Mobile deathmatch: RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800 vs. Apple iPhone 4

Think of it as the un-iPhone. The new BlackBerry Torch 9800 from Research in Motion is a retro smartphone, a classic BlackBerry that happens to have a touchscreen. Not that you need to use that touchscreen -- the Torch works very well without it, thanks to its slideout physical keyboard and trackball. The Torch works even better with the touchscreen, though, allowing BlackBerry users who aren't so sure about all this gesture stuff to ease into the new mobile world. The key word is "ease." The Torch is not a full-on gesture-based smartphone like the Apple iPhone, the Palm Pre, or a Google Android OS-based device; it still relies very much on the traditional physical command buttons that were essential to completing many actions in previous BlackBerry models.

In other words, if you like how a BlackBerry Bold 9700 works, you can use the Torch in exactly the same way, enjoying the larger screen in the process. And if you like the BlackBerry platform but want a more modern look and feel, the Torch offers a better user experience than previous models, thanks to its touch capabilities, larger screen, and trackball (no longer an actual ball but a motion-sensing micropad, what RIM calls a sensorpad). But if you use a BlackBerry and look longingly at a colleague's iPhone or Droid, the BlackBerry Torch will be an unsatisfying tease.

[ See how the BlackBerry Torch and iPhone 4 compare feature by feature in InfoWorld's slideshow: "Mobile deathmatch: RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800 vs. Apple iPhone 4, side by side." | Keep up on the latest in mobile developments with InfoWorld's Mobile Patrol blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

There's more to a smartphone than the UI, of course, but the UI is what distinguishes them the most. The BlackBerry retains its previous strengths and weaknesses when it comes to functionality, strengths such as its higher security capabilities when used with a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and weaknesses such as a limited selection of mainly poorly designed apps. What the Torch does not do is bring significant new capabilities to the BlackBerry line, beyond the BlackBerry OS 6.0's newfound ability to separately manage corporate and personal information and assets on the device when used with the latest edition of BES, and its inclusion of a modern, HTML5-capable browser.

RIM's decision to make the Torch essentially a standard BlackBerry with touch thrown in means it's not a realistic alternative for someone looking at an iPhone, Pre, or Android device; it'd be like choosing DOS over Mac OS X, Windows 7, or Ubuntu Linux. Well, DOS is too harsh; a better analogy would be GEM or Windows 3.0, if you remember them. For BlackBerry users, the question depends on your situation: If you must use a BlackBerry for work purposes, is the Torch a better choice than the Bold or Curve? (Yes, it is.) And if you have a choice of devices, do you want more of the same (the Torch) or a radical break into something new (the competition)?

Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contacts For testing, I used a personal IMAP account, a personal Gmail account, and a work Exchange 2007 account. The iPhone works directly with Exchange, so my email, email folders, calendars, and contacts all flowed effortlessly among the iPhone, laptop, and server. The configuration was trivial. For the BlackBerry, I had IT set me up through BES. (If you access Exchange as a regular email account, assuming your company permits such connections, you can't access your Exchange folders, contacts, or calendars.) It was a simple operation for IT to enter my email address and activation code.

Setting up my IMAP and Gmail accounts was simple on both platforms, though the BlackBerry's forms are clunkier and require more scrolling. The Torch's virtual keyboard, which opens automatically if the physical keyboard is not slid out, constantly got in the way. It doesn't disappear when you tap outside a text field, as the iPhone virtual keyboard does; to get rid of it, you have to press the Torch's physical Menu button and choose Hide Keyboard. And the BlackBerry's predictive type-ahead also interfered, suggesting nonsensical replacements in large, annoying, incessant pop-ups for server names and the like. (The iPhone's iOS is smart enough to let developers turn off predictive and corrected typing in fields such as these.)

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Both the iPhone 4 and BlackBerry Torch have business-class security and management capabilities using separate server tools (RIM's BES for BlackBerry, and any of a half dozen third-party options for the iPhone). But the BlackBerry offers more controls than the iPhone, so industries with very high security requirements will prefer the BlackBerry. It's key to note that BES supports Novell GroupWise and Lotus Notes, in addition to Exchange, while the iOS natively supports only Exchange among this group. IBM does offer a free Notes client for the iPhone, and Novell is working on one to go with its forthcoming mobile-capable GroupWise server.

Email messages. Although RIM has updated the BlackBerry OS, it retains some of its puzzling time-stamping of email messages: It lists the messages according to when the device receives them, not when they are sent. That can be a bit confusing as you switch from a computer to your BlackBerry. (If you open the message, you can see the real date and time.) But when you reconcile messages -- that is, load older ones from the server -- the new operating system uses their original time stamps, rather than the import time.

[ "Bring your own smartphone" is fast becoming the norm. InfoWorld's Galen Gruman explains how to make it work in your business. | Also: Discover how to deploy (almost) any smartphone in your business. ]

Navigating email remains difficult on the BlackBerry. I use folders extensively to manage my messages, and the iPhone makes it very easy to navigate among folders. The BlackBerry lets you navigate down but not up, so it's hard to flip from any one folder to another. It's even harder if the physical keyboard is not slid out; the touch keyboard automatically opens up and obscures half the screen when you go to folder view. The reason is that so you can search, but it would be better if the keyboard popped up only if you actually tapped in the Search field. The Torch is inconsistent in this behavior: Some apps don't pop up the virtual keyboard automatically but wait for you to tap a text field, while others pop up the virtual keyboard automatically.

