Released in India a couple of months after launching in BlackBerry's main North American markets, the BlackBerry Torch 9800 carries too many expectations on its rather broad shoulders. In the status-conscious India that is also concerned about price, BlackBerry is the coolest smartphone brand to flaunt, unlike North America where ‘cool’ and ‘BlackBerry’ are words that no longer seem to go together. But even in our less fortunate parts it's been fairly clear that BlackBerry desperately needed to come up with something that could match the iPhone and the Android invasion. After all, even banks, the stodgiest of security-conscious businesses, are considering moving away from the BlackBerry platform.
Hence, the expectations from the Torch 9800--the first slider from BlackBerry, and which came with all guns blazing--from a touch screen to an optical trackpad to a QWERTY keypad, powered by the much hyped BlackBerry 6 OS, the highest rated camera on any BlackBerry device, and more.
The launch was the glitziest ever for what is RIM's weapon for choice in the smartphone wars. ‘The best BlackBerry ever,’ was the punch line and hence the price tag of Rs 35,000 seemed only fair. To test this claim, I used the Torch 9800 for a week and here's what I feel:
Solid is the word that comes to mind when you hold this smartphone. RIM has remained true to its classic BlackBerry design philosophy with the Torch 9800, albeit with some nice refinements. So, instead of a chrome rim around the smartphone like the 8900 or the 9700, there's a brushed grey gun metal rim that's a whole lot classier. It weighs 161 grams and some might consider that a bit on the flabbier side. I don't think that's a problem, though you won't score any marks for being fashionable if you shove it in your trouser pocket, resulting in a noticeable bulge. A holster is recommended and though the review unit didn't come with one, we hope the sales kit contains a holster. One welcome deletion as compared to earlier top-of-the-line BlackBerry smart phones is the leather finish on the back. The Bold 9000 had a nice leather finish, but the Bold 9700 had an awful one just at the centre. Thankfully, the Torch 9800 has a nice rubbery, ribbed back that makes it very easy to hold and gives it some non-slip abilities.
'Lock' and 'Mute' keys are available on top with a 3.5 mm earphone, volume/zoom and a convenience key on the right side. What's missing is the convenience key on the left side, which was present in a whole generation of BlackBerry smart phones. If you're like me and use that key quite a bit, you'll find the omission annoying. Being a slider, the only visible buttons are the standard four BlackBerry buttons. The screen is a 3.2-inch 360 x 480 multitouch display.
Speaking of touch screens, while the multitouch display can stand its own against many competitors, if you're an ardent touch screen devotee, then the iPhone is in no danger from being displaced as your god. And the onscreen keypad is quite rubbish. But then I never quite expected to use it anyway, what with the QWERTY slider keypad available. The optical trackpad is classic BlackBerry and brilliant. Ditto with the QWERTY keypad that slides out. Not as good as the keypad on the Bold 9700 but for a slider form factor this is only to be expected. I doubt any slider has a keypad as good as the Torch 9800. I could move from the 9700 to 9800 with no keystroke missing.
Features & Performance
Software upgrades are almost religious for me; I've been really looking forward to the BlackBerry 6 OS. This was supposed to be the answer to critics who said BlackBerry was light years behind Android and iOS. The short answer is this--if you're looking for a revolution, you'll be sorely disappointed. More of an incremental evolution, BlackBerry 6 is an improved version of the BlackBerry OS, but most of the improvements are in terms of visual refinements and some features that should have been there a long time ago.
Before we go on to BlackBerry 6 features, you'll be thrilled to know that RIM has retained a 624MHz processor in the Torch 9800, which come to think of it, is the same clock speed as that on the Bold 9700 and even the ancient Bold 9000. So, those who accuse RIM of living in the past are perhaps not too far off the mark. There's 512 MB of RAM, same as the iPhone 4 and 4 GB of internal storage.
It will also warm your heart to know that a full reboot is faster than on OS 5, but not much faster. In true RIM fashion, you can still get quite a lot of other stuff done while the smartphone goes through its not-so-smart slow reboot after you load apps, etc. But rather than quibble about the past, let's take a look at BlackBerry 6, which RIM says is the future.
