Tomorrow, August 12, you’ll be able to walk into an AT&T store and purchase the newest BlackBerry device, the Torch 9800. But before you decide which device you’ll use for the next two years, we should take some time to discuss the ins and outs of the device. There is plenty to cover regarding the hardware, and then we’ll move onto the software aspect.
The idea behind the Torch is that it’s the ultimate BlackBerry device. It combines the touchscreen of the Storm with the QWERTY keyboard that made the BlackBerry so famous. We’ve seen plenty of Torch pictures, but here are the open and closed ones just for good measure. You can click each one for a larger view:
Now that we’ve established the quality of the hardware, it’s time to move onto the software. For so long the operating system has been one point on which RIM has been constantly criticized. As we moved from OS 4.2 to OS 4.5 and even into 5.0 we didn’t see any wholesale changes. Instead we got incremental upgrades, and 5.0 hardly seemed worthy of its own version. With OS 6, RIM looked to change that reputation. Boot time When I first turned on the Torch I was surprised at how fast it booted up. Maybe I’m just used to the Tour and its near-10-minute boot time. But even with the intro video the Torch got to the good part in maybe three minutes. This also came in handy when I froze the device while trying to take a screenshot during a video. I don’t plan to try that again. Home screen In previous BlackBerry OS builds, there were two main places you could view applications, the home screen and applications menu. The applications menu was straight forward, as it was just a grid of all your apps. The home screen was variable, depending on theme. Sometimes you’d have a ton of apps there, sometimes you’d have a preview of your messages and calendar, or sometimes you’d have both. With BlackBerry 6 we get a much more simplified interface. When you first see the home screen you’ll see four icons at the bottom of the screen, along with a bar above them. We’ll get to the bar in a second. The neatest part about this new home screen is that you’re not really limited to those four icons. Not hardly. The interface allows you to manipulate the home screen as you see fit. Want four rows of icons? Drag the bar all the way to the top. Want three? Two? One? You can do that and keep it that way. Check it: The bar on top also allows you to keep more of your stuff on the same screen. The main screen has all of your items, including folders. Swipe to the right and you get favorites, then media, followed by downloads, and then finally frequently used items. The menu is circular, so you can swipe either left or right to find the menu you seek. Moving upward, there is a status bar on which you’ll see plenty of notification icons. This is rather awesome, because it makes moot the idea of a Today preview. Just click on this and a menu will drop down. It contains all of your new notifications, from messages to social apps. This includes Social Feeds, something we’ll touch on a bit later. Scroll through these and you can pick which messages to view. You can also click on the header and open that application. As a substitute for Today, I don’t think RIM could have done better. Also on that bar sit two static icons, one for search — which searches everything on your device and can also search the web — and profiles. Those are two excellent icons to have readily available on the home screen. Up above is the clock, signal meter, battery meter, and other network indicators. Click it and your Manage Connections app will open. I wish you could open the clock by clicking that, but the whole top bar is one big button. The browser The biggest change people sought was with the browser. Again, instead of a new, refreshed browser in the newer operating systems we got incremental upgrades. They were welcome — the browser on OS 4.2 was particularly horrible. But we still didn’t have that robust web browsing interface you see on other platforms. Thankfully, the WebKit browser changes all of that. As you can see, the browser renders web pages in full if there is no automatic mobile redirect. This view obviously does you little good beyond reading headlines. But the browser has an excellent zoom function that not only makes the text bigger, but also renders it quickly. In OS 4.5 through 5.0 you would also see non-mobile pages rendered in full and could zoom. The difference is that, in my experience, the rendering took way too long. OS 6 does a much nicer job of zooming and rendering quickly. If the site has a dedicated mobile version you’ll go there, and I don’t see a good way to see the actual site. Tabbed browsing is a new and welcome addition. Next to the address bar you’ll see a pair of overlapping squares. Click that and you’ll see all of your active tabs. You can hit the green plus sign to add a new tab, or you can just swipe between your currently open ones. The red X closes the tab you have highlighted, not the tab that is currently open in the browser. Also, it does not close the tabs screen. I made that mistake once. The Escape key will get you back to the main browser screen. The icon next to tabs, the globe icon, lets you manipulate browser functions. You can add the current page to bookmarks, add the page to your home screen, send the page address to a contact, or copy the address. This is also where you can access your bookmarks and browsing history. Not that you need me to explain that. It’s pretty self-explanatory once you start using the device. Watching videos is pretty nice, too. The videos don’t load right in the browser, though it’s not like the older browser where it would open in your Media app. It’s like clicking on a video automatically turns on full screen mode. You can watch the video there, and click the Escape button to return to page from which you launched the video. At the press conference last Tuesday RIM showed off one feature of the browser that I thought would make a big difference. When zooming, if you double click the screen it would not only make the text larger, but it would align it as to fit on one screen. That feature, at least initially, appears to be a bit wonky. Check out the screen shots below.
When I first heard of the BlackBerry slider I was skeptical of its potential. In general I prefer either the old style BlackBerry, were the face is split between the keyboard and the screen, or a full touchscreen device. Slider/touchscreen devices always struck me as bulky and unnecessary. The BlackBerry Torch has changed my tune. I find this device, along with the new OS, far more intuitive than previous BlackBerry models. The change from SurePress to a more traditional touchscreen helps a lot, but so does the new operating system. I actually wonder how it will translate to a non-touch device, because it feels like it was made for the touchscreen. Everything on the device is easily accessible, and if you have problems finding anything you can easily track it down using universal search. The addition of Social Feeds is probably my favorite new feature, since it takes care of so much in one place. The drop-down universal messages menu also adds a lot to the OS, since it basically takes all of your new messages and puts them in one easy to reach place. Since messaging is the first and foremost priority of the BlackBerry platform, I’d say that this was a successful implementation. If I were in the position to select a device for the next two years and didn’t mind going with AT&T’s service, I can’t do anything but recommend the BlackBerry Torch. It brings wholesale changes to the BlackBerry platform while retaining its best features.
I touched on tons of features in this review, but I obviously did not hit on everything. There will surely be questions, not only about what I reviewed but about things that I did not hit. Leave your questions in the comments, and I’ll try to compile them into a follow-up review for next week.