Saturday, August 21, 2010

Thoughts on the BlackBerry Torch 9800

After a week of living with the new BlackBerry Torch 9800, I thought I'd check in with a quick review. In short, it's best BlackBerry RIM has ever produced.

Now, if you read a lot of tech review sites, you'll get mixed impressions. Some people love it. Some people think it's a swing and miss. Some people think it spells doom and gloom for RIM because it's not an iPhone or Android "killer" that will send the masses running to switch devices. I'm not going to get caught up in the positioning and business strategy for the product, except to say that if you already love your iPhone or Droid, it's probably not the phone for you. If you're a BlackBerry user, you'll adore this device. If you're somewhere in the middle, then it will depend on what you want a smartphone to do.

Me? The most important things my phone can do for me are (obviously) handle calls, easily take care of multiple messaging platforms (email accounts, BBM, texts), and flawlessly synchronize data with all the components (calendar, contacts, notes, tasks) of Outlook across multiple desktop installations (XP/2003 and Win 7/2007). Beyond those basic needs, I want a functional camera, an easy to use RSS reader, twitter capabilities, synchronization with password/information management (I use Splash ID), capable web browsing, and a "real" keyboard. I don't use it for gaming, or nonsense fart apps, and it doesn't have to be my primary audio device, though it would be nice if there was some functionality there. If your needs are in the same ballpark, then you'll find the Torch stone cold awesome.

A few thoughts:

  • Size-wise, it's right between the Bold 9700 and Bold 9000 (my old phone). It's hefty and rock solid, and I haven't experienced any "wiggle" in daily use. The size and vertical orientation allows for easy one-handed operation, which has always been a hallmark of a RIM device.
  • The keyboard is great, as are all RIM keyboards. Personally, I would have preferred a slightly bigger device and keyboard, since the Bold 9000 is about as perfect as you can get. The Torch's keyboard is a wee bit smaller, and while I can still crank out emails and texts, my accuracy isn't quite what it was with the Bold. If you don't have fat thumbs, you may like this even better.
  • The slider is terrific. It moves up and down solidly, and feels locked into place wherever you put it.
  • The touchpad is a huge improvement over the trackball. The great thing is that you can use the touchscreen for anything you want, but the touchpad is always there, too, and equally as convenient.
  • It comes with a slot for a microSD card (and includes a 4GB card). I've already upgraded to a 16GB card, and it offers plenty of space.
  • The screen looks great. There's been a lot of grousing in the press about the quality of the screen, and how it doesn't match up to the resolution of the iPhone or Droid. I can't argue with the general point - those screens are impressive and very, very sharp. However, the Torch provides enough detail to do anything I want it to do, and when I watched hi-res videos, I was suitably pleased. I didn't have any problems making out text in messages, on web pages or word documents handled via DocsToGo. It's bright, crisp and completely usable for any and all day to day functions.
  • The ear jack will accommodate all your previous ear phones and accessories. However, the USB port is now a micro USB port - so all your previous mini USB cables won't fit. That's a bummer, since I like to have charging cables everywhere (office, home, briefcase, car, etc.) and I've had to replenish my stock.
  • Speaking of accessories, the Torch is the first BlackBerry I've purchased that didn't come with a belt case. This pissed me off, as I'm a big belt clip holster devotee. I know there's a school of thought that holsters are square and dorky, and that too cool for school hipsters should keep the phone in your pants pocket. I just don't understand that. I have change, and keys, and lighters and other things in my pocket, and I don't A) want the phone - especially a large touchscreen - to get scratched, and B) I don't want to lock and unlock the phone all the damned time so the keys and screen won't get activated by accident in your pocket. A belt holster protects the phone, and even better, puts it into sleep mode to conserve the battery. There's not a wide assortment of cases made especially for the Torch yet, but after some trial and experimentation, I've found that the case for the 8300 Curve series works perfectly. Snug fit, and most importantly, the magnets line up so that the phone does go into sleep mode when it should. You can find them most anywhere, like at Radio Shack.
  • This accessory, a charging pod, is spectacular. I bought one for home and one for the office, and it's terrific.
  • Also, crackberry users come to love their side convenience keys, and alas, the Torch only has one. But after a week of use, and organization of the apps on the home screen, I don't miss the second one as much as I thought I would.

