As many of you know, this week RIM introduces 3 brand new Blackberrys all running the brand new Blackberry 7 operating system. The trio–the Bold 9930, Torch 9810 and Torch 9850–will likely constitute RIM’s flagship lineup until a QNX based operating system arrives sometime next year. The Torch 9850, a re-polished and updated Blackberry Storm2 9550, forgoes the iconic Blackberry hardware keyboard for a 3.7 inch capacitive touchscreen–making it the most atypical Blackberry of the three and positioning it as a serious contender in a market full of iPhones and Androids.
The Blackberry Torch 9850
A unique phone in a crowded market: To be honest, the Torch 9850 threw me for a loop. I spent the entire first day comparing it to the iPhone 4, after all they are both slate-like devices. But in reality, the philosophy differences are huge. The iPhone looks like a clean slate device because the iPhone has a single hardware button and relies on on screen navigation bars at the top and bottom of most apps for navigation.
It was only when I compared the Torch 9850 to Android devices that I understood its place. Androids and the Torch 9850 have a lot in common. Both believe that users want to feel grounded with stationary menu buttons beneath the screen. However, the problem for most Androids is that those buttons are touch sensitive–making them almost indistinguishable from the screen in both appearance and function; and trust me, nothing is more frustrating than accidentally hitting a touch-sensitive button below the screen and exiting an app in the middle of something important.
The Torch 9850 avoids these problems by using four raised stone-like buttons. While I was skeptical at first, after some extended use, I understood the comfort of having real reliable stationary option buttons below the touch screen–a minimalist take on the Blackberry love for physical hardware buttons. Like the old school T9 text editors, the brain learns to memorize physical buttons, something harder to do with ever changing software buttons. In testing, I initially consciously focused on what was on the screen and used the touchscreen often. But within a few hours, my fingers would instinctively hit the hard menu buttons when needed, speeding up my overall experience. It created a comforting muscle-memory response that grounded what could otherwise be a terrifying leap into a fully software dependent world. It is the experience created by these physical buttons that makes the Torch 9850 a unique entry into the space and makes the Torch 9850 stand out from among its competitors.
Body design: The Torch 9850 is a handsome phone. The upper and lower portions taper outwards and the sides taper inwards, making the phone look like a tall slim device. Even though the Torch 9850 isn’t much taller than the iPhone 4, (4.72 inches v. 4.5 inches) the Torch 9850 packs in a larger screen than the iPhone 4 (3.7 inches v. 3.5 inches). A metal looking plastic band wraps around the sides of the Torch 9850 and across the top and bottom backing of the device–creating a contour where the back of the device is a little thicker on top and bottom of the device so that it doesn’t slip out of your hands.
Buttons: RIM tried something interesting with the side buttons on the Torch 9850, making them razor thin. But while they look slick, they do not feel comfortable to use. The thinner buttons put more pressure on a single point, making it feel as if the button is digging in to the meat of the finger. Similarly, a play/pause dot between the volume up/down buttons feels like a finger prick every time it is pressed.
Processor: Like the Torch 9810, the Torch 9850 is immediately responsive and a pleasure to use because of the massive increase in processor speed. The processor is 1.2 GHz. The bump is something that is immediately recognizable. So far I have not encountered any black-clocks of death or general lag in my weekend of use.
Blackberry OS 7: Every phone/computer device is a combination of both its hardware and software. Hardware improvements and general spec upgrades are great, but without knowing how the software interacts with the new hardware it is nearly impossible to make judgments on the overall experience to the consumer–the only real thing that matters. While Ronen covered Blackberry OS 7 in depth, I want to take a minute quickly highlight a feature of the new operating system that makes the Torch 9850 a more pleasant experience than the older Storm. Blackberry OS 7 uses “Liquid Graphics TM technology for fluid animations, instant response times and stunning graphics.” (Source: Press Kit) For an operating system that relies more heavily on touch controls than previous iterations, the added emphasis on the smooth interactive screen experience was a good investment. An instant and smooth on screen response to finger inputs makes all the difference, creating a truer feeling of interactivity.
Etc: The Torch 9850 has 4GB of storage that is expandable with a microSD card up to 32 GB; a 5MP camera that support geo-tagging, face detection and can record HD video in 720p; and enough juice for 6.8 hours of talk-time.
Conclusion: While there are larger more subtle issues to be discussed later (like the upcoming QNX based Blackberry operating system), it is refreshing to see RIM back in the game. With the new trio of superfast phones, it seems as if RIM has finally recognized what it is good at–reliable speedy devices with physical buttons–and built a modern experience on top of that. But most importantly, it is nice to feel excited again about a Blackberry product. Well done RIM. Now keep em comin
Note: a test unit was supplied for this review