First impressions of the BlackBerry Torch

Hands-on with the BlackBerry Torch

After months of watching the likes of HTC, Motorola, Samsung, and Apple roll out one superphone after another this summer — you know, like the eye-popping HTC Evo 4G, the mammoth Droid X, or of course the headline-stealing iPhone 4 — Research in Motion finally has a touchscreen BlackBerry that’s worth getting excited about.

Now, make no mistake: The Torch ($199 with a two-year AT&T contract, available August 12) doesn’t try to one-up such superphones as the Droid X or the iPhone 4. There’s no super-dense “retina display” here, nor is there a jumbo four-inch screen, a front-facing camera, gyroscopes or 4G data access. If you’re in love with the new iPhone or, say, one of the new Samsung “Galaxy” phones, I doubt you’ll be tempted to defect to the new BlackBerry. But as I see it, the Torch represents something more crucial for RIM: It’s the mobile giant’s first step into the modern smartphone world, and it’s actually kind of a savvy one.

(Note: Just to be clear, what follows isn’t a review; rather, these are initial impressions based on about 20 minutes of hands-on time with the Torch. A full review will follow once I get to spend quality time with a review unit.)

Wisely jettisoning the sticky, clicking touch displays that marred its first and second Storm handsets in favor of a standard capacitive touchscreen, the new Torch feels like RIM’s first real, modern touchscreen phone, one that’ll seem relatively up-to-snuff compared to Android handsets and the iPhone, yet not a complete left turn for dyed-in-the-wool BlackBerry jockeys.

Unlike Microsoft and its complete and utter reboot of Windows Mobile (which may or may not pay off; we’ll find out later this year), RIM’s new, touch-enabled OS 6 — which is making its debut on the Torch — keeps one foot firmly in the old BlackBerry world, with plain email-message interfaces, text-based contextual menus that pop up when you tap a message, and an overall look and feel that won’t leave veteran BlackBerry users in the dark.

At the same time, the BlackBerry OS still manages to feel fresh and new — or at least, fresh and new compared to what we’ve seen on recent BlackBerry handsets.

Long lists of contacts, songs, and email messages now feel smooth and springy when you scroll through them. Flicking back and forth on the home page swooshes you through five pages of apps and icons. Tapping and holding certain items spawns an attractive, icon-based contextual menu. Best of all, the clunky old BlackBerry Web browser is now (relatively) fast and peppy, complete with tabbed browsing and pinch-to-zoom multitouch support.

One of the coolest features on the new BlackBerry is the revamped universal search feature, which lets you start typing search results from the home screen and produces instant results from all your messages and contacts. You can also tap to continue searching on Google.

Best of all, guess what else on the Torch is searchable? The gargantuan BlackBerry options and setting menus, that’s what. Now if you want to chance your UI theme, you can just type “theme” into the universal search box rather than hunt and peck through a thicket of menus. I love it.

Speaking of typing, the Torch’s 3.2-inch, 360-by-480 capacitive touchscreen makes for easy tapping on the virtual QWERTY keypad — far easier than it was on the original Storm (which had a touchscreen that was basically a big, clickable button) and the Storm 2 (which opted for “haptic feedback” — actual vibration — for its “click” effect).

And if you don’t want to tap on the display, you can always slide out the familiar, physical RIM QWERTY keypad, which luckily doesn’t add much in the way of unnecessary bulk to the 5.7-ounce, 0.6-inch handset. A BlackBerry rep proudly told me that RIM spent a lot of time making sure the Torch was properly proportioned and balanced for two-handed typing with the sliding keypad open, and yes — you can tap comfortably with your thumbs without feeling like the phone is about to tip over.

The BlackBerry OS 6-powered Torch also does a good job of embracing social networking, with the handset’s unified inbox integrating messages from Facebook and Twitter. There’s also a dedicated app for checking your social-networking updates or RSS feeds.

Getting back to the Torch itself, the handset is powered by a solid 624MHz processor with 512MB of system memory — perhaps not as fast as the 1GHz powerhouses on the latest superphones, but fast enough to make the Torch feel peppy and responsive, especially compared to the sluggish Storms of years past. There’s also a five-megapixel camera with a flash — again, maybe not bleeding edge (and no, there’s no HD 720p video recording), but still good enough to keep the Torch in the game. Other Torch hardware features include Wi-Fi (of course), Bluetooth, GPS, 4GB of onboard storage, a microSD memory slot, and a standard 3.5mm headset jack.

While I need to spend more time with the Torch before I can make any definitely pronouncements, I can safely say that the Torch makes for a promising new beginning as far as the BlackBerry is concerned. The hardware itself looks solid and relatively powerful, and the new OS finally steps into the modern smartphone age, yet RIM won’t be leaving any loyal users behind by shaking things up too much. (And by the way: Legacy BlackBerry apps are supported in OS 6.) No, the Torch isn’t an iPhone — or Android-killer, but if you ask me, that isn’t the point.

And what of the fact that the Torch is exclusive to AT&T? I’ve already seen a fair amount of outrage about this arrangement on my previous post, and yes — if you really hate AT&T, you’re out of luck as far as the Torch is concerned.

Consider this, though: The Torch is, of course, only the first BlackBerry OS 6 handset from RIM, which has plenty of BlackBerrys available on all four of the big carriers. That means we’ll surely see more touchscreen BlackBerries in the same vein as the Storm cropping up on Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon in relatively short order. So if you’re dying for a Torch — or something close to the Torch — on a carrier besides AT&T, just be patient. They will come.

So, what do you think of the Torch? Have any questions? Leave ’em below and I’ll try to answer here or in an upcoming post.

Posted in Technology.

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