BlackBerry Torch 9850 review

RIM’s BlackBerry Torch 9850 is the company’s third smartphone to launch with a full touchscreen form factor, following the original Storm and the Storm 2, and it’s the first to launch on Sprint. The 9850 packs brand new hardware and the new BlackBerry 7 operating system into a thin industrial design, but is it enough of an improvement over the earlier Storm devices to warrant your upgrade? Can it compete with other touchscreen smartphones? I’ve been using the Torch 9850 for the past week and my full review of the smartphone follows below.

Hardware

When I went to Toronto in early August to see RIM’s brand new family of BlackBerry smartphones, I walked away most impressed with the Torch 9850. It was thin, I loved the hardware buttons, the onscreen keyboard seemed to work well and I appreciated the rounded edges. After spending a week with the Torch 9850 and the Bold 9930 side by side, I’ve found myself gravitating to the Bold 9930. The Torch 9850 clearly has a high-end design, but it’s not as polished and luxurious feeling as the Bold 9930.

The top of the phone can be pressed to activate the phone’s lock mechanism. The right side is home to rubber volume up/down toggle keys, a camera quick-launch button and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The Torch 9850 has a 3.7-inch 800 x 480-pixel resolution touchscreen display that was more than bright enough for viewing under direct sunlight. It also has four hardware buttons for placing and ending calls, accessing the menu and stepping backwards through menus. There’s an optical trackpad in the middle of all four buttons which worked well but, given the phone’s touchscreen, it wasn’t necessary most of the time.

There’s a 5-megapixel camera and single LED flash on the back of the Torch 9850, and the soft touch finish gives it a nice premium touch. The top, bottom and sides of the phone also have a faux chrome finish, although that has been known to chip off of BlackBerry phones over time. I like the new Torch hardware, but there’s too much plastic in comparison to the brushed metal RIM used on the Bold 9930.

Software

The Torch 9850 is great until you turn it on. The absolute weakest part of the package is RIM’s BlackBerry 7 operating system. It’s painfully stale and even though the Torch packs a 1.2GHz processor, the phone often displayed the infamous spinning pinwheel that lets you know it’s stalling on a task.

BlackBerry OS 7 is not a large improvement over OS 6. In fact, it looks exactly the same when you turn the phone on. There are still eight visible app icons on a menu bar that can be raised or lowered with a single tap. Swiping the menu left or right reveals four other app drawers: Frequent, Downloads, Media and Favorites. BlackBerry OS 7 allows you to deactivate any of those drawers by hitting “Menu” and then “Manage panels.” The operating system offers several other features, but it is still slow and far behind competing operating systems from Apple, Google and Microsoft. Wallpaper lovers be damned, I’m still shocked at the waste of space on the home screen. I’m kicking a dead horse, but RIM needs to move to QNX, stat.

The phone’s software keyboard was adequate although keys were a bit small for my tastes. I found myself frequently making errors with the Torch 9850, despite its auto-correct feature, and I was often annoyed while typing anything at all. Sprint had sent along the Bold 9930 with my Torch 9850, so I used that phone’s stellar hardware keyboard for nearly every task that involved a significant amount of typing.

The Torch 9850’s WebKit web browser is much better than the one found in BlackBerry OS 6. Most websites loaded just fine and I was able to pan around them with minimal lag most of the time. The browser still doesn’t support Adobe Flash content, but that’s certainly not a deal breaker.

I need to address BlackBerry App World because it’s the second biggest letdown about the Torch 9850 aside from the software itself. There are simply not enough good applications available for download. The App World is chock full of mediocre apps, few of which interest me in any way. RIM’s BlackBerry App World is lagging far behind iOS and Android, and I hope RIM has bigger plans for QNX.

Data and Call Quality

Calls placed on the Torch 9850 were solid. Voices sounded clear and I didn’t have many complaints other than the volume buttons were a bit harder to press compared to other phones. I loaded a number of websites rather quickly over Sprint’s EV-DO 3G network and was generally pleased with the data performance. I do wish the carrier worked with RIM to release a 4G WiMAX version of the phone since it has a number of 4G Android devices that will offer faster speeds out of the box for a lower price. While it supports 802.11b/g/n networks I’m shocked that it doesn’t offer a mobile hotspot option for sharing the 3G connection with other Wi-Fi devices.

Camera

I took the Torch 9850 to the beach with me for the weekend and used it to snap a number of photos. I liked how fast the camera was able to capture shots. I did not find the photos particularly impressive however, and the flash often blew out my subject in darker scenes. The Torch 9850 can be used to record 720p video, although I found the quality was not as good as the videos recorded with a number of Android phones I have on my desk. The video was noticeably grainy but I did appreciate the continuous auto-focus.

Battery

I still miss the times when I could go more than two days with my BlackBerry Bold 9700. The Torch 9850 was easily able to make it through a full 24 hours of moderate usage before I needed to charge it again. It also idled very well, so I’d expect it to last longer with light use. If you stick with BlackBerry over Android or iOS for its battery life, you should be generally pleased with the Torch 9850′s performance.

Conclusion

During my review I was approached by a BGR fan asking to see my BlackBerry Bold 9930. “I also have the Torch 9850,” I told him as I took it out of my pocket. He looked at both of them and said, “Yeah, this isn’t for me, I’m definitely more excited for the Bold.” That’s exactly how I feel about the Torch.

The 9850 is decent enough if you require a full touchscreen display, but if you need a BlackBerry and are on Sprint, I’d recommend the Bold 9930 any day, hands-down. It has the best keyboard I’ve ever used and the design is much more beautiful.

RIM created the Torch 9850 to go toe-to-toe with the dozens of full touchscreen smartphones on the market that run iOS, Windows Phone and Android. Unfortunately, because BlackBerry OS 7 is so far behind the pack, the Torch 9850 simply can’t compete.

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