BlackBerry redux: RIM polishes up the familiar with three new phones

August 17, 2011

It can’t be easy to be Research in Motion right now. The smartphone company’s numbers have been on a steady decline, its two chief executives are under pressure to explain their strategies and justify their positions, and its last two major hardware releases — the PlayBook tablet and Torch smartphone — were widely panned by critics and buyers alike.

So what does the company have to do to get back in the game? If you’re RIM, the answer seems to be par for the course: Cook up a newish version of your operating system, toss it onto a handful of familiar-looking devices and see if anything sticks.

That’s just what RIM has done this week with the introduction of three phones — the BlackBerry Bold 9930, Torch 9850 and Torch 9810. RIM has also knocked its operating system version up to No. 7 and says the new software will perform far better than previous iterations, thanks to something it calls “Liquid Graphics.”

If those models are giving you flashbacks, don’t be surprised. All three are refreshes of familiar BlackBerry phones, and at least one is nearly a shot-for-shot remake. The Bold 9930 looks almost identical to the original BlackBerry Bold released in 2008, though this version is thinner, more solidly built and touts a touch screen in addition to the optical trackpad RIM has been including on new devices. The Torch 9810 is little more than the original Torch wrapped in a gaudy silver casing — the phone’s screen slides up to reveal a keyboard beneath. And the all-touch-screen Torch 9850 is essentially the latest in the company’s keyboard-less Storm line of phones.

The Torch models aren’t especially exciting, but if you’re a fan of the classic BlackBerry design, you’ll fall in love with the Bold 9930. It’s what the brand is supposed to represent: tough, clean devices that feel great in your hands, are easy to type on and look like they’re all business.

The hardware keyboards on the Bold 9930 and Torch 9810 are terrific, though I preferred the Bold’s variation, which is wider and has more give on the keys. The Torch 9850 uses an on-screen, virtual keyboard for typing, but the software’s text-correction and text-prediction logic lags far behind that of Android or Apple’s iOS.

Inside, the three smartphones share the same central processor (a speedy Qualcomm Snapdragon model running at 1.2GHz), 8 gigabytes of storage (expandable up to 40GB using a microSD card), Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 3G radios. At the time of this writing, the Torch 9810 is available on AT&T’s 3G HSDPA network, while the Torch 9850 is being sold for Sprint. The Bold 9930 is available on Verizon’s 3G, CDMA network. It also sports world phone capability, meaning you can take the device overseas and still get service.

All the phones have a 5-megapixel camera with a flash, though the Bold 9930’s lens doesn’t offer auto-focus, meaning that capturing close subjects or photos with detail is nearly impossible. The Torches fare a bit better thanks to their continuous auto-focus, but all three devices are capable of taking good-quality photos. RIM promises “zero shutter lag” when snapping away, and it’s true that you can quickly grab images without waiting for the phone to play catch-up.

Battery life was very good, though not as long as previous BlackBerry phones, on all three models. I was able to get through a day of heavy work (calls, e-mail, Twitter updates, software downloads and more) with some juice left.

The big story with these phones, however, isn’t about hardware. RIM is using them to launch the latest version of its mobile operating system, BlackBerry 7. So, is it an improvement?

Yes, with a caveat.

The system is much faster and smoother than previous BlackBerry phones. It simply screams when it comes to general performance. Everything about the core functionality feels smooth and speedy. Both trackpad and touch-screen response are excellent, and most general tasks — managing mail, zooming through menus or searching — are carried out painlessly. In particular, the browser on the phone is greatly improved, rendering pages quickly and cleanly with little fuss.

The company has also made some interesting additions, including preloading the augmented reality software Wikitude and a full version of Documents to Go. RIM has also tweaked, cleaned up or fixed several other spots in the software, such as adding voice input to the phone’s search functionality.

Developers are able to tap into 3-D graphics support on the new devices, and there are a few titles in the company’s App World software store that take advantage of the functionality. In general, however, the software selection and quality on BlackBerry phones is subpar compared with Android, iOS and Windows Phone offerings.

But the caveat is this: It’s very much the same software that BlackBerry phones have had for years. That means that you’ll still face a mountain of confusing menus, lists and arcane methods of getting the phone to do what you want it to do. Installing apps remains a slow experience, often requiring a reboot. And even basics such as choosing an e-mail address or sending a text message feel . . . well, a bit crusty.

The current BlackBerry software is like an old horse that’s been hopped up on adrenaline and steroids and forced to run one last race. It’s clear that RIM is pushing it to its limits — and it has added some nice new components — but it’s also clear that this isn’t the future of the company’s platform.

I’m not particularly excited about the Torch 9810, and the all-touch-screen 9850 doesn’t feel like a good fit for RIM.

The Bold 9930, however, is probably the best BlackBerry ever made. If you’re a fan of the phones and platform, and you’ve been waiting patiently for the next great device from RIM — this is it. If you’re committed to the operating system, whether it’s because of a particular piece of software, a love of BlackBerry Messenger or the great keyboards, this device is probably a dream come true.

But for the other segment of the market — buyers who haven’t owned a smartphone and are trying to decide which to get, or BlackBerry users frustrated by the platform’s lack of progress — this is a tough one to recommend. In my testing, I couldn’t find a single situation in which I felt that the Bold would outperform any of the more modern smartphones on the market.

This is a die-hards-only phone, one of the last of its breed, meant for a very specific customer. For everyone else: Until RIM can deliver a truly modern experience and bring developers to the table, I suggest you keep looking.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor-in-chief of the Verge (www.theverge.com), a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and the former editor-in-chief of Engadget. He is the resident tech expert for NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

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