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Review Summary:Blackberry Torch 9800 3.5

The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is RIM’s first slider smartphone, combining a touchscreen and slide-out qwerty keypad.

The first phone to ship with BlackBerry OS 6, it is equally suited to business users and social media addicts.Its impressive array of customisation options can be overwhelming, though.

  • Positives
  • Full qwerty keyboard
  • Email and social media
  • Highly customisable
  • Negatives
  • Can be difficult to operate
  • Hardware not cutting-edge
Review by on 16 Jan 2012.
Introduction

The BlackBerry Torch 9800 was officially announced in August 2010 as the very first BlackBerry smartphone to combine a capacitive touchscreen and the traditional BlackBerry qwerty keyboard with a slide out mechanism. At the time of its release, the BlackBerry Torch was RIM’s flagship handset and the first to come pre-installed with the latest version of their operating system for smartphones: BlackBerry OS 6.

BlackBerry Torch open

BlackBerry’s first foray into the world of touchscreen phones came with the BlackBerry Storm in 2008, which featured BlackBerry’s patented SurePress technology and was intended as a direct competitor to Apple’s iPhone and other touchscreen devices of the time. Unfortunately, the Storm was not exceptionally well received by critics, with many finding the touchscreen difficult to operate. Since then, RIM has made several further attempts and refined their approach to touchscreen smartphones. At the time of writing, the BlackBerry Torch is widely considered to be the best touchscreen smartphone available from BlackBerry, combining the benefits of a new OS built around touch functionality with the quintessential BlackBerry keyboard.

The BlackBerry Torch has something of a mixed target market. BlackBerrys are traditionally the handset of choice for serious business users and they will find that all of the security, communications and mobile office features they need are present and correct in the BlackBerry Torch. However, with excellent integration of Facebook and Twitter, as well as the unique BlackBerry Messenger service, this handset will likely be of equal appeal to social networking enthusiasts.

The BlackBerry Torch is available on contract from O2, Orange, T-Mobile, Vodafone and 3.

Design

The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is a ‘slider’ smartphone, featuring both a medium-sized 3.2” touch screen and a slide out full QWERTY keypad. As a result of this it is quite a bulky phone. At nearly 15mm thick, it’s one of the chunkiest smartphones I’ve used in recent years and it weighs in at a very noticeable 161g. Despite its size and weight, though, the Torch doesn’t feel unwieldy. Instead it feels solid and sturdy in the hand, though there’s little chance you’ll forget it’s there if you slip it into your pocket.

BlackBerry Torch left side

Although slider phones aren’t RIM’s traditional fare, there’s no mistaking the classic hallmarks of BlackBerry design in the construction of the Torch. It has that certain unmistakeable mixture of curves and angular lines, and of course sliding the phone open reveals the essential BlackBerry keypad. While most BlackBerry phones use a landscape oriented screen and keypad, the Torch uses a portrait oriented screen which means that the keypad is a little thinner than usual. This takes a little getting used to, but once I’d grown accustomed to it I was tapping away happily.

The Torch is constructed from plastics but coated with a chrome-like finish to give it the appearance of metal. On the whole, this works well and certainly helps give the phone a premium feel when held. The back panel of the handset has a patterned texture that helps with gripping the phone and slides off to reveal the battery, SIM and micro SD card slots.

BlackBerry Torch Disassembled

In addition to the QWERTY keypad and touchscreen, the Torch has a number of physical command keys. Along the top edge there are two buttons: a power/screen lock and a mute key. These keys share the entire top edge of the phone and are quite easy to press, which unfortunately resulted in me unlocking the touchscreen in my pocket on more than one occasion.

The right edge of the phone houses another three keys: volume up/down keys and a “convenience key”. By default this is set as a camera shortcut but it can be set as a shortcut to virtually any function of the phone, from opening your email inbox to launching a game. Finally, there are four command keys along the bottom of the screen. There’s a green key for making or answering a call and a red key for ending a call or turning off the phone. There’s also a back key, a menu key and an optical trackpad that can be used to navigate the menus.

