Aaron's First Impressions: BlackBerry Torch 9800 (AT&T)

Aaron Baker – 
Published: August 9, 2010

When the BlackBerry Torch 9800 was rumored (and subsequently, leaked) and I saw the slider/touchscreen design, my initial thought was "they're either going to screw it up, or it's going to be fantastic."  After working with it for a day, my initial thought is that they did a good job with the device.  It's sleek inside and out, and combined with the marketing support AT&T will likely provide (given the posters I've seen to date), it stands a chance of doing quite well.  I'm hoping the Torch will serve as a starting point for RIM - a success that motivates them to continue innovating.

Overall, the build quality is very good, the hinge offers little to no play, and it still has a durable BlackBerry feel to it.  You'll find a microUSB charging port on the left side, a volume rocker and convenient key on the right side, and the mute and lock buttons on the top.  Unfortunately, there's no convenient key on the left side, so you're stuck with one shortcut button.  The battery cover is ribbed, and "Torch" is written in between the camera lens and the flash.

The Torch is the first device to offer BlackBerry 6, RIM's brand new "fresh but familiar" operating system.  As a former BlackBerry user, I see quite a few elements that make me think "this is distinctively RIM," but for the most part, BlackBerry 6 has been refined to offer a more consumer-centric appeal.  From the initial setup to the overall menu structure, they did an exceptional job of maintaining a balance between satisfying existing BlackBerry users while attempting to appeal to the Android and iPhone crowd.  I'm pleased with the updates (both big and small) - it preserves that "BlackBerry" feel that die-hard fans know and love, but feels new at the same time.

The Torch has a 5-megapixel camera, and while it's decent, it's no match to the cameras found on the iPhone 4, EVO, DROID X, and DROID Incredible.  Still, given the right amount of light, picture quality was good.  I did a quick test of the video camera, and results were decent.

I've spent the day testing the Torch in the Charlotte area, and haven't dropped a call yet. Speakerphone sounds sufficiently loud, and my Bluetooth headsets connected without an issue.  I drove through a notorious AT&T rough patch while going to FedEx today, and was able to maintain the call, despite some choppiness.  I'm still doing tests, but oddly enough, the position of the earpiece seems to favor those that use their left ear for making calls.  With volume set to the highest level, I offered the device to three separate people (while in a call), and asked them what they noticed.  All three immediately said that call volume was significantly lower when holding to the right ear versus the left (with slide up).  Normally, I wouldn't make a big deal of it, but the volume reduction is quite major.  When speaking to a family member in a busy coffee shop, I couldn't hold it to my right ear due to the risk of not being able to hear anything.

Data speeds have been pleasant, and thanks to the new WebKit browser (yes, a BlackBerry with a decent web browser!), browsing the web is a relatively pleasant experience.  It's no match to the iPhone - or even to most Android devices - but the new WebKit browser on the Torch is a dramatic departure from the terrible browser in past BlackBerry devices.  Pinch-to-zoom works well, and tabbed browsing is a welcome improvement.  I was able to do my mobile banking and check several credit card accounts with ease.

Be sure to check out the unboxing, and stay tuned for the full review!

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