A year ago it wasn’t easy to remain optimistic about RIM. You know this if you were reading RIMarkable and BBGeeks at the time. As both Robb and I lamented, the 2010 line of BlackBerry devices offered little to no tangible upgrade over the 2008 and 2009 models, which in themselves were behind their times. It left in the air RIM’s future as a smartphone competitor. We heard plenty about the QNX operating system and how it would change everything, but that was still a ways off. RIM needed something inspiring to bridge the gap.

Earlier in the year we caught wind of RIM’s plans for 2011. From a physical standpoint it looked like more of the same. The new line would include an updated flagship device, a full touchscreen device, a new Curve, and an update to the Torch. Nothing new, nothing revolutionary. Yet RIM made a few subtle changes to each model. The full touchscreen device ditched SurePress, which doomed the Storm from the start. The flagship device got a small touchscreen in addition to the full QWERTY keyboard. The Curve got a graphics update. But, most importantly, they all got faster processors: 1.2 GHz to be exact, which are among the fastest on the market.

While the software didn’t figure to change much — they called it BlackBerry 7, but it was really more like 6.1 or 6.5 — the processor might have made the difference. After all, my biggest complaints about the OS 6 models centered on lag. Everything just ran slow, as though the processor just wasn’t powerful enough to handle the tasks assigned to it. As it turns out, that is exactly the case. The result is a line of BlackBerry models that should make RIM proud. They’ve delivered practical, usable devices that, as has been their calling card for more than a decade, help users get organized and stay in touch.

BlackBerry Torch 9810
I’m actually least impressed with the new Torch. While the idea itself has potential, the execution just isn’t there. In fact, the Torch 9810 has me wondering if the idea has any value beyond theory. It just doesn’t feel like a BlackBerry. This is something of an issue for someone who has been using one for the past five years.

RIM apparently realized that in terms of design, it got the Torch 9800 right. Not one thing changed physically between the two models. They’re the same size, the same shape, the same weight. The only things that changed, really, were the screen resolution and processor speed. That truly did make a difference. The lagging issues that plagued the 9800 are gone, and the higher resolution screen makes the multimedia experience — a big selling point of the Torch — a bit more enjoyable.

Essentially, RIM exhausted the possibilities of this design with the 9810. If you like the concept of a touchscreen portrait slider and can get used to the awkward keyboard feel, then this is the device for you. In terms of what RIM offers now and in the future, I can’t see it getting any better.

BlackBerry Torch 9850
Here’s where RIM had a huge opportunity for improvement. If you owned a Storm, think of your experience. If you didn’t, think of all the people you know who owned one, and then recall their criticisms. While part of it was an expectations issue — it was never going to be an iPhone killer — part of it really was performance. The OS and the processor just didn’t have the oomph to make the Storm or the Storm 2 a major player.

Last year RIM had planned a Storm 3, but either they or Verizon scrapped it. That was probably an excellent move. It would have been just another SurePress device that underwhelmed in a market filled with shiny, glitzy touchscreen devices. It left the Verizon BlackBerry inventory relatively bare, but sometimes that’s preferable when the alternative is releasing an inferior device. At the same time we heard of the Storm 3 cancellation, we saw pictures of a true touchscreen BlackBerry. That turned out to be the 9850.

The result is a massive upgrade from the previous touchscreen BlackBerry devices. The Torch is a sleek, thin, easy to handle device. It packs that 1.2 GHz processor, so you’re never left with lag issues. The touchscreen is silky smooth — it might even make you wonder what the hell RIM was thinking when they decided to go with the SurePress system previously. Most importantly, it handles the OS perfectly. In fact, I might even prefer this to the iPhone if it had the apps. Alas, it does not. But it’s still a quality device for someone whose needs center on messaging rather than apps.
BlackBerry Bold 9930
For anyone who bought the Bold 9650 and hated it, this is your reprieve. It’s a $250 reprieve if you’re on Verizon, which makes it far less impressive. But the Bold 9930 delivers in every way that the 9650 fell short. And if you own a 9650, I needn’t enumerate the ways in which it is an unsatisfactory device. It nearly brought me to my end with BlackBerry. But then we learned of the BlackBerry Montana, that elusive touchscreen device. That ended up being the 9930, and it’s reeled me back in.

As with the other two models, the processor makes a huge difference in the Bold. The old model was, unsurprisingly, underpowered. It had tons of trouble handling OS 6. There were times when my 9650 would lag so badly that it wouldn’t open my messages app — and this is after I completely wiped the device and started fresh. It was easily the most frustrating electronic device I’ve ever owned.
The 9930 is the anthesis. It’s blazing fast, and with the touchscreen you can get from Point A to Point Z in no time. While I thought that the touchscreen would take some time to get used to, that was not the case. It was perfectly natural to press buttons on the screen rather than using the trackpad. After a few weeks I’m not even using the trackpad anymore. The keyboard is also much better, from the bigger keys to the better action. It is exactly what I was looking for last year. The only shame of the matter is that RIM was at least a year behind with it.

Not your typical BlackBerry models

Don’t get me wrong: these models are not ones that will go toe-to-toe with the iPhone and Android devices. They are what they are: messaging-centric devices that can extend themselves into useful apps and multimedia. But that’s what BlackBerry has been for years. These devices essentially represent the apex of the BlackBerry as we know it. These are the best that RIM has ever offered, and there’s little chance they can top this by staying the course. They need a seismic shift.

That shift appears to be coming with QNX-based devices. After using the PlayBook for a bit, it’s easy to see how well QNX would work as a smartphone platform. In fact, the easy and natural multitasking environment will make it a hit for both consumer and business markets. RIM might keep up this current line just to cater to their old school enterprise class customers. But really, they’ll just be reiterations of the current line. QNX will be, and should be, the focus in the future.

Make no mistake: RIM has a bright future if they play their cards right. And right now, it appears that they’re holding the right cards.

Joe Pawlikowski is the editor of BBGeeks.com, a site that provides BlackBerry users with practical tips and information that help them better use their devices.