BlackBerry Torch 9850 / 9860 Review: what comes after a Storm?

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The BlackBerry Torch 9860 recently hit Sprint shelves, and we’ve been playing with one for about a week prior to release. The new Torch is part of a trio of devices spearheading RIM’s shift to the wonderful world of 1.2 GHz processors, and the 9850 / 9860 is the one with the biggest screen on a BlackBerry to date. Not only does the 3.7-inch display stand up to the 4-inch sizes becoming more and more commonplace on smartphones, the 800 x 480 resolution is respectable too.

Almost three years ago, RIM went out on a limb and made their first touchscreen BlackBerry. The Storm was a pretty big deal for them, since BlackBerry typically stuck to the QWERTY candybar form factor with little differentiation. The the Pearl 8100’s initial push into the consumer space was made by adopting a radically new shape and a T9-esque typing scheme that more closely resembled a classic cell phone, so it made sense that RIM provided something similar to address the incoming flood of touchscreen slates at the time. That same adventurousness led them to include a clicking touchscreen on the BlackBerry Storm, called SurePress. On paper, the idea made sense: you could hover over UI elements and get some reaction confirming what you had selected, and pressing on the screen would click it. Unfortunately for RIM, most folks weren’t overly enamoured with the mechanism. RIM tried refining SurePress with the Storm2, but that also failed to capture the interest of consumers, who had become accustomed to standard capacative touchscreens.

Here we are two years after the Storm2 launched, and RIM is having another go at the touchscreen slate form factor. They’ve ditched SurePress and the Storm name, hopefully with all the bad mojo surrounding it. BlackBerry devices are already facing an uphill battle – can a phone without RIM’s legendary physical keyboard keep up the pace with its more traditional cousins, let alone competition from other manufacturers? Let’s find out.

The Good
  • Big, sharp, bright display
  • Responsive software
  • 3D and augmented reality apps finally available
The Bad
  • Mediocre virtual keyboard
  • Meager selection of quality apps
  • Modest, iterative changes

Hardware

The first thing that struck me about the BlackBerry Torch 9850 / 9860 when holding one at BB7 Fan Night was how light it was. It weighs in at 135 G, which is just a bit shy of the 109 g of the LG Optimus Black, and about on par with the iPhone 4's 137 g, which is impressive given the size difference.

In terms of specs, the BlackBerry Torch 9850 / 9860 runs on a 1.2 GHz processor with 768 MB of RAM, and has a 3.7-inch 800 x 480 touchscreen. The usual gubbins, like Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth are included, and there's the fresh addition of a magnetic compass to support augmented reality apps. Unfortunately, it's missing near-field communications, which was a right reserved for the Bold 9900 / 9930, as well as rumoured Wi-Fi hotspot functions (though hopefully that may become unlocked through a software upgrade).

Aside from the usual chrome-painted plastic that feels cheap and is prone to chipping over the long haul, there's very little to complain about when it comes to the BlackBerry Torch 9850 / 9860's hardware. It's got style (some of it familiar, some new), and is tightly built.

Design

The lines of the BlackBerry Torch 9850 / 9860 will be familiar to any RIM fans out there - lots of black with a chrome accent here and there. Besides the soft-finish battery door, the whole thing feels plasticky, but that's par for course when it comes to BlackBerry. Everything minus the rear is polished smooth, which feels nice at first, but I imagine will quickly lose its luster after usual wear and tear.

Like the Bold 9900, the new Torch has repositioned the mute/play/pause key between the volume keys on the right side, but the button style is much more different. They're slim, smooth, sharp keys that waft out from the body, taking up nearly no area at all. Although the mute key is a little tricky to hit, I prefer this to the old layout, which put both lock and mute on easily-pressed buttons on the top, which often led to accidental activation.

The BlackBerry Torch 9850 / 9860 has a camera with continuous autofocus, and to accommodate the added width, the rear has a little contour near the top. The bottom has a slight arc too, which provides a nice groove for index fingers to sit when held in landscape. Although the screen is nice and big, the aspect ratio makess it very pocketable and easy to hold in the hand. The slim 11.5 mm profile helps there too.

The design pulls a lot of inspiration from previous devices, but mixes things up just a little bit with the new side key style. Overall, this isn't a phone you'd be embarassed to whip out in public.

Camera

The 5 megapixel camera on the BlackBerry Torch 9850 / 9860 immediately wins big brownie points for having continuous autofocus - a feature its supposed big brother, the Bold 9900 / 9930, is conspicuously missing. Still, the close-ups aren't quite as good as what I've seen on a few other phones, like the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini Pro. 720p video recording, image stabilization, geotagging, and LED flash are nothing to sneeze at, but also nothing mind-blowing either. There's no front-facing camera, but I'm not sure that's something I miss too much anyway. Besides, there's no real video chatting software available for BlackBerry, and only the 9860 on HSPA+ would be able to provide reasonable performance.

