Review: BlackBerry Torch 9850

When RIM revamped their BlackBerry Bold and BlackBerry Torch, they added a new Torch to the line. A BlackBerry Torch without a physical keyboard. The BlackBerry Torch 9850 is that device, and RIM’s third smartphone to launch without a physical keyboard. The BlackBerry Storm line that preceded it seems like a distant memory. However, the question we’ve set out to answer is, does this new BlackBerry meet the old saying, third time’s the charm? Read on to find out.

Specs

Inside, the 9850 packs a speedy 1.2 GHz processor along with 768 MB of RAM. The 9850 also comes with a 4GB micro SD card preinstalled, but if users wish, they can always use their own card which makes the device expandable up to 32 GB. Overall, with a fast processor, respectable amount of RAM, and expandable storage, the specs of the 9850 easily meet the demands of a modern-day smartphone.

In terms of networking, things are pretty much what you’d expect from a BlackBerry device with WiFi, Bluetooth, and 3G support. According to the Sprint packaging, the device is WiFi hotspot “capable.” The problem here is that just because it’s capable of giving off a hotspot, doesn’t mean that it’s going to. As of now, the BlackBerry Torch has no hotspot support built-in, but according to various internal memos and sources, a major update is coming in Q4 which will bring hotspot functionality.

Hardware

RIM’s latest round of handsets are surprisingly well built. Measuring in at a thin 0.45” (11.5 mm) the Torch fits very comfortably in the pocket, and feels incredible in the hand. Although most of the device is plastic (including the screen), the Torch has a surprisingly robust feeling to it. Possibly thanks to the metal backing, which is covered in a smooth rubber-like texture that only adds to the wonderful in-hand experience. On the left there’s a microUSB port, on the right a volume rocker that solely affects media playback (meaning it doesn’t change the ringer profile), with a pin-sized play/pause key in between. On the bottom right there’s also a convenience key which is set to activate and operate the camera by default. The front of the device curves in all directions, giving a smooth rounded feel when flicking horizontally across the device. The top curve acts as one big button to lock and unlock the device which only proved to be problematic. The button was fairly easy to press, and resulted in pocket-triggered actions. One time the device unlocked itself, selected the menubar, and switched on air-plane mode, effectively cutting me off from any calls or notifications until I checked it later. (Note: There was nothing else in my pocket at the time either.) There are four hardware keys underneath the 9850’s 3.7” screen, with two on each side of your standard BlackBerry Trackpad. From the left there’s a call accept key, a BlackBerry menu button, a back button, and an end/power-off button. Although the four navigation keys are nice, the power off button probably caused more problems than the easy-to-bump lock button did. If any kind of pressure is applied to the face of the device, it’ll be all too easy for the device to power-off in your pocket, especially since the OS doesn’t require any kind of confirmation that you’re actually trying to shutdown the device. RIM does give the option to abort the shutdown with the press of any other key, but since it’s in your pocket, there’s really nothing you can do about it. However, if you manage to accidentally bump another key before it turns off, the device will remain powered on, but will unlock itself, only making room for more accidental actions. The optical trackpad sits amongst the keys in typical blackberry fashion and provides a quick and easy way to navigate the OS. In fact, when it came to some tasks, I preferred the trackpad over the actual touchscreen. Finally, on the bottom of the device, there’s a mic and a speaker.

Call & Speaker Quality

The speaker above the display was surprisingly disappointing. Despite strong signal, the earpiece produced quiet, and sometimes distorted calls. The earpiece, at least on our unit, had a tendency to crackle. If I switched over to the speakerphone or the included headset, it wasn’t a problem.

The speaker on the bottom of the device (used for speakerphone calls, alerts, and playback) was the complete opposite. The speaker was loud and clear. Listening to music with the device’s built in speaker wasn’t a chore, and was actually quite pleasant for personal use.

The 9850 does come with an included headset. The headphones were black and had a design similar to the headphones that come with iPhones, but with a more triangular peak. They’re not bad headphones considering they come with the device, but they’re not exceedingly comfortable. If you’re a heavy headphone user, you’ll still probably want to go with a third-party option.