  • Wow. OS6 is a huge evolutionary leap from the previous BB operating systems. It's flashier, and different, yet comfortable and familiar, and critically, offers all the functionality a BlackBerry user wants and needs. The menus have been reorganized, and though it takes a bit of getting used to, I have to say that it makes much more sense now. After an orientation period, I now find I know exactly where to go for every setting, and as always with a BB, there are a plethora of customization options. Some users have experienced a bit of screen "lag," but I have to say that I haven't.
  • It comes with some AT&T bloatware preinstalled, but all those apps are easily deleted. Or, you can put them into a folder and hide it, too.
  • The touchscreen works wonderfully. Quick, fluid and responsive. And I'm still discovering shortcuts (like "swiping" through emails in the message list).
  • Device switching was a breeze. I used the new BB Desktop Manager (6.0) to move from the Bold to the Torch, and it didn't lose a thing. All my settings, customizations, data and files moved from one to the other perfectly. And I quickly and easily set it up to synch with my two different PCs and Outlooks. Brilliant.
  • You'll hear and read a lot about the browsing experience. Let's face it, the browser on the old BB OS was complete and utter shit. However, there was a lot to be said for the old method of having the web pages stripped of all the blinky, extraneous crap (pop ups, facebook integrations, ads, etc.) and reduced down the bare content. Personally, I appreciated that. The new BB browser is a huge improvement, and offers a wonderful functionality and "text-wrapping" capability that makes reading most "normal" web pages easy to read and navigate.
  • Along those lines, I get 90% of my web content via RSS anyway, so the pure browsing experience really isn't a dealbreaker for me. OS6 comes with a couple of built in features for getting those, along with all your social media feeds, in one convenient place. I haven't tested it that much, since I could care less about Facebook and the like, and I prefer single app functionality for Twitter and RSS reading. Ubertwitter works like a charm on the new OS, and the best app I've ever used for RSS feeds is BeReader. It synchs PERFECTLY with your desktop/PC Google Reader, and is well worth the $10 you'll spend on it if you're a hardcore RSS junkie.
  • There's a new, "universal search" built into the OS that is fantastic. Just hit the spyglass icon, start typing, and you'll search every single onboard app (music, calendar, documents, contacts, etc.) on the device, plus the web. Very handy.
  • Speaking of typing, the onscreen keyboard is okay, I guess. I hate capacitive touch onscreen keyboards, but I've played with a Droid and an iPhone, and the BB one works just as well. It's fine for basic searches and typing a few words, but give me a REAL keyboard for banging out text any day.
  • The memory management in the OS is amazing. As BB users know, after a few days of hardcore use, a battery pull (or QuickPull) was almost mandatory to keep the device running smoothly. On my Bold, I would often get down to 10 - 15 MB of memory at the end of the day, and a pull would gin it back up to 35 - 40. Now, running functions full-throttle all day, the Torch hardly moves or experiences any memory leak whatsoever, hanging in around 290 - 300 MB free all the time.
  • App compatibility was a mixed bag. Google Mobile was buggy, but since I used it mostly for the Reader synch, and BeReader blows it out of the water and the Universal Search gives me the option to search with Google online, it doesn't really matter. Google Maps works perfectly. As mentioned, the new Ubertwitter is a dream on the Torch. Splash ID works like a charm. AP News works. Documents To Go works well, and the larger screen makes it even more useful. Two key apps I'm still waiting on are Evernote (which just came out with a new, more native version of the app for BB, but hasn't yet made it compatible with OS6) and Kindle (which claims to work with OS6, but I can't figure out how to download and install yet).
  • One of the major new enhancements to the new OS is the media experience. Videos look and play great, and the media interface is much improved. But the big news here is the ability to synch -- via USB or via WiFi -- your music library. Mine is in iTunes, and setting it up was intuitive and simple. Using checkboxes, you can set up exactly what you want to synch between device and PC: songs, artists, playlists, name it. Music and artwork (like album covers) transfer seamlessly. (I've synched thousands of audio files, and they barely take up half of the 16GB card). I even experimented with synching podcasts, which DO move back and forth as they are added and deleted from the library, but my only disappointment is that it doesn't track and remember playback position. I've briefly tried PodTrapper as a separate app, but you have to add the feeds directly in the app itself, rather than synching with what's happening in iTunes. Surely someone will come up with a way to make this happen eventually.

So, that's it in a nutshell. The BlackBerry Torch 9800 is a fantastic device. I don't know that it will convert any fervent Apple or Android cultists, but it's certainly the most functional, fun, capable and well-rounded device ever put out by RIM. I love it.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, really helped me out! I, like you have been devoted to blackberry for many years now and have read many nasty reviews put out by "Apple and Android cultists" bashing the phone for its poor resolution and the like. I currently own a 9000 and I love it for what it is, a solid blackberry, it sounds like the torch will be a new device I can love for what it is a blackberry..

    I'm sold, thanks for the review!