The camera app itself is pretty good, and has a lot of scene presets to optimize close-ups, landscapes, text, sports, face detection, and others.  Sometimes I miss having more detailed controls over, say, brightness and contrast, but there's more than enough here to keep the casual shooter equipped.

 

Low-light with flash

Indoors, close-up

Daytime, landscape

Sickly, dead inside

Build Quality

Although the BlackBerry Torch 9850 / 9860 might be missing the stainless steel bezel of the Bold 9900 / 9930, the rear battery door is solid metal. There are very few moving parts on the phone to worry about wearing out over time. The four physical keys and optical trackpad along the bottom are nearly flush with the device, with just enough of a raise to be identifiable in the dark. The side convenience keys barely leave the body of the phone.

The plastic, chrome-painted bezel is standard for BlackBerry, and still prone to dings. With the big display, I would at least want to invest in a screen protector, if not a full case.

Software

By and large, navigating the BlackBerry 9850 / 9860 is just as smooth and responsive as on the Bold 9900. I have frequently and consistently seen hourglasses, though, which I seriously thought would no longer be an issue with a 1.2 GHz processor and 768 MB of RAM to play around with.

OS 7 offers a few refinements on the old BlackBerry experience, like voice-activated universal search, and enables a few new types of third-party applications, like augmented reality, BBM-connected apps, and 3D games, but by and large, this is the same experience you'd expect on any BlackBerry, except it runs smoothly for a change. You won't find a ton of mind-blowing choices in App World, but there's all of the important ones - Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Google Maps, and others. Gradually, I'm finding that it's actually RIM themselves that are making some of my favourites. For example, there's BlackBerry Protect, which lets you remotely back up, lock down, find, and wipe your phone. BlackBerry Travel automatically scans your incoming e-mails for travel itineraries, and plants them in your calendar, complete with flight reminders and delays. The preloaded Podcasts application can ensure that you've always got something fresh to watch or listen to. Speaking of which, the Social Feeds app got a little update for OS 7 to include latest podcast downloads, as well as the ability to flag certain social updates for follow-up, and track particular search terms across your networks.

RIM also makes all of the big instant messaging clients, like Windows Live Messenger, Google Talk, and AIM; incoming IMs get punted to your messages screen, along with your e-mails, texts, and other social networking activities, so they're all in the same place. You can also link all of those disparate online identities to contacts in the native address book, so you can quickly get in touch with folks through just about any channel they're available. I would say this sort of thing is really BlackBerry's forte; it might not be a stellar app platform, but it's really good at fast, unified communications.

Multimedia

The BlackBerry Torch 9850 / 9860 is best-suited for video, by sheer virtue of its 3.7 inch screen size. It retains the same degree of sharpness as the other OS 7 BlackBerry devices at 800 x 480 resolution, and runs most video formats fine (minus Flash web video). 720p files are a little chunky to load up at first, but otherwise look great. I do find that the weird 15:9 aspect ration doesn't always mesh well with certain videos, though the amount of distortion involved to get things to fit perfectly is minimal.

Music-wise, the native media player hasn't changed much - you still have full playlist support, universal search integration, and a smattering of music apps as back up, like Slacker, Podcasts, the Amazon MP3 store, and the new BBM Music service. As I've mentioned earlier, I'm a big fan of the new hardware media keys and their placement, plus in-line mics offer you quick access to pause and play.

Browser

The big screen suits the browser well, and the upgraded processor makes panning, zoooming, and general navigation smooth. There's no Flash support, but on a single-core device, it's probably for the best. The browser supports multiple tabs, and actually does pretty well on web compatibility benchmarks. The BlackBerry Torch 9850 / 9860 scored 260 / 450 on the HTML5 test, compared to 210 on iOS 4.2 and 177 on Android 2.3. The Acid3 JavaScript test gives it 100/100, while BrowserMark gave it 50130, versus 26897 on mobile Safari version 4 running on the iPhone 3GS, and 23726 on the Nexus One.

Besides missing Flash, there's very little to complain about the mobile browser now, which is good news after years of BlackBerry getting ribbed for its poor web experience.

Call Quality And Battery Life

The call quality is decent on the BlackBerry Torch 9850 / 9860. I didn't drop any calls while roaming in Canada with the Sprint version, but did experience a bit of background clicking  - very possibly a result of roaming. The bottom speaker is definitely good enough for conference calls, and there's some great beta software available to manage dial-in numbers and passcodes if you take those calls regularly.

The BlackBerry Torch 9850 / 9860 comes with the same 1230 mAh battery as the Bold 9900, and lives just as long - that is to say, it's a challenge to get through the day with any juice left. On one particularly busy day, my phone was dead by noon. It's obvious that RIM has buckled to consumer pressures for faster processors, slimmer form factors, and sharper screens, but I remain unconvinced that the payoff is worthwhile. Using my Torch 9800 as a daily driver, there's never really a serious concern for battery life; I can listen to music all day, pull up GPS maps when I need to, and deal with the usual e-mail rigmarole without having the nagging feeling in the back of my head that my phone will die. Not having to micromanage battery life like I have to when reviewing Android phones is a luxury that I would like very much not to lose. When it comes to battery life, my thinking is: if RIM can't do more with less, it should be able to do more with as much, or as much with less - not less with less. In that case you might as well stick with the old standard.

