The BlackBerry Torch 9850 is an exercise in risk taking. BlackBerrys have always been known for their excellent keyboards, but now Research in Motion (RIM) is switching up its game. The new Torch is one of the first BlackBerrys without a physical QWERTY keyboard and instead features only a handful of physical buttons to supplement an otherwise all touch-based control scheme.
It's a bold move on RIM's part to ditch one of the best aspects of its previous phones in favor of a more traditional smartphone build that's akin to the iPhone and many Android handsets. I got to spend some time with both the Sprint and Verizon Wireless versions of the BlackBerry Torch 9850, so I was able to determine how that decision panned out.
BUILD & DESIGN
I can't quite put my finger on it, but there's something about the Torch 9850's shape that I just don't find particularly attractive. Its design comes off as a little awkward, as the top and bottom of the phone are both sloped downwards, giving it an almost trapezoidal profile when viewed from the side. It's not something that people are used to seeing and feeling -- especially not on a slate-like, touchscreen-only phone -- and it doesn't come off as a particularly graceful design. The Torch also has rounded edges, compounding the bizarreness of a shape that is both unappealing to hold and to look at.
I can, however, appreciate the chrome finish on the phone's trim, as well as the matte finish on the back panel. And overall, this is probably one of the more portable BlackBerrys on account of its more traditional smartphone design. Eschewing a physical keyboard, the Torch has a much smaller profile and fits comfortably in my pocket.
Sporting the largest display ever featured on a BlackBerry smartphone, the Torch 9850 has a roomy, 3.7-inch capacitive touchscreen. The 800 x 480 (WVGA), 253 ppi resolution is crisp and bright, and the screen's sensitivity is great, as all taps and gestures register well. The Touchscreen controls of BlackBerry OS 7 work much better with the extra screen room here; it was nice to have a touchscreen on the Bold 9930, but with less real estate, that model wasn't nearly as comfortable to use. With the Torch, I can use my thumb and not have it take up nearly half the screen.
Given this new, touchscreen-only format, the ability to reorient the screen to landscape mode is a first for BlackBerrys, and it's a refreshing change. With all other BlackBerrys, thanks to the keyboard, you're restricted to a portrait-only orientation (and on a generally much smaller screen, for that matter), which can be awkward for web browsing and viewing/taking photos. But with the Torch 9850, I love being able to flip the phone sideways to view webpages or horizontally-oriented images and videos.
As I mentioned, in a drastic shift from the BlackBerry norm, the Torch does not have a physical keyboard of any kind. On one hand that's a real shame, because BlackBerry keyboards are among the best in the business, and I always prefer physical keyboards over virtual keyboards. But on the other hand, it's nice to see RIM trying out something new and finally giving BlackBerry users a full-sized screen, especially in light of the touchscreen controls, as I mentioned.
That being said, the virtual keyboard is serviceable, especially thanks to the ample amount of screen space. I also like that the auto-complete options appear up next to the typed word as opposed to directly above the keyboard. It's a nice change from the norm that gives me a little more breathing room and results in far less accidental selections of auto-completed words.
Other Buttons & Controls
Despite the fact that the keyboard got ditched, there are still a few physical buttons and controls that RIM held onto for the Torch 9850, and I'm glad that they did. First and foremost, the trackpad is still here and presents the same benefits I described in my Bold 9930 review: when used in tandem with the touchscreen controls, navigation and on-screen selections go exceptionally smoothly.
Also lining the bottom of the phone are physical keys for call and end call (which is also used as the power button), as well as the BlackBerry "option" button and a back button. I'm of the firm belief that even entirely touchscreen-based phones should still have a few physical buttons to help with navigation, and that proves to be a comfortable choice here. I just wish that the back button wouldn't kick me out of the browser when I hit it in an attempt to go to the previous page.
Beyond that, there's the lock button up top as usual, as well as the volume rocker (with a mute button in the middle) located on the right side below a headphone jack. As I complained about with the Bold 9930, however, the rocker does absolutely nothing unless you're actually in the middle of a call, in which case it adjusts the earpiece volume.
Below that is the convenience key, which can be programmed to launch any app you desire, though the camera function is the default setting. It actually has a two-stage press to it, something I didn't realize for a while because you have to press down surprisingly hard to reach that second click (which is what causes it to register). It has so much resistance and requires such an uncharacteristically hard press that, for a while, I thought the key was just broken since my presses were not launching the camera app.
The Torch 9850 does support microSD cards, but they have to be mounted in the back beneath the battery, so the slot is not in the most convenient location. Speaking of which -- and this is a very minor complaint -- the buttons and ports on the sides of the phone seem to be placed oddly, making me question the decisions made regarding the ergonomics. Why is the Micro-USB port on the left side smack in the middle? Why is the volume rocker on the right side so low, also putting it very close to middle? It's not that big of a deal, but it's just not where you're used to finding these things and it may take you a while to get used to it.
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