Walt Mossberg

BlackBerry’s New Torch Makes a Leap From Drab

Millions of people love the BlackBerry, relying on it especially for email and text messaging. But this classic smartphone, while still dominant in the U.S., has been slipping in popularity as consumers, and even some corporations, eye two newer, simpler and more versatile rivals: Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android operating system that runs on a plethora of phones. Both boast much larger ecosystems of third-party applications than the BlackBerry.

A new Nielsen survey shows that only 42% of BlackBerry owners want their next phone to be a BlackBerry, while 89% of iPhone owners and 71% of Android owners plan to stick with those platforms.

So, this week, the BlackBerry’s maker, Canadian tech giant Research in Motion, introduced a new model and a new operating system designed to counter these trends and better compete with the iPhone and Android.

The new BlackBerry is called the Torch 9800, and it is the first BlackBerry with a slide-out keyboard, the first to combine both a touch screen and a physical keyboard, and the first to allow typing on either a physical keyboard or an onscreen virtual keyboard. It will be available from AT&T on Aug. 12 for $200 with a two-year contract.

But perhaps the more important introduction is the new BlackBerry operating system, which will also be available on future models and as an upgrade for several existing models. Called BlackBerry 6, the new software aims to juice up the BlackBerry’s tired, utilitarian user interface and feature set.

It is meant to simplify the cluttered home screen, and to add features such as universal search, multitouch gestures, decent Web browsing, improved social networking and more built-in apps.

petchD1

The Torch 9800 with favorite apps, contacts and websites.

I’ve been testing the new Torch with BlackBerry 6, and I view it as a big improvement over earlier, stodgy BlackBerry models. It might help stem the urge to switch to iPhone and Android, and even steal some users from those and other platforms, especially as the company brings out additional models that use the new software. And it shows that, contrary to some recent speculation, RIM is hardly dead or dying. In fact, the new phone and software are just the start of its plan to revitalize the BlackBerry franchise.

But there is still one big downside: third-party apps. While the iPhone boasts 225,000 of these downloadable programs, and Android claims 70,000, the BlackBerry platform is still stuck at a measly 9,000.

I liked the way the device now has separate screens for frequently used functions; favorite apps, contacts and Web pages; media functions; and apps you’ve downloaded. The multitouch gestures, like scrolling through lists, and pinching and zooming, worked fine. The browser is finally usable, the app store is now built in, and there is a nice social-networking app called Social Feeds that combines status updates from Twitter, Facebook and other networks.

Icons seemed larger and more colorful, and it was easy to add photo icons of favorite contacts and Web sites to the new Favorites screen. Built-in apps that appear out of the box include Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, CNN, ESPN, and the Weather Channel.

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The Torch

In addition, the new BlackBerry allows you to quickly check your latest messages and to control your network settings by merely tapping on a couple of bars on the home screen that drop down to expose the relevant information. And the formerly geeky and complex settings screens and menus have been simplified and made more graphical and attractive.

The music and video players are much more attractive and useful, and there is even a way to wirelessly sync music from a PC running iTunes or Windows Media Player over your home network, though it is complicated and time-consuming to set up and so far (as with wired syncing) only works on Windows PCs, not Macs.

However, this week’s moves are mostly catch-ups to iPhone and Android, and not a radical move forward for the super-smartphone category. One reason is that RIM can’t afford to alienate its loyal base of existing BlackBerry fans. In fact, a RIM software executive, writing on an official company blog, called the new operating system “fresh, but familiar” and assured current users that “when you look at it, it still looks like a BlackBerry Home Screen.” He compared it to a “home renovation.”

The company was careful to keep some of the most familiar BlackBerry features. For instance, even though you can now navigate with multitouch gestures, the Torch still has the standard mini-trackpad and the usual menu and escape keys. The physical keyboard—crucial to most BlackBerry fans—is also very familiar in layout and function. The popular BlackBerry Messenger application has been retained.

The Torch lags behind its rivals in some respects. For example, it has a smaller and much lower resolution screen than either the iPhone 4 or some of the newer Android models, like the Samsung Vibrant or the Motorola Droid X. Despite that smaller screen, it is also significantly thicker and heavier than the new iPhone or the Samsung, mainly because of the slide-out physical keyboard, which the others lack. Unlike on the iPhone and some new Android phones, there is no front-facing camera or video-calling function built in.

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Curve 8500

While the Torch generally is smooth and responsive, I found it slower overall than the iPhone 4. And, in my tests, its browser—though based on the same technology as the ones on Android and the iPhone—proved consistently slower, though much faster and better than on earlier BlackBerrys. During my testing, the browser also began behaving strangely, freezing up at some moments and, in other cases, displaying only the graphics, not the text, on some Web pages. To fix this, I had to remove and replace the battery.

The slide-out physical keyboard looks a bit cramped, but, after a few days of use, I found it performed in the usual excellent manner of most BlackBerry keyboards.

The onscreen keyboard, on the other hand, proved markedly inferior to those on the iPhone and Android. The keys are narrow, and easy to miss. And the keyboard doesn’t morph much to make specialized functions easier. When you’re entering an email address, it doesn’t display a prominent, dedicated “@” key like the iPhone does. RIM says this is because it expects users to rely more on the physical keyboard for such scenarios.

The email function, long the BlackBerry’s strong point, is largely unchanged. While it is fast and reliable, it lacks some useful touches the iPhone introduced years ago. For example, there is still no built-in option for displaying a preview of the text of an email, so you have to guess whether it is worth opening merely by reading the subject line. And attached pictures still aren’t displayed automatically in opened emails; you have to click a link to see them.

The built-in Maps function on the Torch is from AT&T, and was slower and more frustrating to use than Google Maps on the Android and the iPhone. RIM says it will have its own BlackBerry Maps program available for the new OS at launch.

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Tour 9630

But there are also many strong points. The five-megapixel camera with flash worked very well in my tests for still photos, and pretty well for videos. It even has several scene settings, such as for sports events or parties, and face detection. A redesigned pop-up menu makes it easy to share photos via email, text message, BlackBerry Messenger, or various social networks.

Notifications of new messages, including social-networking updates, seems much quicker than on previous BlackBerrys. Battery life was good in my tests, and the phone lasted through an average day easily.

Phone calls were crisp and clear. And, although the number of bars seemed about the same on AT&T as they did on the iPhone 4, and I could make the bars drop on the Torch by holding it in a certain manner, none of the limited number of calls I tried dropped. In my tests, the Torch downloaded data a bit more quickly than the iPhone over AT&T’s network, but much more slowly over Wi-Fi.

The new OS will be standard on all future BlackBerry models, and owners of the existing Bold 9700 and 9650, and the Pearl 3G, will be able to upgrade to it.

Overall, the Torch and the BlackBerry 6 operating system are good products that improve the BlackBerry experience considerably and bring the device closer to its newer rivals.

Find Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

Corrections & Amplifications

Existing AT&T customers who buy a new AT&T Torch smartphone and who already have a $30 a month unlimited data plan can opt to keep that plan. This column said Torch buyers would have to commit to a capped data plan starting at $15 a month.


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