Review by Sunetra Chakravati,
9/30/2011 4:13:41 PM
Incredibly quick browser, fast general navigation, powerful email and calendar features with excellent universal inbox, best Facebook app on any platform
Responsive touch-screen let down by inaccurate keyboard, lack of entertainment apps would disappoint those after less business-centric phone, imperfect marriage of touch-screen and buttons would disappoint a business user
A BlackBerry for multimedia? No QWERTY keyboard? Something called a Liquid Graphics screen? Stop, please, you're blowing our minds. The BlackBerry Torch 9860 is one of the flagship phones for the new BlackBerry 7 OS, and RIM's third-ever full-touch handset. What's more, its selling point is multimedia magic, including a display grandiosely named in a fashion Samsung and its Super AMOLED Plus screens would approve of.
Remember those BlackBerry Storm touch-phones? Thankfully RIM has decided to leave world of 'piezo-electronic' touch-screens behind and join the capacitive craze like everyone else. The 3.7-inch display is set in a curved plastic shell with a subdued matt grey back cover. Chrome edging on the top and bottom hark to the styling of more straitlaced BlackBerry QWERTY phones of yore. RIM hasn't ended its love affair with buttons though - the base of the phone houses a whole five: Call, End, Menu, Back, and Even an OK button, which is almost superfluous in a touch-screen phone where you should just tap the display to select.
The 'Liquid Graphics' WVGA display offers up a brighter, clearer screen than those of past 'Berrys - it's shared by other BlackBerry 7 phones - but it's likely also one of the culprits to blame for the mediocre-for-BlackBerry battery life of 13 hours. Under the hood, a 1.2GHz processor keeps the phone blazing along, though we occasionally encountered freezes when the touch-screen went unresponsive (but hard buttons still worked).
Unlike iOS or Android, BlackBerry 7 sticks to its guns and resolutely disallows apps on the homescreen. Instead, five swipeable panels house Favourites, Media, Downloads, All-Programs, and the automatically populated Frequent categories for apps. These panels can be expanded to fit the whole screen, but in home mode, you basically have a swath of unused homescreen - so pick a pretty wallpaper.
The touch-screen is fluid and responsive, but when you enter keyboard mode, things slow down a bit. It would only frustrate the fastest typists, but there is a micro lag between tapping and actual input. We also found the autocorrect somewhat less on point than the iPhone's - despite a larger touch-screen, the keyboard's cramped design makes it feel smaller - and it's a far cry from the tactile immediacy of RIM's classic QWERTY keyboards.
Email and messaging is still at the centre of this new-look 'Berry though, and as with other BlackBerry 7 handsets, it's absolutely top-notch with a universal inbox for all types of messages - text, email, BlackBerry Messenger, any other apps you download such as WhatsApp - and a universal calendar from Facebook, webmail and Microsoft Exchange.
It's email where that almost-superfluous OK button comes in handy. Sending a message is made ridiculously quick and easy by hitting the OK button, where the default option is already 'Send'.
The menu button is still more or less the centre of all activity, offering up various options no matter what app you're in. For example, in the excellent Facebook app, you have access to the full range of features as on desktop, with the Menu button offering up a ton of possible actions on whatever person or post you've highlighted.
For comparison's sake, the 3.7-inch display sits between the iPhone 4's 3.5-incher and the Samsung Galaxy S II's 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus number. RIM has its own version of reality-defying screen tech, and side by side, the Liquid Graphics display stacks up well in clarity to the Galaxy S II, but loses out on brightness; it matches the iPhone 4's Retina display in colour but isn't as clear. (Admittedly, the iPhone 4 is practically better than looking at real life.)
The video player is what makes this a proper media machine though, supporting DivX and Xvid video files - common for downloaded video - as well as H.264, H.263 and MP4 like the iPhone 4.
File transfer is easily done via USB with the option to drag and drop or sync the phone with a computer.
The maximum volume in the video player is for some reason much lower than in the music player and we needed to be on at least 80% volume to hear clearly. The audio is detailed and warm though, with decent bass on dance tracks.
Our only beef is that while you're playing music, there's no way to head directly to the player other than tapping the shortcut icon.
It's the web browser that is the biggest leap from the feeble efforts from phones even up to OS 6. Like previous browsers, it supports full HTML for viewing webpages in full and Flash for those embedded videos, but RIM has shot it up with something that has pages rendering at a blazingly quick pace. In our tests, the Torch 9860 loaded even picture-heavy, non-mobile sites a few seconds ahead of the iPhone 4 and HTC Sensation.
The homepage displays thumbnails of bookmarked sites, and you can scroll down to view the sites you last visted. The address bar handily doubles as a search field, which you can hold down to deliver a voice search. Next to it are the options to open new tabs and view open ones, plus send or copy links, and save webpages to your Favourites panel.
Two areas where BlackBerrys have always come out behind other smartphones are its cameras and app store. Well, the five-megapixel camera is surprisingly decent in low light and is easily the best BlackBerry camera - not that that's saying much. Its auto-focus was decent in the portrait and landscape shots we took, while the LED flash didn't overexpose in dark rooms. Colours are somewhat dull and yellow-tinged indoors, while conversely, outdoors, they seemed too bright. Photographers after a 'true' reproduction might be disappointed, but for a casual Facebook upload, this snapper is more than adequate. For some reason though, there's no shutter button despite the plethora of available buttons - after all, in every previous BlackBerry the OK button has acted as shutter. Instead, a touch-shutter snaps a shot, which makes those drunken self-portraits slightly more challenging.
BlackBerry App World has improved but it remains as sparsely stocked - and a little more expensive than other app stores too. If you're after games or 'entertainment' apps, you'll definitely want to look elsewhere, but if you can shell out a few quid (at least) for more productivity-focused apps, BlackBerry is home to some handy office tools.
However, BlackBerry Messenger 6 has introduced integration of the chat program into many apps, and correspondingly, there's now an area on App World where you can view 'connected' apps. These apps work with your BBM contact list to let you chat with BBM buds in the middle of games or apps, and of course, easily share these apps with the uninitiated.
RIM knows its core audience and even as it tries to join touch-screen fray, it seems terrified of losing those elements that keep its business users happy. The Torch 9860 is fluid and responsive - despite a slightly laggy keyboard - but instead of depending on its touch-screen, RIM has still crammed on the classic menu and OK buttons. It's slightly superfluous and with its best feature - messaging - marred by an imperfect keyboard, this is a bit of a sit-on-the-fence phone - not quite a BlackBerry Bold, definitely not an iPhone.