Enough with all the buzz about “killing” the iPhone, already! Every smartphone has its merits, and not every company is out to steal Apple’s thunder. For example: Nokia has the amazing N96 camera phone (and a forthcoming 5800 touch phone) and T-Mobile and HTC have focused on an operating system from Google that extends the power of the G1. Likewise, Research in Motion (better known as RIM), the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry line of smartphones, has cornered the market on thumb-clicking business users. Yet, in an odd turn, its latest handset – the BlackBerry Storm – is a stark departure. Designed with both consumers and business users in mind, it’s a very powerful piece of kit. However, an awkward capacitive touchscreen proves a major Achilles heel on an otherwise well-crafted device.
Features and Design
The first thing you’ll notice about the Storm, before you even turn it on, is that the handset is somewhat heavy and bulky. RIM chose to include an extended battery with this model, presumably to appease both consumers and business users who want to: A. watch a lot of movies and listen to music or B. surf the Web in their lonely hotel rooms all evening. Translation: Size-wise, it’s a beast. The Storm weighs almost 5.5 ounces (5.46 to be exact) and measures 4.4” x 2.4” x .55” (LxWxD), or almost a half-inch thick. Read: It’s a rock in a pants pocket and doesn’t work that well in your shirt pocket either.
When you first hold one, your gut reaction’s going to be as follows – holy guacamole, what accessories will I need to make the phone fit in with my daily routine? We did a sanity check with a few typical business users who were surprised at the device’s bulk, then later realized its extra features and large battery were perks that helped offset such downsides. That said, realize: The handset is absolutely, positively, 100% not made for teenagers who might lose their cell phone.
There are just a handful of hardware buttons on the Storm: A phone dial and end call button; the menu key (common on BlackBerry models); escape key; a voice dial button on the left side; a camera button on the right side; a lock and a mute button on top; and volume controls that are located on the right side. Both the lock and mute buttons are easy to miss because they are recessed into the casing.
Setup and Use
Of course, once you power up the Storm, the real fun begins – in more ways than one, and not always in a positive sense. As a basic introduction, here’s what you get for the low, low price of $200 (plus two-year Verizon Wireless contract): The Storm includes a 3.2 megapixel camera; GPS with voice navigation; 1GB of on-board memory; a battery that lasts six hours; a bright 3.25” 480×360 color display that supports over 65,000 colors; Bluetooth 2.0 with stereo audio; GSM and EV-DO Rev A; a microSD slot; and a standard size 3.5mm headphone jack (earbud headphones included). The only conspicuously absent spec is WiFi, which seems to be the hit-or-miss wireless option on many smartphones.
So, how could you go wrong with all of these features? For starters, the main issue with the Storm is that the touchscreen is very hard to use, even with some practice. It’s not even a good first effort for RIM, who is obviously learning the ropes as far as hardware design goes here, as well as how to make best use of such gizmos’ underlying software. Be aware: When you poke an on-screen prompt, you are pressing down on the entire screen as if it were a button itself (almost like clicking on a mouse), and the phone is registering where you prod.
By contrast, the iPhone and G1 accomplish the same thing without resorting to physical feedback. If you drag your finger too far and then click, for example, you will constantly press the wrong key. Worse, the visceral feedback is more of a thud than a buzz. At least with the Samsung Instinct, which also provides some tactile response using haptic technology, you get a little kickback. The touchscreen on the Storm won’t help you type faster either – it’s more of an annoyance than an aid. Even simple tasks such as typing in a URL or dragging web browser displays up and down prove a major chore.
We invited a few friends to test out the touchscreen functionality, and in every case, complaints quickly followed. No one liked the system in general, and none of our testers could type fast using the device. If you’re a BlackBerry fan because products in this hardware line let you tap-tap-tap up a storm with your thumbs, welcome to your worst nightmare. The one saving grace is that the phone dialer does work really well for making phone calls. (RIM calls the touchscreen technology “SurePress,” and it does help when dialing numbers.) However, the keypad is just not that useful. Along the same lines, in portrait mode, the Storm provides a SureType keyboard that predicts what you type (at least, it tries to help). You can also enable multi-tap, the normal mode for most cell phones where you press a key several times for the letter you want.
Moving right along, if you turn the phone to the side, the Storm will switch to landscape mode automatically (using the accelerometer) with a full keyboard. But the keys are too small, and clicking the screen is a pain, so the cumulative effect is that the Storm works poorly for e-mail functions however you choose to access them. Also, it doesn’t always register with the Blackberry OS when you turn the phone, so you if you want to use the landscape mode option, you sometimes have to turn the device faster or repeat the action several times. RIM offers a few neat tricks – you can hover your finger over the cursor to “pick it up” and move it to another part of a field and enjoy a simple way to search for email addresses. The Storm does not support multi-touch gestures, however, so you can’t zoom in by spreading out two fingers on the screen. To zoom in, you instead tap the screen twice and, to zoom out, you press Escape. You can swipe and drag images and browser windows, however. It’s an unusual “hover your finger, then click” operation that is difficult to learn and not that intuitive.
