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Best Blackberry ever?
on 2 November 2011
This review is split into two sections: A one paragraph overview for those not needing the finer details and a full blown, blow by blow account of the key features.
The quicky - In the Torch 9860 RIM have finally produced a Blackberry touchscreen device that allows for intuitive menu navigation and a touchscreen keyboard that does not make entering long emails daunting at all. There are a few tiny issues (covered below) but these are minuscule compared to the standard design blunders we have become used to from RIM. The Torch 9860 has a great camera, a vivid screen, is a dream to use and has battery life contemporary to other touchscreen smartphones. The touchscreen keyboard is a real standout and the best on ANY touch device I have used - making text entry as easy as it ever was on the legacy 'standard' Blackberry keyboards. The Torch 9860 is by far the best Blackberry I have used. It is the successful evolution of many products and comes very highly recommended for anyone who wants a touchscreen smartphone combined with the functionality of a Blackberry device.
Now onto the nuts and bolts.
Any statement like: 'Best Blackberry ever', needs context. I'll start with me. I have used Blackberrys extensively for years. I support them and those that use them. I test devices across all smartphone brands. Blackberrys are a large part of my communication and digital life. And I gotta say, these last two years RIM have frustrated the hell out of me. Mostly this has come from some bad design decisions. Anyone that uses a Blackberry (BB) knows there are three important factors: the screen, the keyboard and what you use to navigate the screen options. Key to all this, is the need to be able to type efficiently. The core RIM business and the foundation for the success of Blackberrys has been the ability to receive and efficiently type lengthy emails while on the move.
The need for a good BB keyboard has caused RIM and their users many headaches these last years. With the explosion of touchscreen devices the BB Storm and Storm II and their moving capacitive touchscreens were a great concept badly implemented. With the recent Torch touchscreen handsets we got a 'standard' keyboard and a small touchscreen in the same device - a step in the right direction, but the Torch's screen was too small and the device was too heavy and prone to chronically short battery life.
With touchscreens getting bigger and therefore more space to spread a keyboard, entering long emails is still a surprising chore on touch devices. That is a big problem for the industry as a whole and in particular for RIM and the Blackberry range - where typing is key to the products appeal. Their problem stands: how do you get a good sized touchscreen and blackberry into the same device and make typing intuitive?
And so we finally come to the Blackberry Torch 9860 - the latest in the new Torch line and in contrast to the other Torch devices, this has no slide keyboard. We will rely entirely on the touchscreen for input.
First impressions out of the box is the design is a little quirky, especially at the device corners. It doesn't look quite as sleek as say for instance the HTC or Samsung devices but it does feel very solid in hand (much lighter than the original Torch) and from the side it does look pretty sleek. The screen is a lovely 3.7 inches and has a resolution of 800 x 480 - the highest resolution BB screen to date and gives a quality BB web viewing experience never seen before. The 9860 sports Blackberry OS 7 which on the surface delivers pretty graphics but essentially the same panelled menu system introduced with BB OS 6. The very first thing that hit me when the 9860 flickered to life was the incredible screen. It has a beautifully vivid display, immediately putting me in mind of the superb Samsung touchscreens. The screen though, unlike recent contemporary devices, is slightly raised. This means if you place the Torch 9860 face down on any surface it has a higher risk of being scratched. Being raised it also means any screen protector would stand out. I don't use a screen protector because the 9860 screen has a tactile quality that is slightly resistive, a quality that really assists the whole typing experience. You would lose that with screen covers.
Screen summary - despite the raised design being a slight negative, the wonderfully vivid, high resolution display is a big win for the 9860.
So next we come to the two key factors in deciding the worth of a Blackberry - the keyboard and screen navigation. Starting with screen navigation. This is something RIM have slowly been improving since they got the Storm devices so horribly wrong. The good news is the 9860 touchscreen menu navigation is a dream. Anyone that had a chance to play with the recent Bold 9900 could see the potential and in the 9860 it is fully realised. Navigating through the panels, moving between emails, scrolling up and down mails, BBM conversations, websites - everything. The whole experience is fantastic. It is totally intuitive and makes you want to pick up the device just so you can use it. What a wonderful change on a Blackberry. I don't use many apps on a Blackberry as I live and breath email and internet. I use Twitter (wonderful in portrait) and Facebook which benefits from the much faster processor. Otherwise I use the Blackberry staples of the calender, addressbook and memopad. The ability to drop a graphic internet bookmark onto your main screen panels is a great feature and makes up a lot for RIMS lack of good Blackberry Apps (compared to Android and IOS).