The magnetic sliding mechanism works well – it’s not at all flimsy and a purposeful push is required to open or close the phone. Unfortunately, I did find that there was just a little wobble in the top part of the phone when closed and that the back cover doesn’t quite sit tightly in place, again leaving just a tiny amount of wobble room. It should be said that these are very minor failings, but they did take a little away from the overall premium feel of the phone for me.

Features

The BlackBerry Torch 9800 features a 3.2 inch capacitive touchscreen which isn’t exactly large by modern standards, but thanks to the overall design and layout of the Torch, manages to appear larger than it is. The screen is squarer than the majority of modern touchscreens, which tend to be tall and slim, and this helps to create the impression of a wider canvas. The LCD screen boasts 16 million colours and colour reproduction is certainly impressive. The backlight of the screen is very bright and light-dark balance is excellent for a backlit screen, though not quite up to the standard of an AMOLED display. I found that the screen performed particularly well outdoors and remained quite usable even on bright days, a property not too many modern smartphone screens can boast.

The responsiveness of the display is pleasantly surprising, given that previous touchscreen attempts by RIM have on occasion met with criticism for their difficulty of use and unresponsiveness. A light tap or swipe is enough to affect a smooth and speedy response, with no sluggish or twitchy responses as I’ve seen in some handsets. In fact, the only slight disappointment I found with the screen was in its resolution. At 360 x 480 pixels, images are displayed clearly and text is perfectly readable but it just doesn’t have that extra crispness that distinguishes truly top-end displays like those of the Samsung Galaxy S II and Apple iPhone 4.

Outdoor photo sample     Colin the Cactus

The BlackBerry Torch offers a rear facing 5 megapixel camera for taking still shots and recording video. The camera performed reasonably well, though it’s by no means a top-of-the-range affair. In good outdoor light conditions, I managed to capture some images with decent clarity, though colours tended to be a bit ‘washed out’ and objects in motion weren’t dealt with well – leaves moving slowly in a light breeze became poorly defined blurs all too often.

Indoors shots were similar, passable but not excellent. The Torch’s LED flash helps somewhat, but even with the flash enabled indoor shots looked quite dim and lacking in contrast. Interestingly, two almost identical shots I took with the flash on came out with quite different light levels, which might indicate that there’s something not quite right in the timing between the flash and the shutter. To the Torch’s credit, though, the camera application does load up relatively quickly, in a second or two, so it’s easier to capture those pictures that require quick reactions!

Though the quality of still shots on the Torch is around average, I’d have to say that the video quality is somewhat poor. Despite having a 5 megapixel camera, the Torch cannot record video at higher than 640 x 480 resolution. The footage I took with the Torch on a bright day came out quite blocky and the camera struggled with high contrast areas.

BlackBerry Torch right side

The Torch has two external connections, a micro USB port and a 3.5mm stereo jack for headphones. RIM supply a set of headphones for use with the phone, but unfortunately the Torch doesn’t support FM radio so if you want to listen to radio stations, you’ll have to stream them from the internet using an app. The micro USB port is used for charging the handset or connecting it to a computer. There’s no HDMI output on the Torch, but there is support for Bluetooth.

The memory of the BlackBerry Torch can be expanded with micro SD cards by removing the back cover. I was pleased to find that the Torch actually ships with a 4GB card already included, which ought to be more than enough space for most people. However, if you intend on building up a large collection of music or videos on your phone, you may want to replace this with a 16 or 32 GB card.

Performance

The BlackBerry Torch has a 624 MHz processor with 512 MB of RAM. This is a decent if not spectacular showing on paper, but the true test of any smartphone is in the actual performance in use. For the most part, the Torch performs very well. Navigating around the various menus and options is a very smooth experience, though this likely owes as much to the BlackBerry 6 operating system as to the power of the handset. Regardless, I encountered no lag or stuttering while flicking around the phone’s interface which was an encouraging start.

