Mobile deathmatch: RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800 vs. Apple iPhone 4

The new BlackBerry doesn't try to be an iPhone, but does work better with touch

Think of it as the un-iPhone. The new BlackBerry Torch 9800 from Research in Motion is a retro smartphone, a classic BlackBerry that happens to have a touchscreen. Not that you need to use that touchscreen -- the Torch works very well without it, thanks to its slideout physical keyboard and trackball. The Torch works even better with the touchscreen, though, allowing BlackBerry users who aren't so sure about all this gesture stuff to ease into the new mobile world. The key word is "ease." The Torch is not a full-on gesture-based smartphone like the Apple iPhone, the Palm Pre, or a Google Android OS-based device; it still relies very much on the traditional physical command buttons that were essential to completing many actions in previous BlackBerry models.

In other words, if you like how a BlackBerry Bold 9700 works, you can use the Torch in exactly the same way, enjoying the larger screen in the process. And if you like the BlackBerry platform but want a more modern look and feel, the Torch offers a better user experience than previous models, thanks to its touch capabilities, larger screen, and trackball (no longer an actual ball but a motion-sensing micropad, what RIM calls a sensorpad). But if you use a BlackBerry and look longingly at a colleague's iPhone or Droid, the BlackBerry Torch will be an unsatisfying tease.

[ See how the BlackBerry Torch and iPhone 4 compare feature by feature in InfoWorld's slideshow: "Mobile deathmatch: RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800 vs. Apple iPhone 4, side by side." | Keep up on the latest in mobile developments with InfoWorld's Mobile Patrol blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

There's more to a smartphone than the UI, of course, but the UI is what distinguishes them the most. The BlackBerry retains its previous strengths and weaknesses when it comes to functionality, strengths such as its higher security capabilities when used with a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and weaknesses such as a limited selection of mainly poorly designed apps. What the Torch does not do is bring significant new capabilities to the BlackBerry line, beyond the BlackBerry OS 6.0's newfound ability to separately manage corporate and personal information and assets on the device when used with the latest edition of BES, and its inclusion of a modern, HTML5-capable browser.

RIM's decision to make the Torch essentially a standard BlackBerry with touch thrown in means it's not a realistic alternative for someone looking at an iPhone, Pre, or Android device; it'd be like choosing DOS over Mac OS X, Windows 7, or Ubuntu Linux. Well, DOS is too harsh; a better analogy would be GEM or Windows 3.0, if you remember them. For BlackBerry users, the question depends on your situation: If you must use a BlackBerry for work purposes, is the Torch a better choice than the Bold or Curve? (Yes, it is.) And if you have a choice of devices, do you want more of the same (the Torch) or a radical break into something new (the competition)?

Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contacts
For testing, I used a personal IMAP account, a personal Gmail account, and a work Exchange 2007 account. The iPhone works directly with Exchange, so my email, email folders, calendars, and contacts all flowed effortlessly among the iPhone, laptop, and server. The configuration was trivial. For the BlackBerry, I had IT set me up through BES. (If you access Exchange as a regular email account, assuming your company permits such connections, you can't access your Exchange folders, contacts, or calendars.) It was a simple operation for IT to enter my email address and activation code.

Setting up my IMAP and Gmail accounts was simple on both platforms, though the BlackBerry's forms are clunkier and require more scrolling. The Torch's virtual keyboard, which opens automatically if the physical keyboard is not slid out, constantly got in the way. It doesn't disappear when you tap outside a text field, as the iPhone virtual keyboard does; to get rid of it, you have to press the Torch's physical Menu button and choose Hide Keyboard. And the BlackBerry's predictive type-ahead also interfered, suggesting nonsensical replacements in large, annoying, incessant pop-ups for server names and the like. (The iPhone's iOS is smart enough to let developers turn off predictive and corrected typing in fields such as these.)

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InfoWorld Scorecard
Business connectivity (20.0%)
Web and Internet support (20.0%)
Security and management (20.0%)
Usability (15.0%)
Hardware (10.0%)
Application support (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Apple iPhone 4 8.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.6
RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800 8.0 8.0 9.0 7.0 7.0 6.0 7.8
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