BlackBerry Torch (9800) (AT&T) Review

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$199
Editors' rating:
The Pros

Multiple home screens and notification panel; Elegant design with physical keyboard; Sharp and fast 5-MP camera; Much improved web browser with tabs; Time-saving Social Feed app

The Cons

Sluggish at times; Low-resolution display; Doesn't support 720p video; Slower web surfing than iPhone 4

Verdict

With its revamped interface and improved web browser, the Torch is a mostly satisfying smart phone for work and play.

While the Storm was a bold departure for RIM, the Torch represents a highly refined version of what BlackBerry owners have come to know and love. The welcome but not-too-extreme makeover starts with BlackBerry 6, a new OS that features a modern-looking interface with multiple home screens, a much improved WebKit browser, and a Social Feed app that aggregates Facebook, Twitter, and RSS updates. Yes, the Torch ($199 at AT&T) is the first slider design from the company, but underneath the touchscreen resides a relatively comfortable keyboard that will make e-mail and BBM addicts feel right at home. In some ways, though, this smart phone feels stuck in the past, including its low-resolution display and somewhat sluggish processor. So is this wireless equivalent of high-end comfort food good enough to compete against the iPhone 4 and the latest Google-powered superphones, or has RIM's efforts fallen short?

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Design

When we look at the Torch we can't help but wonder how much better the Palm Pre could have been if RIM designed the hardware. They're both sliders, but this BlackBerry looks and feels like a more premium device. From the dark chrome accents to the soft touch, ribbed battery cover, this smart phone just feels great in the hand. The sliding action also feels sturdier than the Pre--even if it requires a little more effort than we prefer. Weighing in at 5.7 ounces, the Torch is heavier than the iPhone 4 (4.8 ounces) and Samsung Captivate (4.5 ounces), but its shorter stature makes it pocket-friendly.

A 3.2-inch touchscreen display dominates the front of the Torch, but RIM saw fit to include an optical trackpad for finer movements. While the latter worked well for the most part, in some cases we had to swipe up or down more than once for the phone to register our movements. (Increasing the sensitivity in the settings menu helped.) Underneath the screen you'll find the typical quartet of BlackBerry buttons: Call, Menu, Back, and End. These buttons have a flush surface, but they depress slightly when activated.

RIM keeps things simple around the edges of the Torch. The right side houses two rubberized volume buttons along with a camera launch/shutter key. A lone microUSB port is on the left. The lock and mute buttons line the top of the phone. Around back is the 5-megapixel camera and flash, along with an easy-to-remove battery cover. Underneath this cover you'll find a microSD Card slot you can swap out without removing the battery first--the way it should be.

Keyboards

If you're going to create a slider design, the keyboard underneath the screen has to be worth the constant effort to access it. And the Torch doesn't disappoint. Although we found the keys small at first, they were comfortable to press. We made very few typos as we responded to e-mails, entered URLs, and created notes, and we were able to enter text at a pretty fast clip. The backlight for the keyboard is nice and bright.

RIM also includes a bare-bones touch keyboard that feels a bit like an afterthought. It's almost as if the designers said, "If you insist!" Unlike other smart phones, the Torch doesn't present alternate suggestions as you type in this mode. We could type more quickly with this keyboard than the physical one, but we made more errors.

Display

This is where the Torch starts to feel like a throwback compared to competing smart phones. For starters, the 3.2-inch display is smaller than the iPhone 4 (3.5 inches) and the highest-end Android devices (4 inches and up). More important, this screen sports a relatively low resolution of 480 x 360 pixels, which pales in comparison to the iPhone (960 x 640) and Motorola Droid X (854 x 480). We definitely noticed the difference when viewing websites. Even in landscape mode, text on pages looked fuzzy until we zoomed in. On the plus side, the Torch's display is colorful and bright, and it's fairly easy to view outdoors.

Specs and Performance

With a 624-MHz processor and 512MB of RAM under the hood, the Torch doesn't have as much muscle as the latest 1-GHz Android phones or the A4 chip inside the iPhone 4. The device opened apps fairly quickly, but we saw the dreaded clock icon (which tells you the device is working) more than a few times during our testing. For example, the Torch would sometimes briefly freeze when attempting to zoom in on a photo. We also noticed some lag when swiping through the various home screens. The Torch isn't slow--it's just not as snappy as we'd like.

We also encountered some bugs when using this phone. For example, on more than one occasion the home screen was entirely blank, and another time YouTube videos wouldn't play because "the device media processor is busy." This error message popped up because we had the PrimeTime2Go app running in the background, but shouldn't the media processor/OS be smart enough to pause running this task?

As far as storage goes, the Torch comes with 4GB of installed memory (so you'll have plenty of room for apps), plus a 4GB microSD Card for a total of 8GB. You can expand that to a total of 32GB.


