Caption by: Sandra Vogel
Before its recent much-publicised service outage, RIM announced a range of new smartphones running version 7 of the BlackBerry OS. We've already looked at the Bold 9900 and the slider-format Torch 9810. Now it's the turn of the most widely anticipated new handset — the large-screen, keyboard-free Torch 9860. RIM has stumbled with this format in the past. Has it overcome the problems this time round?
With no keyboard at all, you might be forgiven for not recognising the Torch 9860 as a RIM device — at least at first glance. However, beneath the screen are four familiar buttons: Call, End (the latter doubling as the on/off switch), Back and the distinctive BlackBerry menu button inside. In the centre of this quartet is the small optical touchpad that's graced recent BlackBerry smartphones.
The Torch 9860 is a solidly built handset with a large metal backplate and tough front screen bezel and sides. At 135g it's not heavy, nor is it oversized at 120mm by 62mm by 11.5mm. The top and bottom edges are tapered, which gives the device an attractive look but rules out any ports or connectors.
The BlackBerry Torch 9860 has a 3.7in. touchscreen, lacks a keyboard and weighs 135g
The top edge does offer a screen lock button, but the headphone jack is on the upper right edge — an awkward location because a connected headset adds width and can snag in the pocket. The microUSB power connector is on the left edge; again, we prefer a top or bottom location for this.
These are problems we've encountered before and RIM needs to consider the trade-off between the aesthetics of curved upper and lower edges and good ergonomics.
A volume rocker sits on the right edge, with a small mute button in the centre. There's also a configurable convenience key on this edge, which by default launches the 5-megapixel rear camera.
All these side buttons are tiny — little more than slight protuberances on a narrow rubbery strip that sits between the backplate and the sides of the phone. We found them extremely awkward to use.
There's better news concerning the screen, which measures 3.7in. across the diagonal and has a resolution of 480 by 800 pixels. RIM's first touchscreen outings were the Storm and Storm 2, both of which featured the unpopular SurePress system.
This time, RIM has gone with the flow and employed a classic capacitive touchscreen that's comfortable and responsive. We like the way the left and right long edges of the handset curve slightly. This makes sweeping the screen feel very comfortable. The screen is bright too — perhaps a little too bright in low light conditions.
RIM has learned the hard way that users won't settle for less than top-notch specifications. The Torch 9860 has a 1.2GHz Qualcomm MSM8655 processor, 768MB of RAM and 4GB of user-accessible storage. That can be boosted with microSD cards, although it's annoying that you have to remove the battery to access the card slot. Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n), Bluetooth (2.1) and GPS are all present, along with quad-band GSM and HSPA mobile broadband at 14.4Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up.
BlackBerry 7 OS, which we have discussed in our reviews of the Bold 9900 and Torch 9810, feels easier to handle on the Torch 9860's larger screen. The Torch 9810's screen 3.2in. measures and delivers 640 by 480 pixels, while the Torch 9860's, as noted above, is 3.7in. and 480 by 800 pixels. Sliding app menus up and down, moving around in web pages and email all feel a lot more intuitive on the new device.
The Torch 9860's 3.7in., 480-by-800-pixel display makes for a better on-screen keyboard experience
The on-screen keyboard benefits from the larger display too — and when you've no hardware alternative that really matters. Omitting the superbly designed BlackBerry keyboard on the Torch 9860 is a brave move by RIM.
RIM has tried hard to make this work, and we found the virtual keyboard responsive to the touch. There's the option of a two-character per button 'reduced keyboard' in portrait mode to accommodate the limited screen space.
Tapping any text field calls up the keyboard, so getting started with typing is straightforward. A downward sweep shuts the keyboard down. If you're a fan of BlackBerry keyboard shortcuts, you can hit the BlackBerry menu button and choose Show Keyboard, then use the shortcuts. It's more long-winded than with a physical keyboard, but doable.
One area RIM can do nothing about in the absence of a physical keyboard is that it takes marginally longer to use the excellent universal search tool. The tool is here, but you need to tap the on-screen search icon to call up a keyboard, and then start tapping. Moreover, results are obscured slightly as the keyboard takes up slightly less than half the screen area in portrait mode, slightly more than half in landscape orientation.
One aspect of the Torch 9860 we had a problem with was its lack of Flash support. More than any other BlackBerry device, the Torch 9860 lends itself to web browsing. Its larger screen and higher resolution make this so. But without Flash it really is hamstrung.
Performance & battery life
The Torch 9860 has a 1,230mAh battery. RIM handsets usually deliver pretty good battery life, but the Torch 9860's large 3.7in. screen means you may need to factor in a daily charge — particularly if you're a heavy user of Wi-Fi, mobile broadband and/or GPS. If you're frugal, you should be able to get by for a couple of days between charges.
The 1.2GHz CPU had no problems driving OS 7 and the large screen, and we were perfectly happy with the Torch 9860's overall performance.
RIM has at last proved it can produce a workable toucscreen-only smartphone, finally laying the ghost of the Storm handsets to rest.
But in doing so it raises another spectre. We're so used to a widget-based screen system that, on a handset with a 3.7in. display we were surprised to be faced with a blank home screen that requires you to draw up application menus. At the very least we'd like calendar reminders and/or a much larger time and date display in the blank space.
Although the BlackBerry Torch 9860 is easy to use and responsive, we're not sure RIM is best serving the BlackBerry brand by jettisoning the physical keyboard.
Caption by: Sandra Vogel
Caption by: Sandra Vogel