Having been invited to attend a BlackBerry Torch launch event in Toronto a week ago Monday, I have now experienced RIM’s latest smartphone for about ten days. Suffice it to say, as a veteran BlackBerry user, it certainly elevates BlackBerry’s feature set to a level that is very competitive in today’s smartphone market.
So what’s new – relative to my previous Bold 9700?
- combining a touch screen display with BlackBerry’s traditional keyboard
- BlackBerry 6 operating system
- a WebKit-based web browser that delivers a state-of-the-art smartphone browsing experience
- universal search
- an accelerometer that allows operation in both portrait and landscape mode
- a 5M-pixel camera with flash
- enhanced multimedia support
- significantly enhanced social networking support
Migration from a Bold 9700 to the Torch: using the latest version of BlackBerry Desktop Manager’s “Switch Devices” feature, the entire migration process required 20 to 30 minutes, including all my installed applications. Desktop Manager 6.0 is more user friendly and has a much easier migration process than previous versions – key when you’re trying to appeal to a consumer market.
However, for many applications, such as Twitter and Social Scope it was necessary to log in again; effectively a positive security feature. The biggest challenge is organizing the applications within the various categories across which you can swipe in the main menu: “All”, “Favorites”, “Media”, “Downloads” and “Frequent”. Once organized finding an application using touch screen gestures becomes much faster.
The Touch Screen and Its Keyboard: Touch with all its gesturing effects brings a significant productivity improvement to the handling of emails, media and web browsing. All the traditional ways to use the touchpad and keyboard remain available but for the majority of applications it becomes much easier to use the touch screen as opposed to the four function keys, touchpad and traditional keyboard. For example, it is now possible to simply swipe a finger left or right to move through your Messages, including emails.
As for the Touch screen keyboard: it simply confirms that my fingers are too large for a touch keyboard – works fine for entering a few characters but I revert to the hardware keyboard for any serious typing such as longer email replies.
Bottom line is that the touch screen and hardware keyboard are significant complements to each other and bring the advantages of each where appropriate in context of the application. And, being a true multi-tasking smartphone, the touch screen has features that make application switching much easier.
Note there are a few applications that are currently not sensitive to the touch screen, the most significant being the Google Mobile suite, including GMail, Google Maps and Google Reader. Here you can continue to use the touchpad but trying any gesture on the touch screen has no effect. I’m sure Google and RIM are working on a resolution of this situation. But almost all my other applications are appropriately touch sensitive.
The Browser: Not only is the WebKit-based browser the first truly reliable browsing experience on a BlackBerry; it also brings in features such as “tabs” that make browsing a much more manageable activity. Combined with the touch screen’s gesturing, such as the two finger expansion and pinch for zooming/unzooming, BlackBerry’s OS 6 browser has become on par with my iPhone browsing experience. Actually one advantage of also having the BlackBerry’s touchpad available is that it can be used for the precision cursor location required when two or more links are very close to each other such as on the PGATour.com mobile website.
The Torch also includes an accelerometer to allow portrait and landscape mode viewing in the browser; however, if the hardware keyboard is open, only portrait mode is available. On the other hand, when viewing YouTube videos they always come up in landscape mode. One of those small but important features that contributes to the device’s user friendliness.
Overall the BlackBerry 6 browser is a much more reliable, user friendly (and satisfying) experience.
Universal Search: within BlackBerry 6 is a search facility that not only searches the web but can search the entire BlackBerry. Basically hit the search icon on the status bar, enter the search term(s) and hit return. The applications containing the search term(s) will show up; click on the application and it will take you to the search term(s). Included in the applications is an option to do a Google search. In my world there can never be too many search opportunities, whether in Outlook, Skype chat messages, Gmail on the BlackBerry or iPhone, Google on the desktop, or locating emails from a contact on my BlackBerry.
Social Media: When I arrived at the Canadian BlackBerry launch event, one of Canada’s top social media guru’s, Amber MacArthur (@ambermac), author of Power Friending, was demonstrating the Torch’s social media features. Full disclosure; through a recent series of her columns in the Globe and Mail, it was apparent Amber remains a hard core BlackBerry user. But it quickly became apparent why she was carrying out this role at the launch event. BlackBerry 6 includes a comprehensive “Social Feeds” application where you can readily view your stream of Twitter, Facebook, BlackBerry Messenger and five other IM feeds either in one stream or filtered by application. In addition swipe to the left and you can view a stream of selected RSS feeds. A very comprehensive interface that has the potential to challenge my favorite Twitter/Facebook client – Social Scope. (Social Scope, which has BlackBerry 6 compatibility, has the ability to follow individuals and specific hashtags as well.) In summary, Social Feeds is a new feature that will readily appeal to anyone managing social media.
Of course, BlackBerry Torch includes RIM’s unique social networking tool, BlackBerry Messenger, that, in its latest incarnation, provides instant PIN-to-PIN chat, photo and file transfer along voice messaging. I continue to use it when I really need to grab a contact’s attention and using other Internet messaging applications, including email, as an intermediary can not get the message across fast enough.
And finally, BlackBerry integration with applications. Many BlackBerry apps are integrated tightly with the Address Book and other primary BlackBerry apps such that, for instance, a Contact’s picture will be retrieved from FaceBook if it is not available from an Outlook Contact synchronization. From a Contact in the Address Book, one can immediately go to her/his Facebook or LinkedIn page or locate an address in Google Maps.
Bottom line: This review highlights the features that became apparent over the course of my first ten days with the BlackBerry Torch; there are many other more subtle ones. For any BlackBerry aficionado it’s a “must” upgrade that puts the BlackBerry technology performance on a par with either iPhone or Android.
RIM’s real challenge is to attract new BlackBerry adopters and recruit more application developers. Certainly the PlayBook announcement earlier this week, with its underlying QNX OS, appears to brings to the table many of the tools required to assist the latter challenge. And RIM’s continued promotion of BlackBerry Messenger, a unique application that has bailed me out on many occasions, as well as its ongoing reputation for the most mature smartphone email operation and high level of security help with the former.
Of course the final piece of the puzzle for full support of real time social networking would be that missing BlackBerry SuperApp: a carrier agnostic Skype for BlackBerry; Amber, a longtime Skype user and enthusiast who used Skype for TV reporting long before Oprah, would have loved to have been able to demonstrate it.
And why the timing for this post? BlackBerry Torch launched yesterday on five Canadian carriers: Rogers Wireless, SaskTel, Telus, Bell and Virgin Mobile
Three more announcements this week that should help these challenges:
- Press Release: Research In Motion announces BBM social platform
- Press Release: RIM launches BlackBerry Advertising Service
- Press Release: RIM to launch free BlackBerry Analytics Service
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