RIM's Torch: Best BlackBerry Ever

RIM's Torch is great for BlackBerry users, but it has a little more work to do before it catches up with Apple's iPhone or most Google Androids.
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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Research in Motion's (RIMM) new BlackBerry Torch is the best BlackBerry ever.

While it's a must-have for the gazillions of people who already own and love their BlackBerries, RIM has a bit more work to do before it catches up with

Apple's

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iPhone or many of the

Google

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Android handsets on the market today.

The Torch is a beautiful piece of hardware. It's amazingly small and thin -- 2.4 by 4.4 by 0.57 inches, it weighs 5.7 ounces -- for a design with a slide-down, 35-key QWERTY keyboard. The hi-res, HVGA color touchscreen measures 3.2 diagonally. In addition, there is a track pad just beneath the screen that will help older Crackberry addicts feel the connection to their past glory.

Read on for the rest of our review.

AT&T

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doesn't let you forget that Torch is a world phone. It says so right on a splash screen that you see when the device is booting. That means it's a quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE voice device and a tri-band 3G UMTS device for data.

Otherwise, the handset is loaded. There's is a 624MHz

Marvell

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processor, 512 MB of flash memory, Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n with free connectivity at AT&T hotspots), stereo Bluetooth, GPS (maps and directions), a media player, a 4GB microUSB memory card (expandable to 32GB of storage) and a 5-megapixel camera with flash, image stabilization, geotaging and digital zoom.

As for battery life, the 1300mAh battery pack is said to last 5.5 hours of talk and as much as 18 days of standby per charge. This should not be a surprise: Blackberries have always been spectacular at sipping battery power efficiently. I would expect that you will be able to get at least one full day's worth of work on a fully charged battery -- more about efficiency in a moment.

The biggest feature on the new phone is the software. This is the first device (of what will be many) to run on RIM's new Blackberry 6 OS. This is not just a visual refresh of the BlackBerry operating system, but a re-write to bring it solidly into the 21st Century. RIM has done a wonderful job of overhauling the overall look and feel of the software -- while adding a bunch of much-needed new usability -- but without alienating its large and loyal user base.

A lot of Blackberry functions make sense. When you choose something from a pull-down menu, you are greeted with a series of smart and easier-to-follow choices. Everything now seems to have a more human look -- and touch -- than in previous BB devices.

There is also a better integration of some of the software functions and apps. There are pull-up icons for all your apps as well as touch menus on top (tap the time of the e-mail icon and you'll see what I mean). As for easier access, there is a new "set-up" screen that allows you to easily find and deal with email, messaging, social networking, Wi-fi, Bluetooth, ring tones, wallpaper, languages, fonts and lots more.

With all this simplicity and integration the new Torch is able to perform many new tricks, including what RIM calls Global Search. All you do is begin typing and the Torch starts searching through all your apps and connections to see what it can find on your phone, in your information and on the Web. It's instant and works like a dream. I expect we'll see others inventing their own version of this once they try it for themselves.

The other big new feature with OS 6 is the new Web browser. Built on the somewhat ubiquitous WebKit software program, the Torch's new browser

flies

when compared to older Blackberries. I've seen some early comparison tests between an iPhone 4, an Android running on 2.2, and the new BlackBerry browser. While it's not the absolute fastest, it conducted itself very, very well considering ...

That considering is important. RIM has always prided itself in handing all the two-way communications with its portable devices. First it was email, then the Web. ALL of that information comes through RIM servers where the information is compressed and resent to your device. That might add a half second to the time it takes to receive your information, but it assures you that the info you get has been optimized for a Blackberry.

On the other hand, by going through this process, RIM actually saves bandwidth while passing along the information. That means you end up using less of the monthly data allotment from your cellular carrier with each bit of data that comes to your phone. In practical terms, one industry wag explained that the RIM system is so efficient that you could probably get away with AT&T's lowest-tier data plan. Receiving the same data on an iPhone would force you to buy AT&T's most expensive plan. It's an interesting thought.

Whether or not any of this will appeal to smartphone shoppers is anyone's guess. I think RIM has made a name for itself perfecting email, but the next working generation doesn't use email. Blackberries can handle all sorts of instant messaging, but so does nearly every other phone on the market today.

I have one major complaint about how the Torch handles non-corporate email. In setting-up a

Gmail

account, I found that while the Torch can sync the mail somewhat as well as it syncs your Google contacts, it cannot sync Google calendars. You need to download a special app from Google that can handle calendars (and also contacts but not mail, for some reason).

Most annoyingly, the Torch only partially syncs with Gmail. It delivers your email and lets you read and write messages, but it doesn't do it in a timely manner. It allows you to read or delete on your phone, but doesn't relay what you've done back to the server in real time. That means you have to delete each email twice, or wait around until your BlackBerry gets around to it. Other smartphones can handle this simple stuff -- why can't a Blackberry do it?

One last complaint, in the form of a warning to you ham-fisted typists out there: Whether because of the physically small QWERTY keys or the tiny virtual, on-screen keyboard, I found typing on the Torch a pain. I constantly hit too many wrong keys for my liking. The experience was worse than on nearly any other modern smartphone I've tested recently.

As for price, AT&T will be selling the Torch for $199.99 with a two-year contract, a qualifying rate plan and a data plan. As for those data plans I was mentioning, DataPlus, with 200MB of data costs $15 per month with DataPro, with 2GB of data costs $25 per month. If you can get away with the lower cost plan, why not?

This is the best Blackberry ever. It's fast, sleek and powerful in every way imaginable. Unfortunately, it might not be spectacular enough to sway people away from wanting, buying and using Androids or iPhones any time soon.

--Written by Gary Krakow in New York.

Gary Krakow is TheStreet.com's senior technology correspondent.