I love my BlackBerry Bold, but over the past year I have become acutely aware that Research in Motion, the Canadian manufacturer of the BlackBerry, needed to touch-enable its handsets and revamp the BlackBerry browser if it wanted to remain relevant in the cut-throat smartphone market.

This week RIM delivered on both these key requirements with the launch of the BlackBerry Torch 6800 – the first touchscreen “slider” BlackBerry and the first to run BlackBerry 6, the latest version of RIM’s smartphone operating system.

BlackBerry 6 will power RIM’s next generation of smartphones beginning with the Torch and, therefore, represents RIM’s response to the threat posed by rivals like Apple’s iPhone and Google Android-powered devices from HTC, Motorola, Samsung and others. It is little surprise then that Mike Lazaridis, RIM’s co-chief executive, described the Torch as, “one of the most important product introductions in our history”.

But how does the BlackBerry Torch itself stack up against the competition? I managed to get some hands-on time with the Torch when it was unveiled in New York earlier this week – it will go on sale in the US through AT&T for $199 next Thursday and is expected to be available in Europe shortly thereafter.

I was mostly impressed with the BlackBerry Torch, though I saw little that is not already available in the latest generation of advanced smartphones including Apple’s iPhone 4, Motorola’s Droid X and Samsung’s Android-powered Captivate – one of its new Galaxy S family of devices – which I have also been testing.

The Torch still lags behind its competition in some respects. For example, its 3.2-inch touchscreen is smaller than the 4.3-inch screen of the Droid X, the 4-inch screen on Samsung Captivate or even the 3.5-inch super high resolution “retina display” of the iPhone 4.

Similarly, the Torch’s integrated 5Mp (megapixel) digital camera matches those found on the iPhone 4 and Samsung Captivate but is outclassed by the 8Mp camera on Motorola’s Droid X and lacks the second forward-facing camera found on the new iPhone.

Perhaps most significantly, the Torch’s 624 MHz (megahertz) processor is markedly slower than the 1GHz (Gigahertz) processors found in its three rivals. That may not matter for basic functions like e-mail and web browsing, but could impact multimedia performance if a lot of other applications are running at the same time.

Weighing in at 5.68 ounces (161.1gm) the Torch is also somewhat heavier than its rivals including the iPhone 4 which weighs 4.8 ounces (137 grammes), while battery life – traditionally one of BlackBerry’s strengths – is similar.

In design terms, the iPhone 4 is the hands-down winner with its wraparound steel band and minimalist looks. In contrast, the BlackBerry Torch is, in Mr Lazaridis’s words, “fresh but familiar”. For example, its new capacitive touchscreen that slides up to reveal a familiar friend – the thumb-operated mini-Qwerty keyboard that most BlackBerry users have come to know and love.

Similarly, the Torch features the same mini-trackpad navigation device on the Bold and Curve models, so users of these devices will feel right at home if they decide to upgrade.

But the Torch does include lots of important improvements over current BlackBerry models such as the new operating system – a much more intuitive user interface – and the fast new browser based on the same core technology as Google’s Chrome browser and Apple’s Safari. The new browser itself uses “WebKit” technology developed by a company called Torch Mobile which was acquired by RIM a year ago (which is where the new device gets its name from). It is a long overdue improvement that will be welcomed by BlackBerry users like me who had all but abandoned using the tortuously slow and unreliable browser found in existing BlackBerrys.

In my brief tests I found the new browser performed well and accurately rendered a wide range of web pages including those with embedded video. I also like the new user interface which provides one-touch access from the home screen to a user’s latest e-mail and call list and provides simplified access to social networking services.

The new interface also includes a new “universal search” feature that allows users to search through e-mail, messages, contacts, music, videos and more on the smartphone, as well as extend search to the internet or to discover applications on BlackBerry App World.

The Torch model sold in the US will come preloaded with a raft of AT&T applications that provide access to a wide range of social networking and entertainment services as well as AT&T’s Web Video Search, a unique new app that searches video content from over 70 major online video websites.

But users can also download new applications from both AT&T’s app store and the BlackBerry App Store. Existing apps will run on the new operating system, but RIM is clearly hoping that the greater flexibility and power that the BlackBerry 6 operating system offers, will persuade developers to build more apps for the platform and help offset the huge app store advantage that both the iPhone and Android handsets currently have.

Overall, the BlackBerry Torch is a solid smartphone that puts RIM back in the race for smartphone bragging rights. It may not be an iPhone killer, but perhaps it was never really meant to be. Instead, it provides existing BlackBerry users with an attractive upgrade path and first-time smartphone buyers with a unique combination of touchscreen and BlackBerry Qwerty keyboard making it, in my view, the best smartphone for most heavy mobile e-mail and messaging users.

paul.taylor@ft.com

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