March 6, 2013

BLACKBERRY TORCH REVIEW


RIM's first serious shot at the touchscreen smartphone market, the BlackBerry Storm, was met with a lukewarm response. Neither BlackBerry loyalists nor new users took to the idea of a screen that clicks when you touch it. Touchscreen issues aside, the Storm was a mediocre handset and had nothing special about it to compete with established rivals such as the iPhone. Even the updates version that came out this year had no major improvements, and although RIM refined the touchscreen mechanism it still was a bit awkward to use. 



For their next touchscreen device though, RIM chose to take a different, a more traditional route. Physical QWERTY keypads have been a forte of BlackBerry devices and so they decided to integrate them in their latest touchscreen phone. And thus the BlackBerry Torch was born. It's a marriage of the traditional physical keypad with a modern touchscreen in a stylish slider form-factor, which is a first for this Canadian company.  But hardware design aside, the BlackBerry Torch also brings something new on the software front from the company. It's their first device to run the new BlackBerry OS 6.0. But will this be enough to take on the competition that has grown immensely strong over the years? Is the Torch good enough to take on the iPhones and Androids of the world? We decided to find out.

Bundle
  • BlackBerry Torch
  • Battery
  • Charger
  • Stereo headset
  • USB Cable
  • Software CD
  • User Guide
  • 4GB microSD card
  • Cleaning cloth 
Design & Build 
As mentioned before the Torch is the first slider BlackBerry phone. So far they have mostly made chunky candybars and on a couple of occasions, when the designers were feeling particularly rebellious or innovative, clamshells.  Unlike most touchscreen sliders though, the Torch uses a portrait arrangement, which is pretty rare. 


Even when the phone is closed it is quite large. In fact it is just as large as a BlackBerry Bold or a Storm. This might not be a big deal for the other two phones though, as they don't have to slide open and get even bigger like the Torch. When you slid it open, the Torch is positively enormous and long enough to land a small plane on it! This reminds me of the BlackBerry Pearl Flip, which too was an extremely long phone.

The length is not an issue though. Even when the phone is open it never feels unbalanced or top heavy and is comfortable to type on. What is an issue though is the width, which feels a bit too much for single handed operation. When I was using the phone lying down on my bed I was constantly nervous if it might slip from my hand and crush my face. I wouldn't have felt that way had the phone been light but it is the exact opposite and feels as if RIM has packed half of Canada's population inside it. One really shouldn't mess with a person holding this phone in their hand.

Design-wise the phone looks very classy though. The simple design of BlackBerry handsets have always worked for us and the Torch is no exception. It looks and feels like an expensive phone, which it is. Apart from the new form-factor, you will find all the usual details that you would see on any other recent BlackBerry phone.

Below the display you have the optical trackpad in the middle, with the menu key and the call key on the left and the back key and call end/power key on its right. Above the display is the status LED light in all its multi-colored glory, which apparently is one of the three biggest reasons why some people use a BlackBerry. There is also a proximity sensor and a display light sensor somewhere, but they aren't clearly visible as the LED light.

On the top are the lock key on the left and the silent button on the right. Both the buttons can be pressed very easily and often unintentionally. This can be annoying in case of the lock button, which unlocks the phone's display as you push the phone down in your pocket. You will also find the loudspeaker slot on the top. Although it looks unrestricted and placed where it cannot be blocked easily, the loudspeaker still sounds muffled for some reason. 


On the right side of the phone is the inconveniently located headphone jack on the top, the volume control keys in the middle and the convenience key below. The convenience key is actually a two-step button meant for the camera and launches the camera app by default, but can also be assigned to launch some other function. On the left side is the micro USB port.

On the back you will find the 5 megapixel camera lens on the top with the LED flash. The camera lens cover attracts fingerprints because it is placed exactly where you park your index fingers when holding the phone, but since it is flat it can be cleaned easily. Below is the battery cover that can be opened by sliding down. Underneath you will find the microSD card slot, battery and the SIM card slot.


The overall build quality of the phone felt great initially, but we eventually noticed a slight wobble in the slider. You can make it move in a see-saw motion by tapping the bottom portion of the display, which you would if you have to press the keys below the display. The battery cover also felt slightly loose and had a bit of play.
Overall the phone looks very classy but is marred by the titanic dimensions and mass and the imperfect build quality. 


