Katherine Boehret

A New BlackBerry That Pushes Few Buttons

Finally, Research In Motion has its first true touchscreen BlackBerry without a keyboard.

This smartphone, called the BlackBerry Torch 9850, improves on past BlackBerry models like the Storm, which nixed a physical keyboard but required users to press down on its screen as well as touch its glass, and the Torch 9800, which offered a real touchscreen but maintained a slide-out keyboard.

I’ve been testing the Torch 9850 over the past several days and while its looks will lure you in, its place in the mobile-app ecosystem will push you away. This device, which uses an upgraded 7.0 version of the aging BlackBerry operating system, becomes available from Sprint on Sunday.

DSOLUTION

The Torch 9850 is the first BlackBerry with a true touchscreen. Above, the Torch in camera mode.

It costs $150 with a two-year contract and after a $50 mail-in rebate that comes in the form of an American Express rewards card.

Two other new BlackBerry models with touchscreens and physical keyboards will be out on Sunday: the $250 Bold 9930 from Sprint—a Verizon model is available online now—and the $50 Torch 9810 from AT&T; all prices require two-year contracts.

Neither device has a remarkably different design from its predecessor; rather, they have better processors and run the 7.0 BlackBerry operating system.

Big Screen Display

The Torch 9850′s thin, tapered design houses a gorgeous 3.7-inch, high-resolution touchscreen—the largest display yet on a BlackBerry.

One end of the device holds the four familiar shortcut buttons and small optical trackpad, which is a huge help for precisely selecting a word or object on the screen. And the 9850′s speedy processor gives it fast, responsive performance.

BlackBerry users who are tired of feeling like they’re behind the times whenever they pull out their smartphones will surely save face with this model.

Indeed, the appeal of this new Torch is mostly superficial. The user interface of RIM’s new 7.0 operating system isn’t noticeably different from its predecessor, 6.0. What’s worse is that the selection of apps that run on this new operating system is even smaller than the number of apps available for older BlackBerrys.

A RIM spokesman would only say that “thousands” of apps currently work on the 7.0 OS and that the number would steadily grow. But the overall BlackBerry App World holds 35,000 apps, while Apple’s App Store offers 425,000 apps and Google’s Android Market offers over 250,000 apps.

Waiting for an Upgrade

RIM fans are holding out for a BlackBerry that will run QNX, the company’s next-generation operating system that could give BlackBerrys an operating-system overhaul with a dramatic new user interface. But Mike Lazaridis, RIM’s co-CEO, announced that a BlackBerry with QNX won’t be available until early 2012. People hoping to upgrade their current BlackBerrys in the meantime will be disappointed to hear that none of the BlackBerrys released before this group can be upgraded to the 7.0 operating system.

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The device’s home screen

The first thing hard-core BlackBerry fans will ask is how the on-screen keyboard on Torch 9850 works. I was skeptical throughout my first day with it.

Like all on-screen keyboards, using this one requires an adjustment period, and I felt much more comfortable using it after several days. But even after that adjustment period, I still reached for my old BlackBerry with the physical keyboard to compose long emails. New Torch users should consider going cold turkey with a physical keyboard to prevent such relapses.

RIM’s SureType technology tracks users’ typing patterns and frequent-word occurrences to smartly predict what they’ll most likely be writing, so the Torch’s touchscreen keyboard does get better the more a person uses it.

An Email Machine

Email has always been a strength of the BlackBerry, and the Torch 9850 is no exception. Enhancements in its new operating system include smarter handling of Gmail messages by stacking messages according to conversations. If you read the most recent message in a conversation thread but there’s a message further back in that same thread that you haven’t read, a yellow glow appears below the icon representing the top message. Emails can also be starred, like in the Web version of Gmail, but can’t be automatically sorted into categories of “Important and Unread” and “Everything Else” like the Web version.

Each model in this new crop of BlackBerrys has what RIM calls Liquid Graphics technology, a feature that intends to deliver fast and smooth touchscreen performance. I found the performance to be noticeably better than any previous BlackBerry, but it didn’t feel dramatically faster than an iPhone 4 or new Android device.

Likewise, the Web browser on the new 7.0 operating system felt speedy and did a good job displaying Web page contents, but it didn’t play Flash videos.

Universal search was already enhanced in the BlackBerry 6.0 operating system, but in 7.0 it now works with voice searches. I tried this several times with good luck.

One-Step Picture Sharing

I used the Torch 9850′s five-megapixel digital camera to capture handsome photos, quickly uploading them to social networks like Twitter and Facebook in one step. The Torch 9850′s fast processor speed really shined when I restarted the BlackBerry after installing an updated version of an app—something that usually takes several minutes took seconds.

If you’re wedded to the BlackBerry and you’re eager to upgrade, the BlackBerry Torch 9850 is a slick device that’s fast to respond in various tasks. But the scant number of apps available for it will be a real drawback and won’t satisfy BlackBerry fans looking for an iPhone equivalent.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katherine.boehret@wsj.com


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