In depth: BlackBerry Torch 9800 makes 'corporate' cool

RIM's new smartphone really could cure enterprise customers of iPhone/Android envy.

About nine years ago, I was walking around with a first-generation BlackBerry on my belt. That 'Berry couldn't make phone calls, it couldn't browse the Web, and it sure couldn't play music. It did just one thing: e-mail. Smartphones hadn't been invented yet, and the concept of a mobile device for sending and receiving mail was completely exotic, even in ever-compulsive New York.

The gadget world has been through a few revolutions since then, what with Sidekicks and Treos and iPhones and Droids. But one fact has remained pretty fundamental: You can have all the fun you want with that other gear, but if you're serious about e-mail -- especially corporate e-mail -- you're probably going to wind up with a BlackBerry in your pocket.

Research in Motion, the Waterloo, Ontario-based company that develops and builds BlackBerries, has released a legion of the devices over the years, with each one differing from its predecessors in form and somewhat less so in features. Generally speaking, though, BlackBerries have distinctly trailed the smartphone market. They've been perfectly fine phones that were more than good enough to be corporate standard issue, but they've lacked the sexy oomph that sells gadgets to consumers. In many ways, they've been the gadget equivalent of a buzz cut: efficient, standard, corporate, boring.

BlackBerry Torch 9800
BlackBerry Torch

The new BlackBerry Torch 9800 ($200 with a two-year contract from AT&T; data plans are $15/month for 200MB or $25/month for 2GB) pretty much catches up to the cool kids. It features a new operating system, BlackBerry 6, but its physical form is unmistakably classic BlackBerry.

The new operating system has a new interface, a media player, a new browser and hooks into social media, but it doesn't give you much in the way of features that you can't find in any other top-of-the-line smartphone. That may be good enough. In a world where RIM was in danger of being lapped by the competition, the Torch is a more-than-reasonable rejoinder for an enterprise manager besieged by users insisting on Android phones or iPhones.

Keyboard conundrum

The Torch's 3.2-inch touch screen is a bit of a departure from earlier BlackBerries, except the Storm. But where the Storm has only a soft on-screen keyboard, the new Torch also includes a slide-down hard QWERTY keyboard. This will be a great relief to longtime tappers. Also, the BlackBerry's hard trackpad makes a welcome return to the middle of the row of function keys.

But as welcome as the hard keyboard is, it presents something of a user interface conundrum. Between the touch screen and the keyboard, there are several different ways to perform the same function on the Torch. You can see your e-mail, for instance, by tapping in a "quick access" area at the top of the screen, by tapping or clicking on an application icon, or by using the trackpad to click on either. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It is, however, unusual and a point of possible confusion.

The phone, when closed, is a tiny bit narrower and shorter than an iPhone 4, though at 0.57 inches thick and about 5.7 ounces, it's half again as thick as an iPhone and nearly a full ounce heavier. Blame the hard keyboard. Extending the keyboard adds 1.4 inches to the length. The back is rubberized plastic, and the phone has a generally solid, substantial, well-balanced feel.

There is 512MB of flash memory and 4GB of general on-board memory built in, and a 4GB microSD card is included. The phone supports quad-band GSM and HSPDA, and RIM says it supports 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi connectivity. Unfortunately, although I have no reason to doubt that the phone supports 802.11n, I was unable to get it to connect to an up-to-date Apple Airport Express router.

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