Display

The BlackBerry Torch has a 3.2-inch 360 x 480 pixel capacitive touchscreen display. Unlike the Display on the Storm and Storm 2, there is no clickety-clack non-sense here. This is an honest-to-goodness touchscreen, like on any other normal phone. Unfortunately, it seems BlackBerry has to screw up the touchscreen one way or the other so this time they have screwed up the resolution. It seems someone forgot to tell them it is 2010 and it's no longer acceptable for premium smartphones to have a 360 x 480 resolution. It was great in 2007 when the iPhone was launched but not anymore.

The display image quality is average and it cannot compare with the Retina displays and the Super AMOLED and this even without considering their superior resolution. It would have been pretty nice on a sub-15k phone, but for a phone that costs more than twice that amount, it is just not acceptable.

Keypad

The keypad on the Torch is the same one that we saw on the Bold 9700. It wasn't the best QWERTY keypad that we have seen, and on the Torch it is slightly worse since it is sunken into the casing so that it slides smoothly under the display. We think that the physical keypad on the Torch is fairly redundant, as the on-screen keypad does a good job of entering text quickly and effortlessly.


Very rarely did we find ourselves sliding open the phone to access the keypad underneath. We realize that BlackBerry probably retained the keypad on the Torch so that those upgrading from older BlackBerry's won't feel lost, but it also adds to the size and weight of the phone. I'm sure most people wouldn't mind trading in the physical keypad for a smaller and lighter phone, especially since the software keypad is very good.

UI & Applications

The Torch is the first BlackBerry phone to run the new BlackBerry OS 6.0. With the new OS comes an improved browser, updated interface and a new media player. You will notice that the homescreen looks slightly different now than what it looked on the Storm. On OS 5.0, you had had to access the applications through a separate menu but now the applications reside on your desktop in a tray at the bottom. You can adjust the height of the tray to display four, eight or twelve applications at a time or you can tap on it to open it completely and then scroll inside it.

You can also swipe horizontally to see different categories in the application list. From the all-encompassing one to one that only shows the media applications, one showing the downloaded applications, one showing the frequently used applications and one where you can add your favorites.

The top also has multiple clickable elements now. You can click on the extreme top and bring down a menu where you can quickly activate offline mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or set your alarm or access network settings. You can click on the Speaker icon to change the currently active audio profile or the magnifying glass to start the new search function that is far more comprehensive now and lets you search for anything on the phone by typing its name. If you click on the area between the two icons then you will bring down the notification tray that shows you the information such as missed calls and messages.

The rest of the interface has also been updated and looks much nicer now compared to the boring black text on white background of older BlackBerry devices. The OS doesn't seem too demanding as well. Even on the Torch's mediocre hardware it seemed to run smoothly without any hiccups. We did notice that third party applications did crash occasionally and when they did they had a tendency to bring the entire OS to its knees, freezing the phone till they were automatically quit.

While OS 6.0 is a decent upgrade over 5.0, in world with iOS 4.2 and Android 2.2 it seems pretty lackluster. It gets the job done but fails to excite. Even the applications available for the OS on BlackBerry App World are mostly pretty mediocre. RIM should have taken the effort to come up with something more substantial and taken a leaf out of Microsoft's book.

Even though Windows Mobile was one of the most hated mobile operating systems around, when they decided to come up with a new OS, they really made something that was completely different and original instead of taking design cues from existing operating systems (the way Google did). RIM is in a serious need to get the attention of the crowd.

Connectivity

The BlackBerry Torch is a quad band GSM handset supporting HSPA. It also has Wi-Fi 802.11b/g, Bluetooth v2.0, A-GPS and USB connectivity. Call quality was very good on the Torch as well as the network reception. We couldn't test push messaging as we did not have BlackBerry Internet Service activated on our device. However, we expect it to work like a charm. There is no front facing camera and video call support on the Torch, which is not surprising considering none of the BlackBerrys' have had it before. I think it is time RIM understands the importance of this feature, especially post-FaceTime, since people would want to have this feature.