Both the iPhone 4 and BlackBerry Torch let you search messages, but the BlackBerry offers more search options to more precisely narrow down your results. Both also identify URLs and phone numbers in messages and let you open the Web pages and call the numbers through a simple tap.

Reading email was easier on the iPhone. One reason: When you're reading a message, the iPhone has touch buttons to go to the previous or next message, but the BlackBerry does not. The BlackBerry's physical Menu button opens a menu that has the Next Unopened Item menu, but getting to it requires a lot of scrolling. Another reason the iPhone is easier: It lets you tap the top of the screen to get to the top of your message, while the BlackBerry forces you to scroll (unless you have the physical keyboard open; in which case, just press T).

The BlackBerry Torch does have new onscreen controls to reply, reply all, forward, and delete messages; the iPhone has onscreen buttons to refresh, move to a folder, delete, forward/reply (a menu appears giving you options to reply, reply all, and forward), and compose a new message. The Torch uses menus for additional options: You get the full set of options by pressing the physical Menu button, or you get a subset by tapping and holding on the touchscreen to get a pop-up grid of options. When you're reading email, the Torch also has an onscreen button to open the virtual keyboard -- but that keyboard has no button to close it when done. You have to use the physical Menu button, then choose the Hide Keyboard menu option.

When you compose a message, such as for a reply, the BlackBerry Torch has Send and Cancel onscreen buttons in your message, but none to send or file the message as a draft. You either need to press the physical Menu button and choose the appropriate option, or tap and hold on your message until a pop-up grid appears with the Save Draft, Send, and Full Menu onscreen buttons. I found it very bizarre to use in-message touch controls to start a reply and a different menu entirely to finish it. This "start with onscreen buttons and finish with menu-based buttons" approach is used throughout the Torch, not just in email. The bouncing back and forth between interface approaches felt awkward and unnatural, and I was frequently frustrated in having to switch mental gears during an action.

The BlackBerry and iPhone are mixed bags when it comes to navigating messages. Both the BlackBerry and iPhone offer a quick way to jump to the top of your message list, but only the BlackBerry has a way to jump to the bottom. However, on the Torch, that jumping only works if you are using the physical keyboard. The iPhone makes it very easy to select multiple messages to delete or move them, while the BlackBerry can only multiple-select contiguous messages, which in practice means you can't work on many messages at once. There is a work-around for some situations; you can search your messages by name, subject, title, or attachment status, then select those files -- still contiguously -- to work on them. The iPhone's search is not so flexible.

Email management. Both the iPhone 4 and BlackBerry Torch provide a unified inbox so that you can see all new messages from all email accounts. The iPhone also provides a unified view of your mailboxes, so you can easily move among accounts from one pane. The closest the BlackBerry gets to this is its list of email accounts in the Home screen. But the BlackBerry does have a nice capability on its Home screen: If you click the waiting-message indicator, you get a list of all unread emails, upcoming calendar appointments, and unread social media messages for easy access to any of them. By contrast, the iPhone makes you open each app separately to see what's new in each.

Both the iPhone and BlackBerry remember the email addresses of senders you reply to, adding them to a database of contacts that it looks up automatically as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields. Both devices let you add email addresses to your contacts list simply by tapping them (you need to tap and hold on the Torch).

The iPhone 4 comes with a message threading capability, which organizes your emails based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicking to go through messages, but it does remove the effort of finding the messages in the first place. (iOS 4 lets you disable threading if you don't like it.) The BlackBerry also has a similar capability of grouping messages by subject, which you can easily toggle on and off via the physical Menu button's options.

You can also set up filters on the BlackBerry, such as to autoforward messages from specified addressed; the iPhone has no such capability.

Both devices let you view attachments, and the iPhone now lets other apps open the attachments if they implement the Open With capability (the BlackBerry has had that capability for some time). The iPhone still can't open zipped files, whereas the BlackBerry has been able to do so for years.

Contacts and calendars. The iPhone 4's more elegant UI for email applies to its Contacts and Calendar apps as well. Although both the BlackBerry and iPhone offer essentially the same capabilities and views, they look better on the iPhone and are easier to navigate due to the iPhone's thorough, consistent use of gestures and the touch UI.

You can easily switch calendar views in the iPhone 4 in the main calendar screen; by contrast, doing so in the Torch requires using a contextual menu to select a view. But both can display multiple calendars simultaneously. The iPhone more elegantly displays calendars and the controls to work with them.

Accepting invitations in the BlackBerry is an awkward experience due to the use of cryptic icons; plus, you have to accept them within your email (unless you're using Exchange). On the iPhone, your invitations show up in your calendar so that you can accept them with the full context of your other appointments. The BlackBerry does let you issue invitations, whereas the iPhone does not.

If you use Gmail, note that the BlackBerry will display Gmail as a calendar but will not sync to it wirelessly; you need to download and install Google Sync to get over-the-air syncing. Any calendars handled through BES, such as Exchange, sync wirelessly. The iPhone syncs Gmail and Exchange calendars out of the box.

Both the iPhone and BlackBerry have capable Contacts apps, but the iPhone 4 makes it easier to navigate through your entries. You can jump easily to names by tapping a letter, such as T at the side of the screen to get to people whose last names begin with T, or search quickly for someone in the Search field by tapping in part of the name. The BlackBerry has similar search capabilities, but no quick-jump touch elements.

The BlackBerry lets you designate users as favorites, to put them in the Home screen. The iPhone 4 has no equivalent.

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