Bandwidth Blog's Belated Review: Blackberry 9800 Torch

Im going to start this review off by saying I am a happy iPhone user, ever since it landed in SA. I love the ease of use of the device, and elegant hardware design. I also understand the love for Android – the broad range of devices running Android means you can potentially find you perfect smartphone out there with Google’s “open” OS. Yet the majority of SA phone users seem to ignore these newfangled phones – they head to directly to Blackberry. Despite all the doom and gloom currently in US-centric tech sites regarding RIM, the developing world seems to love Blackberry. In fact Blackberry was recently named SA’s coolest brand, something traditionally going to Coca Cola.
I have never quite gotten the hype behind Blackberry. For one – I always believed it to be a device for suits. Nothing wrong with that, but I like my phone to be used wherever I want, and to be fun to use. And Blackberries never seemed to do that. When iPhone came out Blackberry quickly pulled together the Storm – which I also used for a while. The Storm was disaster – while the clicky screen sounded good in theory, it was horrible in practice. Blackberry traditionalists were also disgusted with the lack of a physical keyboard. Eventually RIM tried to fix it with the Storm 2, but to no avail. Luckily they got their act together with the Torch, the device I reviewed.
So it was high time I familiarized myself with the Blackberry lifestyle – and I do not mean comparing specs with other smartphones. I had to understand why people go nuts for it.

Physical Features
The Torch is a very professional looking device – with a dark chrome body, and a slide out keyboard. In a closed position the phone is not as thin as some of its main competitors. Compare this to the Nokia E7, which still has a slim figure despite also having a physical keyboard. In fact it feels a little chunky, but that is not a bad thing, something I will better explain later. The rear of the device has a nice rubberized battery cover, which means the device feels secure in your hand. Overall the phone feels better built than most other phones on the market, something which has always been a Blackberry feature. Its only the cheaper BB 8520 which is very plastic, the Torch feels like it can handle what life throws at it, as expected from a higher priced smartphone.

The front of the Torch is dominated by the screen, but it also keeps the physical call answer and reject buttons, menu and back, as well as the optical trackpad, something which becomes less useful on a device with a touchscreen. But therein lies the cool part of the Torch – Blackberry traditionalists who have used Blackberry for years can operate the phone completely without touching the screen. People who are used to touch screens can also just hit the ground running. After the Storm it seems RIM learned a lesson – keep your Blackberry loyalists happy. The slide action is solid and easy to engage, and the review I used is clearly not brand new, but it still worked perfectly. So people who are hesitant of slide phones need not worry. The keyboard that pops out is small, similiar in size to the 8520, albeit with not as much spacing between keys. The keyboard has decent feedback, and those thumb-typists who are used to BB keyboards will feel right at home. People who are used to touchscreen keyboards (like myself) can just close the slider and type on the screen.
The phone has buttons on the side – and the user can set what the dedicated “favourite” button does – like fire up the compose mail screen, or open an app. It works well in practice, something I would have loved to have on my iPhone. Speaking about advantages above the iPhone – I like the pulsing light on the device to indicate the messages. I guess this is more a criticism of the iPhone, but I love having the phone give me visual feedback without having to switch the screen on.
Another small thing I like about the Torch is the charging base. Sure you can just plug the MicroUSB cable into the phone, but the dock is a thing of beauty. Its also the same dark chrome look, and it shows a dim indicator on the top to tell you its charging the phone. The phone then also goes into a “bedside mode” which dims the display while showing an analog clock. Elegant.
Now that most smartphones sport very high resolution screens the Blackberry really does come up short with the Torch. While using menus and navigating the device interface is by no means bad, things like photos and websites really do not look as good on this screen. But I am looking from the viewpoint of someone uses a very high resolution device normally. To the untrained eye it might not be as visible. Colours look good and viewing angles are good however. This screen is infinitely more readable outside than most other smartphone screens, something which is great in sunny SA.

Seeing as this is a Blackberry, I had to add this segment. I have to be honest – I had to get used to using a physical keyboard again after a few years of iPhone use. While I still do not type as fast with the Blackberry, I understand the hype. It works well, but I do miss the part where the keyboard changes based on what type of field your entering, but thats just me nitpicking. After using the keyboard I started to understand why the phone is shaped a bit more chunky – while typing the thicker shape fits better in your hands, and the small ridges on the edges makes it easier to hold on to the phone. You can see RIM put a lot more thought into the design than what you see.

Initial reviews of the Torch did not really give heaps of praise to its performance – but honestly, I did not feel that the device was lacking. Menus and apps were quick, and the BIS based browser did its job. However, one thing that bothered me is that it seems like BIS does dramatically slow down a lot of web browsing, even through a wifi connection. While this is perfectly understandable during 3G use (after all you do not pay per megabyte), I would like a bypass setting for web browsing through Wifi. Apps on the device simply fly – while they are not really the same level of sophistication as modern iPhone or Android apps, they are getting better.
I should point out however that the Torch uses a newer webkit based browser which puts all older Blackberries to shame. If you previously held off on a BB because of the browser, you will want to look at it again. Pages rendered with accuracy, something which was never the case with previous BBs. And if you are still used to using a mouse cursor to browse websites, the optical trackpad does a good enough job. But of course the touchscreen just works better – pinch to zoom, then just click on links.