So onto the biggy - typing. I write A LOT. A good 30% of what I write in any given day is written on a Blackberry. With all I said about touchscreen typing and RIM's history of awkward touch interfaces, I wasn't expecting much of the 9860 - except I have to say it's the best typing experience of ANY touchscreen device I have used. That sound incredible? It's true. RIM have spent a lot of time thinking about touch keyboard layout and importantly - key spacing. The 9860 keyboard is uncluttered and logical and very closely resembles a real BB keyboard. It just works. The first half of this review was written on the 9860 and I spent no time at all thinking about navigating the keyboard and instead thinking about what I was going to write. However, there is one small issue. The issue is the ability to collapse the keyboard so you can see more of the screen. This is a great feature despite the fact the BB touch keyboard cleverly allows you to see a lot of the screen even when in landscape. The problem is that I can be typing away and mistakenly hit the collapse keyboard bar just above the touch keyboard - which collapses the keyboard and somehow means I inevitable press the language button and end up changing the spell checker to some random non-english language - which means every English word is spotlighted by the spellchecker as wrong. I have become more accurate but this still happens a couple times a day. It causes a moment of cursing and after switching back to English spellcheck - no problems. A big big bonus of the old real keyboards always used to be editing. On the Storm touch devices selecting text while composing an email was torturous and utterly frustrating. Luckily now RIM have taken the Android lead and made the handles easy to select and to drag around the text, making highlighting sooo much more intuitive.
Keyboard summary - input is the best of any touch screen device I have EVER used. Not even IOS or Android come close to the simplicity of typing with the 9860. This is such an important feature for a Blackberry.
Now to close on two very contentious subjects - the camera and battery life.
Camera - excellent. The OS still lacks basic image editing (crop/brightness etc) but the camera has auto focus (unlike some models) which makes for good depth of field and nicely clear images. I use it everyday for casual snaps (Facebook and personal) as well as for work in recording visual information. The Video function is also an excellent quality (HD720) and better than any BB I have used. It delivers clear, even colour tones and is contemporary to similar devices. I have no complaints about the camera at all despite moaning at length in the past about other devices.
Battery - We all fondly remember the times we only charged our phone twice a week but these new smartphones do SO much more. We simply have to charge these devices every night or they will run out of juice the next day. For me the 9860 battery is better than average compared against like devices. My BB 9860 is my main email device AND phone. My average talk time each day is however no more than 20 minutes. As I mentioned earlier I am on this device all day. I unplug it from the charger at 7AM and it goes back on the charger at midnight with about 20-40% battery left. I always have the mobile antennae enabled as well as WiFi but I never use Bluetooth. Most of my day is within radius of WiFi I have access to, which means the 9860 isn't constantly going through the battery draining hunt for WiFi hotspots. I often find I chew through battery quicker at the weekend than I do during the week, when I might be in areas I am not normally. I also take a lot more voice calls at the weekend when the people that want to talk to me are not just down the corridor.
Power tips - At the top of the 9860 is a lock button. Press this when you're finished with it and it shuts down all screen operation. When you want to use the BB again press the same lock button and it's instantly available. Shutting down the screen when you're done is going to save a lot of battery each day over waiting for the auto screen dim to kick in - especially if your BB is as busy as mine. Also, if you have good mobile coverage but are not near a WiFi hotspot that permits you access, turn off WiFi. This is easy from the front screen (two clicks) and will save a LOT of battery. Also if you do not use Bluetooth, turn it off from the same menu. WiFi and Bluetooth are huge drains on a battery if they are not connected and searching for something to connect to.
What I didn't like about the 9860? Amazingly this is a short list. I struggled as mentioned with the touch screen keyboard collapse getting hit by accident, but the collapse feature is so useful I will get used to not hitting it. My biggest bug bare are the OTHER buttons on the BB Torch 9860. The touch screen is very sensitive, which is wonderful, which makes the four normal keys at the bottom of the device quite disconcerting. It takes some mental process to go from the light touch sensitive screen to fully pushing down a 'normal' key. A mental process for me that is intrusive and not at all intuitive. And I'd like the screen to be indented rather than raised, as mentioned.
That's it. The Blackberry Torch 9860 is for me quite simply the best Blackberry ever. I think it is definitely a contender with the Samsung and HTC devices and is cheaper than both. The 9860 isn't any kind of iPhone and I'm grateful for that. These two devices have different appeals and criteria. The iPhone is data centric, the Blackberry is email centric. The best recommendation I can give you is my own personal phone is a Samsung S2 - a beautiful device with all the glory of Android. Now I have a Blackberry 9860 there is little I cannot do just as well, if not easier than on the S2. That has been a long time coming and with everything I have said above, I highly recommend the Blackberry Torch 9860, especially if the very core of your digital world revolves around interacting with email all day long.
I hope this review was helpful.