BlackBerry Torch: The Palm Pre-berry?

August 3, 2010: 3:09 PM ET

The BlackBerry Torch is an evolution of the Blackberry in a revolutionary smartphone era.

BlackBerry today is entering the most ferocious smartphone market its seen since it first hooked up with AT&T in the 1990's.  Apple has released its most popular iPhone ever, which even seems to be making some headway in the enterprise.  Android is blowing up all over the place in a huge way, with impressively specced devices popping up on every US mobile network.  Android 2.2 has plenty of features that will convince businesses to deploy.

Today BlackBerry, the (until yesterday?) biggest US smartphone vendor, releases what from a hardware standpoint is last year's Palm Pre with BlackBerry labeling:

Separated at birth? Palm Pre 2009 on the left, BlackBerry Torch on right

Same 3.2-inch screen size with ~QVGA, same slide out keyboard (OK the BlackBerry keyboard is better) and the same sub-1GHz ARM Cortex processor running the show.  It turns out the Pre was ahead of its time?

2004 HTC Harrier smartphone

And that's being generous.  I could have compared the hardware to the 2004 HTC Harrier Windows Mobile phone (right).

All teasing aside, this is a BlackBerry and the build is a very solid one, much more solid than the original Pre.  Typing for BlackBerry users will be very familiar and there is only a slight lip at the bottom that won't get in the way.  The screen though is severely lacking for a flagship phone and isn't going to impress anyone who didn't just time travel here from before the iPhone's 2007 launch.

It also has a very solid 5-megapixel camera that takes very nice pictures.

Software:

On the software side, you have the familiar BlackBerry interface dressed up with some significant OS 6 improvements.  If this were 2008, this stuff would be groundbreaking.  Unfortunately, it isn't and they talked up the Twitter and Facebook streams as if they hadn't been already put on every device released in the last year, including the Microsoft Kin.  Swipe to the right, and you have RSS feeds.  Swipe again and you have instant messaging.  Once more, podcasts.

Stop me if you already have this stuff on your phone.

Again, the Webkit browser was impressive if you are coming from a previous BlackBerry, but if you've bought a new iPhone or Android device with 800+ pixel screens in the past year, it seems a little paltry.  The browser is certainly fast but scrolling around and pinch-zooming pages really shows some lacking hardware.   Speedwise, it is somewhere between the iPhone 4 and Android 2.2's speedy Webkit engine.

Yes, tabbed browsing.  I know, stop the presses.

Like all recent Blackberries, you can tether your laptop either via USB or Bluetooth but you can't create a hotspot like most new flagship Androids coming out.  That is unfortunate if you want to tether a few devices or a device without a USB/Bluetooth tether option like an iPad.

The BlackBerry App World also gets updated today but is still significantly behind the Android Marketplace and iPhone App Store in terms of numbers and developer interest.  That is surprising because there are so many more BlackBerry devices out there than either Android or iPhone.

Here's AT&T's listing of 'wow-features:'

Which feature up there is something new or exciting?

The one interesting feature I saw was the Wifi-Mediasync, which takes your music collection and catalogs it on your BlackBerry.  If you want something at some later point you annote it and next time you sync up, you got it.  We'll see how well this works or how satisfying it is.  This BlackBerry also has a pretty convenient podcast app.

BlackBerry's OS 6 isn't just for Torch.  It is coming to the Bold 9700, Bold 9650, and Pearl 3G as well as the Torch so there will be upgrade options on other phones.

If you've been living in a BlackBerry bubble, this device is definitely an evolution of whatever you are currently using.  But if you are walking into an AT&T shop to look at one of the new Torch displays, you'll have to walk by the iPhone 4 and the Samsung Captivate (even the HTC Aria!)  to get to it.  It is hard for me to imagine any consumers passing those two phones up for this BlackBerry slider for the same price.

There are people who demand a hardware keyboard, but those people will also have to think about the Droid (2) or the new Samsung and Motorola BlackBerry form factor Android devices.

So will the BlackBerry Torch go down in flames?  Actually, I think it may actually sell pretty well to corporate customers.  There are thousands of enterprises out there that are BlackBerry exclusive for security, deployment and for whatever other reason and have no plans to go anywhere else.  For them, this is a no-brainer upgrade.  This is, hands down, the best BlackBerry device out there.

However, for consumers who have the choice to go for a high powered, feature rich and similarly-priced Androids or iPhones, it is hard to imagine someone choosing the Torch, or any other BlackBerry 6 device for that matter.  I think today's announcement only solidifies BlackBerry's decline from the top of the US smartphone heap.

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Seth Weintraub
Seth Weintraub

Google went from searching the Web to worming its way into nearly every facet of business and government. Seth Weintraub unveils where the company is going, who it's competing with, who it's about to compete with and how market forces push the company to veer or adhere to its Don't Be Evil motto. For 15 years, Weintraub was a global IT director for a number of companies before becoming a blogger.

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