Hands-on with the RIM BlackBerry Torch from AT&T

RIM's new BlackBerry Torch 9800 launches this week on AT&T and we have an evaluation unit in hand to check out for a bit. The hardware offers the best of a touchscreen and a QWERTY keyboard, but is that enough today?

The RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800 was announced last week with availability in just a couple of days on AT&T. The BB Torch comes in a form factor that I personally find quite attractive with a full capacitive touchscreen and a hardware QWERTY keyboard so you get the best of both worlds in one device. An evaluation unit just arrived last night so I have spent a few hours checking it out and am including a basic walk around and my first impressions below. For an in-depth full review of the Torch I highly recommend you check out the Crackberry.com review. You can find a few product photos in my image gallery to go along with my hands-on video below. I have owned BlackBerry devices in the past and am very curious to see if this form factor could possibly bring me back to RIM.


Image Gallery: Check out some photos and screenshots of the RIM BlackBerry Torch from AT&T.
Image Gallery: BB Torch in hand
Image Gallery: Typical Home screen panel

In the box and first impressions of the hardware

The RIM BlackBerry Torch is launching first only on AT&T here in the US and I sure hope it launches on other carriers sooner rather than later because I won't even consider it unless it comes to T-Mobile. The retail package is compact and includes images of the Torch in portrait slid up mode and in landscape mode. Inside you will find the Torch 9800, 3.5mm stereo headset, charger and USB cable, battery, 4GB microSD card, polishing cloth, BB User Tools CD, and some booklets.

The Torch looked similar to the Storm when I first opened the box, but I was glad to see the optical trackpad centered below the display. The Torch felt like a BlackBerry Bold 9700 in my hand when I took it out of the box with a size that is very similar, but with a weight over an ounce more. I immediately slid up the display to check out the keyboard and for the most part like what I see with a keyboard similar to the Bold 9700. The ridge below the keyboard gives you a place to hold the device in place with your thumbs when you two hand it. You can still use the Torch with a single hand, but it requires a bit of balancing of the display and is not quite as easy as the front facing QWERTY devices like the Bold. I like the rubberized back of the Torch and the device feels to be built very well.

Specifications

Specifications for the RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800 include the following:
  • RIM BlackBerry 6 OS
  • 624 MHz processor
  • Quad-band GSM and tri-band UMTS
  • Slide up display revealing a full QWERTY keyboard
  • 3.2 inch 480x360 capacitive touch display
  • 5 megapixel camera with flash
  • 512MB Flash memory, 4GB integrated memory, and microSD card slot
  • 802.11 b/g/n WiFi
  • Bluetooth and GPS
  • 1300 mAh battery
  • Dimensions: 4.37 x 2.44 x 0.57 inches and 5.68 ounces

Looking at the specifications for the Torch, there is nothing particularly impressive with the only standout really being the BlackBerry 6 operating system. The processor is not as powerful, the display is a bit lower resolution, and the integrated memory is less than the latest high end smartphones launching from Apple, HTC, Motorola, Samsung, and others. That said, it is the most powerful BlackBerry device to date and probably considered the best ever BlackBerry as well.

Walk around the hardware

The front of BlackBerry Torch is dominated by the 3.2 inch display. While the resolution is not as good as the latest smartphones, it still looks excellent to me and is the same as what we see on the Bold 9700 and Storm. 800x480 would have been even better for RIM and would have probably satisfied reviewers looking at the device. Below the display you will find the typical four BlackBerry buttons that are flush with each other, but they do have tactical feedback when you press them in. There is an optical trackpad in the center too that works very well.

Sliding up the display reveals a full QWERTY keyboard that appears to be very similar to the Bold 9700. There is a lip at the bottom where you can rest your thumbs and enough room below the display to easily type away on the upper row of characters. I read lots of feedback from smartphone and BlackBerry enthusiasts that state the BB QWERTY keyboards are the best there is, but I have to say the T-Mobile Nokia E73 Mode (E71 and E72 too) easily beat these BB keyboards with dedicated @ , . ? ' ! and Ctrl buttons. I hate that I have to first hit the Alt key on a BB to enter these common punctuation symbols and find them less efficient than the Nokia ones.

