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Smart phone review: The BlackBerry Torch

The rule used to be that if you wanted a smart phone, you had to choose: work or play.

BlackBerry was the workhorse. The models are sturdy, great for e-mail and digitally secure. Businesses love them.

On the other end, Apple Inc.'s iPhone and the dozens of smart phones that use Google Inc.'s Android software were mostly good for posting Facebook pictures, playing games and downloading quirky apps. They weren’t very efficient for office work.

But Apple and Google have remedied most of the problems that made them outcasts from corporate IT departments. Several Android phones have physical keyboards, in addition to touch screens, so banging out long e-mail memos is not so onerous.

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With challengers aiming for its crown, BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd., too, needed to burn the rulebook. The culmination of that is the BlackBerry Torch, which went on sale Thursday for $200 with a two-year contract. AT&T is the exclusive service provider for the phone.

The Torch is the first BlackBerry to include both a touch screen and the hallmark physical keyboard that has turned many BlackBerry users into self-described “CrackBerry addicts.”

RIM has struggled with touch-screen devices. A pair of Verizon Wireless phones under the BlackBerry Storm moniker were initially billed as “iPhone killers” but disappointed users in just about every way. They were slow, clunky and hard to type with.

Lessons have been learned, and the BlackBerry Torch tries hard to be the phone for both the office and the home. The idea here is that you won’t have to carry around two phones. In that sense, it works well.

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But it’s neither the strongest office tool nor the ideal touch-screen device.

At 3.2 inches, the display is about 9% smaller than the iPhone’s and 14% smaller than HTC Corp.'s Droid Incredible. It is, however, larger than most BlackBerry phone screens.

To accommodate the display while still keeping a relatively small profile, the keyboard has been tucked away, requiring users to slide it out before typing an e-mail or Web address.

The compromise becomes evident the moment you get your thumbs on the cramped keypad. Gone are the small spaces to distinguish between each key. It’s similar to the BlackBerry Bold but slightly tighter, and the keys aren’t as tall.

Still, the Torch’s keyboard is better than on most smart phones not made by RIM — outperforming, say, Motorola Inc.'s Droid.

The Torch also has a touch-screen, virtual keyboard. It’s fine for making a quick Google search but little else. The auto-correct feature, a mainstay of software keyboards, is nice. For the next update, RIM should consider adding the fixing mechanism for bumbling typists using the tiny slide-out keyboard.

The touch features work well enough. You can tap with two fingers to select multiple e-mails, or make a pinching gesture to zoom in on photos or Web pages. This feature works in only some apps; it doesn’t work on the AT&T mapping program that comes with the phone or the free Google Maps software.

At times, it may seem like the system is taking an eternity to respond to those gestures, particularly when browsing an image-rich website or booting up large applications.

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Therein lies the biggest drawback with the BlackBerry Torch. RIM uses a processor that’s slower than those in recent iPhones and in just about every Android released in the last few months. It’s hardly noticeable when you’re thumbing through the software with the track pad, but the slowness is amplified when touch-navigating. If you slide a finger to the left, you expect the screen to move immediately.

The Torch is the first phone to use the new BlackBerry OS 6 software. Some older models, such as the BlackBerry Bold, will be able to download the update. It’s a major improvement. The Web browser is faster, the navigation is simpler and it’s easier to integrate social networks with your e-mail in box. The Torch also handles audio and video better than previous Blackberry phones and can wirelessly sync music with the computer.

The BlackBerry Torch has a respectable 5-megapixel camera with a flash but no front-facing camera for video chat as do the iPhone 4 and HTC’s Evo 4G. It’s good enough for candid shots to post on Facebook. The screen isn’t very sharp, though, making for some grainy-looking photos when zoomed.

Phone calls, even on speaker, are loud and clear. As in other Blackberry phones, the battery can last for more than a day even with heavy use, which is excellent by smart-phone standards. You can work all day and still play with the phone at home.

With the Torch, Jack doesn’t have to be a dull boy anymore.

mark.milian@latimes.com


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