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8/16/2011
08:36 AM
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BlackBerry Bold, Torch: Hands-On With RIM's Newest

RIM's three new BlackBerry models deliver sleek hardware and an improved OS. How do they stack up against iPhone and Android rivals?



BlackBerry Torch 9810
(click image for larger view)
BlackBerry Torch 9810
Research In Motion has done a superbly smart, necessary thing: It has taken two of its best smartphones (the Bold and the Torch), and made them better--which is to say faster, sleeker, and more versatile. RIM has also taken one of its most visible failures--the BlackBerry Storm (1 and 2)--and expertly revived it under the Torch moniker. I dare say they're all a little sexier.

Each of these revised devices runs BlackBerry 7, an optimized operating system that is demonstrably faster, with an updated, speedier, more HTML5-compliant web browser, and augmented reality support. You'll also find the integration of BlackBerry Protect, Balance, the new BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), and other native BlackBerry applications.

I've been testing all of these devices, and the new OS, for a short period of time. Everything lives up to RIM's claims. Everything is, in fact, better.

But none of it is strong enough to withstand the inexorable march of the iPhone or the barrage and variety of today's Android devices. Although Apple hasn't even discussed the iPhone 5 publicly, its presence looms. Samsung's Galaxy II phone, also expected soon, is the absolute slimmest, lightest, most stunning Android phone I've seen to date.

The next consolidated version of Android (4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich) also looms on the horizon. Plus there's the long-anticipated upgrade to Windows Phone 7 (Mango, or 7.5), perhaps on a newly-enhanced set of Nokia phones, and HP's Palm 3 (with a keyboard that might make you forget how good the BlackBerry's is.) That all adds up to the fact that these three new BlackBerry phones seem destined mainly for BlackBerry diehards.

Variety and consistency have to count for something, though, and for now that's enough. RIM calls this its biggest global launch ever as it rolls out these new phones to 225 partners worldwide, and on Sprint and Verizon in the United States. I'll take a Torch 9810, myself, and await what comes next from other players.

In-Depth With The Phones

There are actually just three new phones, but five new model numbers, which reflect the mobile carriers options (CDMA and GSM.) Each is powered by a single-core 1.2 GHz Qualcomm processor, with graphics acceleration. Previous BlackBerry phones have clinked and clanked with 624 MHz processors. While many high end smart phones are now sporting dual core 1.2 GHz processors, and quad-core processor phones are coming by the end of the summer, these new BlackBerry phones performed without hiccups, in my limited experience with them.

All of them support 24-bit color and have 5 megapixel cameras with image stabilization, face detection, geo tagging, 4x zoom, flash and so on. Each has a digital compass. Each is capable of shooting video (all of this was available on the Torch 9800), but also doing so in high definition (720p). Although you can zoom with the still camera, you can't with the video camera. Many of the high end phones are now coming with 8 megapixel cameras; some have 3-D video capture and playback.

Despite loading up these phones with a faster processor, higher resolution and bigger screens, RIM has committed to maintaining BlackBerry battery life standards, which were pretty good in the first place. Each phone rates more than six hours of talk time, and standby of 11 days or more, depending on the model. I'm a fairly heavy mobile phone user, consuming apps, content and taking multiple lengthy conference calls each day, and by mid afternoon, I find my phone needs a boost; these three phones were no exception. Just as a point of reference, the original Torch 9800 rated 5.5 hours of talk time on GSM, whereas the 9810 rates 6.5 hours.

All of the phones have 768 MB of RAM. The Torch 9850 has 4 GB of storage on board, expandable to 36 GB, while the Torch 9810 has 8 GB on board, upgradeable to 32 GB. The Bold starts with 8 GB, and maxes out at 40 GB.

BlackBerry 9900 Bold
(click image for larger view)
BlackBerry 9900 Bold
The Torch 9810 is my favorite of the three phones because it offers the best of both worlds: large touch-screen, slide-out keyboard. The keyboard has always been a BlackBerry strong suit, and nothing has really changed here, although side-by-side with the original Torch, the 9810's keyboard feels that much softer and more responsive.