There's Universal Search, a new social networking app that aggregates your social networks since we live in social times, multitouch gestures like pinch-to-zoom and finally, a decent browser--a WebKit-based web browser with tabs. Plus there's also a new camera interface and some more.
The home screen has application icon views that can be scrolled vertically, with horizontal scrolling for categories like Favourites and Media. There's also a drop down notification view and a wireless networking view. Personally, I didn't think it made my experience any simpler. Perhaps I'm more attuned to the standard folder approach. Besides, all the menus and sub-menus have been visually improved. It's like going from command-line to a GUI.
Universal Search is very cool and big plus. From the home screen the smartphone throws up answers to your query (say, a contact or a song) across apps, folders, the Web, e-mail and more. The Social Feeds feature that is supposed to aggregate your social networks and allows you to post simultaneously is a disgrace, compared to a free third-party app like SocialScope. Since SocialScope is still in private beta, you may not get to experience the best social app for the BlackBerry immediately, but you can choose from many other third-party apps that can beat the Social Feeds feature.
The new browser is a welcome change. Web pages display well most of the time and pinch-to-zoom is also available. Plus, tabbed browsing is available. Overall, not amazing yet, but a long overdue browser refresh. However, there's still no Flash support. E-mail also uses Webkit for HTML rendering, which is welcome. But thanks to what is perhaps one of the slowest processors in this class of smart phones, I kept seeing the tiny, square-shaped, annoying BlackBerry clock often. Simple tasks such as exiting an app brought me face to face with my familiar BlackBerry friend. Nice to know that despite an OS refresh some things don't change. Argh!
Also, I found the touch screen, optical trackpad and QWERTY keypad resulting in greater complexity. Definitely the opposite of Apple's famed simplicity approach, but surely there are folks out there who want more complexity from their smartphone. Not me though. After a week of using the smartphone, I couldn't wait to get back to the Bold 9700 that I'm reviewing long term. But perhaps it's just me; I've never been a devotee at the altar of touch screens.
On the media front, things are good. In the audio department, this smartphone is as good as the Bold 9700. Which makes for easy listening. Ditto on the video front--no complaints there.
The 5 megapixel camera too is nice. Definitely, the best BlackBerry camera yet. It takes pretty decent photos, and the camera interface on BlackBerry 6 is a fresh one with the ability to geotag photos now prominent and scene modes available too. The video camera though is disappointing, with 640×480 resolution video capture. Should have been better, especially on a smartphone in the highest-end category. Once again, you'll come across the annoying BlackBerry clock often when you use the camera, thanks to the slow processor.
The Torch 9800 is fully armed on this front. When 3G comes calling India around Diwali next month, the Torch 9800 will be fully ready (though honestly, as will some other smart phones at one-fifth the price tag of the Torch). Other modes of connectivity include Bluetooth v2.1 + EDR with A2DP. Another bummer is that BlackBerry Maps are still not available for India. So, you'll have to depend on Google Maps. A sad reflection on the importance of the Indian market for RIM.
This was the surprise for me. I used the smartphone on BES and got all of half-a-day of battery life. Which was horrifying, and left me in the lurch at least once when I was travelling. And no, I'm not a heavy voice user and nor did I use any media features. For a smartphone its class, the battery on the Torch 9800 is very disappointing and for me is a deal breaker.
By now it wouldn't take you a genius IQ to figure that I wasn't very impressed with the Torch 9800. At Rs 35,000, I think it’s too pricey for what's on offer; this is the price range where the best offerings reside. There’s a lot that good about the smartphone, but the bottom line is that it doesn't live up to the hype. I expected a whole lot more and perhaps that's where most of the disappointment stems from.
As mentioned earlier, status- and price-conscious India is a country where BlackBerry is considered ultra-cool and a must-have. I know quite a few people who use BlackBerry smart phones without the BlackBerry service. To me that's like powering a car with a lumbering bullock up-front, rather than using the engine. But for some BlackBerry is a status symbol and they don't really care about features. So, for those types, the Torch 9800 will be a welcome option. Also for many C-level executives who can only get the coolest looking BlackBerry because corporate IT only allows BlackBerry. They too should lap up the Torch 9800 as the Blackberry to show off at airport lounges.
In a line, the Torch 9800 is no iPhone killer and Android slayer. I think I'll wait for Torch 2, a la Storm 2.