Comparison Smartphone Review: BlackBerry Torch or Nexus One? Which is Better?

In the 14 years since I acquired my first mobile smart device (a Palm Pilot, circa 1996), the best combination of form and function for me came with my BlackBerry Curve 8300. This was truly a sweet smartphone that eventually just became outdated. There was really nothing wrong with my Curve when I gave it up in March of this year -- in fact it found a happy owner on eBay -- it's just that significant new developments had come along capability-wise that warranted a change for me as an entrepreneur in the mobile technology business.

Ultimately what the Curve lacked was a higher resolution display, a 3G network, and a "real" Web browser. Everything else about the BlackBerry experience, especially when coupled with BlackBerry BES and Microsoft Outlook, suited me fine. The device was ergonomically well designed, provided an excellent mobile phone experience, and survived heavy use over nearly three years of conducting daily mobile computing tasks and other operations.

Without a suitable BlackBerry to jump to, I moved to the Android-based Nexus One (sold by Google, but manufactured by HTC). While my Google phone gets lots of attention when I put it on the table, in reality it has represented several steps backward smartphone wise. As powerful and sexy as its capacitive touchscreen and huge portfolio of available apps is, the basics of managing my life and business has always seemed harder with it. As a former BB guy, I needed to find out whether the newest BlackBerry Torch 9800 would get me back down on the BlackBerry farm, after I'd seen the riches of the shiny new OS Android and its accompanying handset. For this article I put aside my Nexus One for 10 days, and used the Torch instead. I then switched back to the Nexus One, and then back again before writing this article.

Review: BlackBerry Torch 9800

The latest BlackBerry carries on the tradition of the later generation RIM devices, the Bold, the Storm2 and the Tour. At 5.68 ounces, the device is slightly heavier than my Nexus One (4.8 oz). Like the Storm2, the device is a built around a 3.2-inch multi-touch capacitive touchscreen display. Unlike the Storm devices, the Torch's calling card is its hybrid input mechanism, featuring an excellent slide out QWERTY keyboard and trackpad pointing devices. Rounding out the feature set is a 5-megapixel camera (up from 2.3-megapixels on the Storm), GPS, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. In the U.S. the device runs on AT&T's 3G network.

This a competent device and the specs are competitive. I used the device extensively through the New York City metropolitan area (oft cited for bad AT&T/iPhone coverage) and experienced solid connectivity throughout, including lower Manhattan, and the eastern end of Long Island (both challenging areas).

In your hands the Torch feels sleek and comfortable, if a bit dense. It is thicker than my HTC device, slightly wider, but shorter with the keyboard collapsed. Finding a way to engineer a reasonably sized display and a slideout vertical (portrait) keyboard into a device that wasn't a brick was no easy fit, and RIM's engineers did well here. Clearly they have had to make design compromises. A taller screen like the 480x800 pixel Nexus One would have created a device difficult to carry on the hip or in the pocket. I carried the Torch in the same case I used for my Nexus One (which was actually designed for the iPhone).

The Slider/Keyboard
For someone who actually needs to type on their smartphone, having the flexibility to easily slide out a keyboard was immediately useful as I went about my day-to-day business on the Torch. Indeed the benefits for responding or composing email are obvious, but it doesn't stop there. Try entering a password of any complexity with a touchscreen-only device or a URL of any length. While Google and Apple have all kinds of user interface helpers to assist getting around touchscreen limitations, RIM is banking on the fact that there's a core crowd that still prefer keyboards when necessary. I will count myself as one of them.

The Phone
Instinctively you will not be looking to slide out the keyboard to make phone calls on the Torch; instead you will use the multi-touch display which gets high usability marks and is easy to use. If having a keyboard for email drew you to consider the Torch, and you are someone who still makes lots of calls, you are the target audience for this device, and it will not disappoint you. The fidelity is excellent and the Torch feels comfortable being held up to your ear like an old fashioned cell phone.

For those coming from other Blackberrys, the stock dialer and call log apps will be familiar and comfortable. On my Nexus One I use the third-party app Dialer One to get something closer to the BlackBerry (there was no good way to do something as simple as speed dial with the stock dialer). The important point here is that the BlackBerry stock app didn't require a replacement.

Browser and Touchscreen
Based on the same open source WebKit technology as the Mobile Safari browser on the iPhone and Google's Android browser, the Torch's browsing experience is considerably improved from earlier generation BlackBerry browsers. On prior generation BlackBerrys one learned to primarily stick with mobile websites. On the Torch, it is not unreasonable to view non-mobile sites, albeit ones with out Adobe Flash (same limitation as the iPhone, but not of a recently updated Android phone which can render Flash).

