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BlackBerry Torch 9850 and 9860

October 23rd, 2011
RIM makes up for the Storm with a completely rethought sequel

RIM's new BlackBerry Torch line is a reboot for the company. After the Storm and Storm2 failed to stem the tide of the iPhone and later Android, the new Torch shows signs RIM has learned its lesson: a faster processor, a touch interface, and the death of its infamous click-down screen. But is it enough? Our review of the Torch 9850 and 9860 will see if RIM is back in form or if its rivals are still moving faster. RIM's new BlackBerry Torch line is a reboot for the company. After the Storm and Storm2 failed to stem the tide of the iPhone and later Android, the new Torch shows signs RIM has learned its lesson: a faster processor, a touch interface, and the death of its infamous click-down screen. But is it enough? Our review of the Torch 9850 and 9860 will see if RIM is back in form or if its rivals are still moving faster.

Design and the display

To say that the Torch 9850 and 9860 are much improved in design over the Storm2 would be an understatement. Its earlier touch-only phone -- a device that wasn't updated for two years -- was fairly chunky and not especially inspiring. The new model is noticeably narrower, thinner, and generally much higher quality. It's not as premium-feeling as the iPhone 4S or as thin as the Galaxy S II, but we liked the unique "waterfall" shape where the front face appears to spill over the sides. It gives the phone a sense of character that BlackBerry phones sometimes lack, and it's fairly comfortable.

Controls have been given a distinct revision, too. The trackpad has now made it to an all-touch BlackBerry, and if you have a particularly precise action, you can now do it one-handed. We didn't have to use it much, but it's appreciated. The four navigation buttons have a more solid feel. And in an interesting take, the navigation buttons are now four 'islands' instead of running flush; we suspect the much narrower width relative to the Bold 9900 and 9930 raised concerns that users might hit the wrong button if they occupied more surface area.

Not all feels like a uniform improvement. In order to accommodate the tapered, seamless look, the volume controls and convenience key are both very slim and almost flush with the body. We found ourselves having to double-check that we were hitting the right button, and the mute key while distinct is a bit too easy to hit. The lock button at the top, a 'stealth' button carried over from BlackBerry phones from the past few years, is too easy to hit in its own right. We would occasionally pick up the phone out of the pocket already woken up, and in some cases having already launched into an app. Why RIM didn't bring over the inset button of the Bold 9900, we're not sure.

A few other quirks exist, too. Somewhat like the iPhone 4 and 4S, the speaker during non-phone use is fairly easily covered up with your hand if you like to cup the bottom. Storage is also a definite step back from what Apple and Samsung offer, though not necessarily HTC. While there's a microSDHC card slot, there's only 4GB of built-in storage, which is an oddly low amount for a phone that's supposed to put media first. It's more common to find 8GB or 16GB built-in at Torch prices.

The display is a big stride forward for RIM. Before, RIM had a small 3.25-inch, 360x480 screen that didn't compare well even to its 2009 contemporary the iPhone 3GS, let alone phones from the following year. A Torch 9850 or 9860 now has a much more modern 3.7-inch, 480x800 display. It's brighter, reasonably visible in bright sunlight, and it produces fairly rich colors with considerably less (if any) of the banding artifacts you'd get from a low-color display. And more importantly, it doesn't click down, which we'll touch on later but helps with the initial experience.

For the Torch, though, the problem is just that the industry hasn't been standing still, and RIM's choice of screen size and ratio might be a liability. The similarly sized iPhone 4S and even iPhone 4 have a much sharper 640x960 resolution that's so dense the pixels are almost invisible; they also have a wider aspect ratio that's easier to type on. In the Android camp, it's not uncommon to see four-inch screens and larger for the money, although anything higher than 480x854 is still fairly rare at that price. Either way, the BlackBerry here is still the more modest of the pack.

BlackBerry 7 and App World in an all-touch environment

We've already covered BlackBerry 7's main additions in our Bold 9900 review, so please check it if you want a detailed overview. The best summary is that it's a considerably more up to date version of the BlackBerry OS with a genuinely modern web browser, long overdue 3D support, and much improved responsiveness. As it's still based on a legacy platform, however, it's still very dependent on contextual menus and has a lot of quirks, such as its aging Maps viewer. It's still behind Android, iOS, and Windows Phone, but it's much closer and very usable, especially if you're an existing BlackBerry owner hoping to stay loyal.

