Despite spending the last few years following the mobile scene and trying out lots of different phones the Blackberry has remained somewhat of a mystery to me. On many occasions when taking the train I would go past smart looking business people reading their emails on them while I trying to find a seat and this reinforced the idea in my head of this being a business phone, but it seems teenagers quite like the Blackberry too, a fact which both surprised and intrigued me. To end my ignorance of this brand I have been trying out the Blackberry Torch 9800; a touch screen phone with a slide out keyboard. It is also the most expensive phone I have ever reviewed, weighing in at an eye watering £40 per month on a twenty-four month contract.
The phone felt slightly chunky and wide when I first held it, which is strange as it is no wider than my HTC Desire, although it is thicker. The phone slides open vertically to reveal a hardware keyboard. This wasn't apparent to everybody that I showed the phone to as the phone at first glance doesn't look like it slides open. However the keyboard is comfortable to use with two thumbs and I am sure it would be possible to type quite quickly on it. The edges of the case have a metallic plastic finish and the back a smoother plastic which feels a bit a bit like rubber. The phone reminds me slightly of a chunky wrist watch, not sure why, but maybe it is because the design makes a bit of a statement rather than just trying to fit in unnoticed.
The front of the unit is dominated by a 3.2” touchscreen, a headline for this device as it is the first with the Blackberry keyboard and a touchscreen. On the positive side the screen felt very responsive. On the bad side, and this is a really bad side, the screen resolution is only 360x480 pixels. This was a great surprise as newer smartphones tend to have at least a 800x480 pixel resolution. This is not a trivial problem; if you try to view a website that has not been optimised for mobiles on this phone it will look like an absolute mess, but your HTC Desire and iPhone 4 owning friends will see quite a good representation of the same site. Also on the unit is a rear facing five megapixel camera so it is not suitable for video calling but is quite a decent resolution for taking picture when you are out and about.
The Torch 9800 is the first device to run on the Blackberry 6 operating system which generally feels very responsive and smooth to use. A familiar scrolling tray of apps opens to reveal the software installed on the phone. You can also leave this tray partially open to get faster access to some of your favourites. The look and feel is smart, as maybe you would expect from a phone with a business focus. Below the screen is a button that acts a bit like a mouse trackpad, except that it does not physically move. This actually worked quite well and it was easy to scroll around the options and control an on screen mouse pointer in the web browser with it. Beside the trackpad is a button with the Blackberry logo on it, this serves as a context menu, a sort of right mouse button and brings up extra options. Several times I found the option I wanted under this key.
When you look at the apps installed on the phone it becomes obvious that these devices are designed as communications hubs. There is an email client of course, plus support for text messaging, popular instant messaging services, some popular social networks, RSS feeds and their own service Blackberry Messenger. Emails are pushed to your phone. When you set up an email account from a supported provider type on your phone the details are registered on Blackberry's servers and they make sure that you are not kept waiting for that all important communication. This seemed to work very well, the only problem being when I first set up the account I was presented with the The Blackberry Prosumer Service Agreement which offered me the chance to read reams and reams of legalese on the phone. Something needs to be done about the problem of huge “Terms and Conditions” documents on consumer devices! I have a horrible feeling these sorts of agreements will lead to huge problems one day as few people seem to read them.
I didn't really get the significance of the Blackberry Messenger before having a coffee with a good friend of mine who happens to be a Blackberry owner who told me about how the service allows Blackberry owners to easily keep in contact and establish new contacts. If you want to add someone as a contact they can get their phone to display a QR code, you then scan it and you have their details to stay in touch. You can also add contacts through text messaging and email too. The Messenger app supports putting people into groups as well, this gives you the sharing items with everybody in that group at once and allowing them to interact with it. I got the impression that if you know a lot of people with Blackberry phones and wanted to keep in contact with them easily these features might be the deal maker, especially as Blackberry Messenger is of course not available on other devices. This might explain the fondness amongst young people for the device as one of their main priorities might prioritise keeping in contact with their friends.
Away from messaging the device functions as a media player too. The audio was pretty good and features such as the built in YouTube app seemed to work well and BBC iPlayer worked though the built in browser. Podcasts are also supported on the device. There are some nice touches to the apps such as the ability to search for local media files also directly linking to some online sources, e.g. if you search for a video locally you also get a quick option to search YouTube. Flash doesn't seem to be on the device, so again this will restrict the level of interaction you can have with some sites, and may limit the media playback opportunities you have on sites not targeted specifically at mobiles. The now pretty much standard “App Store” idea is represented on the device through App World and gives you a selection of apps you can download and install. Also supported out of the box on the device is support for viewing Microsoft Office(tm) format files, handy for viewing those important email attachments.
My first experience of a Blackberry was a very interesting one and it was well worth finding out about the platform. The Torch 9800 offers an experience that is sightly different from its competitors. Just as apps are central to some other platforms it feels like communication is central to this platform. This also means that it might be difficult to get a sense of what it is like to use the device if you just have a quick play on one in a shop, so it is worth chatting to a Blackberry owning friend to get a better picture. The device also offers good support for business users with support for corporate email and IT policies.
The phone let down by its lousy screen resolution and unless it becomes a status symbol very quickly the price tag might prevent it from every effectively competing with its rivals, especially as in does not outrank its rivals in terms of technical capability. The user experience is good though, particularly with the messaging capability and a pleasant to use operating system. It might offer an interesting alternative if you aren't that excited by the main players in the smart phone market.