RIM finally got the touchscreen right with the Torch, after some epic failures on the Storm, but this touchscreen still wasn't very responsive. In fact, there were times it was downright annoying. As friends happily swiped and flicked away on an iPhone, BlackBerry users carefully pulled and stretched, as if the BlackBerry's touch objects were set in taffy.

The 9810 just flies. E-mail, browsing, Facebook, apps, the camera, pinching, zooming, swiping. Sometimes the original Torch, after a few days, would just get bogged down and need a reboot. I've been running the 9810 for five straight days and it's still going strong, impatiently waiting for my next move.

Beyond speed, there's really little difference. I'm not sure it matters, but the "call" and "end call" buttons, once green and red, respectively, are now simply white. I liked them better in color, but I'm hardly lost without it--I still accidentally hang up on people in the same manner I once did, or sometimes even on purpose. Except for the brushed aluminum casing, the 9810 looks identical to the old Torch--it feels just as heavy and thick, and especially so compared to the Bold 9900 and Torch 9850. It weighs 161g, and is 14.6mm thick--noticeably thicker than the Torch 9850, but also shorter.

The 9810 has a 3.2-inch screen, which produces a vivid 640x480 resolution. Side by side with the old Torch 9800, there's really no comparison. I never knew how much I suffered before.

The Torch 9810 runs on AT&T's HSPA + network, costs $49 with a two year contract, and is available in stores starting August 21.

The Bold 9900 (GSM; 9930 CDMA) is, according to RIM, the thinnest BlackBerry ever at a mere 10.5 mm thick. It is also the lightest of the bunch, at 130g. Like the Torch, it offers both the keyboard and, now, for the first time, a touch-interface to accompany the optical trackball. In other words, you can interact with the phone in whatever manner best suits you.

The keyboard on the Bold is, simply, unsurpassed. During a year away from the Bold model, I'd gotten used to the outstanding Torch keyboard, but it pales in comparison--like the difference between vinyl and leather.

In fact, overall the 9900 has an incredibly solid feel. Its sturdy, brushed stainless steel frame is substantive compared to the Bold of yesteryear; its backplate is made of a high-gloss glass-weave, adapted from aerospace composite, whatever that means. It just feels right. The screen is only 2.8 inches, but the 640x480 resolution is excellent and the touch interface is fast and responsive. It feels like a grownup's phone, finally.

The Bold may be one of RIM's best-selling BlackBerry devices ever (the company has never broken out these figures), but after using the Torch for about a year, it's very difficult to get used to the small screen of the Bold again. It may just be me, but the raised keyboard made using the optical trackpad a bit clunky. I immediately just used the screen's touch interface instead, which has just become a natural way to use a phone these days.

The 9900 also includes built in Near Field Communication (NFC). This is the only NFC phone in RIM's stable, but this capability will come to other phones soon, according to RIM's Andrew Bocking, VP BlackBerry Software.

The Bold 9900 runs on Verizon's 3G network, costs $249.99 with a two year contract, and is available in stores on August 25. It can be pre-ordered immediately. The Bold 9930 runs on Sprint's network, costs the same $249.99 with a two year contract, and is in stores August 21.

BlackBerry Torch 9860/9850
(click image for larger view)
BlackBerry Torch 9860/9850
The Torch 9850 (CDMA; 9860 on GSM) is a reworked Storm, in that it provides only a touch interface (plus the optical trackpad), just like the iPhone and many Android phones. Gone is the SurePress screen that felt like you were depressing bubble wrap. What this form factor allowed RIM to do was build a bigger screen, with higher resolution.

The Torch 9850 has a 3.7-inch display, which is plenty big, despite the appearance of many 4.3-inch screens, and it's RIM's biggest one to date (the Storm 2 had a 3.25-inch screen). The Torch 9850 resolution--480 x 800--is also the best resolution on a BlackBerry to date (the Storm 2 was 480x360; even the diminutive Bold has better resolution now). This resolution is comparable to other high-end smartphones. For example, Motorola's Droid X2 has a 540x960 display, and HTC's Incredible 2 is 480x800. The iPhone, of course, has a 960x640 Retina Display that really packs in the pixels.

