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

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The winner: A tie. The BlackBerry Torch offers more functionality, but it's harder to use. And the iPhone 4's capabilities are more than enough for most businesses.

Deathmatch: Applications RIM has made a lot of noise about its BlackBerry App World store, but despite the hoopla and a push to entice gaming vendors, the selection of BlackBerry apps remains limited. Plus, the apps themselves are typically pale, pathetic imitations of iPhone apps, reflecting the BlackBerry's WAP heritage (a DOS for mobile devices). With the new BlackBerry OS 6 and the Torch's larger screen, perhaps we'll finally start seeing quality BlackBerry apps this year. But for now, you won't be eagerly hunting for apps in App World as an iPhone user would be in the Apple App Store.

At first glance, the native apps for both operating systems are comparable, providing email, contacts, calendar, maps and navigation, browser, music player, YouTube player, and SMS messaging. But the BlackBerry has no notepad app, whereas the iPhone 4 does. And the BlackBerry's YouTube "app" is really just a link to the mobile version of the YouTube site.

The BlackBerry apps are, on the whole, clunkier to use but serviceable, with one seriously inferior exception. The AT&T Maps app from Telenav is a primitive, limited app that offers just a bare-bones map view and basic directions capability (no options for transit or walking, as in the iPhone). The Google Maps app that comes with the iPhone is much more capable and easier to use.

App stores and app installation. Using App World continues to be a convoluted experience -- you have to drill down to get any useful information on an app, whereas the App Store presents the key information much earlier (and more nicely). Downloading an app to the BlackBerry usually means wading through several pages and prompts; for some reason, most apps have huge legal agreements that require six or so screens of scrolling (as if anyone would read all that, much less comprehend it). Downloading an app can also take a long time, and once they're installed, you get additional prompts for setup. The result is highly off-putting. The level of disclaimer is unreal, and you're left with a strong sense that you shouldn't be installing any apps. RIM needs to tell its lawyers to shut up. And if you're brave enough to get past all the legalese and setup prompts, you often find you have to reboot your BlackBerry after installing an app. I can't think of any other smartphone that requires such an action.

I much prefer the iPhone's simple, fast approach to downloads. The App Store recognizes that six-screen legal agreements and multiple "Are you sure" confirmations are not mobile-friendly. If you download an iPhone app by accident, deleting it takes a couple seconds -- and the whole download-install-remove process takes less time than just starting a BlackBerry App World download.

To add insult to injury, there's no desktop version of the App World store to peruse available options, as there is with the iPhone's iTunes. The BlackBerry Desktop 6 Software only lets you see what optional apps are installed and remove them. (Note: The software took several installations before it became stable on both Windows XP and Windows 7; there is as yet no Mac OS X version.)

App management. The BlackBerry's Home screen stores apps, but you can also put them in a separate Applications folder and in a Favorites section of the Home screen by using the Menu physical button or tapping and holding to get the contextual menu. (You delete applications the same way or by using the BlackBerry Desktop program on your PC.) The Favorites section is handy, but the Applications folder is a level down, so getting to it is more work. Rearranging your apps on the home and other screens is an awkward process on the Torch: You tap and hold an app icon, then tap where on the screen you want to move it to -- you can't simply drag the icon as on the iPhone.

The iPhone's app management process is simpler. For example, it's easy to arrange your home screens to cluster applications both on your iPhone and on your desktop via iTunes; you can also put them in your own folders (the BlackBerry can't do that). Just tap and hold any app to invoke the "shaking apps" status, in which you can drag apps wherever you want, or click the X icon to delete them (press the Home button when done to exit that mode). You can also arrange and delete apps using iTunes on your desktop.

The iPhone has long let you add Web pages to the home screens as if they were apps -- that's great for the many mobile Web pages that are essentially Web apps such as iphone.infoworld.com. The BlackBerry Torch adds that capability through BlackBerry OS 6.

Both operating systems alert you to app updates and let you download them wirelessly; both also let you manage, update, and back up apps via their desktop clients.

Multitasking. The BlackBerry has long supported multitasking, something that the iPhone gained only with the iPhone 4. iPhone apps must be enabled by the developer to use the limited set of multitasking capabilities iOS 4 provides. BlackBerry apps are also limited in their multitasking: Many suspend or quit when you switch to another application; if you press and hold the physical Menu button, or press and hold Alt on the physical keyboard when pressing the Menu button, you'll get a list of the running apps you can switch among. At a practical level, the two mobile OSes are equivalent in their multitasking.

The winner: The iPhone 4, whose selection of apps and strong app quality far outshine what's available for the BlackBerry. The BlackBerry has improved its app management somewhat, but the lack of a desktop client for App World and the lack of Mac integration are real negatives.

Deathmatch: Web and Internet For years, RIM has offered a substandard portal to the Web; BlackBerry OS 6 aims to change that with a new browser based on the same WebKit engine used by the iPhone's iOS and Google Android. RIM has succeeded in presenting regular Web pages as such. Both Apple and Google are strong forces behind HTML5 and other modern browser technologies, so it's no surprise that both offer capable Web browsers. Do note that neither is as HTML5-savvy as their desktop versions, however: Based on the HTML5 Test site's scores, the BlackBerry OS 6 browser scores 208 out of a possible 300, thus outperforming both the iPhone's mobile Safari (which scores 185) and Android's mobile Chrome (which scores 176). By comparison, desktop Chrome scores 197 and desktop Safari scores 208.

