We got some hands-on time with the brand new BlackBerry Torch 9800 this morning. RIM's first-ever to feature both a full touch-screen and its trademark QWERTY keyboard also packs a bunch of other firsts, including the brand-new BlackBerry OS 6, tons of new media and web features, and the beefiest camera on a 'Berry yet.
The classic BlackBerry icons have been slightly refreshed - but not too much. Though a wider, more modern font is used and menus look more spacious, long-time 'Berry users definitely won't feel alienated. We like that even though you can interact fully via touch-screen, the menu button is still very much in play, and makes for as intuitive an experience as on classic BlackBerrys. The phone feels quite wide in the hand, and the QWERTY keyboard is slightly wider than that of the Bold 9700. The keys are a touch smaller though, but just as comfortable to type on. The 3.2-inch capacitive screen is responsive and accurate, but you can still navigate entirely by hard keys if you want.
There's now 4GB of memory, expandable by a microSD slot. The device will most likely ship with a card.
New, social aspect
The contacts book now syncs friends list with both Facebook and Twitter, and as before, all messages, including Twitter direct messages, go into a universal inbox. A new addition is Social Feeds, an app that shows your social network feeds, including messages from BlackBerry Messenger, and RSS feeds from news and podcasts. The YouTube app is preloaded.
When we heard about the customisable homescreens, we wondered if we would get some kind of Android or Apple clone. But RIM has kept it BB style - instead of shortcut icons over a few screens, the homescreen is still blank, and you swipe up from the base of the screen to reveal a tray of programs. You can then swipe sideways to view all five homescreens: the all-programs menu, a customisable favourites menu, a media menu where media programs (but not apps, at least in our pre production model) go, a frequent menu which automatically populates with your most-used apps and most-contacted friends, and a downloads screen for apps from BlackBerry App World.
Multimedia more than ever
At 360 x 480 pixels, the screen packs the highest resolution on any BlackBerry yet, and video looked excellent - crisp and clear with great colours. It doesn't quite stack up to the Super AMOLED found in Samsung's latest handsets of course, and we definitely got some glare in direct light, but it's several cuts above many devices.
Best 'Berry browser
The new full HTML browser displays pages just like you'd see them on a desktop, and when you zoom in, will autofit text so it never runs off the page. The device doesn't support multi-touch, but you can zoom by double-tapping. You can easily add websites to the Favourites homescreen by pressing the menu button. Incidentally, RIM bought out software company Torch Mobile for the browser - hence the name of the device.
Another first is the five-megapixel camera with autofocus, flash and facial recognition. There's a dedicated shutter button at the side of the device which was just a little hard to depress. The shutter speed is faster than on the Bold 9700, though not instantaneous. We'll have more details in our full review which should be coming next month.
The BlackBerry Torch 9800 has been called an iPhone killer, but we think it's very much its own beast - and a RIM creation. It will launch on O2, Orange and Vodafone, with the possibility of more carriers being added to the lineup.