We really wanted to try the new browser in OS 6.0 now that it has been improved and that it uses the WebKit rendering engine that is used on almost all the other major smartphone platform. Sure enough it was better than before and worked well. Even heavy web pages work well and only occasionally did the phone stutter. You can use pinch to zoom but then the text won't wrap around to fit the display; for that you would need to double tap on the text. The browser supports multiple tabs but lacks a built-in search engine and you cannot search from the address bar as in Android.

It lacks support for Flash content, which is a shame, since the browser has a pointer as well that can be used with the help of the optical trackpad and it could have been used to access certain kind of Flash content which only works with the mouse pointer on a computer, such as menus that need you to hover over them. Then again, it would have probably slowed down the phone and also consumed more power. We really have nothing to complain about the browser except for the fact that what took BlackBerry so long to put it into their phones.

Multimedia

The BlackBerry Torch has a 5 megapixel camera with autofocus and LED flash. The camera software allows you to shoot in landscape as well as portrait mode and it adjusts accordingly. The lower portion of the screen is always covered by this row of buttons which actually occlude a part of the area that will be captured by the phone. The phone lets you select from multiple scene modes depending upon the conditions you are shooting in, adjust the flash settings and the auto focus settings. Those are all the options you get though.

I found using the camera fairly frustrating though. When you are trying to focus the square on the screen sometimes turns green even when the image is clearly not in focus. At times you have no idea whether the phone is even focusing or not. In most phones you can see the focus moving in and out before you get a sharp picture but on the Torch there is barely any change. The picture looks just as unclear after focusing as it did before. More often than not the camera has actually focused even when you thought otherwise but at times the reverse is true as well.

What's worse is that the image quality is clearly not worth all this effort. The quality of the Torch's camera is strictly average and more on par with the mid-range phones than those which sell at the same price as it. Even the 24FPS VGA video recording is straight out of Jurassic Park compared to the HD video that most high-end phones can record these days.






Things improve in the music and video playback department though. The new music player is nice. You can see the album art prominently in the center and you can tap on it to pause the music. You can also swipe to move to the other tracks in the current playlist and then tap on them to begin playback. You get a choice of multiple equalizer presets to choose from but there is no manual equalizer to adjust.

The audio quality of the phone through headphones is really good and the phone can also go pretty loud. If that's not enough, it also has an audio booster function for added loudness. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, the loudspeaker sounds muffled, so it's best not to use it for playing music.

Surprisingly the speaker sounds great for videos. The phone can playback SD DivX files with ease but cannot handle HD stuff. The display unfortunately is lackluster and not great for watching videos on. 


Battery Life

The BlackBerry Torch has a 1300 mAh Li-Ion battery. The battery life on the Torch is excellent and one of the few really good things about the phone. The phone lasted us for three days on a single charge. However, that number does not involve too much of web browsing or push messaging, as we did not have BIS activated on our device. Still, even with those features fully operational we don't expect the battery life to go below two days of usage.

Verdict

BlackBerry fans might be disappointed to hear this, but the Torch is a pretty mediocre phone. For a device that was hyped so much by the company it does nothing new that we haven't already seen from others and actually misses out on a lot. The design is one of the few redeeming aspects about the phone but it's too big and bulky to carry around or use comfortably.


The display is simply outdated and outclassed by every other high-end phone's display. The push messaging and messenger service would have been great ten years ago, but you would just be silly to buy a BlackBerry now for just those features, as every other smartphones can do that equally well. Even the multimedia performance is underwhelming.

The Torch disappoints on the software front as well. BlackBerry OS 6.0 might be a big step from OS 5.0 but it still isn't quite on par with iOS, Windows Phone 7 or Android. Not only is the OS unexciting, but even the applications aren't particularly interesting. The battery life of the phone is the only thing that is really good about it.

But what makes the whole thing even worse is the price. I really don't know what the guys over at RIM were thinking when they decided to price the Torch at Rs. 34,995 when the phone clearly doesn't deserve to sell for anything more than half that price.

If the phone wasn't a bad enough deal already, the price completely ruins it. We cannot even in our wildest dream recommend the Torch to someone at that price and we truly feel sorry for those who have already spent that amount on this phone. By pricing it that way, RIM has ensured the phone is ignored by everyone except the most die-hard BlackBerry fans.

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