Blackberry Torch offers iPhone-like features (San Diego Transcript)

Official-blackberry-torch-9800-2 The BlackBerry Torch, Research In Motion's new slider phone, is the company's most ambitious recipe to satisfy both its user base and those tempted by the iPhone and Android phones.

Take a BlackBerry Bold, add a larger touch screen, a slide-out keyboard, toss in an improved OS and a new browser, and mix it all together. The result is a product that operates much like its existing devices yet offers some of the advantages of the iPhone. Is it a recipe for success or a half-baked concoction?

While BlackBerrys still have no equal when it comes to e-mail, users have moved on and are demanding more from their phones. I'm one of those, having used five generations of BlackBerrys, and now using an iPhone and Android. So I was eager to try the Torch.

Physically, the phone maintains RIM's familiar look, a black chrome plastic housing and a nonslip back in an attractive rubber-coated ribbed pattern. The keyboard slides out from the bottom with a feeling of precision. You can open it with one hand, but there are so many buttons on the surface as well as a touch screen, that you're likely to accidentally navigate to a screen you don't want. Using two hands solves that problem.

The phone is larger and heavier than the Bold, and slightly thicker and shorter than an iPhone. The keyboard looks and works much like those found on other BlackBerrys. While a hair narrower, it's still one of the best keyboards found on any smart phone. There also is also an on-screen keyboard in portrait and landscape modes, but one prominent key is inexplicably dedicated to selecting the keyboard language, a function you perform just once.

The out-of-box experience is not very customer friendly for a product that's trying to compete with more consumer-savvy companies. The Torch is the first model to come without a case and there is no user manual. The case has always played an important part in lengthening the time between charging, with a built-in magnet that switches the phone to standby when the phone is inserted. The desktop software for PCs and Macs comes on a 3-inch mini-CD that doesn't work in optical slot drives found on Macs and some PCs. If you try and insert it you could have a problem trying to remove it. You can download the software but I had to search to find the tiny piece of paper that had the link.

I bypassed RIM's desktop software and set up my Gmail account directly from the phone. That took just a few minutes and seamlessly populated the phone with my Google calendar and contacts.

This is the first BlackBerry with its new 6.0 operating system. It uses icons as on previous versions, but they can be accessed many ways, such as in a drawer that slides up, or by swiping sideways, where you'll find the icons sorted by most used, favorites, media, etc. It took a little getting used to, but works pretty well. However, rearranging icons on the screen still requires more steps than the competition.

The phone has both a capacitive touch screen and an optical mouse. I found it a little confusing in the beginning going back and forth to perform many of the same functions, but over time the user will develop a preference for one or the other.

The display is slightly smaller than the iPhone (3.2 inch vs. 3.5 inch), but has a much lower resolution (640×360 vs. 960×640). That's one major disappointment since the BlackBerry's forte has always focused around text, and it suffers from this lower resolution.

The poorer display also shows up when navigating to a website. The smaller screen and the lower resolution make it impossible to read small text on the front page of some newspapers, as they can be read on an iPhone. That means you need to zoom in. Some small text also shows unequal spacing and jaggy artifacts. This seems like a serious compromise if RIM really is targeting the iPhone crowd.

I found accessing websites to take as much as twice as long on the Torch than with the iPhone even though both use the same AT&T network. That's likely due to the slower processor that's one generation old. On the other hand, call quality was excellent and I often saw more bars on the Torch than on the iPhone even though they both use the same network. In my limited use, I did experience dropped calls at a similar frequency to the iPhone 4. There's also a 5-megapixel camera with flash that worked well. Video can be taken, but at a lower quality than the iPhone.

So what's the verdict? The phone doesn't come across as a fresh new design, more as a design a year or two late in a field where the competition is moving at a much faster pace. Yet, in spite of the limitations of display and speed, the phone is a credible offering that may please some BlackBerry fans. But RIM will need to cook up something better than this to stay competitive. Available for $200 from AT&T.