First Looks: BlackBerry Torch 9860
The Biggest Torch
BlackBerry smartphones have always been known for their characteristic QWERTY keyboards, small screens and long battery life. Stripping its defenses seems like a highly risky move, but the Torch 9860 seems to embody everything essential in this day and age amidst the touchscreen devices powered by Google Android, Microsoft Windows Phone 7 and Apple iOS. Aside from its 3.7-inch touchscreen with a display resolution of 800 x 480 pixels, the Torch 9860 is part of the new generation of RIM smartphones (which includes our recently reviewed BlackBerry Torch 9810) powered by a 1.2GHz processor and running on the newest BlackBerry 7 OS. It is a new direction, yes, but more importantly - how will RIM's first "full-fledged" touchscreen smartphone fare against the overwhelming competition?
Not Quite Hip
Looks-wise, the Torch 9860 disappoints quite a fair bit if you compare it to the likes of its heavyweight competitors such as Apple's iPhone and HTC's slew of Android devices. RIM has taken a slight departure from its usual rounder design with the Torch 9860; as such, the phone sports a more angular and minimalist look. The front gets flak for its unimpressive glossy black, plasticky and fingerprint magnet surface. Nonetheless, things improve if you flip the phone over as it sports a classier-looking silver/grey metallic back. Overall, the phone is sturdy and well-built (like most BlackBerry phones we've come to know), fitting comfortably into the palm of our hands. We feel that the weight distribution of the solidly-built phone is good too.
The main shortcoming in its design is decidedly in the construction of its buttons. The five key shortcut buttons are too recessed for comfortable pressing. We often found ourselves pressing a button more than once to get around. The volume and camera controls on the right profile are merely small raised rubber bumps; they blend in too well with the phone's overall design, making them not only hard to press but hard to locate as well. Instead of a dedicated power/lock button, the top of the phone is bare and flat with a lock symbol in the middle for identification purposes. While we would have preferred the former, we don't have many complaints with how it operates on the 9860 - it responded pretty well, if not slightly less effectively than the usual method.
Usability & Performance
The overall user experience was a generally positive one, but there were some niggling issues that hampered the experience. The 3.7-inch screen was extremely responsive; coupled with the 1.2GHz processor and 768MB RAM, transitions were snappy and fluid; loading of apps and web browsing were a breezy affair. Typing was a relatively smooth experience with few mistakes but more so while in the virtual QWERTY landscape mode; we found it slightly uncomfortable to type while in the portrait mode due to a crammed keyboard layout. During the BlackBerry launch event in August, we found that the accelerometer had difficulties adjusting to the orientation of the device, with a one to two-second lag time before it finally registered. Unfortunately, our test unit behaved similarly. Otherwise, the touch-optimized BlackBerry 7 OS works to the Torch 9860's advantage, offering a straightforward and simple user interface.
The 3.7-inch screen, the largest in the BlackBerry family, is a feature that sets the 9860 apart from its other Torch siblings. Images and icons looked crisp and showed vibrant colors; object rendering and UI fluidity were also improved thanks to the Liquid Graphics technology. For the most part, this is a very nice screen (let's not forget its 253 pixels-per-inch density) for consuming multimedia on-the-go. The 5-megapixel camera presented us with above average results: crisp details, good contrast, well-saturated colors, decent flash photos and 720p videos. Like the Torch 9810, the 9860 doesn't have any front-facing camera, which translates to no video-calling.
Does the bigger screen impede the phone's battery life? Not exactly. The Torch 9860 clocked in a decent 6 hours 34 minutes of usage, which is about 30 minutes more than the Torch 9810. However, it is important to keep in mind that our battery stress tests involved continuous video playback, and constant Wi-Fi (the 9860 does 802.11b/g/n) connectivity. Otherwise, with casual usage, the phone can last an entire day (and then some).
The BlackBerry Torch 9860 takes a radical departure with its focus on a full touchscreen experience that's enhanced by a touch-friendly BlackBerry 7 OS UI. Its 3.7-inch screen and impressive hardware specifications also contribute towards an overall functional and solid handset. The touch experience was a positive one, albeit unrefined at times. That being said, there are issues that needs to be addressed. The more pertinent ones would be the lackluster buttons and unresponsive accelerometer.
At S$758 (M1 and StarHub) or S$788 (SingTel), the Torch 9860 is a reasonable buy for what it's worth. For those who prefer to stick to the BlackBerry 7 OS and like the best of both worlds (hint: touchscreen capabilities and a physical QWERTY keyboard) at the expense of a smaller screen, both the BlackBerry Torch 9810 (touchscreen and slider hybrid) and BlackBerry Bold 9900 (candy bar form factor) are excellent contenders for your attention. If you are willing to look beyond the spectrum of the BlackBerry OS, there are of course a multitude of choices, such as the iPhone 4S, Samsung Galaxy S II or HTC Sensation.