Delving a little deeper, I found that the Torch handles most of its pre-installed applications with ease, too, and showed no signs of difficulty with its social networking apps, document editors, or the simple pre-installed games. Unfortunately, I did find the stock BlackBerry internet browser to be a little less than silky-smooth. This functions just fine for the majority of sites, but begins to cough and splutter somewhat when pointed at a more complex website. The browser includes a very well executed feature for viewing multiple tabs, but sadly this makes the stuttering even more pronounced – so that switching between open web pages is simple and easy, but scrolling around and zooming on those pages is a rather laborious process.

BlackBerry Torch browsing tabs

The Torch handles multitasking very well, though again this is providing that you don’t ask too much of it. The multitasking interface is well designed and allows you to simply switch between and manage running applications with ease. I found that the handset could quite comfortably hold a document editor in the background while you flicked open the browser to check a few facts, or popped up the messaging app to send a quick email. Add in another couple of apps, though, and performance starts to suffer. With two tabs in the browser, a lightweight game and the maps application running in the background, I found that even the usually smooth and responsive homescreen menus became a little jumpy. This didn’t leave me with a poor impression of the device’s performance overall, as I’d not ordinarily want to run too many applications simultaneously in any case - if nothing else, it’s a sure-fire way to flatten your battery in no time – but it would’ve been nice to know that if I wanted to do it, the Torch could do it without complaint.

Speaking of flattening your battery in no time... This is something that I found refreshingly difficult to do with the BlackBerry Torch. With relatively frequent use – browsing the internet, running apps, exchanging endless text messages on the progress of the test match – I still managed to squeeze a good three days out of the 1300 mAh battery. I was also impressed by the speed at which the battery charges – not a factor I’d usually take too much note of, but very useful when you have those “Oh, (insert expletive of choice here), I have to go out in 5 minutes and my battery’s nearly dead” moments. Overall, then, the battery of the Torch certainly impressed.

I found the performance of the GPS and maps features to be one of the most disappointing features of the phone. At first, the GPS was unable to pinpoint my position with more accuracy than ‘within 2.3 km’ – not too impressive, to say the least. Given a few minutes, the GPS had whittled my position down to with 42 metres, but the process was somewhat slow and not overly accurate. To make matters worse, even scrolling around the maps was a fairly slow and unsatisfying experience. The usual controls you’d expect of a touch screen maps app are all present (pull to scroll, pinch to zoom, etc.) but rather than smoothly responding and navigating around the maps, I found that the screen would go blank as soon as a command was issued and return half a second later with the updated display. This led to a jumpy and frustrating experience overall

Usability

The BlackBerry Torch runs BlackBerry OS 6, which is certainly the most user-friendly and visually appealing incarnation of BlackBerry’s operating system to date. The default homescreen displays key information such as network status and notifications along the top of the display. Applications and functions are represented by labelled icons in a ‘tray’ that can be drawn up from the bottom of the screen, and are roughly categorised in different trays such as “Media” or “Favourites” that can be scrolled through by flicking sideways on the screen. The system is intuitive and it’s very easy to find your way around the basics of using the phone.

BlackBerry Torch homescreen

Performing more than the basics can prove a little challenging. If you’re an experienced BlackBerry user, you should have no trouble playing with options and getting the Torch set up as you like it, but there’s no denying that BlackBerry phones can be intimidating for new users. The greatest strength of the BlackBerry OS is its huge potential for customisation and the power it presents users to set up all aspects of the phone to their requirements. This is also its greatest weakness for new users, though, as the amount of options available for all features can be somewhat overwhelming. Thankfully, the Torch includes a very extensive pre-installed help feature that can be accessed from the search bar on the homescreen and I found this directed me very quickly to easily followed tutorials on performing most tasks.

If you’ve owned a BlackBerry before, transferring information such as contacts from your old BlackBerry to the Torch is a simple matter using the BlackBerry Desktop Software. Simply plug in your Torch using the included USB cable and the software will guide you through the process. It’s a little more tricky to transfer contacts from a previous non-BlackBerry phone. I found I had to import my contacts into Outlook first and then onto the Torch. This was a little laborious, but thankfully there are plenty of guides online on how to achieve this.

