Research In Motion has finally come good on the touchscreen smartphone front and launched a hybrid BlackBerry handset that combines a Qwerty keyboard and a 3.2in capacitive touchscreen display. The BlackBerry Torch 9800 was developed in close alliance with US mobile operator AT&T and goes onsale in the US immediately exclusively on that network at $200 with a two-year contract.

The RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800 offers HSDPA 3.5G connectivity along with 80.11b, g and n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. UK pricing and availability for the BlackBerry Torch 9800 will be announced by individual operators"in the coming weeks". RIM refused to be drawn on whether country-specific exclusive carrier deals were likely. Read our RIM BlackBerry Torch 9800 review.

The BlackBerry Torch 9800 offers standard Qwerty input, SureType, a 'narrow' Qwerty layout, a full or restricted onscreen software keyboard and a numerical keypad. It has the same 624MHz processor found in the Bold 9700 smartphone that, until today, was the top end offering in the BlackBerry line-up. However, our hands-on time with the Torch suggests a slightly faster device that lends itself to scrolling and tabbed browsing. The latter feature is supported by the BlackBerry 6 OS that also went live today.

The BlackBerry Torch is the first handset to offer the brand-new BB6 smartphone operating system and RIM credits the OS as contributing significantly to the nippy feel of the phone. The BB6 OS is based on the same Webkit SDK as Android and Symbian smartphones and the Apple iPhone. It will also be offered to owners of the BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Pearl 3G handsets and will be preinstalled on future BlackBerry devices.

Universal search is now supported across the device and its browser, so a user can type in a person’s name or a subject and have contacts, phone content, apps, Google Search and YouTube results all returned automatically. A new social feeds feature draws in updates and messages from a range of sources and delivers them in a steady stream. Emails, text messages, Twitter and Facebook updates as well as BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) chat are delivered in a constantly updating thread. This likeable feature is similar to that on the Palm Pre range of smartphones and on some Android handsets.

The BlackBerry Torch looks fairly chunky but is actually reasonably light at 161g. The hidden keyboard has the same black keys and chrome 'frets' look and layout of the Bold 9700.  The 3.2in touchscreen sports a resolution of 320x480 pixels. A microSD card slot, 3.5in headphone jack, built-in speaker/microphone and the DC mains charging port are in line with the specifications of other current BlackBerry devices. Unlike the Pearl 9105, however, there’s no media buttons on the top of the Torch.

Round the back of the Torch there's a 5Mp camera with autofocus, video capture and zoom plus geo-tagging support. Asked after native support for geolocation apps such as Gowalla, Twitter and Foursquare, a RIM spokesman assured us this was all in hand. RIM has just updated the BlackBerry AppWorld Store. The most noticeable change is that screens full of popular paid for and free apps are now scrollable left to right so it's easier to find items of interest to download.

Multi-touch pinch and zoom are supported in emails and attached documents on the BlackBerry Torch, as is the much improved web browser. RIM says the device will remember your zoom-level, font size and font usage preferences and mimic them when showing you text-based information. The BlackBerry 6 software also supports text wrapping. RIM says enhancements to the “just in time” push email notifications have not impacted the battery life of the smartphone.

The BlackBerry Torch 9800 gets its name from Torch Mobile, a company acquired about 18 months ago. Unlike the recently-launched Pearl 3G handset (which goes under the name Pearl 9105 in the UK and the pearl 9100 in the US), the Torch 9800 will have the same name globally.  

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