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

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.

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.)

Both the iPhone 4 and BlackBerry Torch have business-class security and management capabilities using separate server tools (RIM’s BES for BlackBerry, and any of a half dozen third-party options for the iPhone). But the BlackBerry offers more controls than the iPhone, so industries with very high security requirements will prefer the BlackBerry. It’s key to note that BES supports Novell GroupWise and Lotus Notes, in addition to Exchange, while the iOS natively supports only Exchange among this group. IBM does offer a free Notes client for the iPhone, and Novell’s is working on one to go with its forthcoming mobile-capable GroupWise server.

Email messages. Although

RIM has updated the BlackBerry OS, it retains some of its puzzling time-stamping of email messages: It lists the messages according to when the device receives them, not when they are sent. That can be a bit confusing as you switch from a computer to your BlackBerry. (If you open the message, you can see the real date and time.) But when you reconcile messages — that is, load older ones from the server — the new operating system uses their original time stamps, rather than the import time.

Navigating email remains difficult on the BlackBerry. I use folders extensively to manage my messages, and the iPhone makes it very easy to navigate among folders. The BlackBerry lets you navigate down but not up, so it’s hard to flip from any one folder to another. It’s even harder if the physical keyboard is not slid out; the touch keyboard automatically opens up and obscures half the screen when you go to folder view. The reason is that so you can search, but it would be better if the keyboard popped up only if you actually tapped in the Search field. The Torch is inconsistent in this behavior: Some apps don’t pop up the virtual keyboard automatically but wait for you to tap a text field, while others pop up the virtual keyboard automatically.

Both the iPhone 4 and BlackBerry Torch let you search messages, but the BlackBerry offers more search options to more precisely narrow down your results. Both also identify URLs and phone numbers in messages and let you open the Web pages and call the numbers through a simple tap.

Reading email was easier on the iPhone. One reason: When you’re reading a message, the iPhone has touch buttons to go to the previous or next message, but the BlackBerry does not. The BlackBerry’s physical Menu button opens a menu that has the Next Unopened Item menu, but getting to it requires a lot of scrolling. Another reason the iPhone is easier: It lets you tap the top of the screen to get to the top of your message, while the BlackBerry forces you to scroll (unless you have the physical keyboard open; in which case, just press T).

The BlackBerry Torch does have new onscreen controls to reply, reply all, forward, and delete messages; the iPhone has onscreen buttons to refresh, move to a folder, delete, forward/reply (a menu appears giving you options to reply, reply all, and forward), and compose a new message. The Torch uses menus for additional options: You get the full set of options by pressing the physical Menu button, or you get a subset by tapping and holding on the touchscreen to get a pop-up grid of options. When you’re reading email, the Torch also has an onscreen button to open the virtual keyboard — but that keyboard has no button to close it when done. You have to use the physical Menu button, then choose the Hide Keyboard menu option.

When you compose a message, such as for a reply, the BlackBerry Torch has Send and Cancel onscreen buttons in your message, but none to send or file the message as a draft. You either need to press the physical Menu button and choose the appropriate option, or tap and hold on your message until a pop-up grid appears with the Save Draft, Send, and Full Menu onscreen buttons. I found it very bizarre to use in-message touch controls to start a reply and a different menu entirely to finish it. This “start with onscreen buttons and finish with menu-based buttons” approach is used throughout the Torch, not just in email. The bouncing back and forth between interface approaches felt awkward and unnatural, and I was frequently frustrated in having to switch mental gears during an action.

The BlackBerry and iPhone are mixed bags when it comes to navigating messages. Both the BlackBerry and iPhone offer a quick way to jump to the top of your message list, but only the BlackBerry has a way to jump to the bottom. However, on the Torch, that jumping only works if you are usi

Email management.

Both the iPhone 4 and BlackBerry Torch provide a unified inbox so that you can see all new messages from all email accounts. The iPhone also provides a unified view of your mailboxes, so you can easily move among accounts from one pane. The closest the BlackBerry gets to this is its list of email accounts in the Home screen. But the BlackBerry does have a nice capability on its Home screen: If you click the waiting-message indicator, you get a list of all unread emails, upcoming calendar appointments, and unread social media messages for easy access to any of them. By contrast, the iPhone makes you open each app separately to see what’s new in each.

Both the iPhone and BlackBerry remember the email addresses of senders you reply to, adding them to a database of contacts that it looks up automatically as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields. Both devices let you add email addresses to your contacts list simply by tapping them (you need to tap and hold on the Torch).

The iPhone 4 comes with a message threading capability, which organizes your emails based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicking to go through messages, but it does remove the effort of finding the messages in the first place. (iOS 4 lets you disable threading if you don’t like it.) The BlackBerry also has a similar capability of grouping messages by subject, which you can easily toggle on and off via the physical Menu button’s options.

