It's a strange world where a company like Research in Motion can be successful and endangered in equal measure. Ask any corporate user what type of phone they use and, nine times out of ten, they'll answer BlackBerry. Its QWERTY handsets have become the gold standard for such users, but as the lines between corporate smartphones and consumer ones has become increasingly blurred, BlackBerry has come under increasing pressure from Apple's iPhone and the mass of Android handsets on the market. One thing is for certain, adverts featuring Bono and U2 weren't the solution, but RIM hopes BlackBerry OS6 and the Torch 9800 will be.
We were fascinated, therefore, to see what the Torch 9800 had to offer and going by specs alone it's perhaps surprising that RIM has hyped the device as much as it has. Its 624MHz processor seems distinctly old hat, as does the 480 x 360 resolution of the 3.2-inch display. However, unlike previous handsets of its ilk, the Torch has a capacitive touchscreen and the new OS supports the full-range of multi-touch gestures.
Another slightly surprising aspect of the Torch is that's it's a slider, combining its touchscreen with the traditional BlackBerry QWERTY keyboard. This is understandable really as RIM's pedigree is in this arena, but it's hard to escape the feeling that the touchscreen interface and physical keyboard are uncomfortable bedfellows, allies thrust together in an acrimonious peace. RIM has dodged one glaring oversight of the Palm Pre, however, as it has added a touchscreen keyboard to supplement the physical one.
Looking more closely at the hardware design, it's evident that RIM has lost none of its design skills. Though the Torch lacks the initial wow factor of an iPhone 4, closer inspection reveals an attractive, nicely sculpted device that exudes RIM's usual quality and attention to detail. We particularly like the soft-touch, lightly ridged back, which feels extremely comfortable in the hand. Equally impressive is the smooth, solid feeling sliding action, though the lack of space between the bottom ridge of the screen section and the buttons below the screen could prove troublesome.
Another impressive feat is how comparatively slim the Torch is. Okay, it's not as thin as an iPhone 4 or other touchscreen only phones, but it's definitely slimmer than many slider phones and didn't feel overly porky in our hands.
We're not certain RIM has negotiated all the potential slider phone pitfalls, however. Like the Palm Pre, which has a similar portrait style slider keyboard, the recessed nature of the keyboard makes it harder to access the keys, and the device is less comfortable to hold when typing than the Bold 9700. It's certainly a better experience than the Pre by dint of the Torch's superior quality keyboard, but those wedded to their current QWERTY BlackBerry's will likely the find the transition an awkward one.
As for the on-screen keyboard, it worked much better than we'd anticipated. By contrast to the iPhone's keyboard the keys do seem a touch narrower, and therefore harder to hit, but with a little time we managed a reasonable turn of speed. Moreover, the predictive text system worked very well, and it's also active when using the physical keyboard. At the very least it goes to prove that, when RIM does a new Storm or similar touchscreen only device, the new OS has an on-screen keyboard up to the task.