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Belated BlackBerry Torch review

A funny thing happened on the way to this smartphone review. I pushed it back a day, then one more, then over the weekend, then yet another day -- and nobody got on my case about it.

That -- and my on paternity leave--helps explain why I'm assessing Research In Motion's new BlackBerry Torch almost a month after AT&T heralded its arrival with the unfortunately-titled release "AT&T and Research in Motion Ignite Customers with the New BlackBerry Torch" and 2 1/2 weeks after the device hit AT&T's stores.

blackberry_torch_keyboard_open.JPG

I didn't miss much. The Torch is a better BlackBerry, but it doesn't catch up to Apple's iPhone or most phones running Google's Android operating system.

RIM's new phone -- $199.99 for new or renewing customers, with voice and data bundles starting at $54.99 -- combines a color touchscreen with a slide-out keyboard. There's also a 5-megapixel, video-capable camera with flash (sample shots after the jump) and the usual choice of 3G mobile broadband or WiFi wireless access.

But that screen's resolution, at just 360 by 480 pixels, doesn't match that of most new Android devices, much less the iPhone 4. Its onscreen keyboard yielded too many typos, making the slide-out keyboard better for all but brief text entry. Its processor seems overwhelmed; zooming into a Web page involved a noticeable wait for the phone to redraw the page's text. RIM did, however, give the Torch solid battery life, estimated at 5.8 hours of talk time and six hours of video playback.

The vaunted BlackBerry 6 operating system inside that case has other issues. Although its Web browser runs on the same open-source WebKit framework as the software in the iPhone, Android and Palm's Pre and Pixi, it failed to display the Post's mobile site, blaming an "error on line 10 at column 200: EntityRef: expecting ';'." The Torch's e-mail client easily handles Web-formatted messages, but otherwise it offers nothing special to consumers (as opposed to the business users RIM generally targets).

BlackBerry 6 brings a fast "universal search" option and a simple text-selection option that some Android vendors could learn from. But the traditional BlackBerry interface clutter lives on in menus that list every available command -- even though many of these functions are more easily performed through the touchscreen or the buttons below it. And like earlier BlackBerry releases, BlackBerry 6 doesn't automatically lock the screen when idle.

RIM touts BlackBerry's 6's upgraded support for social networking and multimedia. But its irritating Social Feeds app comes set to beep every time somebody posts an update on Twitter or Facebook. Its media player features redundant "pause" and "stop" buttons and froze up on me once; since BlackBerry 6 doesn't let you force a stuck program to quit, I had to reboot the phone.

The Torch comes with BlackBerry's App World program catalog, but recent improvements have failed to advance it much from its humble origins. With less than 10,000 applications available, it misses some BlackBerry programs and falls far short of Apple's App Store and Google's Android Market. Sometimes it doesn't work: Although Pandora's Web-radio application allegedly "supports all devices," a search for that title on the Torch yielded nothing. A further annoyance comes when it asks you to grant a new program "trusted application status" without detailing that choice's implications.

AT&T failed to bundle a mapping program on the Torch. The "AT&T Maps" icon in the phone's app tray would suggest otherwise, but it and similar icons for CNN, The Weather Channel, ESPN and other name brands only take you to RIM's site to download those programs. Fortunately, you can delete the few apps AT&T did pre-install.

The Torch's BlackBerry Desktop sync program looks sleeker than the mediocre bundle I tried last year and doesn't require using a separate utility to sync music, photos and videos. But its underlying Intellisync software is about as clumsy and inefficient as before. Too bad, as Outlook users can't sync their data directly to many Android phones and might appreciate a more elegant solution.

AT&T regards the Torch as something special: It won't unlock its SIM card slot for use with another GSM carrier (although you can apparently work around that restriction). But it's not.

If your office requires that you use an AT&T BlackBerry -- sure, get the Torch. If it insists on a BlackBerry from another carrier, get a Bold 9650, Bold 9700 or Pearl 3G, the only models in RIM's lineup that have promised BlackBerry 6 updates. But if you've got a choice, shop elsewhere.

Would you? Let me know your answer in the comments.


---

Below, a few sample photos taken with the BlackBerry Torch's camera. Note that the flash didn't fire for any of these, even the indoor shot at the bottom.

BB_Torch_Nats_Park_evening.jpg

BB_Torch_K_St_evening.jpg

BB_Torch_Metro.jpg

BB_Torch_cubicle_wall.jpg

By Rob Pegoraro  |  August 31, 2010; 2:16 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Mobile  
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Comments

I don't have a Torch, but I'm an avid Blackberry fan, having used them for years. What I don't understand is why people think the menu system on the Blackberry is a drawback hard to use. Contrary to what Rob says, the choices are context senstive, not excessive and confusing, so that in general one can zip through what one wants, take seconds, and involves moving the thumb no more than 1/4 inch, often accepting the highlighted menu choice. It scares me how many people, including respected journalists, take such sadistic pleasure flaying and eviscerating Blackberry. Is riding the crest of a fad so important these days.

Posted by: IdlerBill | August 31, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

After using the Torch for about 3 weeks now I have noticed some small quarks that can hopefully be fixed with an update. But nothing major right now. I need the keyboard as I receive a lot of work emails and use my blackberry for work A LOT. I have tried using only touchscreen but keyboard still rules if you need to use it for a lot of emails. By far Blackberry's best product yet but if you just use your phone to take pictures, play music, and play with then get a Droid or iPhone. If you need to use it for productivity - Torch works.

Posted by: jackmackercher | September 1, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

I am also happy with the Torch and OS6. I find it to be the right blend of multi-media and productivity tools, but that my personal preference. I also want to point out that intellisync works well if you remove Blackberry Desktop Manager 5.x. For some reason it is not removed when DM 6 is installed. This was noted on BB forums.

Posted by: cameron07 | September 1, 2010 11:32 PM | Report abuse

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