Life is now much better for BlackBerry users Web wise; however, RIM has work to do here. Pages don't render as smoothly or quickly as its competitors, and the WebKit browser still feels like a work in progress. The same holds true of the capacitive touchscreen interface. It is nearly impossible to be accurate with the onscreen keyboard, and while the touchscreen gesturing works nicely (pinch, zoom, slide, etc...), the accelerometer function that handles orientation changes (from portrait to landscape) can be jerky and too sensitive (I have similar issues with my Nexus One).

The Multimedia Extras
I transferred a small music library to the device, made up primarily of purchases from the Amazon Music Store which I easily transferred with the included USB cable. The BlackBerry OS 6 music player is clean without a lot of frills and works well for listening to music and podcasts. I also easily downloaded and listened to several podcasts. All worked as expected and if anything the experience felt better than my multimedia experience on the Android device. In fact, out-of- the-box, the Torch supports and plays more media formats than my Nexus One.

I was not able to try out the wireless sync component (which allows you to sync your music library via your home network and Wi-Fi), but by all reports this works as advertised. Unlike Android devices out-of-the-box, the Torch is also capable of doing a media sync with iTunes. Like my Nexus One, the Torch 9800 uses a microSD card and one can easily acquire a 32GB card and use this device instead of an iPod.

The camera took sharp, well-lit focused photos on par with my Android device.

Integrated Social Feeds
RIM tried to make the Torch hip by integrating social feeds into the user experience. Powered by this integration, users can easily connect their Facebook, Twitter, and IM accounts (Google, Yahoo and Microsoft) as well as their RSS feeds and have them nicely piped into a single mobile stream. The BlackBerry home screen will alert you when there are new feeds, and one can easily jump to native applications for each of the core social media outlets. For many, this feature will be a pure distraction, others will consider it nice to have.

The BlackBerry Apps
To restate the obvious, BlackBerry App World can't touch the sheer volume of Apple's App Store, or the Android market. Other than perhaps squelching a bit of the fun factor, the lack of third-party app quantity didn't really hinder my Torch experience. I quickly found and installed a few utilities, including a great screen shot utility called Screenshot Free, SmarterWallpaper, and WeatherBug (which I used on Android). All that said, if you are hungry for an app driven experience, this is not the device for you.

The Verdict: RIM Right on Target, But Still Some Work To Do

With the Torch, RIM accomplished what it set out to do: create a new device that retained the core strengths of the BlackBerry platform and device designs, yet provide enough of an evolutionary movement to satisfy their target audience's growing desires. This device is not an iPhone or Droid X wanna-be, yet it sprinkles enough of the application driven device-type features to curb a lot of users' potential cravings. If the iPhones' lack of a physical keyboard has kept you from abandoning the BlackBerry platform, this will be a good fit for you.

As a phone, the Torch is hands-down a better device then my Nexus One. Same with core PDA functions. The base applications, along with the integration of the phone, calendar, contacts and email remains refined, smart and smooth. Whether used with a corporate BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), or their consumer-oriented BlackBerry Internet Service, the email experience remains excellent and neither Apple nor Google comes close. Notable is the much-improved experience of the device with Gmail and related applications (including Google Apps).

The slider keyboard is well done: there when you need, but neatly tucked away when not. And the keyboard is by no means an afterthought. After switching back to my Android device, I seriously missed having the option of sliding the keyboard out to type a real response to an email or enter data into an application. And while there are Android devices with physical keyboards, none to date is as ergonomically engineered and seek as the Torch.

In many respects this device represents unfinished business and is more of an indicator of where RIM is headed, rather than a complete device or experience. Nowhere is this more evident than with the new BlackBerry Browser. Owners of prior generation BlackBerrys will be thrilled to view real Web pages, flip the screen into landscape mode and interact with the Web in a more contemporary way. As an Android user, the browser felt unrefined, jerky, and less legible, especially with pages that were not zoomed in.

So the real question is whether I'm going back to BlackBerry?

For now the answer is no, even though I have a free Torch at my disposal. I oddly wish for a Vulcan mind-meld between the two devices, with RIM core apps and slide-out keyboard, but with the Android's capable, more mature browser and high-resolution screen. I suspect someone out there is thinking what I'm thinking, so I bet you this device is in the pipeline. Until then I apologize light-heartedly to my various correspondents regarding the brevity in my smartphone communications.

Kenny Schiff is a contributor to Internet.com's EnterpriseMobileToday.com. He is also the founder and president of TPC Healthcare, a specialty provider of real-time location and point-of-care communication technologies to hospitals and healthcare organizations.


Android, smartphone review, nexus one, RIM, BlackBerry Torch