RIM's BlackBerry Torch Doesn't Match Up

This first-rate small-business phone still lags in what might have been RIM's last chance to lead.
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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Can Research In Motion (RIMM) stay in touch with the small-business smartphone market? It's trying with the spankin' new BlackBerry Torch 9800.

It's

tres chic

right now among the techno elite to bash Research In Motion and its BlackBerry devices. For all their power as data entry tools, enterprise-level security and no-nonsense business features, the BlackBerry line has smaller screens, not much touchiness in interactive terms and -- worst of all -- a pathetic group of apps. It's just not cutting it in a world of big, bright interactive wonder-devices such as the

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

iPhone 4,

Sprint

(S) - Get Report

HTC EVO and

Verizon

(VZ) - Get Report

Motorola

(MOT)

Droid X.

So it is to much, how shall we say, anticipation that RIM recently rolled out its

BlackBerry Torch 9800

($199 from

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

with a two-year plan). I have been giving the unit the small-biz once-over to test the company's latest, greatest -- and potentially last -- hope in elbowing into the front line of the business smartphones.

WHAT YOU GET

For BlackBerry heads, this is a serious small-business workhorse.

Clearly, RIM took the Torch seriously. The 4.3- by 2.4-inch, third-of-a-pound slider (how nice to have a phone that does not drag one's pants down) sports an updated version of the trademark BlackBerry keyboard that really does kick some data entry butt: E-mail, SMS and the mobile riffs of

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

Office

run oh-so-well with the Torch. And its 3.2-inch, 480x360-pixel, touch-activated screen renders up digital content, as well as video, in fine style.

Setup, usually a major bummer with BBerries, was excellent. The e-mail account, IM and social networking wizards were solid. And there is a big step forward in Wi-Fi usage, so business users can expect an end to the clumsy, hourlong hack it used to take light up a simple Wi-Fi connection.

BlackBerry's hope for an interactive future, its BlackBerry 6 OS, really does deliver a legit applike experience. The phone comes installed with Blackberry App World -- no more clumsy downloads required. And as far as business tools go, excellent software is available. Blackberry Enterprise Server Express is the most promising; it lets small teams collaborate with an enterprise level of robustness for absolutely nothing. That's right, RIM now gives its business code away to small businesses. That is new.

In all, the Torch is one hell of a small-business BlackBerry -- probably the best to date.

WHAT YOU DON'T GET

Remarkably, the Torch 9800 is still not a first-tier smartphone.

There are too many lapses in this unit for it to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with, say, a Droid X. The screen is too small. The software still runs from a home page that cannot offer the multiscreen performance of even a basic Android phone.

And while the touch-activated control is decent, there is not the same level of ease of use and exactness as better phones. Even basics, such as the Facebook app, was flat-out stupid here in BBerry world.

BOTTOM LINE

The Torch is a first-rate small-business phone. You can tool up with this sucker and know your crew can communicate. And those who need their BlackBerry fix will finally have it. But as good as it is, the 9800 is really only a text-based business appliance with some nice features bolted in.

The reality here is that not only is the Torch 9800 not a competitive smartphone, RIM is probably no longer a competitive, first-tier smartphone maker.

Considering this company invented the vertical, how amazing is that?

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on Fox News and The WB.