BlackBerry Torch 9800 4 Stars

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BlackBerry makers RIM have one of the most loyal sets of fans. You’d have to threaten them with a fate worse than death to get most BlackBerry users to even consider a smartphone made by another manufacturer.  Sure, they all have their favourites, whether it’s the Bold and Curve with their QWERTY keyboards, the Surepress offerings of the Pearl or the Storm’s touch-screen. Be that as it may, RIM has never quite managed to capture the imagination of the mass-market, so a lot is resting on the success of the BlackBerry Torch, which offers the delights of both a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and a touch-screen, as well as a brand new operating system.

First impressions

The Torch is not light by any means, weighing in at a considerable 161 grams, and the very nature of its springy slide-out QWERTY keyboard sees the device expand by a third of its size when the keyboard is popped open. You’ll recognise the keyboard as one from RIM, thanks to the fact that the keys double up for letters, then numbers and punctuation. A comfortable thumb rest is provided by the slight chin at the bottom of the handset; it also gives a sunken feel to the keyboard. While the keys are not big, they feel good under the thumbs, and as long as you are reasonably careful you should avoid too many typing errors.

The 3.2in touch-screen can be found at the top of the device, which, unlike some other slider phones, actually feels quite solid and secure. Underneath the screen sit four touch keys and a track pad – all familiar features to BlackBerry users. The track pad performed well, although it was necessary to alter its sensitivity levels as we kept losing the mouse cursor. The BlackBerry Storm featured a clickable touch-screen, but RIM has opted for the more usual capacitive screen on the Torch, which is a good move. We found the touch-screen both responsive and fluid; again, we had to change its sensitivity levels, finally opting for medium as the best setting.

Just my type

While the QWERTY keyboard is the tool of choice for bashing out texts and emails, messaging can be carried out solely using the touch-screen. If you turn the handset on its side, then tap in any text box – the search bar or email for instance – the full QWERTY keyboard will pop open. The good news for the fatter-fingered is that RIM has endeavoured to make the keys large enough for most folk to be able to hit the right keys first time. Turn the phone upright, however, and there are two choices of keyboard. You can use the QWERTY keyboard, which this time is smaller because it is squashed into a smaller space, or you have the choice of a Surepress keyboard – as seen on the BlackBerry Pearl range.

The new operating system

As we said at the start, the Torch is the first device to feature the new BlackBerry 6 operating system. Like its predecessors, the home screen is still pretty bare, with just four icons sitting at the bottom of the screen. Swipe these icons from side to side, however, and you’ll find that each swipe reveals a new home screen, with another four icons: a customisable favourites menu, the all-programs menu, a media menu, a frequent menu that instantly populates with your most-used apps and contacted friends, and last but not least, a downloads screen where you’ll find the apps you’ve downloaded from BlackBerry App World. And how about accessing the rest of your programs? All you do is swipe up from the bottom of the screen to show all programs. It might take a while to acclimatise yourself to the new system, but it’s nice to see that RIM hasn’t just opted to produce an Android or Apple clone. Thanks to its crisper fonts and spacious menus, BlackBerry OS 6 is definitely a step up from the old operating system, which was starting to look past its best.

The Torch screen has the highest resolution found on any BlackBerry device – 360x480 pixels. It’s clear, bright and vibrant and we were particularly impressed by how good video appeared. But it’s not quite up there with the likes of the Super AMOLED of the Samsung Galaxy S, or the iPhone 4’s Retina Display technology. Speaking of video, the preloaded YouTube app allows the user to either watch or upload video at the press of a key.

You’d expect to find HSDPA and Wi-Fi on a phone of this calibre – and indeed they’re here – offering a speedy and fast browsing experience. But RIM hasn’t stopped there – it now has a full HTML browser that shows the web pages as you would see them on a desktop. It also offers auto-fit, so that text does not run off the page. You can pinch and pull to zoom in and out, thanks to multi-touch support, and to get the page back to normal view just double-press on the screen. The screen is wide enough for you to browse in portrait mode, but for the best effect, turn the device on its side – the ultra-sensitive accelerometers will automatically offer a landscape view.

Social networking

Another addition to excite BlackBerry aficionados is the Social Feeds app, which sees separate apps for Facebook, Twitter and MySpace preloaded on the Torch. But that’s not all – Social Feeds also streams updates into one continuous timeline, along with any of your instant messaging services, such as Blackberry Messenger. If you want to keep up with just your Tweets, for instance, you can filter the timeline to just show Twitter notifications. It works in a similar way to Sony Ericsson’s Timescape and HTC's FriendStream.

Any social networking notifications or email messages are highlighted by a flashing red light; at the top of the screen an icon will show which account and how many notifications you have. Click on the icons to bring up a drop-down list, which will show your notifications. It also rather niftily integrates friends’ birthdays or calendar appointments from your social network – indeed your whole phone book can be synched with your instant messaging and social network contacts, just by typing in your username and password.

Make it snappy

BlackBerrys are not famed for their cameras, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that RIM has opted to include an excellent snapper on its Torch. With five megapixels, auto-focus, LED flash and face recognition, it’s got plenty to recommend it. You can take pictures in both landscape and portrait mode and your thumbs can easily reach the five virtual icons that sit at the bottom of the view finder, offering album, geo-tagging, capture key, flash and scene setter. We were particularly impressed by the flash, which helped us take great low-light and night-time images. We did find that sometimes – especially indoors – it was better to switch it off, as in auto mode it would needlessly flash. The camera can be turned on using the dedicated key on the side of the handset – and it’s ready to go in an impressive three seconds. A nice touch is the ability to change the setting of the dedicated key– for instance if you rarely take photos but use your browser or music player a lot, you can set the dedicated key to fire up one of those features instead.

The Torch’s battery has a long life – of course it will run out of juice far quicker if you’re using a number of features and apps – but even with both social network notification and push email on, we had the device running for three days before we had to put it on charge. By the way, RIM claims that push notifications save on battery life because they save you having to start up applications just to read your updates and messages.

The verdict

The BlackBerry Torch offers a lot of functionality. It’s got a vast feature set, excellent social networking capabilities and the best camera you’ll find on any BlackBerry handset. And while its new operating system is far better than its predecessor, it’s not so different that it will scare off existing BlackBerry users. However, even taking into consideration the slower processor, we’re not sure the design is good enough to lure either BlackBerry fans or prospective new users. And with the new OS soon to be available to users of the Bold 9700 and its ilk, we think this is likely to be the preferred option for many users.

Pros:
The Torch boasts the best camera we’ve seen on any Blackberry, and its flash is particularly impressive.
Cons:
The Torch is not the most stylish device out there, and it’s pretty weighty, too.
Rating:
  • Look and Feel 3 Stars
  • Ease of use 4 Stars
  • Features 5 Stars
  • Performance 4 Stars
  • Battery life 4 Stars

Final verdict: 4 Stars

Review by Mobile Choice