RIM’s first forays into the full touchscreen world were more of a damp shower than the unaptly-named Storm and Storm 2 phones would have you believe. But that’s all set to change with the release of the BlackBerry Torch 9860.
The Torch 9860 is the first BlackBerry smartphone in ages to ditch any semblance of the full Qwerty keyboards that otherwise define the brand, instead placing all of its typing faith in a capacitive 3.7-inch touchscreen.
The original Torch and the Torch 9810 both featured touchscreens but those both had slide-out Qwerty keypads; save for four mechanical controls and an optical trackpad the Torch 9860 is pure touchscreen.
Running on BlackBerry OS 7 which features a rethought UI and sharper, sexier icons thanks to RIM’s Liquid Graphics the Torch 9860 could be the one to tempt those away from the Android army, the growing Windows Phone contingent or (whisper it) the iPhones.
Qwerty keyboards aren’t for everyone and touchscreen phones are now the norm. Recent issues plaguing the BlackBerry platform have subsided, allowing us to (finally) get on with our Torch 9860 review. Read on to find out how the Torch 9860 fares.
BlackBerry Torch 9860 design and build
The BlackBerry Torch 9860 is made from a mixture of high-end materials; there’s a single metal plate covering the battery which gives the back a cool, quality feel and the edges of the Torch 9860 are done over in chrome-effect finish.
The metal battery cover pops off with a bit of effort and clips firmly back into place. It doesn’t feel like it’d fall off easily if you dropped it.
Fans of hot swapping memory cards will bemoan the fact that the battery has to be taken out to get at the microSD slot; a small gripe - you can add up to 32GB extra so you’ve got room enough for plenty of pictures and music. You get 4GB of on board storage for starters. Not a huge amount but above what you’d get with some Android smartphones of a similar calibre.
The front of the phone is covered in a reflective black plastic that adds to the polished look, provided that you give it a good wipe every now and then - its a bit of a fingerprint magnet.
There’s a lock control at the very top of the Torch 9860 discreetly built so that it doesn’t disturb the shape of the phone. Similarly, the volume control and camera key are subtle curved lumps on the right hand edge that don’t jut out obtusely. The camera key is pretty stiff and unresponsive though; you’ll have better luck with the on-screen shutter control.
It’s not quite as classy or polished as the Bold 9900 that’s for sure but the overall look and feel of the Torch 9860 is one of quality; it feels solid as a rock and fits nicely in the hand.
BlackBerry Torch 9860 user interface
BlackBerry OS 7 is touted as the most visually appealing BlackBerry experience yet. It’s hard to dispute RIM’s claim; the main Home menu is a vibrant and colourful field which gives you access to an app launcher populated with richly drawn and colourful icons.
You can move the app icons around as you wish on the launcher and swipe left and right between different trays (All, Favourites, Media, Downloads, etc).
It’s immediately both more user friendly and easier on the eyes than the interface of the Storm phones. The look and feel of OS 7 has more in common with Android and iOS than previous versions of BlackBerry OS, especially here on the Torch 8960.
As with OS 6 you get a status bar at the top showing the time, battery and signal; tap this to jump to the wireless and connections settings.
Beneath this there’s a notification bar where you check calendar events, Facebook events, Twitter mentions and the like. There’s shortcuts to search and sound profile options right form the homescreen as well.
Unlike the search tools we’ve seen on Android and iOS, the search tool here only searches what’s on the phone - it’s not a web search tool. Still, it’s useful for searching for specific contacts and apps. We liked that it performed ‘did you mean’ searches; we were offered the Facebook app when we accidentally typed ‘fsvebook’ for example.
There’s a voice search option as well, though this doesn’t work very well at all; maybe it’s not used to our central southern England brogue.
Given RIM’s Qwerty-tastic background, we we really expecting more from the virtual keypad of the Torch 9860. It’s basically a straightforward virtual Qwerty with auto-corrections. We were honestly expecting some kind of next-word prediction software, similar to what we’ve seen with SwiftKey X on Android but sadly not.
We know that some people prefer the feel of typing on a physical keyboard; we don’t feel that the Torch 9860 is likely to lure BlackBerry Qwerty fans over to the ways of the touchscreen much.
The touchscreen here isn’t the most responsive we’ve used. It’s by no means terrible or unusable, but its size and shape makes things like typing and navigating certain menus a little tricky.
A specific example is when you’re inputting a Wi-Fi key or a password; the narrow keys coupled with the layout of the virtual Qwerty can make for awkward typing. It was a problem that we had with the Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo as well.
Thankfully the optical trackpad at the bottom of the screen comes into its own here. This allows you to reposition the cursor if you need to correct typos and to thumb up and down through cluttered menus, where you might accidentally select the wrong thing.
While the main home screen with all of its big and bold app icons certainly feel more touch-screen friendly, a lot of the menu screens feel like old school BlackBerry; i.e. they’re designed to be scrolled through using an optical control and not a touchscreen.
This doesn’t make the phone unusable, but it does create a somewhat schizophrenic feel; half of the phone is optimised for your fingers the other for an external control.