The Torch of course has access to BlackBerry App World which at the time of writing features over 20,000 available downloads, categorised into apps, games and themes. The App World is generally easy to navigate and has a search function if you know exactly what you’re looking for. It sadly doesn’t feel quite as intuitive as the Android Market or iTunes, and lacks a few key features such as related app suggestions. You also won’t find anywhere near as many games as Google and Apple’s platforms offer, and there’s less free content up for grabs. Ultimately, though, this is not so much a criticism as a reflection of the target market of BlackBerry devices – they’re designed more for serious users who are happy to pay a few pounds for a useful application than for casual users who want an abundance of cost-free time killers.

Themes are also an important part of the BlackBerry experience and there are a great number of these available on the BlackBerry App World, many for free. Themes overlay a new graphical interface over the basic BlackBerry interface and are a great way to personalise the look of your phone. I’d suggest you download themes with caution, though. While happily trying out different looks on the Torch, I found at least a couple of themes that caused it to crash and have to be rebooted by taking out the battery. If in doubt, check the reviews on App World to see if anyone else with a Torch has successfully installed the theme.

Facebook is very well handled by the included Facebook app on the BlackBerry Torch. One of the best aspects of this app is that it can be integrated as deeply as you wish. The app can be used simply as a means of viewing and replying to Facebook posts and updating statuses, or alternatively you can select from a range of further integration features from receiving updates directly into the BlackBerry messages application to syncing Facebook calendar and contacts to your phone. The BlackBerry Facebook app has every feature you could want and is one of the best apps of this type I’ve used.

Similarly, the Twitter application included on the BlackBerry Torch is also excellent. It again has every feature you could want and allows you to integrate Twitter as deeply into the phone as you wish, including the option to integrate tweets into the BlackBerry Messages service. Combined with the Facebook app and the physical keyboard, these features make the BlackBerry Torch a great choice for social networking enthusiasts.

BlackBerry Torch closed

I had no difficulty in loading up the Torch with a few choice tracks to listen to on my travels. The BlackBerry Desktop software detects music files on your hard drive and all you need to do is connect up the Torch with the micro USB lead, pick the songs or albums you want to copy to it and hit “Sync”. Once you have the pick of your collection transferred to the phone, you can access them through the Music app, which is actually one of the better pre-installed music apps I’ve encountered. There’s nothing especially complex or fancy here, but it does the basics very well: Songs are categorised by artist, album and genre, album art can be displayed and you can easily make your own playlists. The BlackBerry’s Torch’s speaker is about par for a smartphone – sound quality is passable, if not inspiring. The speaker is well located along the top of the handset, though, so you can place it face up or face down without muffling the sound.

So, finally, we come to perhaps the most important feature of the BlackBerry Torch: phone calls. Thankfully the BlackBerry Torch doesn’t disappoint in this essential area – the antenna seems very good and happily picks up the network in places I know from past experience to be weak signal areas. Atmospheric and network conditions play a part, of course, but I found nothing of concern in the time I was using the handset which is encouraging. The speaker and mic are both clear and perform well. In-call volume can be raised to a reasonably high level, though not as loud as some phones I’ve used. The speaker phone function is also well implemented – the microphone is more than capable of picking up your voice if the phone is kept reasonably close and the speaker is loud enough to be heard over moderate background noise.

Also Consider

BlackBerry Bold 9780 - The most recent handset in BlackBerry’s Bold range features the same BlackBerry OS 6 as the Torch, but in a more traditional BlackBerry shape. The Bold features a smaller 2.44” touchscreen, but has a more widely spaced keyboard to compensate for this.

BlackBerry Curve 9300 - A more budget friendly smartphone than the Torch and Bold models, the Curve 9300 has a classic BlackBerry design with full qwerty keyboard but does not include a touchscreen.

