Microsoft isn’t the only company revamping its smartphone operating system this month. RIM has been busy too, engineering a major software update and a new handset to go with it: the BlackBerry Torch.
RIM hasn’t had to start from the ground up in the same way Microsoft has, but in some respects it has gone back to the drawing board. The Torch marks a distinct change in direction, drawing on RIM’s traditional strengths and combining them with the tried and tested.
The new handset is the first to combine a touchscreen with a physical keyboard, and it looks like a good move. The capacitive touchscreen isn’t the largest at 3.2in or highest resolution at 360 x 480, but it’s bright and colourful. Underneath, mounted on sliding rails, is a fully fledged Qwerty keyboard in the style of the Bold 9700.
It seems too good to be true, so what’s the catch? For starters, we’re not entirely convinced of the build quality of this new BlackBerry. Where the Bold 9700 felt supremely solid, the Torch is rattly and feels far less substantial.
This isn’t surprising given there’s more going on mechanically, but it doesn’t excuse the bendy, plasticky base and thin, ill-fitting battery cover, nor the four flimsy navigation buttons flanking the optical trackpad. It also makes for a phone that’s chunkier than the Bold 9700.
Even then it wouldn’t be such an issue if the keyboard were up to the same standard as the Bold’s. Alas, despite appearances, it isn’t as good and the reason is the lip surrounding the keyboard on all sides. It impedes the thumbs when they’re reaching for keys at the side and bottom of the keypad, and makes typing uncomfortable.
Elsewhere, the news is slightly better. Battery life is good: we recorded 60% remaining after our 24-hour test, which is about as good as a modern smartphone gets. The camera has had a megapixel boost – up to 5 megapixels from the 3.2 of the previous generation – and it’s a reasonable camera too, equipped with autofocus, image stabilisation and an LED that works both as a flash and a video light source. Video recording still lags behind the competition, however. The Torch is only able to shoot 640 x 480 footage at a maximum of 24fps.
So the hardware isn’t revolutionary, but the OS is a completely different story. The most obvious change is the homescreen, which boasts a host of new features. The icons at the bottom of the screen are now split into sets (All, Favourites, Downloads, Media and Frequent), navigable with a sweep of the finger left or right. This categorisation makes it much easier to find what you’re looking for, and if you drag your finger up from the bottom of the home screen, you’ll see that it translates to the full-screen icon grid too.
At the top of the home screen, more subtle changes have been made. The at-a-glance message/appointment status icons are now interactive, dropping down a snazzy preview pane when you tap or click them. The area above brings up the new and improved connections manager; among other things, this makes setting up Wi-Fi networks a much more straightforward process than before.
Also living in the status bar at the top is a small, unassuming magnifying glass icon. Tap this (or simply start typing on the Qwerty keyboard) and the Torch’s universal search box appears, which allows you to hunt, not just through your messages, calendar appointments and contacts, but also through apps and even settings by keyword. Can’t remember where the brightness settings reside? Just type “Brightness” and you’ll be guided to the setting in question. Need to search through your email for an address that isn’t in your contacts list? Just start typing the name on the keyboard. The results are generated on the fly, narrowing as you type. It’s an excellent addition.
It’s all the more disappointing, then, that the phone’s core performance drags what looks like an excellent operating system upgrade down once more. The numbers may well reveal quick load times, but the general responsiveness of the operating system tells a different story. Menu animations, zoom and pan operations all feel hesitant, and often happen a fraction of a second after you’ve performed an action on the touchscreen.
That, coupled with the disappointing ergonomic design, suspect build quality and high price, means we can’t wholeheartedly recommend the BlackBerry Torch. When the next Bold arrives, however, we’ll be first in line.