BlackBerry 6 OS

What makes the Torch really stand out versus previous RIM devices is the new BlackBerry 6 operating system. The first change you'll notice is the revamped home screen, which makes everything easier to access. It starts with the Navigation Bar, which shows four of your programs by default (including Messages, Text Messages, Contacts, and Browser). This is the All view; swiping up will let you see more apps. Swiping to the left or right presents other views, including Downloads, Favorites, Frequent, and Media. We especially like the Favorites view; you can add something to this menu just by pressing and holding on a program's icon, then selecting Mark as Favorite.

Another highlight of BlackBerry 6 is the Notification Bar, which lets you view everything from messages and social networking updates to upcoming appointments in one list. This feature looks cleaner than what Android phones offer, but we wish you could access it across the device, as opposed to just on the home screen.

Although it borrows a page from the webOS playbook, the Universal Search tool is one of our favorite BlackBerry 6 features. Just press the search icon on the home screen or start typing on the slide-out keyboard, and you'll see the Torch try to narrow your results using apps, contacts, messages, calendar entries, and media. You can continue your search online via Google and YouTube, and even via third-party apps like Slacker.

To help streamline your social networking life, the Social Feeds feature combines updates from Twitter and Facebook (and MySpace, for those who still use it), as well as instant messaging services (AIM, Google Talk, Windows Live, Yahoo). You can either view all of these updates on one screen, or look at them individually on separate screens and swipe through them. When creating a new post, you can broadcast your own update to multiple services at once just by checking them off, which helps save time. When you click on an update, you'll be taken to the corresponding BlackBerry app, where you can reply or comment. Social Feeds also helps you skim through your favorite RSS feeds, and adding one is as easy as entering the site's address.

BlackBerry 6 has lots of other little enhancements, including the ability to add your favorite people or websites to one of the home screens and a redesigned application switcher that makes it easy to multitask. However, we wish you could close apps using this view. We also would like the OS more if it merged duplicate contacts.

Overall, BlackBerry 6 makes the Torch the most versatile BlackBerry yet, but there's a reason RIM includes tutorial videos. There's a learning curve here.

Web Browsing

It's about time. Thanks to its acquisition of Torch Mobile, RIM has finally brought a proper WebKit-based browser to the BlackBerry platform. The results are mostly good, with the Torch able to display sites that look nearly identical to what you'll find on the desktop. Our favorite new feature is tabbed browsing. By touching the New Tab icon in the top right-hand corner of the screen you'll be able to quickly add new tabs and scroll through thumbnails of open sites without having to leave the page you're visiting.

Although full HTML sites look fine on the Torch, the device was a bit slow to zoom in when we used the pinch gesture. We also noticed that it took a couple of seconds for text to sharpen when we zoomed. Scrolling was sometimes smooth, but in other cases the dreaded clock icon would rear its ugly head, temporarily interrupting our surfing pleasure.

Page load times weren't great. It took the Torch 8 seconds to load CNN's mobile site, 12 seconds to load ESPN Mobile, and 40 seconds to load Laptopmag.com. The iPhone 4 loaded all the same sites much faster (6, 5, and 19 seconds, respectively). Over Wi-Fi--the Torch supports 802.11b/g/n--the phone was faster but still trailed the iPhone 4 by 5 seconds or more in most cases.

E-mail and Messaging

This is still the biggest reason to get a BlackBerry. Like all RIM devices, the Torch downloads new e-mails automatically, and setup remains a breeze. Within seconds new messages from our Gmail account were flowing into our inbox. We appreciated that we could set up instant messaging services within the e-mail wizard. Attachment support remains strong, and we like that WebKit renders messages with HTML, so the experience feels less phone-like and similar what you get on the desktop. Searching your inbox is also quite fast.

As mentioned above, the Torch comes preloaded with AIM, Google Talk, Windows Live, and Yahoo for instant messaging. Whether you're using BBM or text messaging, the Torch supports group messaging for up to 10 people, and allows users to share not just words but pictures and videos.

Maps and GPS

The Torch comes with AT&T Maps and AT&T Navigator ($9.99 per month) to help you get your bearings and to deliver turn-by-turn directions. Both apps are powered by TeleNav. In our tests, AT&T Maps pinpointed our location quickly, but searches for local businesses took 5 to 10 seconds, longer than Google Maps. As you would expect, you can call businesses or navigate to them directly from AT&T Maps. Oddly, favorites saved in Maps didn't show up in Navigator. Voice directions sounded loud and clear through the Torch's speaker.

Apps

You don't need to tell RIM that BlackBerry App World (about 9,000 apps) lags behind Android (70,000+) and iOS (225,000+). That's probably why the Torch comes preloaded with so many apps. The device includes Facebook and Twitter, plus a mix of apps for work and play. For example, the Torch has Bloomberg Mobile, Documents to Go, Podcast, and Slacker apps. As mentioned above, AT&T bundles the Torch with its own maps and navigation software, as well as other paid services like AT&T Music and MobiTV.

