BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

Summary: BlackBerry's latest answer to the iPhone and Android challenge has arrived. See how the BlackBerry Torch 9800 measures up.

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BlackBerry's latest answer to the iPhone and Android challenge has arrived. It's called the BlackBerry Torch 9800 and it is the first of Research in Motion's new smartphones running the BlackBerry 6 OS. There are some critical improvements to the platform that make BlackBerry a more viable competitor to iPhone and Android, and there are still some things BlackBerry does better than any other smartphone.

This is a far better product than BlackBerry's last "iPhone-killer," the Storm. But, there are also some key flaws that are holding it back.

Photo gallery

BlackBerry Torch 9800: Unboxing and photos next to iPhone, Bold, and EVO

Specifications

  • Carrier: AT&T
  • OS: BlackBerry 6
  • Processor: 624 MHz
  • RAM: 512 MB
  • Storage: 4 GB built-in + 4 GB microSD (expandable to 32GB)
  • Display: 3.2-inch 360x480 capacitive touchscreen
  • Battery: Lithium Ion 1270mAh
  • Ports: Micro-USB
  • Weight: 5.68 ounces
  • Dimensions: 4.37(h) x 2.44(w) x 0.57(d) inches (the height is 5.83 inches when open)
  • Camera: 5.0 megapixels, autofocus, 2x zoom, image stabilization, face detection
  • Sensors: GPS, accelerometer
  • Keyboard: 35-key QWERTY backlit slide-out keyboard; and both portrait and landscape virtual keyboards
  • Networks: GSM/GPRS/EDGE 850/900/1800/1900 MHz; UMTS 2100/1900/850/800 MHz
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n; Bluetooth 2.1
  • Tethering: USB
  • Price: $199 (with 2-year contract)

Who is it for?

BlackBerry has the reputation for being a corporate device, which has as much to do with its backend BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) as the smartphones themselves. With its focus on security and full synchronization with Microsoft Exchange email, calendar, contacts, and tasks, BES makes devices such as the BlackBerry Torch 9800 a business communications powerhouse.

However, in recent years, BlackBerry has also made inroads with consumers who primarily want a smartphone for text messaging and/or instant messaging. BlackBerry excels at those tasks because of its legacy for developing excellent smartphone keyboards for professionals who wanted mobile email. BlackBerry has also created its own IM platform called BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) that is arguably the best IM service/software for mobile devices.

What problems does it solve?

BlackBerry has been virtually synonymous with the smartphone industry itself for over a decade. However, while its sales have continued to grow in recent years, it has been under a massive innovation attack from iPhone and Android, both of which infused smartphones with touchscreens, usable Web browsers, and tons of third party apps. BlackBerry 6 is RIM's answer to the iPhone/Android challenge, and the BlackBerry Torch 9800 is the first BlackBerry 6 device.

Standout features

  • Touch + hardware interface - The unique value proposition of the BlackBerry Torch is that it combines a full touchscreen with a hardware keyboard. Other devices have tried this -- most recently the Palm Pre and the Motorola Droid -- but the Torch is the first one to truly pull it off. BlackBerry knows how to make great keyboards and the one on the Torch has a great feel to it, unlike the Pre or the Droid. The difference is that on the Torch, I found myself naturally moving between the touchscreen, the keyboard, and the touchpad, depending on which one was most effective for a given action.
  • Email and IM prowess - The high quality hardware keyboard makes the Torch a great device for email, text messaging, and IM because it gives most users a lower error rate for typing than a touchscreen keyboard. BlackBerry's built-in BBM is an awesome mobile IM client and service. And, BlackBerry 6 does some excellent unified inbox tricks -- it can even bring IMs, Twitter DMs, and Facebook mail.
  • Excellent build quality - When it comes to smartphones, some devices just feel solid in your hand while others feel cheap or plasticy. The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is one of the best devices I've had in my hand in 2010. I'd rank it right up there with the iPhone 4 and the Motorola Droid X as the current smartphones with the best build quality.

What's wrong?

  • Web inferiority - One of the biggest things that needed to be fixed in the BlackBerry platform was the abysmal Web experience. Up through BlackBerry OS 5, the buit-in Web browser was cumbersome to navigate and painfully slow to use. That's why RIM bought Torch Mobile and then integrated its Webkit browser into BlackBerry 6. The result is a much more usable Web experience on the BlackBerry Torch, but it's still not as good as iPhone or Android. Pages don't load as fast (that could be partially due to the Torch's underpowered CPU) and a lot of Web pages still recognize this as the old BlackBerry Web browser and so they display (crippled) text versions of their sites optimized for the legacy BlackBerry experience.
  • Underpowered hardware - The biggest disappointment with the Torch is the underpowered 624 MHz CPU. Since it's in the same price bracket as devices that almost all have a 1.0 GHz processor of one flavor or another, the Torch simply doesn't match up in this department and it shows in the sluggishness of several apps and menus. The same goes for the Torch's LCD display. It is solid, but not nearly as spectacular as the displays on the iPhone 4, HTC EVO 4G, or the Samsung Galaxy S -- all smartphones in the same price bracket
  • Minimal apps - BlackBerry has a long history of friendly relations with third party developers, which have built tens of thousands of business-specific apps over the past decade. Unfortunately, the platform itself and its development tools have a reputation for being less friendly for the actual coders. RIM is trying to change that -- it recently released a new Java SDK to support BlackBerry 6 and is launching App World 2.0 to compete with the Apple App Store and Android Market -- but it's got a lot of catching up to do. Some popular services (Evernote, Kindle, Yahoo Messenger, for example) have released BlackBerry apps but for many of the most popular and useful mobile apps, the BlackBerry platform is still an afterthought.

