BlackBerry Torch Burns Brighter But Not Bright Enough

Blackberry Torch

hide captionThe Blackberry Torch costs $199.99 with a two-year AT&T contract. The phone also features Blackberry 6, a completely overhauled operating system.

Courtesy of Blackberry

I couldn't be more surprised when I realized that the BlackBerry Torch is the first device from Research In Motion to have a WebKit-based browser.

For the non-technical, this means the Torch is first BlackBerry smartphone to be able to surf the Internet in a way that makes sense to humans, or less dramatically, in a way that mirrors the way we see the Web on a desktop browser. Up until now, BlackBerry users had been looking at a slimmer version of the Web — lots of text with little pictures.

The Blackberry Torch
BlackBerry

In relation to previous stodgy Blackberries, the Torch (on sale for $99 at Amazon, $199 elsewhere) is almost immediately revelatory: It finally allows business users to put away work every once in a while and have some fun.

That's evident as soon as you turn it on. The new operating system has bright icons, a slick media player and a brand new BlackBerry app store with must-haves like Yelp and Facebook.

But, regrettably, that's about where the fun ends. In relation to its smart phone counterparts, the Torch feels clumsy and, well, old.

Case in point: When you scroll using your fingers, the phone isn't smart enough to know not to select anything when you make that motion. So the process of scrolling feels stop-and-go.

One of the advertised perks is that the Torch gives you a physical BlackBerry keyboard. But try to slide it open! The phone is designed so poorly, sliding it open requires you to touch the active touchscreen or fumble with the control buttons near the base of the phone. I suppose you could slide it open using two thumbs on either side of the phone, but that seems cumbersome.

This device was meant to stop Research In Motion's slide in market share. Since other smart phones started integrating well with Microsoft Exchange, lots of users — corporate users — have been favoring iPhones and Androids.

But, as disappointing sales seem to confirm, the Torch feels like too little, too late and every design decision feels mired in legacy.

The keyboard, for example, feels like shoes on a toddler: Why do I need them, if I could run so much faster without them?

And just as prominent in in its design is a tiny trackpad, which presents an almost perfect metaphor for everything wrong with this device.

There are things BlackBerry does extremely well: That blinking red light that lets you know you have new mail is magic! The way it presents and filters e-mails and anything on your social stream is marvelous. And the trackpad is simply genius. It's so great that when you open a browser, a teeny cursor appears and you can move it around precisely to click on what you want. It's so stunningly efficient, I found myself using it instead of the touch interface.

But to its detriment, the menu system, and even the browser, seemed designed to work first with the trackpad and second with our fingers.

The core problem with this device is that Research In Motion seems to have issues letting go.  The Torch, which is supposed to break with the past, seems intent on keeping technologies its parent company has polished for years.

It might well be a winning strategy given that Blackberries still control 35 percent of the market, but smart phones long ago evolved from mimicking desktop computers to an interface that makes interacting with content intimate and agile. That means phone manufacturers have had to make tough decisions. In its DroidX incarnation, for example, the Android traded a keyboard for more screen real-estate and won some new fans.

In the end, will any of this matter? For the most part, companies are choosing BlackBerries not because of their entertainment value but because they play nice with IT departments. In that case, the Torch is a winner, because it replaces a weathered, prude of an e-mail device with one that'll have a drink every once in a while.

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