On a touch-only device with a larger screen, its utility is mixed. Of course, it's a much nicer canvas for web browsing, music, videos, and any other app that could use the extra screen space. Just seeing so many apps at once in the app launcher is helpful for a platform that depends on going beyond the home screen so often. Certain games clearly take advantage of the extra space.

Performance here is the same as on the Bold 9900, since both share the same 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and other traits. It's solid and can be used to play 3D games or 720p video smoothly, but most of the improvement comes from the graphics acceleration and simply having much more headroom for multitasking. Load times are a serious problem as well, as the infamous App World download pausing is still there, and even 2D games could spend a long time loading.

There's one outstanding problem with the OS itself, however, and it threatens to undo the new Torch: the on-screen keyboard. Its layout is decent enough, but the aspect ratio and size of the screen lead to a cramped environment for most users. We frequently found ourselves hitting the wrong key, even when we thought we'd been careful. As smart as RIM's auto-correction suggestions can be, we ended up leaning on them too often. Copying and pasting is also considerably less intuitive than on other platforms, and the keyboard doesn't usually adapt to the context, such as including ".com" and "@" buttons when composing e-mail.

The net result is a typing speed that's considerably slower than BlackBerrys with hardware keyboards as well as other smartphones with a same-size display. The click-down SurePress screen might be gone, but the Torch has its own issues. Where we and others we know can type faster on an iPhone than some BlackBerry fans can on even an excellent keyboard phone like the 9900, the Torch 9850 and 9860 feel left behind.

BlackBerry App World is the same as we saw it on the Bold and is a big step forward, but not quite there. It's much more visual and better-organized to help discover apps beyond those on the front page. It's still very heavily invested in subcategories and, oddly, is capped at a seemingly arbitrary 25 apps per category visible through casual browsing. The apps themselves are given ample previews to decide on the buy; it's just finding them that's the problem, and it's an area where Android and iOS are generally better.

The Torch adds its own complications. Thankfully, most of the apps we downloaded were written to support the new-to-RIM 480x800 resolution. We did, however, find a few of our previously downloaded apps were "not available" to run, even if they would otherwise support BlackBerry 7. Right now, the platform as a whole is sandwiched between BlackBerry 6 and earlier, some of whose apps won't run on 7, and the upcoming PlayBook-derived BBX platform that itself will break compatibility.

And whether or not finding apps matters, the selection isn't what we'd call ideal. There are enough to cover core needs; diversity and originality are what's missing. If you visit the game section, it's led primarily by clones of games that showed first on the iPhone or are common to every platform. Angry Farm, Fruits and Ninja, and Bubble Bash 2 (a Bust-A-Move variant) are all eerily familiar and underscore that a few major developers are simply skipping the BlackBerry in its current form, even if they might leap in when BBX is ready.

Camera quality

The camera app is unchanged from what we saw on the Bold other than the clear advantages of having a larger screen to compose shots. You get only a few options, such as scene presets and a very appreciated image stabilization feature, while skipping detailed elements white balance or sensitivity. Still, it accomplishes the job, and RIM didn't need to wait for a major hardware and software revision like the iPhone 4S or Samsung's Galaxy Nexus to get a minimal lag between the first and successive shots.

One major advantage over the current Bold is the camera itself. Both shoot at five megapixels, but the Torch adds much-needed autofocusing. While won't get as close as an iPhone 4S, Galaxy S II, or higher-end HTC phones from this year might, it can produce fairly sharp macros. It's even tolerable in moderately low light, such as a sunset. Noise is visible quickly enough, although it's acceptable.

The real issues we saw were with color and exposure. Some photos were accurate to the color we saw in real life; other photos, such as of autumn leaves, were visibly off. Its exposure also seemed to regularly be off the mark. It would too quickly underexpose a shot, and frustratingly would get the right exposure as we swung the Torch into shooting position, only to botch it and refuse to get it back when we tried pointing at a different subject. The flash is a bit harsh, too. Images are generally clean, but RIM really needs to make the camera a much higher priority than it has in the past.

Video quality is better. It produces reasonably few visual artifacts at 720p, with only a hint of the blocky compression that some phones suffer. Image stabilization helps here to cut down on the jitter that has often defined smartphone movies.

We did notice some jarring hiccups. Exposure returns as a problem, and it all too obviously readjusts the exposure if you move from bright to dark scenes. The Torch is likewise an example as to why continuous autofocus doesn't yet work for video. In one of our videos, the camera conspicuously spent too much time refocusing, confused by significant panning. We'd recommend turning video autofocusing off on the Torch.

