Great screen, amazing keyboard, speedy processor
It?s huge and heavy, while the app store still leaves much to be desired
When it comes to typing on a phone, you need something that’s fast, reliable and enjoyable to use. Recently there’s been a trend towards combining full QWERTY keyboards with touch-screens. Take the HTC ChaCha, the Samsung Galaxy Pro and the Nokia E6, for instance. The latest in this curious hybrid design is the BlackBerry Torch 9810. Does this combination of attributes mean it’s the ultimate phone, or something rather less successful?
You can see where the idea for having both came from. Touch-screens are all very well, but they’re just not as satisfying as physical QWERTY keypads when it comes to extensive texting or writing emails. The physical keyboard is one of the reasons BlackBerry is still the leader when it comes to email management. Add the company’s gift for speedy mail delivery and impressive levels of security and you can see why so many companies trust the brand when dishing out handsets to their executives. But the problem with a QWERTY keypad is that it takes up space, reducing the screen size substantially – the HTC ChaCha with its 2.6-inch display really suffers from this.
Even the luscious BlackBerry Bold 9900, with its high resolution 2.8-inch screen can feel a little cramped at times. So the solution BlackBerry employs with its Torch handsets is to slide a physical QWERTY behind the screen. This means you can enjoy a bigger touch-screen, making the phone much more media-friendly: now you can see the video or stills you’ve shot more easily on the handset. The 3.2-inch display is sumptuous, and though not as spectacularly high-resolution as the 9900, it’s still good, managing around 250 pixels per inch against the Bold 9900’s 286 ppi. Neither is a match for the Sony Ericsson Xperia Ray or the iPhone 4, but it still looks vivid, rich and detailed.
But there’s a problem with touch-screen and QWERTY combination phones. For the Bold 9900, although it’s great to be able to poke at the touch-screen and get a response, the issue is that some will find the screen still too small. On the Torch, though the display is certainly manageable, the addition of the QWERTY means that this is a hefty handset which is heavy and bulks up your pocket noticeably. It’s a problem which the laws of physics cannot solve: make do with a touch-screen keyboard, as on the iPhone-alike Torch 9860 and the size issue is gone. But you miss out on the BlackBerry QWERTY, the best, most accessible keyboard available on any mobile phone. The physical keyboard with its comfortable, well-spaced keys is one of the big selling features on a BlackBerry.
The best one yet is on the Bold 9900, though the slightly narrower one here is still highly usable. And in some ways the Torch is the best of both worlds: if you want to type a message with the screen closed for some reason, a virtual keyboard appears. This doesn’t feel as good as the physical one but it means you can take advantage of the spelling suggestions the software offers. This is not available when using the physical QWERTY. This suggestion system isn’t ideal: when selecting an offered word, I’d like it to insert the word (it does) and then add a space (it doesn’t). Beyond texting, it’s good to find a virtual number pad on the display as well – press the Send key with the slider shut and big numbers fill the screen. This is much easier for dialling if you’re in a hurry.
There’s more to this phone than its keyboard, though. It uses the new BlackBerry 7 OS, reviewed elsewhere in Mobile Choice. It’s still a quirky operating system, familiar to users of earlier editions but not as straightforward as it might be. But the facility to swipe between screens is highly useful and works well. As with the Bold 9900, the new OS is a gentle improvement on earlier versions rather than baby-out-with-the-bathwater stuff. The major difference with 6 OS is the hugely upgraded internet browser which goes from being Achilles’ heel to solid performer at a stroke.
As mentioned above, video looks good on this screen and when you tap on video it helpfully guides you to relevant apps available from BlackBerry App World. It’s handy to have suitable apps located so simply – although of course BlackBerry’s app store is still much smaller than Apple’s, say. And that’s one of the phone’s problems, of course, that the range of apps is still very limited and, by the way, the apps you find tend to be very pricey - £20 is far from rare. This isn’t so surprising when you remember that the company’s target market is primarily business users, but now that the company has such a strong consumer support, it’s something that needs addressing.
This BlackBerry Torch looks pretty similar to last year’s model, though the silvery back with square-patterned relief looks pretty spiffy. The bits that aren’t silver are black, which amounts just to the screen and the frame around it. The Torch 9810 has a decent camera: the five-megapixel resolution is good, the flash helps out in low light situations and the autofocus is nifty, so you’re rarely kept waiting. Shutter lag on camera phones is commonplace, but happily minimal here. Even better, with the phone in landscape orientation, a dedicated camera button falls naturally under the forefinger. Half press this to auto-focus and a full press takes the shot instantly. No touchscreen trigger can manage a half-press, obviously. Once you’ve snapped, an X appears on the screen, making deletion simple. Take too long though and the photograph becomes a thumbnail as the camera is ready to shoot again. This isn’t a problem except the route to deletion is more circuitous after that, with several extra button presses required.
While the BlackBerry Bold 9900 is amazingly responsive, this phone – though similarly powered by a 1.2GHz chip – doesn’t feel quite as nimble. It’s never slow, but the accelerometer issues which dogged early editions of BlackBerry’s first touchscreen handset, the Storm, occasionally reappear and you’re left waiting for the screen to spin as you tip the phone. Mind you, there’s plenty of grunt in this phone. The data speeds clock in at 14.4Mbps for downloads or, as we’ll call it, faster than you routinely find on any UK network. BlackBerry is known for maximising slow connections, so this speedy download rate is luxurious. The company’s also known for strong battery life and the Torch 9810 lasts a good day and beyond with no problem. For safety’s sake, daily recharges are advised, but you won’t be searching around for a charger at lunchtime as happens with some smartphones. Unlike the Bold 9900 and the recent Curve 9360, there’s no NFC on this phone, so you won’t be using it like an Oyster card, for instance.
There’s no denying that this is a handsome, capable handset and if you’re looking for a large screen as well as a highly usable keyboard, this is a great balance. But there’s no getting away from the fact that this is a big handset, heavy and literally a handful. If you have tight pockets, you’ll be better off with the handsome new Curve 9360, though you forfeit a touch-screen with that, or the slightly larger Bold 9900 which is still more portable than this.