BlackBerry Torch First Impressions: Fresh But Familiar Indeed

"The toughest thing about success is that you've got to keep on being a success." Irving Berlin supposedly said that, and the quote was on my mind as I attended RIM's BlackBerry Torch launch in New York.

When Palm and Microsoft were faced with the challenge of fast-forwarding into the iPhone era, they had a perverse advantage: Their current products were so obviously part of smartphones' past that it would have been riskier to stick with them than to start fresh. Hence Palm's WebOS (a technical success even though it hasn't yet shipped in a successful product) and Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 (which, whatever it turns out to be, is anything but a Windows Mobile retread).

For RIM, the challenge is indeed tougher. BlackBerry phones are still selling well; their traditional strengths, such as serious e-mail and well-done physical keyboards remain strengths; they're part of how the world does business. And yet it's clear that BlackBerry faces a potentially existential threat from iPhone and Android, both of which are slickier, sexier, Webbier, and more modern than any RIM device to date.

How to respond? At yesterday's press conference, RIM executives kept coming back to the mantra "fresh but familiar." The Torch (which debuts on AT&T on August 12 for $199.99 on contract) is the first phone with the company's BlackBerry OS 6, and the form factor -- big touchscreen and slideout keyboard -- is new.

But its specs don't put it in the superphone class: The 3.2-inch, 480-by-360 screen doesn't match high-profile competitors like the iPhone 4o 4 or Droid X in terms of either real estate or pixels, the 624-MHz CPU is adequate rather than blazing, and the camera's five megapixels of resolution is on the low side. (Although megapixels aren't everything: The iPhone 4′s camera has the same resolution, and is one of the best phone cameras to date.)

With the Torch, the "familiar" part of "fresh but familiar" is very familiar. The hardware styling is totally BlackBerryesque: It looks like a Storm 2 that's gained a sliding BlackBerry keyboard. (Or, if you'd perfect, a bit like a giant Palm Pre that lacks the Pre's gracefully curved case.) OS 6 has scads of new features, RIM's first up-to-date Webkit browser, a neat universal search engine, and new touch gestures such as the ability to select multiple items by tapping with two fingers. RIM didn't start over, though: The look and feel aren't a departure, and the basics of BlackBerry input -- red and green phone buttons, a menu button, a back button, and a tiny touchpad -- are all there.

Overall, the phone feels like the result of an array of decisions made to keep current BlackBerry owners comfortable. I suspect that RIM is also working on a BlackBerry superphone -- a more potent, forward-looking device that may or may not have a physical keyboard -- but this isn't it.

Will people who don't currently have a BlackBerry get excited enough about the Torch to choose it over an iPhone or an Android handset? Well, maybe: I think the quality and quantity of OS 6 apps will have a lot to do with that. Both have been obstacles for the platform until now, but RIM and AT&T executives at the event said so

me encouraging things-most notably that programmers will be able to build apps using Web technologies such as HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS rather than RIM's notoriously nettlesome Java-based tools. It's going to be a few months, at least, until we know the impact of RIM's moves to make BlackBerry more appealing to developers.

After this morning's formal presentation -- which was dedicated almost as much to the AT&T and RIM partnership as to the phone itself -- I got a few minutes' worth of hands-on time with a Torch. Which is no way to render a final verdict on a new gadget, but I did form some initial impressions:

  • I'm glad to see a real BlackBerry keyboard on a touch device -- the extra width and discrete keys make it a major improvement over the baby keys on the Pre, and I've come to the conclusion that portrait keyboards are easier to type on than landscape ones. I am, however, slightly worried about the ridge that runs around the keyboard, an artifact of the slider design.
  • The Torch has what seemed to be an okay on-screen keyboard, so the phone works in landscape mode and you aren't forced to pop open the keyboard every time you want to enter text.
  • The screen and graphics feel BlackBerryish, all right, but there's no getting around it: By 2010 standards, this is a small, low-res display.
  • If you like your smartphones whisper-thin, you might find the Torch chunky -- it's 14.6mm thick vs. the iPhone 4′s 9.3mm. On the other hand, it's only slightly thicker than the 13.95mm Storm 2.
  • in the apps I used, the Torch didn't feel glacial, but it lacked the as-fast-as-you-are responsiveness of the iPhone 4, the Droid X, and other prominent current smartphones.
  • It's great to see RIM move to a Webkit browser, but it was hard to tell at the event how good its implementation is. It was slow -- not surprising given the roomful of journalists trying out Torches -- and Technologizer, which looks pretty good on iPhones and Android handsets, was funky.
  • The notion of Universal Search isn't new, but RIM's implementation takes the word "Universal" more seriously, leading you to stuff in RIM's apps, in third-party apps, and on the Web. And you don't have to launch a search app or scroll around to find it-you just start typing.
  • I couldn't try one of the Torch's most interesting-sounding features: the capability to transfer a list of all the music on your computer to the phone, then sync songs over on demand as you want them. Nor could I judge its camera.

More thoughts soon -- I hope to get my hands on a Torch for review. You have any impressions in the meantime?

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