RIM has taken a step forward with its new Blackberry Torch. Its screen, hardware and software offerings pale in comparison to the Apple iPhone, HTC Desire, or Samsung Galaxy S, but those who own and use a Blackberry will definitely love this new handset for its new operating system and dual input modes.

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The Torch 9800 has a touchscreen and a slide out QWERTY keyboard that gives users two options when composing e-mails or chatting with friends. One of the first few things that users will notice is that it’s a bulky and hefty phone – the Torch is 14.6mm thick and weighs 161.1 grams. However, this handset feels solid and is great to hold.

The 3.2-inch HVGA+ touch screen is responsive and its virtual keyboard is well-spaced. Despite having large fingers, I was able to compose messages using only the touch screen with minimal problems. The slide out QWERTY keyboard is not as raised as the Bold 9700 but was still comfortable to use. Those who are used to having a physical keyboard will definitely appreciate what RIM has done for the Torch.

In addition to the slide out keyboard, the handset also comes with several buttons including lock, mute, camera, volume, send/pickup, menu, back, and power/end. The optical trackpad found in the middle of the device allows for easy navigation and scrolling.

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The new operating system not only gives the Torch an all-new look, but it also comes with a lot of features that simplify the Blackberry ecosystem. The home screen now comes with a drop down notification bar that is able to display unread e-mails (subject), BBM messages, Facebook notifications, and text messages in a glance. Clicking on the icon instantly takes the user to the e-mail, SMS, or chat window, making the process of checking and replying to messages faster than before.

Clicking the top bar which displays the time, date, carrier and signal brings down a setup menu that allow users to turn on Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth, set the alarm, and set up various services. The Torch also comes with a universal search tool that can search for just about anything stored on the phone (such as a contact, e-mail, or setting) as well as online content.

The bottom of the screen has an all-new ‘drawer’ system that has five different categories: All, Favorites [sic], Media, Downloads, and Frequent. Like older Blackberry handsets, users can move four of their most used applications to the top for quick access. If a user wants to see more than four applications on the home screen, he/she can simply drag the tab up to have eight or 12 icons displayed at once.

One of the things that we liked about this new system is that we can add phone contacts, BBM or IM contacts, and even websites to our home screen and even mark them as ‘Favorites’. These shortcuts take the level of Blackberry customisation to another level.

Blackberry is known for its e-mail service, so it wasn’t really a surprise that setting it up is easy. It supports the BlackBerry Enterprise Service as well as Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, Windows Live, among others. Users can also set up their instant messaging accounts (BBM, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk, and AOL) and social networking applications (Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace).

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Those who plan to listen to music on the Torch will not be disappointed as the unit comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack. This allows a user to use his/her favourite headphones on the device without the need for a separate adaptor. It can also play videos and display photos, although images were not as crisp as other phones with bigger and better screens. The 5-megapixel camera with flash lacked detail while its video recording function can only take videos in 640 x 480.

The browser was clean and rendered websites with minimal problems. The only problem we had was that image-intensive websites were slow to load and do not support Flash.

The Torch lasted for a whole day before we had to recharge it, but it was because we read and replied to e-mails, chatted with a couple of BBM contacts, surfed the Internet, and checked Facebook updates. Light to moderate users can get up to two days without having to recharge the handset.

Overall, the Torch is a good phone for users who are used to the Blackberry system. Its new interface combined with social networking integration, instant messaging, and e-mail function will help users keep in touch with their contacts wherever they are.

Unfortunately, users who already own and use an iPhone or a high-end Android phone such as the HTC Desire or Galaxy S may find it hard to justify moving to this new handset as it has a slower processor, smaller screen and doesn’t offer as much applications.

The Blackberry Torch is available now to Optus users for $0 on a $79 cap for 24 months. It will be arriving to Telstra and VHA in the next coming months, so check with your carrier for pricing and information. 

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