The Final Take

When compared to the BlackBerry 9900, you pretty much break even on the screen real estate issue. Reading web pages and e-mails is more enjoyable, but typing, though not impossible, is more of a hassle. The new hide/show bar at the top of the virtual keyboard is more of an impediment than it is convenient, and I would just as soon revert back to the virtual keyboard used on the Torch 9800.

Though the OS generally operates just as smoothly as on other recent BlackBerry devices, it does have more hang-ups than I experienced on the Bold 9900. The Torch also suffers the same dire fate as RIM's other OS 7 devices; QNX phones are right around the corner, which may very well pack dual-core processors and consume RIM's attention for the foreseeable future. This same sentiment goes for app developers. Already, it takes a lot of resources and focus to make quality BlackBerry applications, and most developers would much sooner pour all of that into iPhone development, where revenue return is miles ahead. Tack on to that the questionable future of the BlackBerry operating system in light of a shift to QNX, and I would be surprised to see a lot of companies even bothering to optimize existing apps for OS 7, let alone make new ones. Odds of the 9850 / 9860 being upgradeable to the new OS is slim, so if you can wait a few months to find out for sure, it's probably worth it.

If you deal with a daily gauntlet of e-mail and need a new BlackBerry now, you're better off with the Bold refresh, and if you need a multimedia powerhouse, there are plenty of full-touchscreen smartphones out there (and tablets for that matter) that have better app selection, and a more solid future.

 

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  • Nikesh

    From the review of these phones from some website I came to know that the Specifications and Design of both devices are same except for the networks they operate on.The BlackBerry Torch 9860 is a GSM device and the BlackBerry Torch 9850 is GSM/CDMA device. What does it imply Blackbery Torch9850 is dual sim (GSM and CDMA) mobile please let me know

    • Jack100593

      have u get the answer’? i have the same Question with you

  • Sam

    Thanks for the really in depth review . It was very informative

  • Sam

    Thanks for the really in depth review . It was very informative

  • Goalie

    Thank you so much for your reviews on 9860 and 9900.  Because of my strong desire to have a camera same or better than 9700, I ended up with 9860 instead of 9900 even though I agreed with your observations and still do.  
    OS 7 is fine – nothing to complain, much faster than OS 6 especially when opening xls or pdf documents containing multiple pages.   
    Keyboard is ok… it guesses better than iPhone’s software.  I type extremely fast on the 9700 keyboard, so it’s a huge change.  I also miss keyboard shortcuts.

    For apps, most are available for OS 7.  I miss being able to silence the camera shutter, though – currently no app to silence it (where i live, it is not illegal to silence the camera shutter).  I like taking pictures of documents and business cards, but now I can’t do that in a middle of a meeting, for instance.  
    I had terrible battery life at start, but it improved from 5 % per hour drain to 1 % (at rest) after I wiped the phone and used restore for data and installed apps – instead of “device switch.”  Still rough compared to 9700, but it’s not fair to compare any device to 9700 when it comes to battery life.

  • Neilfriedman123

    Thanks for such an unbiased indepth review of the 9860

  • Rohit-mahapatra

    I bought a  Blackberry Torch 9860 on 9th January 2012. The phone had a lot of issues like (1) Incoming calls did not ring (2) Nothing was audible to me nor the person I call while the call was connected (3) Phone used to hang frequently (4) Applications like camera, map & video recorder did not work. My complain was registered and the service center reinstalled the Blackberry Operating System 7.0.0.296, platform 5.0.0.496 and assured me the phone will work fine if it dosen’t then I will be given a new phone as replacement. The issue with my phone was NOT resolved and they provided me a Delivery Order for a new Blackberry 9860 from the same retailer. I got a new Blackberry on 30th January 2012. It was horrible to encounter the same issues with my new replacement phone too, the same problems were in that phone too. There was absolutely no problem with my SIM card or service provider because I checked it on a different phone. I was completely disappointed with this Blackberry product. The phone malfunction got me into personal and professional misunderstandings as I missed calls. I needed a phone I can rely on, I was sick and tired of running to the service center and asked the retailer to give me a different phone other than blackberry. My sincere advise buy HTC, Samsung or Apple in the same price but never this Balckberry cause Balckberry Torch 9860 SUCKS.   

  • Husbyhogan

    I bought this item in October 2011, when it was quite new. I had the Storm before with all the issues with permanent running clocks but decided for the Torch because I hoped for improvement.
    But this is the worst mobile i ever had, all remaining buttons dont work even after updates.

    THIS WAS THE LAST BB I WILL BUY!!!

    SHIT – STORM 

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