Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I am a Torch bearer

I am a Torch bearer. More specifically, I am now a proud owner of a BlackBerry Torch 9800. This came as a surprise to me, actually, since I had no plans to buy one. The Torch is an AT&T phone: even after unlocking it, the Torch's 3G radio does not work on my T-Mobile network (wrong frequency). I own a Torch because my MissingLight app became a Regional Selection in RIM's 2010 BlackBerry Super Apps Developer Challenge, and the  prize for that honor is a new Torch. I'm not complaining.

This Torch is my first touchscreen phone. I owned a couple of Palm PDAs before, and then a BlackBerry Curve 8320 and 8900. The negatives: it's thicker and heavier than my 8900, and the screen too easily shows my fingerprints. I briefly tried an overpriced screen protector that eliminated the fingerprint problem but made the screen look murky. I'm still torn between using the full "touchy" UI and just using trackpad to keep the screen clean.

Fingerprints aside, there is a lot to like about this phone. The big screen is my favorite part: even though it has the exact same pixel count as my 8900, the larger physical measurements really make a difference. I do a lot of reading on the phone, and the Torch fits a lot more text at a readable size. The touchscreen UI is new to me and has its charms, though I still miss convenient access to the keyboard shortcuts. The keyboard is still available, but it needs a little extra effort to slide it open. Besides the UI enhancements, OS 6 finally has a WebKit browser, and is the fastest-booting BB OS I've seen yet. With 3G turned off (won't work, as I said, on T-Mobile), battery life is pretty good.

This is not meant to be a phone review: you can find very detailed reviews elsewhere. What I do want to do is mention a couple of things regarding the Torch as an app platform. The big thing to me remains the memory, as all apps must be installed in application memory to run. The Torch comes with 512MB of flash memory for this purpose, of which about 300MB is initially free. That may not seem much, especially since it also comes with an additional 4GB of internal memory and an additional 4GB on an SD card, but this 300MB really does matter. To put this in perspective, my old Curve 8320 had about 20MB of free application memory with no third party apps installed. We're supposed to keep about 10MB of that space free at all times, so that effectively leaves just 10MB for installing apps. In other words, the Torch has 30 times more space to install apps than my old Curve. The BlackBerry has come a long way as an app platform.

Touchscreen compatibility with existing apps is different from the Storm. The Storm distinguished between touching and clicking the screen (SurePress), allowing you to choose between choosing and activating a control. The Torch does not have SurePress, so you can't click the screen anymore. A screen touch is equivalent to a click action on the Storm. On the other hand, the Torch does have a trackpad (unlike the Storm), so you can select UI elements without activating them. Because the Torch has everything -- touchscreen, trackpad and full keyboard -- it should work fine with both touchscreen and non-touchscreen apps. The Torch does not need the clumsy "compatibility mode" that used to cause confusion on the Storm.

OS 6 remains fairly backwards compatible: all my apps run fine unchanged. There are lots of new APIs, but of course apps using these APIs won't work on older phones. On the other hand, App World downloads show that almost all phones have at least OS 5. So while it might not be a good idea to develop exclusively for OS 6, I think it is an entirely viable option to omit support for older OS versions like 4.2, 4.3, 4.5 and 4.6 for new apps, at least on App World.

If you are savvy about the smartphone market, you'd probably know that the Torch's technical specs (processor, screen/resolution etc) aren't that impressive. I suspect RIM's true flagship phone will be a future successor to the Storm 2 (which has OpenGL, unlike the Torch). But for now, the Torch is a solidly constructed phone with good reception and battery life that combines a bigger screen with a great keyboard, upgraded camera, modern web browser and more memory. For me, that's a nice step up.

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