As the displays on smartphones keep growing, the diminutive 2.8-inch screens on BlackBerrys have felt more and more antiquated. The BlackBerry Torch 9850 is RIM's attempt to stay relevant in the eyes of Android shoppers. The company's follow-up to the lackluster BlackBerry Storm line sports a 3.7-inch touchscreen and costs $149 with contract on Sprint. The Torch also has world phone capability, which the globetrotting set will love. Should consumers warm up to the Torch?
With a weight of 4.8 ounces and a thickness of 0.5 inches, the Torch 9850 cuts a svelte figure that's accented by soft lines and smooth curves. When the phone is held in portrait mode, the right and left edges are rounded, but the top and bottom taper to a fairly sharp point. It's a much sleeker design than the Storm and Storm 2, RIM's previous all-touchscreen phones.
A large glossy 3.7-inch display is surrounded by a glossy black bezel. The lock/unlock button hides inconspicuously atop the phone. A small narrow speaker bar and a chrome BlackBerry logo rest above the display. Below the display sit the familiar Send, Menu, Escape, and End/Power buttons and a small optical trackpad surrounded by chrome.
The Torch 9850's rear features a single chrome strip that gently wraps around the phone's periphery. A gray soft-touch back with a chrome BlackBerry insignia covers the majority of the Torch's back. Pushing a small button below the door reveals the 1230 mAh lithium-ion battery, the 4GB microSD card, and a SIM card slot. Just above the door rests a 5-megapixel camera and flash.
A headphone jack along with the volume and mute/play/pause button resides on the right side of the 9850, in addition to a convenience button that can be used to launch an app of your choice. (By default, it's set to launch the camera app.) The buttons are all quite thin, which normally would be a cause for concern, but their rubber coating makes them easy to press. The left side of the Torch is empty save for the microUSB port.
Display and Touchscreen
Instead of BlackBerry's trademark 2.8-inch display, the Torch 9850 has a roomier 3.7-inch touchscreen with a resolution of 800 x 480. The display was viewable even in direct sunlight. Indoors, we saw a bright picture with crisp menus and app icons, as well as sharp text on The New York Times mobile site. The YouTube HD Columbiana trailer had vivid reds and oranges. Over 3G, there was too much pixelation, but playback was seamless over Wi-Fi.
The capacative touchscreen was highly responsive. Zooming in and out of photos with two fingers was quick, and highlighting text was as simple as pressing two fingers over the intended word or phrase.
The Torch's touch keyboard isn't the best we've used. It was relatively fast, but it's quite narrow in portrait mode, which resulted in some typos. We made fewer errors in landscape mode. Unlike the Storm and Storm 2, the Torch lacks haptic feedback, which may turn some users off. You can activate the key tone sound under Settings, but it's an annoying beep that we would avoid. Also, you won't find any long-press shortcuts for numbers or other special symbols on the layout.
Software and Interface
Running BlackBerry 7 OS, the Torch 9850 features multiple screens for rapid app navigation as well as an HTML-enhanced web browser. There are also plans for NFC (Near Field Communication) support. A large clock resides at the top of the home screen above the notifications tab, the sound options, and voice search icons. Tapping the notifications tab displays e-mail previews, missed calls, upcoming events, and social networking status updates.
The app menu at the bottom of the screen is slick and intuitive. Swiping up on the app screen displays the app icons on a 4 x 5 grid. We were able to get a smaller grid depending on how far up we pulled the bar. Scrolling left or right shows apps broken into several categories including Downloads, Favorites, Frequent, and Media.
Using the Torch's optical trackpad to navigate was as smooth and easy as it has been on other BlackBerry devices, but we can't help but feel it's redundant given the Torch's touchscreen.
One annoying holdover from earlier BlackBerry software is that you need to save your selections in the options menu before they take effect. Changing options alone should be enough.
Of all the apps pre-installed on the Torch 9850, Wikitude is by far the coolest. Using augmented reality to see what other BlackBerry users said about our favorite restaurants and other New York City hotspots was really fun and engaging.
In addition, RIM bundled this smartphone with BlackBerry Protect, which provides the ability to back up, lock, and wipe the handset remotely. We used Documents to Go to view and edit documents and spreadsheets. MemoPad came in handy for jotting down quick reminders and to-do notes. While we liked getting news, playing games, and the ability to search flights and hotels using Pocket Express, we didn't appreciate the lengthy load times.
Sprint also includes the Sprint Football Live app; in addition to our team's schedule, we were able to check out the weekly odds, current standings, and Twitter feeds from the team and individual players. You also get a rich Fantasy Football experience with four different leagues and stat trackers. NASCAR fans will enjoy the same depth of coverage in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Mobile app, also pre-loaded on the Torch.
