BlackBerry Torch takes on iPhone, Android

RIM looks to make a splash with $199 touchscreen BlackBerry Torch

Among the cavalcade of mobile superstars in this summer’s smartphone extravaganza — which, so far, has boasted the likes of the HTC Evo 4G, the Motorola Droid X, a series of sleek Samsung Galaxy handsets, and (of course) the iPhone 4 — one marquee name has been noticeably absent: the BlackBerry.

Well, in the final weeks of summer, Research in Motion (along with carrier partner AT&T — and yes, we’re talking another AT&T exclusive here) is looking to make a better-late-than-never splash with the BlackBerry Torch 9800, a new QWERTY slider with a redesigned touchscreen OS that the mobile giant hopes can garner the same kind of buzz that Android handsets like the Evo and the Droid X and the new iPhone have been enjoying for the past few months. (Well, Apple probably didn’t “enjoy” all the “Antennagate” buzz, but at least people were talking about it.)

Unveiled Tuesday morning at a packed press event in Manhattan, the widely leaked Torch — the “best BlackBerry ever,” as AT&T wireless head boss Ralph de la Vega bragged — will go on sale August 12 for $199 with a two-year AT&T contract, and it represents a departure for RIM in more ways than one.

First of all, it’s not a candybar-style phone, as are the vast majority of BlackBerry handsets; instead, it’s RIM’s first touch-enabled slider, with a full QWERTY keypad that slides down from beneath the 3.2-inch, 360-by-480 touchscreen.

Secondly, the 5.7-ounce, 0.6-inch-thick Torch (which is powered by a 624MHz processor with 512 MB of RAM) runs on BlackBerry OS 6, the new, touchscreen-friendly version of the BlackBerry operating system.

The revamped OS (which RIM unveiled earlier this year) boasts refinements such as a snazzier tabbed browser that automatically resizes and auto-formats text as you zoom in on Web pages, multitouch support across the board, universal search, multitasking, a unified inbox that integrates messages from Facebook and Twitter (along with a separate app that aggregates all your social and RSS feeds), menu lists that scroll with an iPhone-like “roulette-wheel” motion and bouncy “rubberbanding” action, wireless music sync (including a searchable directory of your entire music collection, even tracks you don’t have synced yet) customizable home screens, and improved touch-activated pop-ups — in short, features that bring the aging BlackBerry OS up (or at least closer) to speed with modern touch-enabled OSes like Android and iOS. (Another key BlackBerry OS 6 feature, by the way, it its ability to run legacy BlackBerry apps.)

Other features on the Torch include: a five-megapixel camera with a flash and auto-focus; four GB of internal storage plus a microSD memory expansion slot; GPS; Wi-Fi; Bluetooth; a 3.5mm headset jack; and a removable battery with (according to RIM) about six hours of talk time. AT&T’s (capped) data plans for the Torch start at $15 a month for 200MB of data or $25 a month for 2G of data.

The BlackBerry platform in general still commands more than 40 percent of the U.S. smartphone market, according to the latest ComScore figures; that said, RIM’s share of the pie is slowly shrinking, while Apple (at 24.4 percent) and especially Android (13 percent, up from 9 percent in February) are rapidly closing the gap.

So, will the Torch 9800 draw the kind of Android- or iPhone-type buzz that RIM is clearly pining for? I’ll be getting up close and personal with the Torch right after today’s press briefing, so keep your eyes peeled for my initial hands-on impressions.

AT&T and Research in Motion Ignite Customers with the New BlackBerry Torch

BlackBerry Torch Smartphone First to Feature New BlackBerry 6 Combines New Touch Screen Experience with Easy-To-Use Keyboard and Rich WebKit Browser; First Smartphone to Support AT&T’s Next Generation Messaging Experience, and First to Offer Locations Feature; New BlackBerry App World Pre-installed with Carrier Billing Support

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