On the top you will find the now typical lock and ringer buttons that are integrated into the frame.

The 3.5mm headset jack, volume buttons, and convenience key (set to camera by default) are all found on the right side of the Torch. The microUSB port is the only thing on the left side with nothing at all on the bottom.

The 5 megapixel camera and flash light are found along the top back of the Torch with the rubber battery cover taking up 7/8 of the back.

The hardware feels good in your hand and appears to be very well constructed, which is typical for RIM. The slider is solid and locks into open and closed position with it resting on the ridge when closed. The silver frame is attractive and the coating around the Torch helps you grip and hold onto it easily.

Walk through the software

I am used to turning on a new device running Android, Symbian, iOS, Windows Mobile, and webOS then entering my Exchange account information and seeing my email, contacts, and calendar data appear within seconds that I was disappointed to see this is not possible on RIM BlackBerry devices. I understand that RIM has their BES solution competing with Exchange ActiveSync and they will probably never support EAS, but there are many of us from small companies that already have Exchange servers and are not switching to support a few BlackBerry phones.

Forgetting about my personal preference for EAS, the setup process with the new setup process with BlackBerry 6 is similar to what you see with new account setup on Google Android devices. You start with email and select an Internet or BES account with the Internet settings including Yahoo!, Gmail, Windows Live, and other POP/IMAP accounts. There are setup options for BBM, IM, social networks (including Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace), Bluetooth, WiFi, ring tones, wallpaper, date and time, and more. I was very pleased to see RIM pull all of these customization settings into one slick setup interface page rather than their previous lame text-based confusing settings system.

After setup you will see a revamped home screen with profile, search, and wireless connection icons for quick access to these functions. Notifications appear below the time in the center of the display and tapping on them opens up a preview screen listing all of the notifications, similar to what you see on Android devices. Along the bottom is a new launcher tray that can be slid up and down one row of icons at a time with 0 to 4 rows showing. This is like a reverse shade seen on Android and is much more controllable. Sliding left and right from the default view of the tray you can slide to All, Favorites, Media, Downloads, and Frequent apps so you can quickly get to the apps you want.

In addition to the user interface elements of BB 6, the other major improvement (and one that has been the weakest part of BB) is in the web browser. RIM purchased Torch Mobile, they had the Iris web browser, and named this new device after them since the browser is a focus of this device. The new web browser is a WebKit-based browser similar to what we see on Symbian, Android, and iOS devices. Tabbed browsing, pinch and zoom, web shortcuts to the home page, and much more all work well on the BB Torch. Web browsing is really no longer an issue with BB 6 and the only thing I was left thinking was that it sure could be even better with a high resolution display.

You will also find new tap and hold menu options appearing throughout the operating system that provide a central nine square block of options. Landscape and portrait software QWERTY keyboards also appear if you have the slider closed.

I like seeing the Podcasts application in the media tab since I am a huge podcast fan and listen to them more than I do music. You will also find typical AT&T stuff, including AT&T Music, MobiTV, AT&T App Center, AT&T Maps & Nav, Mobile Banking, and more. Other apps on the BB Torch include Documents To Go, BB Messenger, IM apps (Windows Live, Yahoo!, Google Talk, and AIM), BB App World, Slacker Radio link, YouTube, and more.

Pricing and availability

The RIM BlackBerry Torch will be available only from AT&T at first for $199.99 with a 2-year contract or extension. There is no word whether other US carriers will get the Torch, but you can be sure at least one in Canada will get it soon too.

Final first thoughts

As you can see in my video, the Torch locked up on me and I actually had to pull the battery to get things up and running again. I tried taking photos earlier too and it would only capture video. After the battery pull and reset the camera started working again. I have noticed a bit of sluggishness from time to time after getting several apps loaded up and wonder if there is a specific hardware issue with this device or if the OS is having a bit of trouble managing RAM and too many open programs.

I plan to spend a lot more time with the Torch as I check out what was updated in BB 6 and if the Torch would work for me if it came to T-Mobile. If you are an AT&T customer who likes BlackBerry devices it seems to me that this is a no-brainer upgrade for you and should be the BB standard bearer for a while.