Bottom line for business

If I had gotten the BlackBerry Torch 9800 in my hands 12 months ago, I would have been dazzled by it. In fact, I probably would have made it my primary business device. However, that was before Android 2.0. It was before iOS 4. It was before the iPhone 4 and its impressive screen. It was before the Nexus One and the HTC EVO and the Samsung Galaxy S all raised the bar on Android devices. A lot has happened in the smartphone market in the past year.

Today, the Torch is pretty great, for a BlackBerry. It can rightly be called the best BlackBerry yet, but its best still doesn't quite measure up to iPhone or Android devices, especially in the critical areas of Web browsing and third party apps. The Torch is the best messaging (email, texting, and IM) device on the market. And, it's the best business smartphone for those companies that are still tied to BES for security and IT reasons.

So, in that sense, the BlackBerry Torch 9800 and the BlackBerry 6 OS should offer enough of a step forward to keep a lot of BlackBerry fans loyal to the platform, at a time when many of them have been considering whether they should jump to iPhone or Android. And, for those attracted to the Torch who don't want to use AT&T, you should expect to hear about more next-generation BlackBerry devices like the Torch on other wireless carriers in the near future.

Competitive products

Where to get more info

This article was originally published on TechRepublic.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, BlackBerry, Smartphones

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30 comments
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  • good product~~

    wow! blackberry 6, the new multimedia player and "universal search",that is so cool for Blackberry series .Blackberry finally begin to pay attention to themselves in entertainment and search function, but Compared with open and fashionable iphone,,there are still many
    needs to improve ,To tell you the truth, I prefer iphone and i am using iphone 4. meanwhile, combining my ANEESOFT iphone video converter, i really think my iphone 4 is perfect!!!
    xiaoa
    • RE: BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

      @xiaoa how's that antenna treating u?
      Eric12341
      • RE: BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

        @Eric12341 I have both a Droid X and an iPhone 4, both have weaknesses and dead spots and to be honest, Verizon's network isn't any better than AT&T's now because of all of the Android usage (this is based off usage in LA, NY, Vegas and DC).
        scherzva@...
    • RE: BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

      @xiaoa and @ZDNET: I've seen this ANEESOFT spam too many times now, this is proper astroturfing stuff. Can ZDNET do something about this?
      nicholas22
  • looks good but still no VGA

    seems that RIM still hasn't understood that WVGA devices are now dominating the market. if they want to regain some market share they have to make some higher resolution screens, at least VGA. this is what has kept me away from a blackberry and on windows for years. in fact I'm typing this on my touch pro2 right now.
    Eric12341
    • Re: looks good but still no VGA

      @Eric12341 Again, higher resolution is pointless. This is a business phone. The average user doesn't care about resolution or media options. They want a solid email & text phone with a long battery life and a compact footprint. If they want an Android or iPhone, they have one on a personal account.

      The speed is good enough for what this phone is designed to do, as is the resolution. Adding more would have only added price and degraded battery performance.
      ianarmstrong
  • Yawn, this is laughable. forward for blackberry maybe, backwards from every

    one else. Doing myself a favor, holding on to my money for 2 months and buying a WP7
    Johnny Vegas
  • Flash?

    Does the web browser allow flash?
    rsavage@...
    • RE: BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

      @rsavage@... Flash on a mobile device will be awful, too much bandwidth, thus the reason Apple blocks it. They care about the experience. My Droid X has issues with plan HTML at times.
      scherzva@...
      • RE: BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

        @scherzva@... Thanks. I know Apple's arguments, but I want to know if Blackberry attempted it.
        rsavage@...
      • RE: BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

        @scherzva@...
        Lol no the iphone cant handle flash and Steve jobs lives in his own world and doesnt play well with others. Flash works fine on new smartphones with snapdragon grade processors iphones cant even make phone calls now so your argument is that of someone who has a useless phone. RIM has promised flash fro almost 2 years now but neither Rim or adobe seem to much of a hurry. BLackberries biggest flaw is the RIM software and thier companys dinasaur approach and out of the times teams. Dump the RIM os and make modern phones or start closing up shop. I hate my current Bl;ackberry I use on boost but am upgrading to the evo 4g on boost.I also dont see how this is the best BB yet as its not I played with this phone and it freezes worse then most other BB phones, its slow, ugly and does almost nothing the best BB by far was the storm 2 which at least showed forward current thinking using inferior parts and os
        Fletchguy
      • RE: BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