Call quality, 3G speeds, and battery life

On our test unit, a Torch 9860 using GSM and 3G to talk on the Rogers network, call quality was good, but unspectacular. We got fairly loud and easily understandable calls, but they weren't as piercingly clear as on the Galaxy S II. They're noticeably better than on the iPhone 4S, though, and if you have a Torch 9850 on a CDMA network such as on Sprint or Verizon, you may eke out a little bit more.

The Torch, like every other BlackBerry 7 device in 2011, supports up to 14.4Mbps 3G (sometimes called 4G by the carriers) if you're on an HSPA or HSPA+ network. The speed difference is there, but it's mostly notable in areas where the processor isn't a factor. As faster as the Snapdragon is, we can tell that the chip, not the connection, is a bottleneck to how quickly a website downloads. It's the most help for things such as YouTube uploads, where a short 720p video takes a few minutes to upload and the faster upstream (5.8Mbps peak) makes a difference.

Those using a 9850 won't see much difference from last year. CDMA networks still have to stop at EVDO technology, which tops out at about 3Mbps. Most of the gains there will come from BlackBerry 7 and the faster hardware.

Battery life is classic BlackBerry, which is to mean long-lived for common tasks like e-mail, browsing, and calls. You'll usually have a significant amount of battery left at the end of a typical day in those conditions. We did notice that it lags behind when media comes into play, though. A few hours of on-and-off photo and video capture and uploading, along with the usual Internet use, brought the battery so low that the Torch actually switched all its wireless off to save battery. We suspect here that it's a question of optimization, since BlackBerry 7 is running old code and is just now getting its grips on media use.

Wrapping up

The Torch 9850 and 9860 are no doubt the best touch-only BlackBerrys ever made. If you liked the idea the Storm line brought to the table and were interested in getting a refinement of that formula, RIM has addressed most of the concerns. Even if you're not a RIM fan, it's generally a solid performer and might be worth exploring, especially if you can get a good deal.

All the same, we can't quite help but feel like the new Torches were more a case of RIM wanting to prove it could still play in the all-touchscreen arena on a basic level rather than an attempt at conquering it. The Bold 9900 clearly received the most attention from RIM and got the most lavishings of build quality and design. It feels like the most coherent BlackBerry ever produced. The Torch, while it was certainly given care and respect, seems like it was always destined to be the runner-up.

Some of that comes from specific design choices. Its choice of shape and virtual keyboard really set it back from what it could have been, and indeed needed to be, relative to competitors. We'd add that it's a bit of a disappointment to have a media-first phone that doesn't have a truly good camera and which almost immediately needs a memory card.

What's perhaps the real blow is the pricing, which tends to vary widely. If you're in Canada, the best deal is at Telus for $100 on a contract, which to us is a reasonable price to pay. Most carriers in the US and Canada alike, though, are charging $150 or (at Verizon) even $200 for a device that's just slightly ahead of where phones were in 2010. At those higher prices, it's hard to imagine springing for the Torch if you're not wedded to the BlackBerry platform.

Much of the time, the issue is that there's usually something either just above or just below that's a more compelling option; we're not sure RIM understands where its phone sits in the hierarchy. On Sprint, for example, you can pick an HTC Evo Design 4G for $100 or a Samsung Epic 4G Touch for $200. Major Canadian carriers all have Galaxy S II variants and some high-end HTC models, too. Verizon has the admittedly flawed but still more powerful HTC Thunderbolt, LG Revolution, and Samsung Droid Charge, all of which have big screens and 4G. And on most carriers, RIM faces the uncomfortable prospect of being sandwiched by Apple: you can opt for the 8GB iPhone 4, which has a better screen, a better camera, and more storage, or get an iPhone 4S that's in another league of performance and features.

Accordingly, we'd say the Torch 9850 and 9860 are more roadmaps for where RIM is going than where it ought to be. We wouldn't be surprised to see an all-touch BBX phone that can take Apple and Google head-on. Until then, we'd either opt for a Bold 9900 series phone or else get a phone from a platform where the touchscreen interface has been center stage for a long time.

- Much sleeker than the Storm line.

- Fairly sharp, colorful display.

- On par with modern mid-range phones for speed.

- Fast 5MP camera with autofocus.

- BlackBerry 7 is much more responsive and supports 3D.

- Solid 720p video; image stabilization.

- Reasonably good call quality and battery life.

- Frustrating on-screen keyboard.

- Usually priced too high for what it does.

- Camera has bad exposure and some flawed color.

- OS is showing its age.

- Continuous video autofocus is slow.

- Just 4GB of built-in storage.

- BlackBerry App World has a limited selection.