While you can find popular apps such as Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, BlackBerry's App World continues to lag behind the Android Market and the Apple App Store, especially when it comes to compelling games.
E-mail, Messaging, and BBM
At their core, BlackBerrys are known for their messaging prowess, and the Torch 9850 is no different. The smartphone supports a whopping 10 e-mail accounts as well as Google Talk, Windows Live, and Yahoo Messenger. In addition to using the notifications tab, we were able to view our communications in a single stream or break them out into their corresponding accounts (Exchange, Gmail, and Yahoo). Social Feeds quickly became one of our favorite messaging features, since it condensed our social networking activity, RSS feeds, and our correspondences into one place.
BBM remains the go-to messaging app on BlackBerry. We quickly created groups and fired off photos and videos to fellow BBM users. We also appreciated BBM's deep Facebook integration. After linking our contacts in BBM and Facebook, we could see our friends' most recent updates just by clicking on a contact. Wikitude also allowed us to check what our BBM friends were saying neaby using augmented reality.
Specs and Performance
The Torch 9850 is powered by a 1.2-GHz Processor Qualcomm 8655 processor and 768MB of RAM, the same as in the BlackBerry Bold 9900. Launching and switching between apps was seamless, taking less than a second in most instances. We streamed tunes on Slacker Radio while playing a few lag-free rounds of BrickBreaker. We did, however, experience some lag while surfing the web.
Web Browsing and 3G Data
This BlackBerry isn't a 4G phone, and it showed in our testing. It took 6 minutes and 10 seconds to download and install Wikitude. Foursquare took even longer, at 7:18. We also experienced somewhat lengthy web page load times. The mobile versions of ESPN and The New York Times took 8.3 and 9.7 seconds, respectively, while the full version of Laptopmag.com took 32.4 seconds to load. The Shift 4G took between 6 and 7 seconds to load the mobile sites and 24 seconds to load Laptopmag.com.
For the most part, zooming in on sites was smooth, but zooming out gave us a momentary flash of gray and white checkerboard. Double-tapping on the screen to scale pages and text to a comfortable viewing size worked well in most cases. The best part of the web browser experience was the tab navigation. After tapping the numbered tab icon in the top right corner, we were able to add, delete, and scroll between tabs. Even with eight browser windows open, navigation was still smooth.
Sadly, the Torch lacks mobile hotspot capability.
The Torch comes with a mix of Sprint and third-party media apps. We alternated between Slacker Radio and Sprint Radio when we wanted to listen to a few jams. Sprint Radio was a favorite because we could listen to local stations as well premade channels.
Other media-centric apps include the Amazon-powered Music Store, Music (a simple music player), Podcasts, Sprint TV & Movies, and Videos. Unfortunately, Sprint TV & Movies was slow to load videos. ESPN Mobile TV looked blocky and blurry.
Camera and Camcorder
Taking photos with the Torch's 5-megapixel camera and flash was a blast. Images were bright, with vibrant colors and sharp details. Snapping photos in low-light situations initially resulted in grainy shots, but we were able to get better results after switching to the Night setting. We also liked the dedicated camera button on the side of the Torch; while small, this rubberized button launched the camera in about a second.
A 720p video of a dog filmed in natural light came out a little dark, but details were still sharp even when he started running towards us.
Calls and Battery Life
Whether we were in the office or on the street, our caller reported clear call quality with just the slightest hint of echo. Calls on the Torch 9850 came through loud and clear on our end, with only one instance of our caller fading in and out throughout the conversation. We used the speakerphone in the midst of preparing a meal, and our caller's voice came through loud and clear. While our caller was also able to hear us, the background noise eventually became too much of a distraction.
RIM claims that the Torch's 1230 mAh lithium-ion battery can get up to 5.8 hours of talk time. After we spent the day doing light web surfing, streaming music, watching videos, and updating a few of our social networks, the Torch had 30-percent power left (after being unplugged for 12 hours).
The $149 BlackBerry Torch 9850 is RIM's best attempt yet at wooing consumers who want a smartphone with a large display but don't want to give up BlackBerry standout features such as secure push e-mail and world phone capability. Still, RIM has a ways to go. For $99, shoppers can take home the EVO Shift 4G, which offers both a physical and a virtual keyboard as well as 4G data and Android's ever-expanding Marketplace. Power users looking for a physical keyboard are better off with the Bold 9900 or 9930, but the Torch is a pretty good choice for those who want the BlackBerry experience and a larger display.