BlackBerry Torch: An Evolution, Not a Revolution

Amid declining market share losses, Research In Motion (s rimm) has both a new operating system, BlackBerry OS 6, and a debut device for AT&T’s (s t) network in the BlackBerry Torch 9800. The $199 Torch is RIM’s first touchscreen device paired with the famous BlackBerry keyboard and also boasts a WebKit browser like that used in competitors’ handsets. RIM’s ad campaign touts the Torch as the “smartphone evolved,” and although it may be the best BlackBerry ever, such a tagline may be overstated. Instead, the Torch is better described as the BlackBerry evolved — an excellent device for the BlackBerry crowd, but not offering much appeal for those already enjoying a new iOS (s aapl) or Android (s goog) phone.

I’ve used a Torch evaluation unit for a few days, and my initial impressions from the device’s press introduction earlier this month haven’t changed much. There are two components to review here — the hardware and software — so let’s start with the device itself. Like many current smartphones, the capacitive touchscreen garners immediate attention. However, a 3.2-inch smartphone display on an “evolved” device ought to be better than the Torch’s 480 x 320 resolution, as other devices in this price range offer screens that display 800 x 480 pixels or higher. While the lower resolution doesn’t hinder any functionality, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Navigation is done directly on the screen or via the optical trackpad, which works very well. The touch display and on-screen keyboard are responsive, although I often found myself sliding out the better hardware keyboard for improved speed and accuracy. That was a personal preference, however, and most people ought to be fine with the software keyboard. As for sliding out that keyboard, the sliding mechanism impresses. The form factor greatly reminds me of my Palm Pre (s hpq), which also has a touch display and slide-out QWERTY, but sliding open the Torch feels like closing the door on a luxury car; it’s precise. The only caveat is that it can be tricky to push the display up from the bottom due to the thinness of the screen.

RIM outfitted the Torch with a 5 MP camera sensor and LED flash, both of which can be used for still pictures or for videos. Here again, the Torch falls short of the competition with video recordings limited to VGA quality. By comparison, many new devices that arrived before the Torch are offering a form of 720p high-definition capture. Also lagging are the internals of the Torch: 4 GB of internal memory, an additional 4 GB of storage through an included microSD card and a 624 MHz CPU: all lower or slower than recent entries from other handset makers. Such specifications drag down the performance of the new operating system, which is certainly better than prior editions.

Indeed, BlackBerry OS 6 is a welcome refresh with many new features and a more modern web browser. However, the software platform would benefit from beefier bits under the hood, such as more memory or a faster processor. A great example is the new browser, which often lags when rendering or zooming a page. Although the BlackBerry OS offers a more modern look and feel, I really couldn’t find a feature that hasn’t already existed on other smartphones, even among the features that RIM is touting. The Social Feeds, which lumps Facebook, Twitter and RSS all into one bucket, is reminiscent of Motorola’s Motoblur (s mot) interface, for example. Starting to type anything to engage the Universal search is handy for seeking information locally, in apps or on the web, but I saw that over year ago in Palm’s webOS. Customized home screen shortcuts and unified inboxes are welcome, but again, nothing is new save for the Wi-Fi media sync feature, which is nifty and will likely be seen on other platforms in the near future.

Actually, it’s more accurate to say that much of this is new for BlackBerry devices, but not for high-end smartphones of today. The Social Feeds and notification message bar can be overwhelming because, for example, Facebook items can appear in the Inbox and in the Facebook app. The same goes for Twitter messages. While I like the idea of having everything grouped together, not all communications really should exist in a giant bucket, because it becomes difficult to separate the important items from the “I’ll get to these later” messages.

As a prior iPhone and current Android user, one other hindrance to me was the continued lack of solid support for Google’s Gmail and Calendar services. The Gmail experience is still abysmal using the native Messaging application, and only by adding Google’s apps to the device could I find a better, more seamless experience. If RIM wants to market this phone to potential consumers outside the BlackBerry world, it needs to consider embracing external services on its phones.

As a phone, the device excels. With the good AT&T coverage in my neck of the woods, I never had a dropped a call. Voice quality was excellent, even with the speakerphone. And typical of the BlackBerry heritage, I experienced excellent battery life, easily going a full day on a single charge of the 1300 mAh removable battery. RIM estimates nearly six hours of talk time and two weeks or more of standby, although I haven’t had the device long enough to test that claim. Still, even with the full-sized display and 3G radio, the Torch’s battery lasts longer than nearly any other smartphone I’ve used recently.

If I had to summarize the Torch, and by default, BlackBerry OS 6, I think I’d lean on the missed opportunity theme. RIM has worked on the new OS for well over a year but has only caught up to other platforms in some areas. After this much anticipation, the $199 hardware is more suited for a device of 2009, not a device meant to compete with iPhone 4 or a top-tier Android phone. The reason for missing the bar in this regard is simple though — RIM couldn’t afford a complete overhaul that would alienate current BlackBerry users; especially those in the enterprise. Due to this constraint, the Torch is more like the blend of a traditional BlackBerry with the “iPhone-like experience” rather than the smartphone evolved.

My gut reaction to the device is still holding true: Current BlackBerry users will be happy with a move to the Torch while few non-BlackBerry users will make the jump. In fact, I expect RIM to enjoy more enterprise sales as the Torch may alleviate some employees carrying both a BlackBerry and an iPhone (s aapl).


Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub. req’d):

Why RIM’s Future (Unfortunately) Hinges on BlackBerry OS 6