        @scherzva@... Flash is downloaded, not streamed. The bandwidth required to download a flash swf wouldn't be much different than html images, scripts, etc to perform similar animation. The issue is rendering resources and perf.
        jivewire
    • RE: BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

      @rsavage@...
      I sure hope not
      Asiafish
  • It's a business phone, not a toy

    Having configured one of these for a lawyer in my office who has recently gone from the Blackjack back to a Blackberry, I can tell you the target Torch customer doesn't give two sh*ts about a larger screen, YouTube, or iPhone style games. What they want is a secure platform with fast & reliable mail that doesn't crash. They want a keyboard that is easy to type on and fast access to features like ring profiles. They want long batter life.

    A 1ghz+ processor on this phone would have been a pointless waste of money & battery life. The specs on the Torch are good enough for what the phone is designed to do. The people who are clamoring for this phone at my office aren't 35 & under media savvy social network addicts; and even if they are those folks have an Android or iPhone for personal use.

    To date I have neither seen nor experienced a published "con" with this phone that actually mattered to the people who have bought one.

    It's a business phone, not a toy, and until the media understands that they'll keep deriding the phone as "not quite good enough" while it sells right off the shelves and they have no idea why.
    ianarmstrong
    • Pretty much agree

      @ianarmstrong
      No one does email or IM better. You write an email to a colleague and/or they send it to you via the BB email, they hit send, it arrives. No waiting for the polling, etc. I use the IM client for business (enterprise approved no less) all the time.

      I will say though, and this will probably be solved by Opera Mini, surfing is abysmal pre 6.0. I use it for work a lot looking up info on our intranet and it was painful. I need to test drive the new OS to see if it works.

      I stopped by Best Buy (it wasn't active) and the form factor and size were awesome. I hope the roadmap for it coming to other carriers is leaked soon, I am not going with AT&T. I do know RIM is working with Adobe, so flash should come soon. There are some places you really need it.

      The problem of web sites rendering to pre 6.0 will change, the phone just came out, lol.

      My critical questions for it are, how is the camera quality. Trying to take a picture of serial numbers or part numbers in a customer lab is a waste of time with my old one, will it support UMA on T-Mobile (I use that all time, call quality is amazing all the time) and a would be nice, UMA BB phones don't have GPS (one replaces the other), will it have both on T-Mobile. (Aside, in Atlanta, how can there be 200 streets all named PeachTree, LOL).

      TripleII
      TripleII-21189418044173169409978279405827
      • Photo Quality

        @TripleII - I actually tested this. The tap-to focus is pretty good, far more accurate than my old iPhone 3G, which can't focus on anything closer than a meter with any sort of accuracy. The biggest problem I had with converting my first attorney to the BB was with bookmarks. There is no easy way to import bookmarks from FF, Chrome, or IE into the BB - which is insane.
        ianarmstrong
    • RE: BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

      @ianarmstrong<br><br>"Business phone" isn't good enough anymore. When the iPhone came out I thought "good, I don't need to carry a phone, mp3 player, and camera around separately." I need a business phone, <bold>and</bold> I need a toy. The product that combines them has the advantage. I'm not interested in carrying two phones.
      rsavage@...
    • RE: BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

      @ianarmstrong Couldn't have said it better myself, thanks!
      BDower
  • RE: BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

    Ian, I suspect you are correct in your assessment. That said, the 'target market' for this phone is much smaller than the total market for smart phones and it is shrinking as Androids and iPhones make inroads into the business market while totally dominating the consumer market. I think the point is that 'good enough' isn't cutting it much anymore. Blackberry's are not flying off the shelves as competition heats up. RIMs over all market share has taken a severe hit, even in the 'target market' it used to dominate.
    I'm a big fan of Chef Alton Brown, a perennial figure on the Food Channel. One of his pet peeves about kitchen gadgets is that there should be only one 'uni-tasker' in the kitchen and that is a fire extinguisher. All other kitchen devices should be multi-taskers. The Blackberry is rapidly becoming a uni-tasker in the face of what an iPhone or Android can do. That is narrowing that target market considerably.
    That said, I agree with Jason's assessment. RIM needs to be a little more pro-active in saving their own bacon. The tech world is littered with companies that were once unassailable and totally necessary and are now footnotes in tech history.
    (disclaimer: I like my iPhone, but believe that competition is an essential ingredient in a free market)
    dheady@...
  • RE: BlackBerry Torch 9800 review: Flawed, but a big step forward

    As a business user, I still dislike the notion of the Blackberry Enterprise Server ... one more server and platform to maintain and manage. Apple licensed MS's ActiveSync and connected their iPhone directly to the Exchange server. What a terrific solution! RIM, please take note.
    alan.douglas@...