Battery Life
This is one area where the Blackberry shines. The Blackberry lasted multiple days in my use, even with multiple email accounts, twitter and Facebook implemented and a lot of social networking use. If you are a heavy user of your phone, the Torch really will serve you well.
I typically take my iPad to converences because I know my iPhone will not last the day if I continually use it to tweet and browse. So for the recent Appsworld Africa conference I instead just used the Torch, which just seemed to keep on going. (The other great part is that I dont have to look for a wifi network, because BIS does not charge by the meg). So if you run from conference to meeting to conference the Blackberry is still the best.

The camera worked well for quick out and about shots. Its a pretty standard 5MP with LED flash affair. Low light performance was not as good as I would like it to be, so the flash did come in handy. Videos are taken in VGA mode, so it does not do that HD-thing. Maybe the next one will? What I do like though is that the camera is very quick to use – it starts up instantaneously, and the interface is very quick to use. Fast moving subject? Quick two clicks. Face detection? Same. Shutter speed is quick as well. While photos will not be as good as the high end Nokia phones with Carl Zeiss lenses, the operation of the camera is very quick and effortless which I appreciate.
Overall I doubt the typical BB Torch user will be disappointed – the Torch is a fairly business focussed device, and for that the camera is more than decent enough.

OK, so when the Torch came out it was the first BB device to ship with OS6, which is a fairly radical overhaul of the BB operating system. Gone is the legacy looking icons which still grace the other BBs – instead its replaced with a stunning theme which oddly reminds me of the change once Windows shifted to the Aero theme. Transparency and gradient selection colours are the order of the day. The idle screen is fairly customizable – the bottom of the screen uses a tray which can be left closed or opened up, at multiple levels, based on how many icons the user wants to be faced with. The tray slides left and right between All, Favourites, Media, Downloads and Frequent trays. Of course all of these icons can be found in the “All” tray, but the Frequent and Favourite ones seem to be used the most in my casual use.
Once the trays open, most phone users will be right at home, with the typical swiping and clicking all smartphones use these days. OS6 has few key new features like Universal Search, which works in a similiar function to iOS’s Spotlight, and it works well. Similar to Android, OS6 also uses a tray on the top of the screen to indicate notifications – so you can see how many tweet replies you have waiting, new emails, messages, missed calls etc. Hell of a lot better than Apple’s pathetic notification system in iOS4.
The Torch also is trying to show off its media chops a bit more in OS6. The music player is easy to navigate, and the iTunes plugin on my Mac worked a treat. On Windows machines you can also use Wifi syncing, something I was unabled to test. The phone loses the 8520’s cool physical media player buttons on the phone, which might bother some.
There is one area where the BB software shines though – enterprise integration. As someone who deals a lot with mobile platform integration in organizations, the ease of BB registration and setting up is still world ahead of the others. Where iOS and Android still require silly Mobile Device Management solutions, the BES Express and BES solutions just work. Provided your place of work is set up for Blackberry, you will be up and running with your enterprise email within minutes.
To the rest of us who use it for non-work related communication, the Torch is great. Social networking integration is done well, with a Social Feeds app. One of the things I still like about Blackberry is that all my messaging channels can be integrated into one inbox – for example, my Whatsapp messages, Twitter DM’s, Facebook, SMS and email. All in one place – and you reply right there, and it takes the channel it came in with. No need to switch between apps like iPhone and Android. (But maybe the ZADroid guys know about a way to do it on Android? They normally do.)
The Aha! moment
Smartphone users in SA who rely on their devices for lets of messaging and browsing in SA know the drill – sort out your data bundles and home wifi, or you will be faced with a nice hefty bill later in the month. Here our iPhone contracts come out with a aneamic 110 or 240MB per month, which really limits how well you use the device (in fact I recently saw an contract with the Samsung Galaxy S with a massive 30MB data bundled every month – who are you fooling Vodacom?). The alternative is of course to get wifi access for your device at home and at work, but many of us are not in that fortunate position.
This is where Blackberry is a killer device – the owner simply signs up for BIS (around R60 a month) or BES (around R90 a month), and all non-streaming data is included in that price. Want to refresh News24 every two minutes? Want to constantly check your mail, or twitter feed? Feel free. This is the part that made me fall in love with the Blackberry. Similiar to the way Mweb almost liberated SA internet users with uncapped usage, the Blackberry makes you just use your device without worrying about finding wifi networks or thinking the whole time about how much something will cost in terms of data.
So even though other smartphones might sport mightier specs or sleeker shapes, the lack of worry that a Blackberry gives you really does free the user up to use the phone much more effectively.
At the end of the day I had a very positive experience of the Blackberry Torch. While it might not be as pretty or as fast as the iPhone, the no-nonsense get down to business attitude that it gives the user really makes it great. So I guess its not really the phone itself I love, but rather the lifestyle it affords me.
Now I just want to get my hands on the Blackberry Bold 9900
Build Quality: 8/10
Performance and Responsiveness: 6/10
Aesthetics: 8/10
Display: 5/10
Camera: 7/10
Score: 7/10