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Many among the digerati dismiss the BlackBerry as a tired remnant of yesterday's technology. And its maker, Research In Motion (RIMM), often gets lumped with Microsoft (MSFT) and Nokia (NOK) as wireless pioneers who squandered early advantages and are sinking toward irrelevance. The BlackBerry Torch 9800, which went on sale in the U.S. on Aug. 12, is RIM's latest effort to answer the charge.
The Torch—which will cost $199 with a two-year AT&T (T) contract—is the first BlackBerry to combine its trademark physical keyboard with a touchscreen and the first to run a new operating system, BlackBerry 6. By and large it should succeed in keeping RIM loyalists satisfied. It may also appeal to those who have yet to make the move from more limited devices, though it doesn't provide users of competing smartphones with a compelling reason to switch.
There's no mistaking the Torch for anything but a BlackBerry. It has that classic shape and, unfortunately, heft: It weighs about 5.7 ounces, making it approximately 18 percent heavier than an iPhone 4. That's largely because of the keyboard, which slides out from behind the 3.2-inch screen.
After some trouble setting up the Torch to work with my e-mail system—the phone froze twice while configuring itself—it finally took. From then on it functioned smoothly, providing the same stable and secure e-mail and messaging services that have made BlackBerry so beloved by corporate IT departments—and so frightening to governments like those of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have threatened to ban or restrict them unless RIM makes it easier to monitor encrypted transmissions.
The interface provided by the new operating system, which will also be available to users of BlackBerry's Bold 9700 and 9650 and Pearl 3G models, is clean and intuitive. The home screen is well laid out, with a separate screen for frequently used applications. Settings and options have been made simpler across the board. The biggest improvement is in surfing the Web: RIM has completely revamped the browser, which is now much faster, toggles more easily between windows, and is better at handling RSS feeds. You can use now-familiar pinch-and-zoom gestures to resize text and images on the screen.
The Torch lacks the élan of the iPhone 4 or Motorola's Droid X. Its application store has only about 9,000 items, a small fraction of the number available for Apple's (AAPL) phones or for Google's (GOOG) Android operating system, and its small screen and software limit its media-playing appeal. Still, BlackBerry enjoys some of the most passionate devotees this side of Steve Jobs, and the Torch provides them with a good reason to stick around.