Catching up: RIM launches BlackBerry Torch, touch-based OS 6

The new BlackBerry Torch, a touchscreen device with a slide-out keyboard, will be available as an AT&T exclusive on August 12th. The price will be $199 with a two-year contract.

Updated hardware

The hardware itself is typical of current smartphones. The Torch comes with a 360x480 touch screen, a slide-out keyboard, and Bluetooth and WiFi B/G/N. The battery is said to allow nearly six hours of talk time or 30 hours of music. The camera is 5 megapixels, and it comes with a flash. All of this is powered by a 624MHz processor (presumably an unspecified ARM chip) with 512MB of main memory. There's also 4GB of built-in storage, and a microSD slot that accepts cards of up to 32GB.

BlackBerry Torch

The hardware looks very well-made: compact when closed and light but robust. The screen is bright and text is easy to read, and the touchscreen generally does a good job of matching touches to interface elements.

So, in most ways, the Torch looks like a fairly typical BlackBerry, with a decent-sized keyboard and a suite of four buttons surrounding a combination pointing-selecting device (in this case, a small, clickable trackpad).

But slide the keyboard in, and the device can be operated by using gestures on its touch screen; an on-screen keyboard appears when appropriate. The phone can accept a variety of gestures, many of which will seem familiar to existing smartphone users—a promotional video showed how spreading fingers can zoom out on an image, so some of these gestures could potentially put RIM in the crosshairs of an Apple lawsuit.

BlackBerry OS 6

All of this new behavior comes courtesy of BlackBerry OS 6, which was also introduced with the new phone. If you've got a Bold or a 3G Pearl, you'll have the chance to upgrade should your carrier allow it; everybody else will need new hardware to enjoy the new OS.

The name for the device itself actually comes from a key acquisition that helped BlackBerry match its competitors: the company bought Torch Mobile specifically because it offered a WebKit-based browser with excellent HTML5 compatibility. It was difficult to test the browser thoroughly because of the oversubscribed wireless connectivity at the introduction, but the pages that did load displayed nicely in both portrait and landscape mode.

RIM will also let developers create standalone HTML5 apps, which will have full access to the device's services, such as calendar and contact lists, and to the GPS-derived location information.

Beyond making Web browsing a central experience, most of the features RIM highlighted in the new OS involve taking existing user favorites and enhancing them. For example, the notification bar, which shows incoming e-mails, messages, and social networking updates, can now be clicked to slide out a preview of the messages so that users can get an idea of whether something requires an urgent response. The home screen has been redesigned around multiple categories: frequently used applications, user favorites, etc. Contacts can also be placed there for easy access.

A universal feed app will aggregate messages, RSS items, social networking updates, etc. into a single screen. Selecting any item from this list will open the application dedicated to that content. RIM happily pointed out how having a true multitasking operating system makes this sort of behavior simple.

There are some completely new features as well. Like iOS, BlackBerry will now have universal search. Typing in the bar will bring up messages, applications, contacts, meetings, and settings that match partial search strings. Third-party developers will also get the opportunity to offer the data produced by their apps to the search function.

To enhance consumer appeal, BlackBerry has significantly beefed up its media capabilities. Music and photos can now be synced over WiFi with a user's PC. The music software will actually obtain the entire music library's metadata, allowing users to manage content and playlists, even for songs that aren't currently on the device (they'll be synced later if requested). Photos can now be organized on the device as well.

During my brief hands-on with the device, it was impressively responsive, and all of these features worked without a hitch. Some of them, however, were less than intuitive, and an inadvertent screen press would sometimes wipe out a few seconds of typing. That's probably to be expected, given that a screen-focused interface is a relatively new thing for RIM—one of its executives mentioned that the company couldn't previously allow organizing pictures on the phone, simply because there was no way to select more than one of them at a time.

Overall, the new Torch suggests that RIM has come a long way towards competing in a market that's increasingly touch- and consumer-focused. Unfortunately, it will reach the market at a time when its major competitors have already solved some of the same problems and are now refining their touch-based interfaces.

Source: ars technica

Tags: BlackBerry, mobile phones

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