Other preloaded apps are just shortcuts to mobile websites. But whether they're real apps or not, the Torch forces you to click through an annoying third-party software agreement every single time you decide to install one of the preloaded programs. Why can't users just do this once?

App World itself now supports carrier billing, which is a major plus. However, we don't understand why AT&T saw fit to include its own app store on the phone. If you're looking for compelling games, look elsewhere. The included copy of Sonic 2 is awful, and App World continues to lack compelling 3D titles.

Camera and Camcorder

The Torch's 5-MP camera snapped photos quickly and delivered crisp and colorful images, especially outdoors. A shot of a fruit stand on a cloudy day still popped when we viewed it on our desktop, and the phone also did a good job of capturing a moving taxi. 

RIM includes several scene modes to help you get the best shot, from Face Detection and Portrait to Close-up and Party. The LED flash worked pretty well indoors, so long as your subject is close.

The camcorder's VGA resolution trails the iPhone 4 and Android phones in its price range, as those devices handle 720p. However, the footage we recorded in New York City looked fairly smooth and detailed. Too bad you can't upload clips directly to YouTube from within the camcorder app; you have to use the separate YouTube mobile site.

When viewing photos, we noticed that it took a while for images to redraw when zooming in with a pinch gesture. However, the sharing options here are more plentiful, including Twitter and Facebook.

Music and Video

RIM has graced its music player with a Cover Flow-like makeover, making album art more prominent. The presentation looks slicker, and you can even sync your collection over Wi-Fi with a desktop PC using the Remote Media Sync feature. You can also subscribe to everything from NPR and The Onion to Crackberry.com in the Podcast app. The best audio experience on the Torch comes via Slacker, which is preinstalled. It's easy to create personalized stations, and you can cache these stations for offline listening for an extra $3.99 for month. Audio sounded louder and richer through the Torch's speaker than the iPhone 4.

On the video front, the YouTube app is just a redirect to the mobile site, but we found the playback to be adequate when we fired up theTron: Legacy trailer. More compelling is the PrimeTime2Go app, which, for $9.99 per month, lets you download TV favorites like 30 Rock and The Daily Show. The video quality was impressive, but we were annoyed by constant reminders to turn the phone from landscape mode to portrait mode and back again (when switching between browsing for content and playback).

Call Quality and Battery Life

As with most BlackBerry devices, the Torch delivered clear and reliable call quality in New York and New Jersey. When making calls on the street (with background noise) we wished there was a bit more volume on our end of the line, but overall other callers preferred the sound of our voice on this phone to the iPhone 4. Plus, the Torch has a superior speaker, making it a better choice for conference calls (not to mention GPS and music).

The Torch also lasted longer on a charge than the iPhone 4. After unplugging the device at 1 p.m. and then using the phone pretty heavily throughout the rest of the day for navigation, web surfing, streaming Slacker, and taking pictures, we still had a quarter of the battery life remaining by 8 p.m. The Torch has a rated talk time of 5.5 hours and a standby time of 17 days.

Verdict

RIM likes to call the Torch the best BlackBerry ever. That's true, but it's also arguably the third best smart phone on AT&T's network, behind the iPhone 4 and Samsung Captivate. That's because the Torch's hardware has trouble keeping up with the software at times, and the low-res screen is a bit of a turn-off. On the other hand, thanks to its improved interface, revamped web browser, and other enhancements in the BlackBerry 6 OS, the Torch will win over avid BlackBerry fans looking for more fun and functionality. It's a mostly satisfying work-and-play smart phone.

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Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
Carrier AT&T
Form Factor Slider
Operating System BlackBerry 6
Networks UMTS: 2100/1900/850/800 MHz GSM/GPRS/EDGE: 850/90/1800/1900MHz
CPU 624-MHz
RAM 512MB
Internal Memory 4GB
Memory Expansion Type microSDHC
Display (main) 3.2 inches/480 x 360
Display (secondary)
GPS Yes
Bluetooth Type Bluetooth 2.1 EDR with A2DP
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n
Camera Resolution 5 MP
Audio formats supported MP3
Audio formats supported FLAC
Audio formats supported eAAC+
Audio formats supported AMR-NB
Audio formats supported WMV
Audio formats supported AAC+
Audio formats supported WMA
Audio formats supported AAC
Audio formats supported OGG
Video formats supported WMV
Video formats supported MPEG-4
Video formats supported H.264
Video formats supported H.263
Talk / Standby Time 5.5 hours/17 days
Ports microUSB
Size 4.4 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches
Weight 5.7 ounces
SAR Rating (Head)
SAR Rating (Body)
Company Website http://www.wireless.att.com