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

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The winner: The iPhone, for its better maps app and its ability to control location privacy at a granular level.

Deathmatch: User interface
The BlackBerry Torch represents a significant change, though RIM layered the new gestures and touch UI on top of its familiar UI; users don't have to relearn the BlackBerry OS if they don't want to. The iPhone 4 UI is essentially the same as in previous iPhone models, though there are new capabilities such as folders and greater levels of controls in settings.

Operational UI. I've previously noted how the BlackBerry's virtual keyboard does not disappear automatically when you click outside of a text field. That's just one example of a poor design for touch-tapping. Another is that the onscreen key labels are smaller on the BlackBerry than on the iPhone, even though the keyboards are the same width. Also, when you tap a key in both devices, a little window appears with the character displayed so that you can make sure you're tapping the right key -- but the preview on the BlackBerry is tiny (smaller than the actual key), so it's not great for proofing what you typed. The iPhone's preview is nice and large.

Also, the BlackBerry's virtual keyboard makes it harder to type two common symbols (the comma and the @ sign), because you have to switch to a symbols view. The iPhone keyboard makes these available in the standard keyboard, and even has a key for the ".com" text available in Web-oriented fields. The BlackBerry has one slight advantage to the iPhone when it comes to the virtual keyboard: If you tap and hold a key, you can select capitalized letters (saving a press of the Shift key) and see accented versions; the iPhone keyboard shows just accented versions.

When you enter numbers, the BlackBerry assumes you want to enter just one numeral, so it automatically reverts to the text keyboard (mirroring the Alt+key approach of its physical keyboard) -- unless you tap and hold the Numbers key so that it acts like a NumLock. The iPhone leaves the numeral keyboard on till you switch back to the text keyboard. I prefer the iPhone's approach, but given the mirroring of the BlackBerry's physical keyboard behavior, I suspect most BlackBerry users will prefer the Torch's approach.

In general, I found it harder to use the BlackBerry Torch's touchscreen compared to the iPhone 4's. On the BlackBerry Torch, I often missed the key or menu I meant to tap and tapped something else. I'm not sure if the Torch screen's touch resolution is lower than the iPhone's or if the iPhone does a better job of addressing the parallax problem in which the glass between the LCD and your finger fools your eye as to where you are actually pressing. Whatever the cause, the Torch is harder to tap on accurately than the iPhone 4.

Pinching, zooming, and scrolling, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, works equivalently on the two devices.

The BlackBerry Torch offers a slideout keyboard that is the same full-QWERTY model as on the BlackBerry Bold. Its key labels are tiny, but the backlighting is quite readable in dark conditions. If you like the BlackBerry Bold's physical keyboard, you'll equally like the Torch's. If you use a BlackBerry Pearl and its compact keyboard (where several letters are assigned to each key), note that the Torch's virtual keyboard can be set to that style.

Text selection and copying. Where the BlackBerry really falls short in UI is in its touch text selection. To move your text cursor in most fields, you just tap. (However, some fields, like Search, don't let you move the text cursor to a specific point.) But then you get a framing window that displays several characters and highlights one of them. On a PC, a highlighted character is selected, and if you press Backspace, it's deleted. But on the Torch, the text cursor is actually to the left of the highlighted character -- an unintuitive UI decision.

Selecting text on the Torch is also unintuitive; you have to press the manual Menu button and choose Select in the contextual menu -- you can't get it by tapping and holding. That makes the left and right sides of the selection framing window independently movable so that you can mark a selection range. Then you use the Menu button again to choose Copy or Cut. Note that you can't select text on Web pages or text in messages except for the part you are writing; if you are replying to a message, you can't select any of the text in the original portion of the message. (The workaround, if you want to copy parts of the original message: Go to that original message and copy the text from there, then return to the reply or forward message to paste it in your new text.)

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