Image Courtesy of RIM
Extra Features and Functions
There’s just no excuse for such a poor software keyboard, and any diehard BlackBerry users will be seriously disappointed by the Storm and its sub-quality touchscreen control. But as for the rest of the world? You’re in for a treat, as the Storm is a very capable smartphone – one of the best ever made, in fact.
It runs on the EV-Do Rev A network, which means (at least in the areas we tested the device) speeds approached 1 Mbps for Internet browsing and e-mail. We pulled up a YouTube video (at m.youtube.com) and had one playing in seconds, albeit in low-resolution, though, in a sweet turn, there were no pauses or annoying stutters. Other sites such as ESPN.com and IGN.com loaded lightning-fast as well, even though the Storm (unlike the iPhone) does not support Adobe Flash. No matter – text and graphics still loaded quickly and accurately in the fully HTML-aware browser, even for rich content sites and video sites like YouTube.
Image Courtesy of RIM
Also bear in mind that the phone’s camera is a major plus. We took a series of pictures inside and out and were impressed with the results. The Storm goes into a quick auto-focus mode that helps make sure images are clear, and for inside shots, there’s even a handy light that illuminates the subject matter. Whereas the iPhone and even the Nokia N96’s photos look muddy and dull, shots on the Storm looked bright and clear. Videos also appeared bright and crisp, and it was great recording them to the handset’s spacious 1GB internal memory.
GPS capability worked perfectly during a long road trip too. The voice prompts were clear and accurate, utilizing Verizon’s VZ Navigator program. You can even look up nearby movies, find routes and look at maps, avoid traffic delays, and send a message from the GPS client with an automatic note stating when you will arrive at a meeting. We also liked that, when you click up or down on the volume buttons, the GPS client changes the voice by gradation – dwindling from loud voice to medium voice and so on.
More importantly, calls on the Storm sounded very clear and tonally rich from our perspective. The receiving end – e.g. the person we were talking to – said the call sounded a bit digital or robotic. That’s typical of BlackBerry devices though, which use a high-quality speaker and an average-quality microphone for talking. Talk time lasted for two days of casual use, and about six hours of near-constant use. Honestly, it’s an amazing feat, because the iPhone and G1 will die if you use them consistently for just a few hours in one sitting. By comparison, we used the Storm all morning to talk to friends, browse the Web and even get driving directions and only one bar on the battery icon was gone. Hey, if you can’t type like a frantic chimp here, at least you can chatter on like one…
As a media phone, the Storm beats the G1 by far, but of course can’t (ahem) touch the iPhone’s celebrated multimedia capabilities. On the plus side, you can quickly load music and movies onto the device using BlackBerry media management software – it even supports file conversion from iTunes. We loaded 200 music files onto a MicroSD card and they sounded clear and crisp using the included earbud headphones. Even the external speaker on the Storm is not very “BlackBerry-ish” in that it is actually worth using. (Note that the G1 doesn’t even have a video player and is somewhat limited for music as well, although it is very easy to buy Amazon MP3 files.) What we didn’t like about the Storm for media, however, is that there is no Apple iTunes equivalent – a really powerful music and movie organizer that would let you dump tracks onto the device with ease.
Of course, Verizon gives it their best shot with music services such as VCast Music. But such options are a far cry from the ease and simplicity of using iTunes. It’s easy to record your own media – photos, video, and voice annotations here, for example – but not as easy to load up the device with your favorite Kanye West or Bruce Springsteen tracks.
So, what else do you get with the smartphone? There’s push e-mail using a client that works quite well. You can also load the brand new version of Gmail for Mobile, compatible with BlackBerry devices. RIM is additionally well-regarded for their security features, a boon for those who work at a large company. But we didn’t like the fact that this is yet another BlackBerry phone with no WiFi. And, even when we had the touchscreen working semi-reliably and could type up a coherent e-mail using the software keyboard, we were disappointed at how the BlackBerry OS would still play catch-up, lagging behind our key presses. As a side note, the Storm is a GSM device, which means you can use it in foreign countries (but not for high-speed data service).
Worth keeping in mind too – the Storm is, like every other BlackBerry, highly extensible. We loaded a Yahoo! IM client, a Facebook app and MSN Messenger – download times were almost instantaneous. The iPhone and G1 do have the Storm beat in this regard, however, offering a wider, way more bountiful selection of apps for every purpose. Even the Palm Treo Pro seems to have more going for it in terms of the variety of available programs.
There’s a lot more we could say about the touch interface – RIM has quite a few things to learn here, and the manufacturer seems to be unaware that the hover-and-click approach is very awkward. (For two days, we tried to get used to the capacitive screen and soft keyboard, but couldn’t convince ourselves it was anything but a pain in the rump.) As is, if the user front-end worked, the Storm would be winning awards for call quality, media support, miscellaneous extras, a high-quality camera and built-in GPS – after all, it is an uber-phone at a decently low price. But know this before taking the plunge: Thumb-punching typists and those expecting an iPhone-caliber experience won’t be pleased, and may decide to accidentally run over it with their Hummer.
• Good call quality
• High quality camera
• Built-in GPS
• Good media support
• Lots of extras
• Cramped keyboard
• Typing is difficult
• Interface is slow at times