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Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

BlackBerry Torch good, but won’t outshine competition

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2010 First published in Business in Vancouver November 16-22, 2010 issue #1099 High Tech Office column

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 manufacturer.

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 pretty well.

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 higher-resolution display.

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