Hands-On: BlackBerry 9800 Torch

Just launched in Australia, the BlackBerry 9800 Torch takes what you love from past BlackBerry devices and makes it better than ever, combining a 3.2 inch capacitive touchscreen (unlike the clickable screen found on the BlackBerry Storm) and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard.

In the hand, the Torch carries a fair amount of heft. At 160 grams, it weighs a little more than an iPhone, but is noticeably thicker, due to the keypad slider underneath. While the front of the phone is made up of 3.2 inch capacitive touchscreen, the back is lined with rubber giving off a feeling that this was made to last.
If you’ve used a BlackBerry in the past two years, the BlackBerry experience is very much the same user-friendly experience it has been, but with some nice speed and design improvements.
While Android has multiple widget screens and Apple’s iOS gives you a menu, the version of BlackBerry OS running here (version 6) almost feels like a combination of both, using a transparent menu that sits at the bottom of your display offering you easy access to your applications listed in different categories, such as media, downloads, and frequently used. You can have it show just one row of shortcuts or even two, providing up to eight ┬áicons before you need to click the category name and let everything appear.
Much like Android, you’ll also get a notification bar at the top of the screen, though for the Torch this sits just under the clock. Press this and you’ll find any messages, notifications from social networking sites, and calendar info pop down.
The design changes found in the menu only serve to highlight just how good a real touchscreen can be, making the addition a welcome one. Just in case you’re not big on the whole multitouch bandwagon, BlackBerry has included an optical trackpad at the bottom of the device.
Then you’ve got the QWERTY keyboard, a staple for BlackBerry Bold owners. Instead of being the first thing you see, you’ll have to slide the 3.2 inch touchscreen up to reveal the keypad. It’s a combination that works well, though it may need some getting used to. While identical in design to past BlackBerry Bold handsets, the keys are a hair smaller in a device that is a few millimetres shorter. Our hands got accustomed to this quickly, and yours should too, but it is worth pointing out.
You can actually snap the slider shut and use a software on-screen keyboard if you so choose. Holding the phone in portrait mode offers multitap (standard phone keypad), BlackBerry’s SureType reduced keyboard as found on the BlackBerry Pearl, and full QWERTY keyboard. Hold the phone in a horizontal position and you’ll find only the on-screen full QWERTY keyboard.
While we love the touchscreen and keyboard combination on the Torch, we absolutely adore just how fast it is.
Owners of older BlackBerry devices have probably felt the pain of turning their handsets on and off with loading times taking anywhere between 20 seconds to a full minute. Here on the Torch, it’s under 5 seconds for a full load, a speed we’re not sure any other phone operating system can match.
The speed continues in pretty much everything you do, from browsing the menus, multitasking between various applications, and generally using the phone. The few slow downs we’re seeing have been occurring when we opted to pinch to zoom on images.
Other things we’ve noticed include the 4GB of memory built in with a microSD slot for up to 32GB of expanded memory, 802.11n WiFi, 5 megapixel camera with flash, the very versatile media playback options (including lossless FLAC support), and multiple applications available on BlackBerry App World including games and specifically Australian apps.
There’s no doubt that the BlackBerry Torch signals a change in Research In Motion’s design, and from what we’re seeing, it’s a welcome one.