RIM dips its toe into the modern age
The Torch 9800 is simultaneously a departure from, and a clinging embrace of, the form and function that has helped make BlackBerry the most popular smartphone platform over the last five years.
The phone’s biggest innovation is a 3.5-inch capacitive touch screen display that shares hands-on interface duties with RIM’s familiar slider keyboard. BlackBerry loyalists who’ve come to appreciate the speed and tactile comfort of this signature keyboard will appreciate that it hasn’t changed. As a general rule, we too like sliders because they enable speedy long-form prose.
The Torch is also the first BlackBerry to include RIM’s just-released BlackBerry 6 OS. Unfortunately, the new software is paired with old hardware, and the marriage leaves something to be desired. Simply put, we would have liked increased performance to go with RIM’s efforts toward increased usability.
The CPU is the same 3-year-old 624MHz Marvell PXA310 that was in the BlackBerry Bold, and it feels overmatched by the new OS. During testing, our phone consistently exhibited sluggish screen refreshes, stuttering transitions between apps, and lag between actions. The slowdowns weren’t so bad that we wanted to toss the phone into a drink blender, but compared to the speed of the iPhone and Incredible interfaces, the Torch’s performance pretty much sucks. We expect performance to improve over time as the OS is updated, but still.
Like most phones, the Torch comes with 512MB of system memory. That’s dandy, but perhaps the most damning evidence of the phone’s old-school design is that it comes with just 4GB of onboard storage memory—in the form of a micro SD card.
Now, there is an upside to old hardware: outstanding battery life. We were able to get close to 48 hours without a charge. We also found this smartphone to perform admirably as, well, just a basic phone. It has a nice, solid feel when you hold it, and provides excellent call quality. The extended battery life only cements the Torch’s utility as something you primarily use for phone calls and texting.
With the addition of new top-level functionality, RIM’s BlackBerry 6 interface feels quite foreign at first. You can now scroll laterally through various home screens, and quickly access Wi-Fi settings, your clock, and more by clicking at the top of the screen. Best of all, you can access a comprehensive stream of email, SMS texts, and social networking updates with one finger.
As you get closer to the operational level of the OS, however, the interface feels more familiar. This might actually suit existing users, who by now have become inured to the Byzantine logic of changing notifications, profile settings, app settings, and more. Nonetheless, Apple’s and Android’s settings are still much easier to navigate, and it’s not like RIM’s confusing interface gives you deeper layers of customization.
We were frustrated to discover that many incompatibilities and glitches continue to haunt the platform. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t install either the Amazon Marketplace or Kindle apps, and the GPS remains notoriously slow to initialize. Then there are the sluggish data transfer rates caused by AT&T. It’s funny: We accepted problems like these for years until Android and non-AT&T carriers showed us otherwise.
On the plus side, we love BB6’s new media player, which is so easy to use, the Torch becomes a viable iPod replacement. We also dig the 5MP camera. It takes excellent photographs, even in low-light situations, and makes sharing photos a very simple process. Finally, like all BlackBerry phones, the Torch offers the best personal security, thoroughly encrypting all data that goes to and from BlackBerry servers. If you already love BlackBerry phones, keyboards, and security, and if you don’t care about apps and gaming, the Torch 9800 is a great choice. But in an era of faster, easier, and more well-rounded devices, it feels antiquated.
This review is part of a Maximum Tech smartphone roundup.