BlackBerry Torch Review: It's The BlackBerry, Weirdly Evolved

blackberry torch

Photo: Gizmodo

BlackBerry Torch. The name of the phone that RIM hopes will revitalize BlackBerry is so metaphorically heavy handed that it almost inflicts blunt-force trauma. The iconic BlackBerry metastasized into a slider with sparkly new software, it’s wonderfully weird.Click here for a gallery of the Torch →

Imagine any BlackBerry released in the last year. Now imagine that the screen and trackpad sprouted downward, uncontrollably, until it reached the bottom of the phone, completely smothering the keyboard. Then a seam appeared at the bottom. You push up with your thumb, and the screen smoothly slides along a track for a quarter of a second before shooting skyward, clacking into place. Solid, is how it feels. Now it’s 30 per cent taller, the touchscreen, trackpad and four ever-present BlackBerry buttons floating above the keyboard you’ve probably always loved. But this whole production is hardly thicker than the BlackBerrys that don’t split in two. That’s the Torch. At first glance, it looks, feels, is almost exactly like any other BlackBerry released in the last year, except that it happens to be a revival of the vertical slider—a squarer, better constructed exploration of what the Pre tried to accomplish. Oh, and the ridged, ripple-y rubber back is nice. I’m pretty sure you’ll never drop it.

An immediate disappointment in a world where 800×480 has become the default display resolution for anything that credibly claims to a decently equipped phone is the Torch’s 3.2-inch screen, whose resolution is a mere 480×360. You could try to make the argument you don’t need a super high res screen for a mostly text-oriented, and I would direct your crazy eyeballs to the screens on the iPhone 4 or the original Droid screen, where text is super crispy, and simply awesome to read. It’s jarring after staring at those phones to see such jaggy-looking text—it’s like staring back at 2006, but with cataracts. (Not to mention, it’s clearly trying to be way more than just a corporate email device.)

The keyboard is, like most of the new keyboards RIM designs, a marvel. Their thinnest keyboard ever, it types just like the current BlackBerry Bold, and the overall balance of the phone when it’s popped open makes typing effortless and natural—it really is exactly what you’d expect from a BlackBerry. The touch keyboard feels usable. The words “not bad” stick in my mind.

It is odd, though. Almost schizo, really: a (non-clicky) touchscreen; a full keyboard; an optical trackpad. Conceptually, the Torch really begins to make sense in context as a product of RIM’s particular psychology. The Nielsen numbers released yesterday might illuminate what that is: Over the last year, BlackBerry’s marketshare in the US has crept downward as Android’s exploded and iOS has steadily inched up. More importantly—if Nielsen’s polling is worth a crap—while the overwhelming majority of current iPhone and Android owners plan on sticking with their phones, a majority of BlackBerry owners say their next phone is going to be Android or iPhone. It’s a fine recipe for an existential crisis.

So, you immediately get the sense that the Torch is a flagship for RIM in the same way that the T-Mobile G1 was for Google when it launched Android nearly two years ago—the phone had to do everything, be anything, to any developer or consumer, since it was it was trying to launch a brand new platform. In this case, RIM’s trying to re-launch BlackBerry, with OS 6, which has the deeply unenviable task of trying to be great for suits—BlackBerry’s lifeblood—and dudes in jeans. The catch is that BlackBerry, from the beginning, has been truly designed for the former—I mean, the BlackBerry feature getting it kicked out of the UAE is the security of its communications, not its beautiful, easy-to-use interface—it’s just happened to have been adopted by lots of normal people in the meantime. Microsoft, confronted with the same existential problem with Windows Mobile—does it exist for businesses or for people? Both?—ultimately punted, and started from scratch with Windows Phone 7, aiming primarily at consumers. (Remember it too had decent marketshare, once upon a time.) That’s where RIM sort of finds itself: Can it do both?

BlackBerry 6, it’s quickly apparent, is not a clean start. It’s still very much a BlackBerry. Which is the point, as RIM’s director of user experience research made clear on BlackBerry’s official blog a week ago. “Fresh, but familiar” is the goal. The interface, initially, is very reminiscent of the Storm 2, even in the little ways it seems slightly cleaned up. What’s seriously noticeable is that the home screen now uses a drawer metaphor—a handful of icons are visible, and you drag up to reveal everything hidden below. Flicking left or right takes you to a different “drawer” (or “panel,” in Android parlance). Each one is a section, like frequent apps, media apps, or downloaded apps. It’s not very immediately obvious what to do—I guessed, having used Android so much. Universal search is finally on BlackBerry, so you can just start typing and finding stuff, which is a good thing. Otherwise, it looks and feels very “familiar,” as RIM is wont to say.

BlackBerry’s gambit into handling your social networking in a better, integrated way—as webOS, and most recently Android, have tried to do—is a new social feeds app that drags Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, other apps and even RSS into a single feed, which is itself integrated into BlackBerry’s central universal inbox (aka “Messages”). (So, “Messages” includes email, SMS, MMS and if you want, messages and updates from social networking apps.) Oh, and like Android, the official Facebook and Twitter apps are baked in. (Along with apps for Google Talk and AIM and others.)

Oh yes, the much-ballyhooed WebKit browser. It is, from the second you fire it up, quite obvously better than any BlackBerry browsers ever. Faster, more competent, and pinch-to-zoomy. Zooming is a little choppy on Gizmodo’s heavy page, but still totally usable and dandy. The start page is cleaner, showing simply bookmarks and history, with an integrated search + address bar. It’s hard to tell how decently it stacks up against iOS and Android’s browser without more extensive testing.

It’s loaded with BlackBerry App World 2.0. Going off memory, it looks just like 1.0? So it could be better, it seems. (The main features are under the hood improvements, anyway.) Here’s something crazy: This phone also has a separate AT&T app store. Oh, and there’s no BlackBerry Maps, just AT&T Maps. This could be messy! The music player is updated with a faux Cover Flow, which is weird, since it appears to be active at all times. That is, you can page through album art at any time, so it works like skipping a track. Speaking of music, what I’m most excited about, really, is wireless syncing. (Why doesn’t everybody do this, again?)

The email app looks about the same overall, though it’s using WebKit as a rendering engine, for emails with fancier formatting. The very beautiful Outlook mail app for Windows Phone 7 makes it look kinda old and washed up, which has a tragic subtext to it, since BlackBerry is supposed to be all about email. The lower res screen of the Torch doesn’t help here—reading doesn’t feel nice, the way it really should on this thing, at least not initially.

There’s a lot more to dig into, but a few things are clear right now. The Torch and BlackBerry OS 6 take what BlackBerry’s already doing and move it forward slightly—they’re not reinventing, overturning, or blowing up things. Even the sorta kinda half-crazy slider design of the Torch feels fundamentally like a BlackBerry, just a leeeeettle different. Which is fine, in a way—existing BlackBerry users who just want the same thing will probably love this. But is that enough anymore? Here’s the question: Do people simply want a better BlackBerry or do they want something else, something completely new that also happens to be good at all the things BlackBerry is good at? I suppose we’ll find out.

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