Review by Dan Seifert on Tuesday August 16, 2011.
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The recently-announced BlackBerry Torch 9850 is the latest all-touchscreen smartphone to come from RIM. It features the largest screen on any BlackBerry to date, and it is the first touchscreen BlackBerry to land on Sprint's network. I have had a Torch 9850 review unit for a short time, and I wanted to share my initial thoughts before my full review is published in a few days.
The Torch 9850 sports a 3.7-inch, WVGA (480 x 800) touchscreen that puts it right up there with mid-range, touchscreen Android smartphones on the market today. Gone is the SurePress touchscreen found on the older Storm 9530 and 9550 models, as it has been replaced by a traditional, fixed touchscreen. This is not a bad thing, as I always found the SurePress screen clunky and difficult to use. The new touchscreen is responsive and bright, and it flows all the way to the edges of the Torch 9850 in what RIM calls a "waterfall" effect. The curved bezel makes it easy to swipe across the screen, too.
The rest of the hardware feels pretty substantial and well-built, and the metal battery door adds a bit of quality that the average smartphone is lacking these days. The Torch 9850 isn't the heaviest phone at 135g, but it feels solid when in your hand. The four BlackBerry buttons and optical trackpad that adorn the front of the phone just below the screen are clicky and solid, and presented no issues with responsiveness. The side buttons for volume and the convenience key that is set to open the camera by default are a different story, though. I found them to be difficult to depress fully. It seems they are too slim and narrow for their own good.
The Torch 9850 is running the latest smartphone OS from RIM: BlackBerry OS 7. It has been optimized to work with the 9850's all-touchscreen design, and it is speedy and responsive, thanks to the 1.2GHz processor and 768MB of RAM found in the 9850. RIM claims that OS 7 is 40 percent faster at web browsing than OS 6 and 100 percent faster than OS 5. The web browser on the 9850 is much improved over older BlackBerry models, but it still isn't quite up to par with the browsers found on the iPhone or high-end Android smartphones. It does feature smooth panning and pinch-to-zoom, both of which work well, but it can take longer than I would like to load a webpage. Some of the UI features in the browser have been borrowed from the BlackBerry PlayBook Tablet OS, such as the multiple window navigation, and they have been adapted to work pretty well on the smaller screen of the 9850. The on-screen keyboard that is offered is pretty fast and responsive, and again, looks pretty similar to the one found on the PlayBook. Autocorrect is enabled by default, but I was unable to find an option to enable haptic feedback. There is a sound option for keypresses, but it sounds like an annoying electronic beep instead of the click sound that many virtual keyboards have.
Other than the new browser and the optimizations for the touchscreen interface, BlackBerry OS 7 is more or less the same as we have seen with OS 5 and OS 6. BlackBerry users should feel right at home when they pick up the Torch 9850, though many might clamor for a physical keyboard, like one found on the Bold 9900/9930. The rest of us, well, it's still a BlackBerry, which means that it is very good at messaging, email, and any text-based correspondence, but it is lacking support for many apps and is still driven by a menu-based system that can be frustrating to use for simple tasks. The Torch 9850 sits in a weird place between a traditional BlackBerry with a small screen and a physical keyboard and the current generation of smartphones that offer large displays and great media experiences. It wants to be part of the cool kids club so badly that it might alienate its traditional fan base, and appeal to no one in particular as a result.
I will be taking the Torch 9850 through my full review process over the next week or so, so be sure to stay tuned for my final thoughts once I have had more time to spend with the device.
Dan is MobileBurn.com's Editor-in-Chief. Based in Poughkeepsie in New York, Dan can be found on Twitter as @DCSeifert.