Rating: ★★½☆☆

RIM just hasn’t been able to make an all-purpose touch-based handset. They tried with the Storm, the Storm II, and the Torch (and subsequent models), but each new offering has failed in halting the shift of users leaving Blackberry for an iPhone, Android, or even Windows Phone 7 devices. The company once exalted by everyday consumers and businesses alike is giving it another go with the Blackberry Torch 9850, one of the company’s first phones running the latest operating system BB 7.0. Does the aging OS have what it takes to take on the relatively recent newcomers, or is RIM only beating a dead horse?

As one of the oldest cellphone manufacturers, RIM has produced hundreds of phones and has become exceedingly efficient at it. The hardware they design is rarely below average, though it simultaneously lacks the artistry and finesse seen in some handsets. The 9850 has a sleek, curved design with no sharp edges and is made to be held in the hand for long periods of time. Just like Blackberry owners expect and desire.

The front face features a 3.7” display with a bezel that curves carefully off the sides, connected to a reflective bezel which in turn connects to the removable battery panel on the back. Four buttons on the right side are easy to feel, yet difficult to spot, and manage to stay out of the way when in a pocket or in the hand. There is no accidental button pressing here. On the left is the micro-USB connector, and on the top is the lock key shaped like part of the phone, not like just another button. Four face buttons and a touch-sensitive button rest below the screen.

One notable aspect, which is true of many Blackberry devices and, sadly, not many other smartphones, is the removable battery panel. It has a simple one-button mechanical lock, where when pressed the aluminum panel comes off and reveals the battery, micro-SD card and SIM card. The micro-SD can be taken out without removing the battery. And, reflectively, it’s nice to see such a clean design on the inside of the phone. Most phones I test are a maze of circuitry and off-color panels, whereas the 9850 is crisp, simple, and to the point. Above the panel is the 5MP camera and LED flash.

Brightness on the display is good; the screen is visible in direct sunlight, though in general color depth and contrast is lacking. The 840×400 screen is dense and pictures are accurate, but because of the color issues they don’t have the vibrancy found on some displays, notably Samsung’s OLED-ready phones. Besides for excellent brightness, the display is average.

Touch sensitivity has been more problematic, though it’s unclear whether this is a software or hardware issue. In my testing I gave up on using the screen to click on links or words, instead using the touch-sensitive mouse nub as Blackberry users so often do. Unfortunately the touchscreen just isn’t perfectly suited for the finger, and I’d mostly use it for scrolling up and down emails and web pages, but little else.

That’s where the 9850’s greatest fault is: its keyboard. With no physical QWERTY, users must type away on the screen, and with poor touch accuracy, typing even tweets or text messages is a chore. In an awful twist of irony, I discovered Blackberry’s most attractive features (BBM, chat, email) and couldn’t make the best use of any of them. Typing on the keyboard is an exercise in futility; the faster you type, the more frequent and terrible the errors become. Blackberry’s aren’t made for slow thumbs, but with this virtual keyboard, answering emails, chat messages and texts will either force you to type with a turtle-like speed or spend equal time typing and correcting errors.

The hardware specs alone show a slightly different story from the handset itself: 1.2GHz dual core CPU; 768MB of RAM; 253ppi display; seven hours of talk time and six hours of video playback; 5MP camera with 720p video recording. These parts, however, don’t make the whole. Instead, they are limited mostly by a poor, repressed OS which RIM has refused to seriously change in a world that has already moved to touch-only smartphones.

In West LA Sprint’s network held up well, and making calls and sending and receiving data is fast. The 9850 connects quickly to the network and calls are clear. Driving around in both residential and commercial areas the 9850 maintained a solid connection, though in less populated areas and smaller roads the once dominant cell network now regularly drops calls and is as stable as the rest of the big four. Locally, however, Sprint’s network has deteriorated in Los Angeles county as a whole.

The 9850 atop the HTC Evo 3D, a significantly larger phone. The 9850 is pretty small compared to today’s smartphones

What I’m both surprised and dismayed about with the 9850 is that while it’s a 3G handset , what you can do with Sprint’s network is limited to the phone only. There is no hotspot connectivity, which for an enterprise-ready phone can be a death sentence for business users. The way Blackberry works, the BB Store only downloads via 3G and not through Wi-Fi, which considering the poorer status of Sprint’s network, as well as the overwhelming difference between Wi-Fi and 3G, makes me question the fundamental design of the phone.

Browsing the BB Store and installing applications isn’t nearly as easy as it should be. It’s a slow process. Too many applications require accepting their specific terms and conditions. There is no true multitasking. Switching from one app to the next is slow. Installing apps, and then installing updates for those apps, is painfully slow. Finally, plenty of cross-platform apps are very clearly worse on Blackberry.

Battery life on the 9850 is what I’ve come to expect from today’s smartphones, about a day with moderate use. In poor connection areas the battery drain is terrible, where some of the other handsets I currently have in testing can sit for days with low- or no-connectivity.

The camera is fairly good, though it tends to take grainy photos which are then post-processed to sharpen them. Viewing pictures taken with the 9850 directly on the phone looks great, but on a computer screen or blown up they are mediocre at best. The flash is powerful, and tends to wash colors out, but it’s the only way to take low-light shots. The plethora of shooting modes is good, though the automatic mode shoots the best and has in nearly every shot used the proper settings. Close shots automatically go to macro, night shots switch to the night mode, and even the neat text mode automatically detects properly. Sample shots below.

Video quality on the 9850 is very good. The microphone does a great job at picking up audio from the front and back, while also minimizing the sound of oncoming wind. At full 720p videos aren’t as clear as they could be, and the camera frequently has trouble focusing, while simultaneously switching between light and dark spots quickly. It’s overall a good camcorder, but there’s no tap to focus feature.

RIM, out of all the other smartphone manufacturers, has the biggest opportunity to make it right. They produce so many phones, have so many users worldwide, and have enterprise wrapped around its finger. That’s been changing thanks to iOS and Android gobbling up RIM’s market share, and phones like the Torch 9850 aren’t helping. The phone is a legacy device, not different or upgraded enough from its predecessors to put a dent in its main competitors. Add onto that an inaccurate touchscreen and you have a Blackberry, with everything a Blackberry is good for, sans keyboard. The 9850 is a device I really want to like, but RIM just makes it too hard.

Bottom line: It’s a Blackberry, with all the good except for a working keyboard. Interested buyers need to seriously consider if they want a Blackberry that’s no good at typing, that isn’t really business ready, and already feels outdated.

Pros:

  • Solid build with a removable battery panel, which everyone should copy
  • Blackberry’s revered email and instant services work marvelously

Cons:

  • Touchscreen is inaccurate, makes typing a headache
  • No hotspot or 3G-sharing supported
  • App store needs a complete overhaul

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James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.