In depth: BlackBerry Torch 9800 makes 'corporate' cool

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

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The built-in flash camera takes 5-megapixel pictures and shoots videos with continuous autofocus. In practice, the camera was just OK, but -- in what is an unusual feature for a smartphone -- it offers the ability to select from among 10 "scenes" with preset settings, such as "face detection," "party," "beach" and so on. This can make things easy for novice photographers.

RIM claims that the Torch's battery supports about 5.5 hours of talk time, 30 hours of audio playback and six hours of video playback. The screen is crisp and clear, although it's no rival to a Droid X's Super AMOLED. The screen supports multitouch input, recognizing taps, pinches and slides. The display also rotates between landscape and portrait mode as you reorient the phone with the keyboard stowed, but it does not go to landscape if you have the keyboard open.

Setup, as one would hope for a corporate-oriented phone, was quick, smooth, and trivial -- particularly the e-mail and Exchange parts. The e-mail applications were exactly what one would expect from a BlackBerry, with mailbox sync, message filtering and display by thread (or not). If you've hardwired your fingers to the BlackBerry interface over the years, you won't be disrupted.

BlackBerry 6

The BlackBerry 6 user interface feels a lot like Android's. The home screen is initially clear except for your wallpaper, but you bring up screens of applications with an upward flick of a finger and page through them by flicking up and down or left and right. The interface supports folders, so you can group applications together, but it took some fumbling to understand that the "Back" button below the screen is how you move upward through the file structure to the home screen.

In general, when using BB6 it's not always clear what you can do through a touch and what needs a click -- and whether the click should come from the trackpad, the BlackBerry button or the Back button. In the time that I worked with it, I didn't detect a consistent pattern of behavior; it may well become clearer with practice and familiarity.

As with any contemporary smartphone platform, there's an online store where you can download apps for the Torch; it's called BlackBerry App World. Don't expect the breadth of offerings available at either Apple's App Store or the Android Store -- certainly not right away. But it wouldn't surprise me in the least if developers came up with some highly useful corporate apps for the Torch in short order.

You can search for apps or browse by category and then scroll through using the trackpad. Unsurprisingly, you need to sign up for an account, but that's quick and painless, aside from the two unconscionably long license pages whose terms you need to agree to en route.

The phone comes with a 3-inch CD containing BlackBerry Desktop Software, which lets you load music onto the Torch through a USB connection; it also helps you sync notes, contacts and calendars with your desktop software if you don't do it wirelessly through the cloud. (If you've got a computer -- like a MacBook -- with a slot-loading drive, a 3-inch CD is useless. Fortunately, the software is also downloadable from RIM's site.)

Conclusions

As with any BlackBerry, e-mail is at the core of the Torch 9800's functionality. But instead of a corporate buzz cut, the Torch is more like a mullet: business in front, party in the back. That's not a bad thing. It allows for excellent enterprise functionality but has room to let people have some fun.

Dan Rosenbaum, by day a search strategist and content maven, has been reviewing mobile technology since the 1990s. His MicroTAC and StarTAC phones are still in a box somewhere.

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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