You can also set up filters on the BlackBerry, such as to autoforward messages from specified addressed; the iPhone has no such capability.

Both devices let you view attachments, and the iPhone now lets other apps open the attachments if they implement the Open With capability (the BlackBerry has had that capability for some time). The iPhone still can’t open zipped files, whereas the BlackBerry has been able to do so for years.

Contacts and calendars. The iPhone 4’s more elegant UI for email applies to its Contacts and Calendar apps as well. Although both the BlackBerry and iPhone offer essentially the same capabilities and views, they look better on the iPhone and are easier to navigate due to the iPhone’s thorough, consistent use of gestures and the touch UI.

You can easily switch calendar views in the iPhone 4 in the main calendar screen; by contrast, doing so in the Torch requires using a contextual menu to select a view. But both can display multiple calendars simultaneously. The iPhone more elegantly displays calendars and the controls to work with them.

Accepting invitations in the BlackBerry is an awkward experience due to the use of cryptic icons; plus, you have to accept them within your email (unless you’re using Exchange). On the iPhone, your invitations show up in your calendar so that you can accept them with the full context of your other appointments. The BlackBerry does let you issue invitations, whereas the iPhone does not.

If you use Gmail, note that the BlackBerry will display Gmail as a calendar but will not sync to it wirelessly; you need to download and install Google Sync to get over-the-air syncing. Any calendars handled through BES, such as Exchange, sync wirelessly. The iPhone syncs Gmail and Exchange calendars out of the box.

Both the iPhone and BlackBerry have capable Contacts apps, but the iPhone 4 makes it easier to navigate through your entries. You can jump easily to names by tapping a letter, such as T at the side of the screen to get to people whose last names begin with T, or search quickly for someone in the Search field by tapping in part of the name. The BlackBerry has similar search capabilities, but no quick-jump touch elements.

The BlackBerry lets you designate users as favorites, to put them in the Home screen. The iPhone 4 has no equivalent.

The winner: A tie. The BlackBerry Torch offers more functionality, but it’s harder to use. And the iPhone 4’s capabilities are more than enough for most businesses.

Deathmatch:

ApplicationsRIM has made a lot of noise about its BlackBerry App World store, but despite the hoopla and a push to entice gaming vendors, the selection of BlackBerry apps remains limited. Plus, the apps themselves are typically pale, pathetic imitations of iPhone apps, reflecting the BlackBerry’s WAP heritage (a DOS for mobile devices). With the new BlackBerry OS 6 and the Torch’s larger screen, perhaps we’ll finally start seeing quality BlackBerry apps this year. But for now, you won’t be eagerly hunting for apps in App World as an iPhone user would be in the Apple App Store.

At first glance, the native apps for both operating systems are comparable, providing email, contacts, calendar, maps and navigation, browser, music player, YouTube player, and SMS messaging. But the BlackBerry has no notepad app, whereas the iPhone 4 does. And the BlackBerry’s YouTube “app” is really just a link to the mobile version of the YouTube site.

The BlackBerry apps are, on the whole, clunkier to use but serviceable, with one seriously inferior exception. The AT&T Maps app from Telenav is a primitive, limited app that offers just a bare-bones map view and basic directions capability (no options for transit or walking, as in the iPhone). The Google Maps app that comes with the iPhone is much more capable and easier to use.

App stores and app installation. Using App World continues to be a convoluted experience — you have to drill down to get any useful information on an app, whereas the App Store presents the key information much earlier (and more nicely). Downloading an app to the BlackBerry usually means wading through several pages and prompts; for some reason, most apps have huge legal agreements that require six or so screens of scrolling (as if anyone would read all that, much less comprehend it). Downloading an app can also take a long time, and once they’re installed, you get additional prompts for setup. The result is highly off-putting. The level of disclaimer is unreal, and you’re left with a strong sense that you shouldn’t be installing any apps. RIM needs to tell its lawyers to shut up. And if you’re brave enough to get past all the legalese and setup prompts, you often find you have to reboot your BlackBerry after installing an app. I can’t think of any other smartphone that requires such an action.

I much prefer the iPhone’s simple, fast approach to downloads. The App Store recognizes that six-screen legal agreements and multiple “Are you sure” confirmations are not mobile-friendly. If you download an iPhone app by accident, deleting it takes a couple seconds — and the whole download-install-remove process takes less time than just starting a BlackBerry App World download.

To add insult to injury, there’s no desktop version of the App World store to peruse available options, as there is with the iPhone’s iTunes. The BlackBerry Desktop 6 Software only lets you see what optional apps are installed and remove them. (Note: The software took several installations before it became stable on both Windows XP and Windows 7; there is as yet no Mac OS X version.)

