If you're considering upgrading to a smartphone, you've undoubtedly come across the plethora of news articles and reviews for the iPhone and Android phones. What those news articles tend to gloss over is the fact that Research in Motion - BlackBerry's manufacturer - absolutely dominates the smartphone market. Nearly half of all smartphones sold are BlackBerrys. Combine that with a decade in the business; countless government, security, and business contracts; and a history of solid operating systems - you'd think RIM would get a little more love.
With the BlackBerry Torch 9800, RIM aims to get a little of that love back. The Torch is a hybrid of old and new, physical keyboard and touch screen, introducing new OS features while keeping the familiar BlackBerry feel. In short, if you're upgrading from a dumbphone to a smartphone, be prepared. RIM knows its smartphones.
The Torch features both a touch screen and a keyboard. BlackBerry users love their keyboard. Though at first glance, the keyboard seems small and cramped; once you use it for a while, you'll see how it's the perfect size for power texting. The touch screen uses an on-screen keyboard that takes some getting used to. In my experience, the trick is to trust the keyboard. I found that even more errors occurred when I was trying to fix a mistyped letter. The OS does a fairly good job of figuring out what you meant to type.
The important physical keys at the bottom are the BlackBerry (BB) key, the touch pad, and the Back key. While it's certainly possible to control the device using the touch screen alone, I find that I really like having the option to use either the touch screen, the physical key, or both. One notable exception, there is no touch screen control for Back; a control that I use quite frequently.
Learning to use a new phone can be a long and frustrating process. Add to that a device as advanced as a smartphone, and you could be looking at a very steep learning curve. BlackBerry has you covered. Found in setup, there are several tutorial videos to show you the basics of using your new device. There are no words, no lecture. Just watch, and you'll understand.
Smartphones are telephones; it's right there in the name. Not unexpectedly, the Torch performs well as voice communication device. Calls come through crystal clear, and signal strength almost always rebuilds itself quickly after falling.
The user experience on the Torch is a very fluid and well-designed experience; though at times the BlackBerry lags, especially on those very fluid screen transitions. For the most part, the new operating system glides through screens, photos, messages and so much more. In many ways, it is a very elegant OS.
Changing the settings on your old dumbphone was fairly difficult wasn't it? Digging down into menus - some with cryptic names - is a thing of the past. With BlackBerry's Quick Access Area, all your major settings and setups are found with the touch of a thumb. Wi-Fi access, Bluetooth, service status, and all the other settings can be changed here.
Underneath the Quick Access Area is the Notifications Bar. Here is where the different icons for new and unread emails, voicemails, text messages, Tweets, BBM messages, FaceBook updates, Windows Messenger chats, and many, many others will appear. Touching the Notifications Bar opens up a drop down list containing links to whatever is notifying you. One major disappointment with this feature is the inability to customize this feature. Filtering calendar appointments would be a nice addition. Hopefully, this will be theme- or application-customizable.
One of the nicest additions to the new OS is Universal search. From the home screen, just start typing. Your BlackBerry will search messages, contacts, phone logs, social media, and even settings to find what you're looking for. If it's not on your BlackBerry, you can search using YouTube, App World, Podcasts, Google, Yahoo, and a number of other search providers; all with a touch of a finger.
Keeping you connected is what BlackBerrys do best. For years, they've been top notch at getting your emails to you as quickly as possible. Now, the Torch comes ready to go with mobile apps for MySpace, FaceBook, and Twitter. Instant messengers aren't forgotten as the 9800 comes pre-loaded with five of them.
All of this Social Media could be quite overwhelming if there wasn't a way to organize them efficiently. The Social Feeds has you covered, organizing all of your social media in one timeline. Individual feeds, like FaceBook can be selected from the drop-down list. Social Feeds also manages RSS feeds on the device. RSS feeds give you a quick snapshot of news, articles, and events happening at your favorite websites. Feeds can be entered manually or even from a link in the web browser. With thirteen feeds (so far), I have a lot of articles to scroll through. A flick of the finger, though, and the articles go flying by. I can even "catch" one to stop the scrolling. All of this runs quite smoothly, except at startup. The app needs a few moments to fully start up and become functional.
Ask any BlackBerry user what they dislike about their device, and you will almost universally hear, "the web browser." With the Torch and OS 6, those days are gone. OS 6 features a snappy browser that gets the job done. There's more on the browser in the video, but suffice it to say that the browser in this new BlackBerry is a vast improvement over the previous versions.