Because I use my mobile phone for lengthier e-mails, I like physical keyboards. However, the Torch 9850 touch keyboard worked great, predicting my thoughts and giving me word choices as I typed. I did miss the ".com" key, however--a convenient shortcut on most keyboards nowadays. Also, I always find I can't look away while typing on touch keypads, and this was very true with the Torch. But for those who want the highest resolution and biggest screen, the Torch 9850 holds its own.

It weighs 135g, or 4.75 ounces, which is quite a bit lighter than some of the 4.3-inch Android phones shipping today (HTC's EVO 3D weighs 6 ounces; HTC's Incredible 2 is 4.76 ounces), and it packs its 3.7-inch display into a small, sleek, sculpted package. It is meant more for consuming content than creating it. At 11.5mm, it's a tad thicker than the Bold 9900, but much slimmer than the Torch 9810.

The Torch 9850 runs on Sprint's network, costs $199.99 with a two year contract, and is available in stores August 21.

Mobilizy's Wikitude
(click image for larger view)
Mobilizy's Wikitude
Although RIM dubbs this a .0 release, some have complained that it's fairly minor to be considered so. I might agree, however, it consolidates several functions that were previously seen as outside-the-OS, but are now baked in. Updates to Twitter (integrated into your universal inbox and your notifications), Facebook (version 2.0 includes the ability to chat, and a richer user experience), BBM (version 6.0 is now a social platform for other BlackBerry applications) and Social Feeds (version 2.0 consolidates your feeds and provides some organizing mechanisms) should, in fact, all be included in a next OS rev, whether it's a major release or not. And so they are.

But RIM has also included BlackBerry Protect and BlackBerry Balance --two features which continue to set RIM apart from the pack when it comes to security and device management, whether you're a consumer simply buying a personal phone, or a consumer bringing a BlackBerry into the enterprise, or an enterprise assigning a BlackBerry to an employee. Protect (BlackBerry Protect video demo here) lets those not running BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) do a subset of the device management tasks for their phones, like remote wipe, remote lock and various functions for finding a lost device. Balance lets IT separate your work apps and data from personal functionality, like public social networks.

The most obvious and necessary enhancements simply come in speed. Part of this, of course, is just that the hardware is beefed up, practically double the hardware speed of previous models. But RIM calls the new version of the BlackBerry 7 browser the fastest ever--40% faster than the BlackBerry 6 browser; 100% faster than the BlackBerry 5 browser.

I didn't run any benchmarks, but I can tell you that the difference in browser speed is noticeable. Still, side-by-side comparisons between, say, a BlackBerry Torch running the latest version of OS 6 and the 9810 running BlackBerry 7 are biased by too many factors to draw hard conclusions--the network speed is faster, and variables like site caching, the fact that what's on a web page can change millisecond to millisecond based on things like ad calls, all impact performance. With those caveats, every single page I loaded simply seemed faster on the BlackBerry 7.

RIM's Bocking pointed out that RIM owns the entire phone stack, from the hardware to the browser, and thus the company has worked hard to make sure every piece of the equation is optimized. That includes Javascript performance and RIM's implementation of what it calls "liquid graphics," which is more about every piece of the OS and applications exploiting the power of the processor.

It shows--in loading apps, in loading web sites, in pinching and zooming (incredibly fluid now), in swiping and even restarting a device. I found nothing jerky or hesitant in these phones. If the previous touch and scroll experiences were built in taffy, these are slathered in butter.

RIM also claims that it has made the browser even more HTML5 compliant. I ran a few HTML5 experiments. First, I simply pointed the browser at html5test.com, and found that it scored a 277--the second highest of any mobile browser behind MeeGo; the browser in BlackBerry 6 OS was 269. iOS and Android fare much further back. (RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook tablet also does well, scoring a 274, tops among tablet browsers, according to the site's data.) I also used a test site that the Android browser doesn't get quite right, and the BlackBerry devices were perfect; as were the results on the Acid3 test. This is not to say that the browser is perfect, only that relatively speaking it performs tip top.

