Just when we were wondering when BlackBerry would end its smartphone dry spell, RIM announced not one, but four new smartphones for U.S. release, including the BlackBerry Bold 9930 and the full touch-screen cousin to the Torch, the BlackBerry Torch 9850. (AT&T has a version of the latter called the Torch 9860.)
RIM's history with all-touch handsets that don't carry its trademark keyboard has been spotty; it flew by the mark with its inaugural effort, the BlackBerry Storm, which turned us off with its lack of Wi-Fi and its awkward SurePress screen technology that required you to click the touch screen to select, the way you would a button. The revised Storm 2 was an improvement, with Wi-Fi, double the memory, and some performance fixes, but it still struggled to stand up to the competition.
Two years later, RIM has thankfully learned from the embarrassing mistakes and has wisely left the Storm brand name whirling in our memory, even though the Storm series is more this full screen touch-y Torch's true ancestor. Regardless, the new attempt has a nice 3.7-inch display, a 5-megapixel camera with 720p HD video capture, a 1.2GHz processor, and dual CDMA/GSM mode for international travelers.
The specs place it in the upper middle range of smartphones, and the price matches fairly well at $149.99 with a new two-year contract. However, its debut cost is the same, $50 less, or $50 more than a handful of more dressed-up Android handsets like the HTC Evo 3D, the Samsung Epic 4G, and Samsung Nexus 4G, respectively. That said, prices do drop with sales, and penny-pinchers may see the Torch 9850 recede a bit with future promotions if they're patient. The Torch 9850 will be available August 21.
In terms of looks, the Torch 9850 is the maverick of the BlackBerry family, and that's no bad thing. While the most recent crop of BlackBerrys feature squarer corners, including the slide-up Torch 9810 for AT&T and Sprint's Bold 9930, this full-screen Torch 9850 embraces sharp angles, with top and bottom edges pointed enough to slice through soft cheese in a pinch. The glossy black front is framed in shiny silver along the spines and back. A soft-touch finish smoothes out the black back cover. It's one of the sexier BlackBerry designs, and despite those sharp tips, the Torch 9850 is comfortable in the hand and on the ear.
While it's no jolly black giant, the Torch is no miniature, either. It stands 4.7 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.45 inch thick and weighs 4.8 ounces. This Torch has the largest BlackBerry touch screen to date, at 3.7 inches. With a WVGA screen resolution (800x480 pixels) and support for 16 million colors, the Torch 9850's screen looks very sharp and clear. We were also impressed with how the screen handled direct sunlight. From most angles, the screen was bright enough at 70 percent to easily send e-mails.
Directly above the screen is an LED indicator light that glows red when you've got a new message waiting. At the top is the lock button. Beneath the screen, five raised hardware buttons correspond to the dialer, the Menu, the Back, and the Power/End buttons. The center select button doubles as an optical track pad for navigating the screen without smudging it up.
The phone's sides are slickly contoured. On the right are three thin, almost sharp protrusions of a rubberized material; together they make up the camera shutter button (which you can also set as a convenience shortcut key) and the volume rocker. It's a very stylized look that proves RIM is branching out with an edgier industrial design, but we can't say the buttons are our favorite to use. The right spine is also home to the 3.5mm headset jack. On the left you'll find the Micro-USB charging port.
The back side houses the 5-megapixel camera lens and the flash. Slip off that back cover to reveal the microSD card slot that accepts up to 32GB external memory. If you're traveling abroad, you can slip in a GSM SIM card for quad-band support, which makes the Torch 9850 a convenient world phone for business travelers.
The BlackBerry Torch 9850 runs RIM's new BlackBerry OS 7 operating system, with its new Liquid Graphics display, voice-activated universal search, and more. You can read about it in greater detail in this review of the BlackBerry Torch 9810.
Since there's no physical keyboard, the Torch 9850 employs just the virtual keyboard. Onscreen buttons were on the smallish size overall, but on par with the onscreen keyboards we've seen time and again on many other smartphones. Although accuracy is hard to achieve when typing quickly on a small, flat screen, the virtual BlackBerry OS 7 keyboard did a very good job making correct suggestions and replacements, even with contractions. Spell-checking was a breeze and placing punctuation didn't interrupt our flow. Although a physical keyboard would probably be more comfortable for longer compositions, we felt confident texting and e-mailing.
Before we drill down to particulars, let's get the basics out of the way. The Torch 9850 is equipped with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth support, and GPS. The communication tools include the signature BlackBerry e-mail that supports Web mail as well as support for the BlackBerry Enterprise Server that secures and encrypts corporate e-mail. There's also text and multimedia messaging, instant messaging, posting to social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and an integrated inbox that lets you compose a message using any of those aforementioned channels.
In addition to voice calls, there's a voice recorder and support for voice commands. OS 7 also adds voice input to its universal search, a feature that lets you control when to stop recording by pressing a button when you're done. It worked well in our tests.