The browser makes it easy to save favorite web pages. Sure you could bookmark your websites, but adding links to your home screen allows you to launch web pages with a single press. It's like adding your own mobile launcher for whatever web address you desire. Sharing those addresses with others is simple and effective. Send Page Address sends the page address via email, text message, BlackBerry Messenger, Twitter, FaceBook, and any other messaging app available to your Social Feeds. So much simpler than copy & paste.
Like most phones nowadays, the BlackBerry Torch 9800 features a camera - a 5 megapixel camera with a very bright LED for lighting. Able to record video as well as still photographs, the camera offers a number of scene modes. These modes allow for capturing images in a variety of locations and conditions. All of this means that the digital camera I bought just 3 years ago is now merely one feature among many on the Torch 9800. The Torch also supports geotagging, a controllable option to embed your GPS location into every photograph.
After you've taken that photograph, you'll want to view it on your device. The Media tab is where that action is at. Scrolling through photographs (and other images of your device) by flicking your fingers is fun, and the BlackBerry can even show a slide show. Cue up a song in the music player and you've got a music slide show.
The music player is a fully-functional app; allowing you to search music on your device and quickly scroll through songs based on album; artist; or genre. The tunes don't stop when you switch to another application. Pull up a song and give your BlackBerry-time a soundtrack.
Have you ever tried to format a video that plays just fine on your computer to one that would play on your phone? Difficult, time-consuming, and watching the finished product on some devices is almost painful. The Torch has none of those troubles. Supporting seven video formats (.avi, .mov, .wmv, .mp4, and others), there's no reason to ever convert a video. For those who are wondering, yes; it plays DivX-encoded files.
Applications for BlackBerry are a curious thing. The Apple App Store boasts some 200,000 downloadable apps. The Android Market serves 30,000. BlackBerry App world has less than 10,000. This certainly does no good for RIM as it works to find itself in the new smartphone market. There are two factors I think play a role in this.
Many applications for other smartphones, and indeed BlackBerrys as well, address some missing element in the smartphone OS. Research in Motion has a history of making advancements in the operating system to add those missing elements. BlackBerrys didn't have an RSS reader; now it's a part of Social Feeds. Podcatching - automatically downloading podcast episodes - required third-party applications on previous devices. Now - to be cliché - there's an app for that.
A second factor is AdMob, a respected analyzer of mobile statistics. AdMob also serves mobile ads and collects device data while doing so. When the numbers are crunched, BlackBerrys barely show up on the radar. One reason, the web browser experience on previous BlackBerrys has been imperfect to say the least, and thus wasn't used very often. Less use means less ads. And that means with a casual glance at AdMob, there aren't that many BlackBerrys in use. The first-time or struggling developer is going to go where the ad company says the money is, and right now, AdMob doesn't say the money is in BlackBerry.
All that aside, there are some fantastic apps for your new smartphone. Many of them are free. Google Maps (with voice search), instant messengers, streaming media are all available at no charge. There are hundreds of business and productivity apps; some free, some not. Games are available for the BlackBerry, but nothing like the speed and excitement of Low Grav Racer 2 on the iPhone. Then again, is your phone a handheld communicator or a toy?
In your online reading, you've probably come across several complaints about the Torch. Chief among them is that the Torch's processor (624 MHz) is not fast enough. This is a valid complaint; at times, the OS does run slowly. But the other 80% of the time, the Torch and BB OS6 run smoothly, giving a rich visual appeal to the device.
The Torch's small faults - like this and others that you'll find -add up to one glaring annoyance. It's like taking a thumbtack to the Mona Lisa. Sure you can still see the painting and marvel at da Vinci's work, but the tiny holes in the canvas take away from the overall picture until all you can see are the pinpricks.
Please don't get me wrong. The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is an amazing device, filled with a brilliant OS; solid social messaging; and a responsive web browser. It is a smartphone I will continue to use and enjoy for some time. But it could be better. I can see the pinpricks, RIM, but I can also see powerful OS beneath them. If Research in Motion listens to its audience, fixes the idiosyncrasies, and continues to support app developers; there's no limit to how awesome the BlackBerry Torch 9800 can be. And it's a pretty awesome phone as it is.