Display

 

The Torch 9850 features a 3.7” WVGA screen that I left at its default 70% brightness, and still found it plenty bright for even outdoor use. The screen gives off bright, crisp colors which makes the overall UI pop off the screen beautifully. Even though I often work with higher resolution displays, I never felt that the Torch had a low-res or sub-par screen, which is important for obvious reasons.

The display was very responsive, and I never had an issue with any unregistered taps. The 9850’s design rounds off to the sides, which made for an unexpectedly pleasing feel when panning from side to side. Although it might not be a 4+” behemoth of a screen that’s featured on a lot of devices today, the 9850’s screen shouldn’t disappoint.

Software

The BlackBerry Torch is of course running RIM’s latest OS, BlackBerry 7. As we noted in our unboxing, BlackBerry OS 7 doesn’t bring that many improvements over version 6, which many would call a critical mistake when RIM is falling behind in the smartphone market. Overall though, the transparent look of the OS is nice, and the liquid graphics provide a fluid user interface. I did take issue with the fact that the OS’ is a little inconsistent. For example, from the home screen, users deal with a sleek looking transparent interface, that really showcases the phone’s background on the vibrant display. If you go out into settings, or other menu-based areas of the OS, you’re greeted by a very plain looking interface that’s no more than a white background with black text. Even RIM’s Setup application is designed this way. RIM could really use a redesign of their OS. The transparent front-end of it is nice looking, but the black and white interface featured in other parts of the OS reminded me of the days when I had a Palm Pilot running Palm OS.

One of the main improvements to BlackBerry OS RIM has featured in both 6 and 7 is its improved web browser. These days, a good web browser can really make or break a device and with BlackBerry OS 7, RIM does a pretty good job. Pages loaded relatively quickly, and I was usually greeted by desktop versions of sites, but sometimes I’d be re-routed to one of those very very basic mobile sites. However, it wasn’t an issue I ran into often. My guess would be that those sites only recognize the Torch as a BlackBerry device and therefore assume it has a smaller, non-touchscreen interface. Sometimes images wouldn’t completely load properly, but it was a smaller issue. The addition of the trackpad certainly helps the Torch when web browsing, allowing users to use a traditional cursor to point specific things out. The browser will be more than enough for most users, as long as they’re not doing anything too intensive.

One of the things BlackBerry has been praised for over the years is its email experience. Personally, I wasn’t sure what was so unique about the experience, so I was excited to try it. Coming from experience with other smartphones, I was admittedly used to a flashier experience with email, but here, email has a very very simple interface. Ultimately, BlackBerry’s ability to push mail instantly is nice, and their mail client can do almost anything you’d ask of a desktop mail client. However, I just wish that RIM would’ve done something that went beyond a simple black-text, white background layout. So as much as power-users might love it, BlackBerry email’s overall experience isn’t that much write home about. If RIM could combine the power of BlackBerry email with something that’s easier on the eyes, they’d have a true winner.

Messaging is honestly where BlackBerry OS excelled for me. Mostly because it’s a very integrated experience that goes far beyond text messaging that most OSes offer. First, there’s your average text messaging. There’s really nothing surprising here, except the fact that the chat-bubbles are reversed (meaning your texts are on the left, instead of the right) did catch me off guard a little bit, and I found it took a little bit of getting used to. Beyond that, there’s BBM. BlackBerry Messenger provides a better, more advanced form of text messaging that’s closer to IM. You can tell when people are writing, when the message was delivered, when the message was read, and it’s a smooth experience that has their competitors creating similar services of their own. Obviously, different IM clients can be downloaded onto the OS, but what’s most interesting is the actual “Messages” app. Messages stands separately from BlackBerry Messenger and Text Messages. Instead, Messages brings all of your services and notifications to one place. Your missed calls, text messages, blackberry messages, emails, Facebook notifications, etc, are all here. Furthermore, creating a new message will let users create a message in almost any of their applications where it’d be relevant. Instead of just giving you an option for SMS, BBM, or email, users are given extra options like Facebook, Twitter, and any other services (like AIM and MSN) that have been installed onto the device. This connected and integrated experience was really impressive to me, and RIMs competitors would be wise to take note. If anything else, the BlackBerry truly is a communication device.

