BlackBerry Torch good, but won’t outshine competition
by Alan Zisman (c) 2010
published in Business in Vancouver November 16-22, 2010 issue #1099
You can always recognize the pioneers. They’re the ones with the arrows
in their backs.
OK, not original. But that may be how Canadian smartphone pioneer RIM,
maker of the corporate-favourite BlackBerry line, is feeling these
days. Its products dominated the North American smartphone market for
years, with constant email connections, corporate-level security and
solid and usable keyboards.
But now the smartphone action has moved more toward consumers and
phones with large touchscreens and tens of thousands of downloadable
apps. In October, International Data Corp. research claimed that for
the first time worldwide, more iPhones were shipped than BlackBerrys.
(Nokia – pretty much a non-player in North America – continued to
outsell both Apple and RIM worldwide.) Apple has also passed RIM in the
North American market.
Recent Nielsen data suggests that about half of BlackBerry users are
thinking of making their next phone a model from some other
And that poses a problem for RIM. It needs to offer new models that are
attractive to the growing consumer market. Simultane, the new models
need to remain compatible with its existing product line. Something new
– but not too new.
That describes the company’s recent BlackBerry Torch 9800 touchscreen
Like last year’s BlackBerry Storm – and like the iPhones and various
Android smartphones – the Torch (available from Bell, Rogers and Telus
for $179 to $199 with a three-year plan) has a big screen with
multitouch support. Unlike the Storm, it’s also got a great,
solid-feeling slide-down keyboard.
While there’s a new operating system – BlackBerry OS 6 – it’s not
different enough to alienate longtime BlackBerry users. OS 6 tries to
support both touchscreen and traditional models and will be showing up
across the company’s product line.
Big improvement: a new web browser that’s much better than the one on
older BlackBerrys. Nice: built-in four gigabytes of storage, along with
a microSD card slot supporting memory cards up to 32 gigabytes.
Improved music and video players. Built-in GPS and Wi-Fi.
Like some Android models, there’s a mini trackpad, though I’ve got to
wonder why. The feature seems unnecessary on touchscreens. RIM has also
made some other questionable design decisions. The screen, while
reasonably large, sports a low 480x360 resolution, making text and
images blocky compared with competing models that will be sitting
beside it on phone vendors’ shelves.
And while many Android models offer perky 1 GHz processors, the Torch’s
processor ambles along at 624 MHz. The numbers wouldn’t matter if the
Torch felt smooth, but there’s often a noticeable pause moving from one
app to another. Multitouch – pinching to zoom, for instance – can lag.
While the built-in five-megapixel camera is an improvement over other
BlackBerry models, the low-resolution video remains old school. Like
other BlackBerry models and unlike the Android phones I’ve tested,
battery life is very good, as is call quality.
The upshot: if you’re a current BlackBerry user and are comfortable
with the Zen of BlackBerry but hankering after a touchscreen model, the
Torch will let you keep the things you like while adding a bigger
screen and multitouch gestures. You’ll be happy that you can continue
to type on a solid, physical keyboard. BlackBerry OS 6 offers lots of
little improvements without being too radically different.
But if you’re not already in the BlackBerry camp, aside from the
keyboard and the longer battery life, there’s not a lot that this phone
does better than the competition. The low-resolution screen alone is
probably enough to send most potential buyers elsewhere. Hopefully, RIM
will release a Torch 2 model soon with a faster processor and