Hands On: BlackBerry 6 OS
At a Glance
RIM BlackBerry Torch
The Torch smartphone successfully delivers a design that is both innovative and familiar to BlackBerry users, but its performance and features aren’t quite up to par.
Though BlackBerry 6 OS isn't a complete overhaul, it adds some much-needed improvements and overall refinement to RIM's mobile operating system. BlackBerry users should be pleased with the updates. But is BlackBerry 6 OS enough to win over new customers and to compete with the ever-growing Android army? Here's a look at what's new, what works--and what doesn't.
Home Screen and Apps
BlackBerry 6 OS may have a more modern, spruced-up user interface, but BlackBerry owners will feel right at home. The icons and text appear sharper and smoother than they did in previous BlackBerry OS versions, but the overall look is ultimately BlackBerry.
In terms of appearance, the biggest difference between 5 OS and 6 OS is the home screen. In 5 OS, your home screen has icon shortcuts to your frequently used apps (text messages, e-mail, calendar, and so on) running along the bottom of the display, and the time, date, sounds, and e-mail notifications at the top. Pressing the Menu key takes you to a view of all of your applications. In BlackBerry 6 OS, these two screens are combined.
Reminiscent of pre-2.0 Android, BlackBerry 6 OS has a vertically sliding applications drawer. You can slide it all the way up to view all of your apps, or slide it down to view none at all. You can also notch it to view one or two rows of apps at a time. I preferred to keep mine so that one row of apps was showing at all times, so that I could easily access the apps I used the most.
You can also slide your apps horizontally and view your apps filtered by categories such as Favorites, Media, Downloads, and Frequent. To add an app to your Favorites, you simply touch and hold the app's icon; a pop-up menu appears with that option and various others like 'hide', 'launch', and 'delete'. These multiple views sound a bit excessive on paper, but I liked having some choice in how I set my home screen.
At long last, RIM has brought universal search to the BlackBerry OS. And it's pretty powerful, too, as it searches through your contacts, apps, music--just about everywhere on your phone. If you want to speed up the process, you can tweak the settings so that it searches only through specific parts of the phone. I found it quite fast, however, and I relied on it heavily to find what I needed in my hands-on tests. I also liked that it gives you the option to search Google, YouTube, the Yellow Pages, and BlackBerry App World if it doesn't find what you're looking for on the phone itself. A lot of platforms (Android, iOS, WebOS) offer universal search, but the BlackBerry's version is the most powerful and comprehensive of them all.
Hallelujah! WebKit finally comes to the BlackBerry OS. Until now, the BlackBerry platform's biggest pitfall was its shoddy Web browser. The new browser isn't perfect (more on that later), but it's light years ahead of the older one. BlackBerry OS has finally caught up with the other players: You get pinch-to-zoom multitouch support, tabbed browsing, and auto-wrap text zoom (when you zoom in to a block of text, the font automatically wraps in a column so that none of it is cut off).
Pinch-to-zoom wasn't the smoothest experience, but it worked just fine in my hands-on tests. Auto-wrap text functioned well, too. I liked having a cursor while browsing so that I could easily copy text and navigate as I would in a desktop browser.
The tabbed browsing interface is especially nice and easy to navigate. Opening a new tab requires clicking on an icon in the top-right corner of the display. Clicking this icon also shows all of your open browser windows in thumbnails. You can then flick through the miniature pages to navigate.
Full Flash Player 10 support unfortunately isn't ready yet for BlackBerry, though RIM is still working with Adobe to deliver the multimedia platform to future phones. Additionally, since the OS has no HTML5 support, you're pretty much stuck with YouTube for Web videos.
I can live without Flash support for now, but I can't deal with a sluggish browser. This is probably more of a hardware issue on the BlackBerry Torch 9800, but I found the browser slow to load, especially with media-heavy Websites. I actually managed to crash the browser a few times, too, which was frustrating.
Messaging, E-Mail, and Social Feeds
E-mail is where RIM really shines, and BlackBerry 6 OS adds some features that solidify the company as the master of messaging. You can of course sync with your company's BlackBerry Enterprise Server with support for Exchange, Lotus Domino, or Groupwise for real-time e-mail delivery. With BlackBerry Internet Service, you can access up to ten personal/business POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts.
Here's where things get confusing: Essentially you have to deal with two separate inboxes for managing your messages. You have the universal Messages inbox, which contains your SMS items, e-mail messages, and BlackBerry Messenger, and then you have your dedicated e-mail (in my case, Gmail) inbox. In the dedicated Gmail inbox, you get archiving, threaded conversations, labeling, and starring--an arrangement that's just about as close to the Gmail desktop setup as possible. In the catch-all inbox, however, you don't have access to any of these features. This is a bizarre oversight on RIM's part.
Social media aggregators are a hot item in competing smartphones, so it comes as no surprise that RIM has created its own. I'm not a huge fan of social aggregators; I find them a bit messy, and I prefer to read my feeds in separate places. I don't have a use for them, and I wish smartphone manufacturers would stop insisting that dumping all of your social networks into one place increases your productivity. RIM's Social Feeds app certainly does not.
Like the others, Social Feeds combines your Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging apps (Gtalk, AIM, BlackBerry Messenger), and RSS feeds into a seamless view. Though it is easy to add accounts (as simple as logging in) and the interface is fairly easy to decipher, Social Feeds is missing a lot of functionality. You can post status updates and view others, and that's basically it. If you want to do anything more, such as comment on somebody's Facebook status or tweet, you have to move to a stand-alone Facebook or Twitter client.
Can a BlackBerry phone be an entertainment device? RIM is certainly trying to change the perception of the BlackBerry as strictly business. Thankfully, the upgrades in 6 OS definitely help. The music player gets a much needed face-lift, gaining a CoverFlow-like interface that nicely showcases your music collection's album art. You simply run your finger over the album art to navigate through your collection.
You'll also find a brand-new YouTube application with a fairly straightforward interface, as well as a BlackBerry Podcast app for managing your video and audio podcasts.
BlackBerry 6 OS has more positives than negatives, but it still lacks the freshness it needs to keep up with the competition. BlackBerry users will be more than happy with the updates, but I fear that RIM won't be able to win over new customers. Furthermore, the user experience just isn't quite up to par with what you can find in various Android versions and overlays, such as HTC Sense or Samsung's TouchWiz. RIM is playing catch-up rather than innovating, which is disappointing considering the contributions the company has made to the smartphone world. Stay tuned for a full review of the BlackBerry Torch 9800 phone tomorrow.