BlackBerry Torch 9860 browser
The BlackBerry Torch 9860’s browser renders pages pretty quickly (but not blazingly fast) over 3G and Wi-Fi, with the expected slower times over GPRS. Pages are generally pretty faithful to their full-sized real-web counterparts. The touchscreen supports pinch to zoom and a tap to zoom option which automatically reshapes columns of text so that the fit around the new screen size.
Text doesn’t redraw as you zoom, appearing jagged when you zoom in but it usually only takes a couple of seconds over 3G or Wi-Fi for the page to sort itself out. Over GPRS it can lull for a bit before you get nice legible text again. Generally, fonts look great on the browser.
You can have multiple tabs open when browsing; there doesn’t appear to be any limit as to how many you can have open, but things really started to slow down when we got upwards of 20 tabs.
Oddly, clicking on a link on a web page won’t automatically open the new page as you’d expect; you need to long-click on a link to open up a menu of options and choose the ‘open link’.
It’s useful being able to long-press a link and get the option to add to bookmarks, copy the link and select text on a web page, but it feels a little odd to have to open this menu simply to click on a link.
It’s a quirk for sure and something we’ll admit we only have a problem with because we’re just so used to tapping once on links on other phones to open them. After using the Torch 9860 for some time you’d get used to it.
There’s also no built in search option in the browser, meaning it’s exact URLs or bust and there’s no Flash support either.
BlackBerry Torch 9860 multimedia
The Torch 9860 supports a decent range of audio file formats, all the basics like MP3, AAC and WMA and some others too (M4V, AVI, WMV, FLAC, OGG, AMR, WAV and MID) so you’ve got your bases covered here.
Internal storage on paper is listed as 4GB, in actuality you get 2.5GB of free space to play with. Thankfully, you get microSD support which means you can expand this by up to 32GB. Memory cards are so cheap these days compared to how much they were a year ago so its good that you can bulk out the Torch 9860’s storage here.
Audio quality is great through the supplied headphones (and our preferred Skullcandy buds) and the external speaker is pretty loud; loud enough to fill up a small room and startle your co-workers when you’re testing it out anyway. Sound levels are nicely balanced, not too trebly or bass-heavy. There’s also a music shop powered by Amazon MP3, which should have enough choice to suit most tastes.
Video playback is pretty smooth as well, with 720p HD footage you’ve recorded yourself looking particularly nice. Lower quality videos or footage shot at lower resolutions doesn’t look half bad either when upscaled. There’s no HDMI-out option on the Torch 9860, something we’re increasingly seeing with HD-capable phones these days, so there’s no direct way for you you to watch your HD vids on a big TV or monitor.
The 5-megapixel camera comes with an exhaustive list of scene modes for most situations. You can take some good close up shots with the Torch 9860 even though there’s no macro mode and distance shots look good as well. Pictures reproduced on the Torch 9860’s gallery look great on the screen, but when you zoom in you can see that there’s often a lot of digital noise on flat areas of colour.
This is true of many smartphone cameras though; the Torch 9860 will suffice for Facebook pictures and snaps for your blog.
On the subject of apps, while BlackBerry App World might be the third biggest app ecosystem but the quality and range of the games on offer here aren’t in the same league as those on the Android Market, let alone the iTunes App Store.
While you get useful location services like Poynt and some fun photo apps (Paper Camera and Photo Studio) things are very much lacking in the games department. This ought to change with the advent of BBX and support for Android apps. But for now the App World is looking like a rather lonely planet.
BlackBerry Torch 9860 performance
The BlackBerry Torch 9860 has a 1.2GHz chip that keeps things ticking over but you might not necessarily know it; the screen as we said above isn’t the most responsive we’ve seen and takes a lot of the shine off of the presentation.
Battery life of the BlackBerry Torch 9860 is better than similarly specced Android phones in terms of longevity. We found that the stated 6 hours or so of talk time to be about right but if you’re checking Facebook and browsing the web you’ll inevitable rinse through the battery faster. As with many smartphones these days, we wouldn’t leave the house without a charger or at the very least a USB wire.
As with music playback, call quality on the Torch 9860 is clear as a bell and loud as you like. Cranked all the way up, the volume was sufficiently loud enough for us to make calls in noisy rush hour conditions, with people on the other end of the line able to hear us loud and clear too.
The BlackBerry Torch 9860 is an impressive offering from RIM that all but dispels the memories of the dissatisfying Storm and Storm 2 touchscreen phones. The Torch 9860 is easy to use, features a good camera and the Liquid Graphics interface looks stunning on the 3.7-inch screen.
We were disappointed with the layout of the virtual Qwerty which, in contrast to the beautifully designed UI, was clunky, old-fashioned and not that easy to get to grips with. We know that there are better touchscreen input methods out there which makes it all the worse. Slow typing doesn’t sit well with the BlackBerry brand in our minds - you think BlackBerry, you think a top class typing experience and that’s not what you get here.
It’s also expensive for what it is; for the same money you could pick up a Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S on contract or a Samsung Galaxy S2 for a little more.