App management. The BlackBerry’s Home screen stores apps, but you can also put them in a separate Applications folder and in a Favorites section of the Home screen by using the Menu physical button or tapping and holding to get the contextual menu. (You delete applications the same way or by using the BlackBerry Desktop program on your PC.) The Favorites section is handy, but the Applications folder is a level down, so getting to it is more work. Rearranging your apps on the home and other screens is an awkward process on the Torch: You tap and hold an app icon, then tap where on the screen you want to move it to — you can’t simply drag the icon as on the iPhone.

The iPhone’s app management process is simpler. For example, it’s easy to arrange your home screens to cluster applications both on your iPhone and on your desktop via iTunes; you can also put them in your own folders (the BlackBerry can’t do that). Just tap and hold any app to invoke the “shaking apps” status, in which you can drag apps wherever you want, or click the X icon to delete them (press the Home button when done to exit that mode). You can also arrange and delete apps using iTunes on your desktop.

The iPhone has long let you add Web pages to the home screens as if they were apps — that’s great for the many mobile Web pages that are essentially Web apps such as iphone.infoworld.com. The BlackBerry Torch adds that capabi

Deathmatch:

Web and InternetFor years, RIM has offered a substandard portal to the Web; BlackBerry OS 6 aims to change that with a new browser based on the same WebKit engine used by the iPhone’s iOS and Google Android. RIM has succeeded in presenting regular Web pages as such. Both Apple and Google are strong forces behind HTML5 and other modern browser technologies, so it’s no surprise that both offer capable Web browsers. Do note that neither is as HTML5-savvy as their desktop versions, however: Based on the HTML5 Test site’s scores, the BlackBerry OS 6 browser scores 208 out of a possible 300, thus outperforming both the iPhone’s mobile Safari (which scores 185) and Android’s mobile Chrome (which scores 176). By comparison, desktop Chrome scores 197 and desktop Safari scores 208.

The BlackBerry loses its previous capability of reformatting a Web page to better fit the BlackBerry screen; now it uses the same pinch, zoom, and panning gestures as the iPhone to navigate the “native” Web page. But the mobile Safari browser is much easier to use, thanks to the inclusion of Back and Forward buttons and a Search field that is always present onscreen. On the BlackBerry Torch, you have to use the contextual menu accessed via the physical Menu button or by tapping and holding on the screen. Both the BlackBerry and iPhone browsers have similar onscreen controls to share, refresh, and switch among open Web pages. Also, the BlackBerry can’t select text or images on Web pages for copying; the iPhone can select both.

The biggest issue I had with the BlackBerry browser was its speed, or lack thereof. Loading pages on the BlackBerry always took longer than on an iPhone over the same Wi-Fi network — typically 30 to 50 percent longer. And the BlackBerry frequently timed out in loading Web pages, while the iPhone did not. Sometimes, the BlackBerry took two or three times longer to load the same pages as the iPhone — and overall, the Wi-Fi speeds were little better than 3G speeds. On 3G, the two devices’ Web-loading speeds are closer (both use the same AT&T network, which is slow in San Francisco and often is limited to EDGE radio frequencies), but the BlackBerry continued to trail the iPhone. That slow downloading also made page refresh slower on the BlackBerry when scrolling.

Neither device supports Adobe Flash. RIM says it is working with Adobe on making Flash Player 10.1 available for BlackBerry OS 6 but won’t commit to when that might happen. Apple, of course, has no plans to allow Flash support, given Apple’s dislike of the Adobe Flash technology.

The winner: The iPhone 4, thanks to its faster speed, its easier UI, and its ability to copy text and graphics.

Deathmatch:

Location support

Both the iPhone 4 and BlackBerry Torch support GPS location, and both can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. As noted earlier, the AT&T Maps app on the BlackBerry is substandard compared to the iPhone’s solid Google Maps app. Both mobile OSes let developers integrate location information in their apps, so location is just another native feature.

Although the BlackBerry asks for permission to work with location information (as does the iPhone), it does not provide user-controllable settings for location utilization by the device or individual applications, as the iPhone does.

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

Deathmatch:

User interfaceThe 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 Curve 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.

By contrast, the iPhone makes text selection and copying easy. Tap and hold to move the text cursor anywhere: fields, Web pages, messages, you name it. You even get a zoom view of the text that you can scroll through, so you never lose track of where your cursor is. To select text, tap it; selection bars appear, which you drag for your selection. Tap elsewhere in the text, and Copy and Paste buttons appear automatically. It’s that easy.

The winner: The iPhone 4, by a mile. You can really see Apple’s attention to usability when you try out another manufacturer’s device. Several poor design choices in the BlackBerry Torch UI make it harder to use than is necessary, and limitations such as in text selection further constrain the device.

Deathmatch:

Security and managementThe BlackBerry is well-known, and deservedly so, for its enterpris

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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