It feels to me like years since we had a new Blackberry device. Sure we had the Pearl 3G, but I’m talking hard core full QWERTY keyboard Blackberry.

The BOLD 9000 was an amazing device, which at launch lacked a decent camera. The follow up BOLD 9700 really hit the spot, better camera, better form factor, and generally the best of the best in terms of enterprise level smartphones.

Since then, we’ve had such a large number of Android phones hit the market, as well as the quite stunning Apple iPhone 4, and more recently Windows Phone 7 devices.

So, the Blackberry Torch hit the US some months ago, and the normal carrier delays meant that it’s only now we get to see and use this device. I’ve been playing with it for around a week… here’s what I think!

What is it? It’s kinda everything we want in a Blackberry – in theory. Full QWERTY keyboard for the fanatics, and heavy users, hidden in a side out fashion by a full size touchscreen display.

As I say, in Theory – this is rock and roll – Blackberry lover’s dreams.

In practice, it almost is perfect.

Don’t get me wrong, this is quite possibly the best Blackberry ever – The touchscreen is responsive, and the new operating system (version 6) is built to suit and packs some great new features.

At first it is very hard to remember the slide out keyboard is even there, and one fault I have is that the slider at the bottom is very thin, so quite hard to get traction on without actually touching the buttons for menu or escape. You get used to it, but it is a design flaw in my opinion.

The top feature of this phone, and the OS itself, is the layout. You can choose to show 3,6 or 9 icons on screen, you get groups of icons such as ‘All, Frequent, Media and Downloads’ which makes it really hard to find things.

In the past you’d move your favorite icons to the top row to have them show on screen, now, you can rely on “frequent” to be filled based on your regular usage.

The downloads group makes it super easy to find any apps you’ve downloaded in the App World, which is growing day by day. I spoke to a couple of local developers who tell me that app making for OS6 is far better than it was before, so we can expect this to be an area of growth.

The Torch comes with Blackberry’s ‘Social Feeds’ app which combines all your social media and instant messaging accounts into one icon and one feed. I don’t use it myself, because Social Scope is my app of choice for this, and it does it well, however, the integration is clear, working well with your contacts and calendar also.

Speaking of the Calendar, the display of the Calendar is class leading. Month view, day view, agenda view and my favorite ‘Week’ View are all top notch, and any business person who lives by their calendar really needs to consider the Torch for this feature alone.

Email is, as always top class. My only issue is that I used to reduce the font, and cram a lot of messages on screen. Messages are now two lines (Sender/Topic) while I would prefer to make them one line and fit more on screen, but it’s likely I’m Robinson Crusoe on that one.

The YouTube app, and the Media player are also excellent, anyone with music on their smartphone won’t be disappointed by the Media Player.

I have noticed that if you open the camera App to take a photo any music will stop playing, until you close it again, which is strange.

Importantly though, the Torch now packs a 5 Megapixel Autofocus camera, the best in the Blackberry range.

Most important for any Blackberry Torch user is the LOCK button top left of the device. Because of the physical buttons on the front, in the pocket or bag, it is easy for the screen to activate and buttons to be pressed, so the LOCK button is your friend!

Another wonderfully simple feature which is 2 million miles ahead of the iPhone and on par with Android devices is the connections menu. One touch at the top of screen brings down the connections menu, where you can turn off all connections (Airplane mode) or individual connections (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi etc.) in a simple touch. This is important for travellers and people who like to switch to that mode for meetings etc.

One final point of frustration – I was delighted to hear about Flash support in the Blackberry’s much improved browser. The web experience is now top notch, and any improvement was going to help there. However, don’t let the ‘Apple hate Flash’ fight scare you solely toward a Blackberry. Blackberry has Flash, but the only site I’ve noticed it working on is YouTube. And I can go to YouTube quite effectively on an iPhone/iPad.

The Flash on the Torch is Flash ‘Lite’ – so audio players in my website don’t show, likewise for many basic sites. Yes, it has Flash, but it’s not FULL flash, so you will still be disappointed.

My key disappointment is not with the device but the carriers. I use Gmail exclusively for my tech/personal mail, so the Gmail support needs to be rich. Without the ‘Advanced Gmail plugin’ which seems to be offered on Optus but not Telstra, I’m going to be disappointed for a long time. The iPhone and Android Gmail integration is miles ahead of the Blackberry, so they need to play catch up on that one.

4 out of 5 to Research in Motion for the Blackberry Torch. My key message here is that Blackberry users will LOVE the Torch. Its shortcomings here are constructive criticisms from a person keen to continue using a Blackberry long into the future. However the simplicity of use and range of apps on the Apple platform make it compelling.

I think the Torch will stop many Blackberry Bold enterprise customers switching to the iPhone and that will be crucial to RIM maintaining market share.

OS 6 will grow and improve; I’ll stick around for the ride – without doubt.

Available on Optus now, and Telstra and VHA very soon – Check it out