"This is one of the most important product introductions in our history," said RIM president Mike Lazaridis at the official launch of the BlackBerry Torch 9800. Phrases such as "uncompromising", "exciting" and "amazing" were also banded about, highly unusual language for a company which tends not to believe in hype. It was clear the pressure exerted by iOS and Android was telling and here was RIM's best shot at striking back.
The Torch represents RIM's most daring hardware and software to date. It is the first BlackBerry to combine a physical sliding Qwerty keyboard with a multi-touch capable touchscreen and it is also the launch device for BlackBerry OS 6.0 - the heavily overhauled platform which RIM hopes will add a consumer-attracting polish to the typically perfunctory OS.
From the outset, however, there's an immediate sense of apathy. The design of the Torch itself isn't inspiring, being part BlackBerry Storm, part Palm Pre. Its dimensions (111mm x 62mm x 14.6mm closed, 148mm x 62mm x 14.6mm open) are somewhat bulky and at 161.59g it isn't light. Construction is also adequate, if not inspiring. The plastic back feels hollow and cheap with the mix of matt and glossy finishes tacky alongside the rubberised volume and camera buttons.
In fairness the Torch does feel good in hand, BlackBerrys often do - but the 3.2in touchscreen, while responsive, feels small for late 2010; at just 480 x 360 pixels there is a lack of sharpness compared to the iPhone 4 (960 x 640) and latest 800 x 480 Android and Windows Phone 7 handsets. This wouldn't be so bad if RIM has installed a first class physical Qwerty keyboard, but though pleasingly tactile it is narrow and the reduced size of the keys mean typing fast will take time to master. To use it isn't a patch on the Bold 9700. Infuriatingly, RIM still positions its 3.5mm headphone jack on the side as well - useless for listening to music if you carry the phone in your pocket. In short it feels like a design constructed by committee, an attempt to draw gasps which instead generates shrugs.
Internally things get little better. The 624MHz processor lags behind the circa 1GHz chips seen in its rivals, internal memory is limited to 4GB and video recording is just VGA at 24fps, when 720p HD has become the new smartphone minimum. The five megapixel camera is a BlackBerry first, but while it improves upon the 3.2MP shooters seen in the Bold and Storm shots lack sharpness and colours look washed out. Storage can be bolstered via the microSD expansion slot and the usual essentials are there (3G, WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, a Proximity sensor), though the lack of a digital compass is disappointing. Battery life is good, lasting well over a day even with heavy use, but as the flagship device for a brand new operating system it is desperately lacking in inspiration.