and Telus will be getting it too.
UPDATE: We’ve had the phone for a little over a week now, so be sure to take a look at the rest of our observations over here.