RIM also sent me a list of HTML5 apps to test. The Huffington Post BlackBerry app was functional, clean and useful--if you're into reading HuffPo. TuneIn is an excellent little radio app that worked like a champ. But I couldn't find all of the apps RIM pointed me to. PowWow, an app for creating and managing a social calendar with your BBM contacts was underwhelming. One of the apps was Guitar Chords, but I could only find The Guitar Studio, which seemed promising, but only let me down with its fairly rudimentary interface.

There were many unavailable applications--some associated with my BlackBerry ID (this is a method used to tie users, data and BlackBerry devices together, which can make it convenient to carry applications from an old device to a new one, for example). These did not carry over to the new BlackBerry phones, nor were they visible from App World--for example I couldn’t see Pandora, LinkedIn, Poynt, Fuze Meeting, Seesmic, Southwest Airlines, SugarSync and Trapster. But Evernote, BlackBerry Bridge and others were available and worked fine.

A RIM spokesperson said: "BlackBerry 7 builds on our standard BlackBerry Java environment and enables developers to leverage their existing assets for BlackBerry smartphones. There are thousands of apps currently being approved for the BlackBerry 7 devices and more are entering BlackBerry App World every day. We expect the majority of BlackBerry 6 apps (that are running on the BlackBerry 9800) to be available for BlackBerry 7 devices (including the BlackBerry 9810) within the next couple of months."

Whoops.

For a company that has struggled to convince consumers and developers it can win the app game, this is baffling.

Also on the downside, on a couple of occasions, I had to do a hard reboot of the devices in order to get applications to run properly--Digital Chocolate's 3D Roller Coaster Rush Jurassic 2, for instance, and PowWow. Running the 3D Roller Coaster game was an exercise in futility. On the Torch 9810, its appearance (or lack of) made it tedious to use, and then I kept getting errors concerning resetting the security timer. It would only run in portrait mode. I even uninstalled it and downloaded the app again; same result. Luckily, I'm not much of a game player. On the Torch 9850, the app worked better, but I still got the errors. A RIM spokesperson said Digital Chocolate may have loaded the wrong version.

RIM included Mobilizy's Wikitude with BlackBerry 7 OS. This is a so-called augmented reality application, which uses the device's built-in compass, camera, and 15 million points of interest in more than 175 countries to connect you to a variety of services based on what it knows, your location, and who you know, and often who you don't know. With it you can see who has posted YouTube videos on a spot on a map, or near you; find the nearest Starbucks, view Flickr photos, webcams, tweets.

I'm still really getting used to the idea of Wikitude, however. It is one of the many apps that are starting to tap into BBM 6, for example. You can see what BBM users are nearby and chat with them, or invite ones you don't know (they have to make themselves publicly visible) to be your BBM buddy (ugh!). It just feels a little creepy.

Docs To Go, the premium version, is now included. You can edit in Excel, PowerPoint and Word, and there's a native PDF viewer. All of it is integrated into a single app, and it's all free. Previously, you only got the standard version for free. There are some fairly major differences between the Docs To Go Standard and Premium Editions, and for those who do major document surgery on their BlackBerry phones, I'm sure this upgrade will be welcomed.

BlackBerry 7 also has voice-enabled universal search. Previously, you could just start typing in your search from anywhere, simply using the keyboard, and the OS would return results, including applications that might yield an appropriate result. Voice-enabled search does the same thing, only you click on the little microphone icon and speak. It worked great. Many of my searches, like for Peet's Coffee, yielded an option for Bing search, which used my location and showed me where the coffee shop was. I could have also selected Wikitude to help me find it. Bing is the BlackBerry's default search, but you can change that.

I did watch AT&T's U-vers Live TV (a repackaged MobiTV offering) and it generally worked well in limited testing over the HSPA+ network. The video quality wasn't top notch, but I didn't expect it to be. On demand offerings were much better than live TV. I also tested BlackBerry Bridge on all three phones, and they worked with the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet flawlessly.

Finally, RIM has opened up the OpenGL ES 2.0 API, so third parties can build 3-D games. RIM also includes an NFC API.

Read our new report, State Of The IT Service Desk: Change Management Remains Key. Download the report now. (Free registration required.)

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