BlackBerry Torch 9810: improved, but still underwhelming

Last year RIM introduced the BlackBerry Torch 9800, atouchscreen/QWERTY-keyboard hybrid. Almost exactly a year later, the BlackBerry Torch 9810 ($50 with a two-year contract from AT&Tas of August 16, 2011) has arrived.

Designwise, the two smartphones are pretty similar. The realchange is in the software: The 9810 (along with the BlackBerry Bold 9900/9930 and theall-touch Torch 9850/9860) ships with the new BlackBerry 7 OS. However,although BlackBerry 7 OS is a big step up from the previous version, itstill lacks a modern, cutting-edge feeling. On top of that, I noticed afew performance issues with the Torch 9810’s browser.

Vertical Slider Design
Like the Torch 9800, the Torch 9810 gives you the best of both worlds:a physical keyboard and a full touch display. While the 9810 is almostidentical in design to the 9800, it is slightly thinner, measuring 4.3by 2.4 by 0.54 inches (as opposed to the 4.4-by-2.4-by-0.6-inch Torch9800); it weighs 5.6 ounces, the same as the original Torch. The 9810has a silver and black color scheme, which gives it a fun, flashierlook in comparison with the mostly black and chrome 9800. I do preferthe textured rubber battery cover on the 9800 to the 9810’s hard cover,which makes the 9810 feel plasticky and not as well constructed as itspredecessor.

The slider mechanism feels sturdy and solid, and slides up smoothly toreveal the full QWERTY keyboard. The keyboard is pretty much identicalto the original Torch’s, as far as I can see. It’s slightly wider, butyou can barely tell from using it or looking at it. Nevertheless, it isa bit on the narrow side, so users with larger fingers might find ituncomfortable. Keys are sculpted and nicely sized, and include ahandful of useful shortcut buttons. The Torch 9810 also has a softwarekeyboard that you can use in portrait and landscape mode, but bothvariations feel pretty cramped.

The 9810’s 3.2-inch 640-by-480-pixel display is an improvement over theoriginal Torch’s screen (3.2 inches, 360 by 480 pixels), but it stillseems lackluster next to Samsung’s Super AMOLED Plus displays or theqHD displays we’ve been seeing on the latest Motorola and HTC phones.It is also quite small by today’s standards for touchscreensmartphones. If a larger screen is what you crave, the all-touch (nokeyboard) Torch 9860 will fit the bill. The Torch 9810’s display ispowered by a technology (on all of the latest BlackBerrys) that RIMcalls Liquid Graphics, which is supposed to give you a “smoother, morefluid touch experience.”

While I definitely noticed an image-quality improvement inmoving from the 9800 to the 9810, I didn’t exactly find the touchexperience to be “fluid.” I’m not sure if this was due to theprocessing power in the Torch 9810 or the software, but pinch-and-zoomin the browser stuttered, and scrolling wasn’t as smooth as on othersmartphones. On the bright side, I noticed less pixelation in images ina side-by-side comparison with the original Torch, and text lookedsharper and easier to read as well.

BlackBerry 7 OS
As I mentioned previously, the Torch 9810 runs the brand-new BlackBerry 7 OS, which adds somemuch-needed enhancements to the BlackBerry operating system. Overall,however, I wasn’t blown away by version 7, especially when I consideredits aesthetics and performance. Some of the highlights of BlackBerry 7OS include HTML 5 and support for tabs in the browser, a built-inaugmented-reality browser, and spruced-up messaging features. For amore in-depth look, check out my BlackBerry 7 OS hands-on impressions.

Mediocre CameraHonestly, I’ve never been fond of BlackBerry cameras–andunfortunately, the Torch 9810’s 5-megapixel snapper is no exception.This is a feature I really wish RIM would address in its hardwareenhancements, as more and more people use their phones to snappictures. My indoor photos had a slight yellowish tint and looked a bitblurry, while my outdoor photos fared slightly better with brighter,more natural colors and sharper detail.

On the plus side, the Torch has a physical camera shutter button, afeature that every smartphone should have. I can’t emphasize enough howmuch I prefer a physical shutter button to a touch button on thedisplay; photos turn out so much better. On the Touch 9810 you also getautofocus, a 4X zoom, and an LED flash. The phone has some fancy newshooting features, too, such as scene modes and face detection, and itpresents everything within a clean, easy-to-use interface.

I’m happy to see that the latest Torch boasts HD video capture at 720p,something that RIM overlooked in the 9800. Video quality looked okay,though it had the same yellowish tint I noticed on my still photos. Ithandled motion without pixelation (an issue I’ve noticed with othersmartphone camcorders), but moving objects did get a bit blurry. Theone annoying thing is that the BlackBerry camera software hides thevideo option in a menu, unlike the iPhone or Android camera interfaces(which allow you to switch between video and still mode by tapping anicon on the screen). You have to press the Menu key and then scrollalmost all the way down to get to the video camera. RIM’s decision tobury an important feature like this is completely baffling.

Performance
The Torch 9810 has a 1.2GHz processor with 768MB RAM, plus 8GB ofon-board storage; it’s expandable up to 32GB with a MicroSD card. Appslaunched quickly, and the touchscreen was generally responsive. Themain problem in my tests was the browser’s performance. According toRIM, Web pages have a 40 percent faster loading time than in theBlackBerry 6 browser. This speed boost is definitelyapparent–media-heavy pages loaded quickly over both Wi-Fi andAT&T’s network. The browser’s handling of pinch-to-zoom andscrolling was the issue: Sometimes pages went from small to extremelymagnified in one pinch–magnification wasn’t gradual. Pages also tooksome time to get unpixelated after I pinched. It was quite frustrating.

The Torch 9810 supports AT&T’s HSPA+ network, the carrier’scurrent version of a “4G” network (not its LTE network). I got prettygood reception everywhere I went in San Francisco. Call quality overthe AT&T network in the city was good overall. Voices on theother end of the line sounded loud and clear; a few callers sounded abit distant, but I could still hear them. My contacts could hear somebackground noise while I was standing on a busy city street corner, butthey said it wasn’t distracting.

Though we didn’t formally test battery life, the Torch’s battery lifein my use was impressive. It lasted through a whole day’s worth oftesting, and still had about 30 percent left. BlackBerrys havegenerally have good battery life, and the Torch 9810 seems to becarrying on the tradition.

Bottom Line
Overall, the BlackBerry Torch 9810 is a little underwhelming. It isn’ta huge step up from the original Torch, but HD video capture, thesharper display, and the updates in BlackBerry 7 OS are welcomeupgrades. AT&T doesn’t have many Android phones with QWERTYkeyboards (with the exception of the HTC Status), so the Torch 9810might be a good alternative–especially at the superlow price. But whenyou pit the Torch 9810 against other AT&T offerings such as theMotorola Atrix and the iPhone 4, it seems stale and boring. If you’rean absolute BlackBerry fanatic, you’ll be pleased with the Torch 9810,but possibly even more enticed by the BlackBerry Bold 9900 (also onAT&T), which has NFC support and a better keyboard.

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