The BlackBerry loses its previous capability of reformatting a Web page to better fit the BlackBerry screen; now it uses the same pinch, zoom, and panning gestures as the iPhone to navigate the "native" Web page. But the mobile Safari browser is much easier to use, thanks to the inclusion of Back and Forward buttons and a Search field that is always present onscreen. On the BlackBerry Torch, you have to use the contextual menu accessed via the physical Menu button or by tapping and holding on the screen. Both the BlackBerry and iPhone browsers have similar onscreen controls to share, refresh, and switch among open Web pages. Also, the BlackBerry can't select text or images on Web pages for copying; the iPhone can select both.

The biggest issue I had with the BlackBerry browser was its speed, or lack thereof. Loading pages on the BlackBerry always took longer than on an iPhone over the same Wi-Fi network -- typically 30 to 50 percent longer. And the BlackBerry frequently timed out in loading Web pages, while the iPhone did not. Sometimes, the BlackBerry took two or three times longer to load the same pages as the iPhone -- and overall, the Wi-Fi speeds were little better than 3G speeds. On 3G, the two devices' Web-loading speeds are closer (both use the same AT&T network, which is slow in San Francisco and often is limited to EDGE radio frequencies), but the BlackBerry continued to trail the iPhone. That slow downloading also made page refresh slower on the BlackBerry when scrolling.

Neither device supports Adobe Flash. RIM says it is working with Adobe on making Flash Player 10.1 available for BlackBerry OS 6 but won't commit to when that might happen. Apple, of course, has no plans to allow Flash support, given Apple's dislike of the Adobe Flash technology.

The winner: The iPhone 4, thanks to its faster speed, its easier UI, and its ability to copy text and graphics.

Deathmatch: Location support Both the iPhone 4 and BlackBerry Torch support GPS location, and both can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. As noted earlier, the AT&T Maps app on the BlackBerry is substandard compared to the iPhone's solid Google Maps app. Both mobile OSes let developers integrate location information in their apps, so location is just another native feature.

Although the BlackBerry asks for permission to work with location information (as does the iPhone), it does not provide user-controllable settings for location utilization by the device or individual applications, as the iPhone does.

The winner: The iPhone, for its better maps app and its ability to control location privacy at a granular level.

Deathmatch: User interface The BlackBerry Torch represents a significant change, though RIM layered the new gestures and touch UI on top of its familiar UI; users don't have to relearn the BlackBerry OS if they don't want to. The iPhone 4 UI is essentially the same as in previous iPhone models, though there are new capabilities such as folders and greater levels of controls in settings.

Operational UI. I've previously noted how the BlackBerry's virtual keyboard does not disappear automatically when you click outside of a text field. That's just one example of a poor design for touch-tapping. Another is that the onscreen key labels are smaller on the BlackBerry than on the iPhone, even though the keyboards are the same width. Also, when you tap a key in both devices, a little window appears with the character displayed so that you can make sure you're tapping the right key -- but the preview on the BlackBerry is tiny (smaller than the actual key), so it's not great for proofing what you typed. The iPhone's preview is nice and large.

Also, the BlackBerry's virtual keyboard makes it harder to type two common symbols (the comma and the @ sign), because you have to switch to a symbols view. The iPhone keyboard makes these available in the standard keyboard, and even has a key for the ".com" text available in Web-oriented fields. The BlackBerry has one slight advantage to the iPhone when it comes to the virtual keyboard: If you tap and hold a key, you can select capitalized letters (saving a press of the Shift key) and see accented versions; the iPhone keyboard shows just accented versions.

When you enter numbers, the BlackBerry assumes you want to enter just one numeral, so it automatically reverts to the text keyboard (mirroring the Alt+key approach of its physical keyboard) -- unless you tap and hold the Numbers key so that it acts like a NumLock. The iPhone leaves the numeral keyboard on till you switch back to the text keyboard. I prefer the iPhone's approach, but given the mirroring of the BlackBerry's physical keyboard behavior, I suspect most BlackBerry users will prefer the Torch's approach.

In general, I found it harder to use the BlackBerry Torch's touchscreen compared to the iPhone 4's. On the BlackBerry Torch, I often missed the key or menu I meant to tap and tapped something else. I'm not sure if the Torch screen's touch resolution is lower than the iPhone's or if the iPhone does a better job of addressing the parallax problem in which the glass between the LCD and your finger fools your eye as to where you are actually pressing. Whatever the cause, the Torch is harder to tap on accurately than the iPhone 4.

Pinching, zooming, and scrolling, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, works equivalently on the two devices.

The BlackBerry Torch offers a slideout keyboard that is the same full-QWERTY model as on the BlackBerry Bold. Its key labels are tiny, but the backlighting is quite readable in dark conditions. If you like the BlackBerry Bold's physical keyboard, you'll equally like the Torch's. If you use a BlackBerry Pearl and its compact keyboard (where several letters are assigned to each key), note that the Torch's virtual keyboard can be set to that style.

Text selection and copying. Where the BlackBerry really falls short in UI is in its touch text selection. To move your text cursor in most fields, you just tap. (However, some fields, like Search, don't let you move the text cursor to a specific point.) But then you get a framing window that displays several characters and highlights one of them. On a PC, a highlighted character is selected, and if you press Backspace, it's deleted. But on the Torch, the text cursor is actually to the left of the highlighted character -- an unintuitive UI decision.

Selecting text on the Torch is also unintuitive; you have to press the manual Menu button and choose Select in the contextual menu -- you can't get it by tapping and holding. That makes the left and right sides of the selection framing window independently movable so that you can mark a selection range. Then you use the Menu button again to choose Copy or Cut. Note that you can't select text on Web pages or text in messages except for the part you are writing; if you are replying to a message, you can't select any of the text in the original portion of the message.

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