Vodafone UK today started taking pre-orders for the BlackBerry Storm smartphone, with the handset offered for free on £35-a-month contracts.

Interest in the Storm is high because this is RIM's first sortie into touchscreen territory and therefore its first direct competitor to the iPhone. The quad-band Storm 9500 has finger-friendly large onscreen icons on its 3.25in high-res (480x260-pixel) screen. This can be used in landscape mode so writing emails and other documents is more like using a laptop. If you don't like software keypads, the Storm has a standard phone keypad with both predictive text and SureType input options.

Business features include BlackBerry email, a web browser, address book/contact manager, memo and task lists, plus the ability to work seamlessly with desktop email clients including Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook.

There's an 3.2Mp camera with zoom and flash - the highest capability yet for a BlackBerry. It can also record video. Other consumer aspects include a music, photo and video player with iTunes sync tool for Windows users and satellite navigation as well as mapping.

From free on a £35-a-month Vodafone contract. See Vodafone's or Phones4U's websites for full details and tariffs.

Yesterday, 02 announced the BlackBerry Pearl Flip handset, another RIM first.

Vodafone BlackBerry Storm 9500 smartphone