As with every phone though, all of those messages have to be typed out somehow. For the third time, RIM has released a device without a physical keyboard, but this time around the SurePress technology that plagued the BlackBerry Storm devices is long gone. Instead, users now have a regular software keyboard. Now, unlike most people, I can adapt to almost any software keyboard, so if RIM somehow failed to make a keyboard I could use, it’d say a lot about how poor the keyboard really is. Somehow, RIM did just that. By the end of the two weeks I spent with the device, I had gotten somewhat comfortable with the device’s on screen keyboard, but my messages were still plagued by errors and typos. So what makes the 9850’s on-screen keyboard so terrible? Space. RIM’s software keyboard is smart enough and responsive enough to be usable, but the way RIM has laid out the keys on the device, makes for a cramped experience. For example, unlike many smartphones, RIM has chosen to include a shift-key on both sides, something that takes up a lot of room on the narrow screen. In landscape, the phone does a better job at spacing out the keys, but even then they’re surprisingly square and small. Overall, if a user has some patience, the keyboard on the 9850 can eventually be tamed a bit, but if being able to quickly and accurately send out a message from a device is important, you might want to look at a different device.

Next, there’s the media experience. Honestly, I knew RIM had a long-history with serving business users, but I didn’t expect them to provide such a wonderful media experience. Most of this experience however, is thanks to the clarity of RIM’s speaker. However, the coverflow like interface for swiping through music makes for a nice visual experience, and having side-keys that act as media controls was really really nice for when I was out and about and didn’t have time to unlock the device, and find a software key. There’s no question in my mind that these media-controls should make more appearances on more devices. Even if some companies hate buttons.

Finally, there’s the App experience. BBOS has a bit of a reputation when it comes to its lacking app store, and so far nothing has changed to undo that poor reputation. Most apps look cheap and poorly designed, despite the fact that a lot of them have an asking price of $2 or more. Even more notable apps don’t make an appearance here in BlackBerry’s App World. RIM is kind enough to bookmark some apps that you can download from around the web, but having to Google for smartphone apps and install them that way feels like a fairly dated process that users shouldn’t have to endure.

In the end, BlackBerry OS provides a wonderfully connected experience, and would serve a lot of people pretty well if they can look past the lacking App experience.

Camera

Around back, there’s a 5 megapixel camera with an LED flash. With such a great level of social integration, one would assume that RIM would want to impress with their camera hardware. However, the picture quality of the 9850 was just okay at best. In fact, the shots taken on the 9850 looked like they were taken on a cell phone, and with competing manufacturers putting point-and-shoot quality lenses in their devices, RIM should definitely rethink their camera hardware, after they take care of some of the software issues I pointed out earlier. Overall, the camera will do in most cases, but unlike some other smartphones on the market, the Torch won’t be able to substitute for a dedicated camera on family vacations.

The BlackBerry Torch is also capable of shooting 720p HD video, but even at a glance you can tell RIM is pushing the video up just so they can get to that 720p resolution. The videos I took ended up with a lot of noise, which ended up being distracting when playing things back.

Battery Life

Ultimately, no matter how good or bad a smartphone is, if it doesn’t have good battery life, it won’t matter. Thankfully, RIM has kept up their reputation of providing good battery life with their devices. When I used the 9850 continually I got the 6.5 hours that they’ve rated the Torch at, but under normal use, the 9850 should have no problem getting users through a day, maybe a day in a half before they go reaching for a charge.

Overview

RIM has a pretty solid device on their hands, but they’ve not yet hit that much needed home run. The 1.2 GHz processor gets things done, but if RIM is serious about bringing themselves back to the front of the smartphone game, they need to go beyond throwing in a good processor and make the device something that stands out from other devices. As solid as the Torch is, it feels like it’s just matching the hardware that’s on the market now, instead of anticipating what phones will look like 6 months to a year from now.

If staying in touch, whether by Facebook or Text, is important to you, then the BlackBerry Torch 9850 might be worth your consideration, but if a more up to date Operating System or camera is what you need, then you might want to consider something else. The BlackBerry Torch 9850 runs $149 on a 2-year contract with Sprint, after a $50 mail-in rebate.

 

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