HTC ChaCha - An Android handset with a full qwerty keyboard and deep Facebook integration, the HTC ChaCha is well worth considering for anyone looking for an excellent social networking phone.

Motorola ATRIX - Motorola’s dual-core ATRIX handset is one of the most versatile devices available with its various functionality expanding “docks”. Business users may find the laptop dock that allows the smartphone to perform the role of a full netbook of particular interest.

Preview

In a word or two

RIM brings the BlackBerry Torch 9800 more inline with other smartphones as the model debuts a touchscreen, slide-out keyboard and the new BlackBerry OS 6.

The Design

The BlackBerry Torch 9800 has the same professional design that you’d expect from RIM – with a modern edge thanks to its touch-sensitive screen and slide-out QWERTY combination. You can use this smartphone as a touchscreen device or as a full QWERTY phone; the choice is yours. And thanks to the smooth corners and chrome edges, the handset feels good and is comfortable to use in one hand, when the keyboard is open and closed.

The first BlackBerry to feature a “proper” touchscreen – the Storm and Storm 2 have “clickable” touchscreens – the Torch has navigation support from a touch-sensitive trackpad and keys for making/ending calls, launching the menu and going back onscreen. The trackpad is especially useful when you’re typing on the QWERTY keyboard and just want to quickly get somewhere without swiping on the capacitive screen. In terms of navigation, the user interface is friendly and there is a bar at the bottom of the home screen which reveals the various icons for Media, Favourites and more, when you drag it upwards.

When it comes to typing, you naturally have the choice of the 3.2 inch screen or the slide-down keyboard. Both provide a comfortable experience. The keys on the physical one are raised, even though this is the thinnest keyboard on a BlackBerry, so you can locate keys quickly and accurately. And the virtual keyboard can be changed to suit your typing preferences – including QWERTY and narrow QWERTY.

The handset itself looks and feels premium. There are those chrome touches mentioned previously and the back cover is made from lined rubberised material that feels good in your hand. The BlackBerry Torch 9800 certainly wouldn’t look out of place in the boardroom or next to your friend’s iPhone 4 smartphone, for example.

Specifications

Not only is the Torch 9800 the first BlackBerry to feature a touch-sensitive screen and slide-down QWERTY keyboard, it is the first to run on the BB OS 6. This platform makes for a smoother experience and helps to bring the device into the realm of social networking and media-touting handsets like the Nokia N8 phone. There are apps for sites like Twitter and Facebook; customisable home screens; and improved multi-tasking. So you can enjoy the Torch to manage your manic workload as well as keep your social life ticking along nicely.

The Torch comes with a Social Feeds function for displaying all your communications in the one place. And the support for multiple email accounts is complemented by the one inbox, letting you check your messages quickly and conveniently. Even the Contacts list has been enhanced for this model, and each friend is linked to their individual activity, whether calls or texts, Twitter or MMS.

One of the nicest features on the BlackBerry Torch 9800, if you’re a fan of being online when on the move, is the WebKit browser. This is the same browser technology behind other major smartphone brands including Nokia, and loads web pages more quickly. As the screen is capacitive, moving around is that bit easier and the Torch supports pinch-to-zoom motions too.

Considerations

Another highlight of the BlackBerry Torch 9800 is its media abilities. The camera has been improved to 5-megapixels and comes with a flash and continuous autofocus for taking high-quality pictures. However, it’s a shame the video is only capable of VGA resolution – the same as on the lower-end BlackBerry, Pearl 3G – and the screen, while good, is not in the same league as the Galaxy S’s Super AMOLED screen or the iPhone 4’s Retina display, and lacks that “wow factor” when viewing videos.

Verdict

The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is a refreshing smartphone from RIM. It brings you all that makes the BlackBerry so desirable – including BlackBerry Messenger and BlackBerry Desktop Software 6 with integrated media sync – and adds the new BlackBerry 6 OS, a touchscreen and slide-down QWERTY on top. Whether you want this phone for business use or to replace your current social networking-enabled handset, the Torch looks set to be a popular choice.