BlackBerry's latest answer to the iPhone and Android challenge has arrived. It's called the BlackBerry Torch 9800 and it is the first of Research in Motion's new smartphones running the BlackBerry 6 OS. There are some critical improvements to the platform that make BlackBerry a more viable competitor to iPhone and Android, and there are still some things BlackBerry does better than any other smartphone.
This is a far better product than BlackBerry's last "iPhone-killer," the Storm. But, there are also some key flaws that are holding it back.
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- Carrier: AT&T
- OS: BlackBerry 6
- Processor: 624 MHz
- RAM: 512 MB
- Storage: 4 GB built-in + 4 GB microSD (expandable to 32GB)
- Display: 3.2-inch 360x480 capacitive touchscreen
- Battery: Lithium Ion 1270mAh
- Ports: Micro-USB
- Weight: 5.68 ounces
- Dimensions: 4.37(h) x 2.44(w) x 0.57(d) inches (the height is 5.83 inches when open)
- Camera: 5.0 megapixels, autofocus, 2x zoom, image stabilization, face detection
- Sensors: GPS, accelerometer
- Keyboard: 35-key QWERTY backlit slide-out keyboard; and both portrait and landscape virtual keyboards
- Networks: GSM/GPRS/EDGE 850/900/1800/1900 MHz; UMTS 2100/1900/850/800 MHz
- Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n; Bluetooth 2.1
- Tethering: USB
- Price: $199 (with 2-year contract)
Who is it for?
BlackBerry has the reputation for being a corporate device, which has as much to do with its backend BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) as the smartphones themselves. With its focus on security and full synchronization with Microsoft Exchange email, calendar, contacts, and tasks, BES makes devices such as the BlackBerry Torch 9800 a business communications powerhouse.
However, in recent years, BlackBerry has also made inroads with consumers who primarily want a smartphone for text messaging and/or instant messaging. BlackBerry excels at those tasks because of its legacy for developing excellent smartphone keyboards for professionals who wanted mobile email. BlackBerry has also created its own IM platform called BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) that is arguably the best IM service/software for mobile devices.
What problems does it solve?
BlackBerry has been virtually synonymous with the smartphone industry itself for over a decade. However, while its sales have continued to grow in recent years, it has been under a massive innovation attack from iPhone and Android, both of which infused smartphones with touchscreens, usable Web browsers, and tons of third party apps. BlackBerry 6 is RIM's answer to the iPhone/Android challenge, and the BlackBerry Torch 9800 is the first BlackBerry 6 device.
- Touch + hardware interface - The unique value proposition of the BlackBerry Torch is that it combines a full touchscreen with a hardware keyboard. Other devices have tried this — most recently the Palm Pre and the Motorola Droid — but the Torch is the first one to truly pull it off. BlackBerry knows how to make great keyboards and the one on the Torch has a great feel to it, unlike the Pre or the Droid. The difference is that on the Torch, I found myself naturally moving between the touchscreen, the keyboard, and the touchpad, depending on which one was most effective for a given action.
- Email and IM prowess - The high quality hardware keyboard makes the Torch a great device for email, text messaging, and IM because it gives most users a lower error rate for typing than a touchscreen keyboard. BlackBerry's built-in BBM is an awesome mobile IM client and service. And, BlackBerry 6 does some excellent unified inbox tricks — it can even bring IMs, Twitter DMs, and Facebook mail.
- Excellent build quality - When it comes to smartphones, some devices just feel solid in your hand while others feel cheap or plasticy. The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is one of the best devices I've had in my hand in 2010. I'd rank it right up there with the iPhone 4 and the Motorola Droid X as the current smartphones with the best build quality.
- Web inferiority - One of the biggest things that needed to be fixed in the BlackBerry platform was the abysmal Web experience. Up through BlackBerry OS 5, the buit-in Web browser was cumbersome to navigate and painfully slow to use. That's why RIM bought Torch Mobile and then integrated its Webkit browser into BlackBerry 6. The result is a much more usable Web experience on the BlackBerry Torch, but it's still not as good as iPhone or Android. Pages don't load as fast (that could be partially due to the Torch's underpowered CPU) and a lot of Web pages still recognize this as the old BlackBerry Web browser and so they display (crippled) text versions of their sites optimized for the legacy BlackBerry experience.
- Underpowered hardware - The biggest disappointment with the Torch is the underpowered 624 MHz CPU. Since it's in the same price bracket as devices that almost all have a 1.0 GHz processor of one flavor or another, the Torch simply doesn't match up in this department and it shows in the sluggishness of several apps and menus. The same goes for the Torch's LCD display. It is solid, but not nearly as spectacular as the displays on the iPhone 4, HTC EVO 4G, or the Samsung Galaxy S — all smartphones in the same price bracket
- Minimal apps - BlackBerry has a long history of friendly relations with third party developers, which have built tens of thousands of business-specific apps over the past decade. Unfortunately, the platform itself and its development tools have a reputation for being less friendly for the actual coders. RIM is trying to change that — it recently released a new Java SDK to support BlackBerry 6 and is launching App World 2.0 to compete with the Apple App Store and Android Market — but it's got a lot of catching up to do. Some popular services (Evernote, Kindle, Yahoo Messenger, for example) have released BlackBerry apps but for many of the most popular and useful mobile apps, the BlackBerry platform is still an afterthought.
Bottom line for business
If I had gotten the BlackBerry Torch 9800 in my hands 12 months ago, I would have been dazzled by it. In fact, I probably would have made it my primary business device. However, that was before Android 2.0. It was before iOS 4. It was before the iPhone 4 and its impressive screen. It was before the Nexus One and the HTC EVO and the Samsung Galaxy S all raised the bar on Android devices. A lot has happened in the smartphone market in the past year.
Today, the Torch is pretty great, for a BlackBerry. It can rightly be called the best BlackBerry yet, but its best still doesn't quite measure up to iPhone or Android devices, especially in the critical areas of Web browsing and third party apps. The Torch is the best messaging (email, texting, and IM) device on the market. And, it's the best business smartphone for those companies that are still tied to BES for security and IT reasons.
So, in that sense, the BlackBerry Torch 9800 and the BlackBerry 6 OS should offer enough of a step forward to keep a lot of BlackBerry fans loyal to the platform, at a time when many of them have been considering whether they should jump to iPhone or Android. And, for those attracted to the Torch who don't want to use AT&T, you should expect to hear about more next-generation BlackBerry devices like the Torch on other wireless carriers in the near future.
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Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.