It’s not the innovation that’s lacking, but the execution. The BlackBerry Storm offers more than just a breakthrough touchscreen interface; its feature list reads like the typical iPhone owner’s wishlist. This smart phone sports spoken turn-by-turn GPS navigation, the ability to run third-party applications (like instant messaging) in the background, a sharper camera that can record video, the ability to edit Office attachments, and cut-and-paste functionality. Most important, the Storm boasts rock-solid data and voice reception on Verizon Wireless’ Rev. A network, plus 3G data roaming overseas (when you sign up for the proper plan).
However, this device isn’t without flaws. The Storm is larger and heavier than the iPhone 3G and it lacks Wi-Fi. Also, typing accurately on the clickable screen at a brisk pace is a challenge. And at least for now this device’s selection of apps pales in comparison to the Apple’s App Store. The real question, though, isn’t whether the Storm is better than the iPhone 3G. It’s whether RIM’s first touchscreen phone is good enough for BlackBerry fans looking for something cooler or for everyday consumers who desire a versatile work-and-play smart phone. It will be, but the Storm is not there yet.
Design of the BlackBerry Storm
You’ll definitely notice the BlackBerry Storm in your pocket. Measuring 4.4 x 2.5 x 0.6 inches and weighing 5.5 ounces (versus 4.5 x 2.4 x 0.5 inches and 4.7 ounces for the iPhone 3G), the Storm is bulkier and heavier than we would like, especially since it has a smaller display (3.3 vs. 3.5 inches) than the iPhone 3G. But it certainly looks and feels like a premium smart phone; it has a smooth, black, tapered design with silver trim and a brushed-metal battery cover on the back. Overall, the Storm feels sturdier than other touchscreen phones we’ve tested, but some may be turned off by its heft.
RIM includes the typical BlackBerry buttons below the screen, including dedicated Send and End keys, a BlackBerry/Menu key, and a Back key; all are large and responsive. Above the display are two buttons flush with the Storm’s casing: a lock key and a mute key. The right side of the Storm houses a 3.5mm headphone jack, volume buttons that are easy to find by feel, and the camera launch key. On the left side you’ll find the microUSB port and voice dial/recognition button. The microSD Card slot is located beneath the battery cover, but you don’t have to remove the battery to access it.
Touchscreen and User Interface
Using what RIM calls SurePress technology, the Storm’s 3.3-inch touchscreen is unique. Other devices in this class offer just haptic buzzing. The Storm’s display physically clicks downward when you make a menu selection, click on a link, or type on the keyboard. It’s an ingenious idea, and we like how icons and keys light up before you press them to ensure you’re making the right selection. On the other hand, some may find this peace of mind more trouble than it’s worth, as clicking requires effort.
The display itself is bright and sharp, with a high resolution of 480 x 360 pixels. Web pages and videos exhibited a fine level of detail and rich colors. And we appreciated that the screen picked up less fingerprints than other touchscreen phones we’ve recently tested. One disappointment is the Storm’s accelerometer; while it rotates the display automatically from portrait to landscape mode when you flip the phone around, at times we noticed a delay of a few seconds. (Then again, the iPhone sometimes suffers from the same issue.)
The user interface is generally intuitive and pleasant, and we liked the nifty transitions when moving from the main menu to different applications. But we found that we had much better results when pointing at something on the screen to highlight it and then selecting it, as opposed to just stabbing at the device, as you would do on any other touchscreen phone.
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Keyboard(s) on the BlackBerry Storm
Thanks to the SurePress display, typing feels surprisingly natural on the Storm, and messaging fiends have two choices when it comes to entering text. In Portrait mode, the Storm displays the SureType layout found on BlackBerry Pearls, which crams two letters on multiple keys. It’s best for typing with one hand, and we found it worked well, especially since RIM has improved its spelling suggestion system.
When you use the Storm in landscape mode you’ll see a full QWERTY keyboard. In this mode we could type accurately but only if we were relatively slow and deliberate when using our thumbs. Picking up speed drastically—as if typing on a BlackBerry Curve—reduced accuracy. More troubling is the fact that the keyboard got stuck a few times over a day’s use, where it would momentarily not register our presses.
We have one other nitpick: The keyboard gets in the way when entering text on a Web page or in applications like VZ Navigator. Swiping down on the screen is supposed to make the keyboard disappear, but this action doesn’t always take. We’d much prefer an OK or Done button to hide the QWERTY.
E-mail and Messaging
As you would expect from a BlackBerry, the Storm offers the same great push e-mail experience as other devices in the line, complete with a dead-simple setup process. We got our Gmail account up and running in just a few minutes by simply entering our e-mail address and password. The bundled DataViz Documents To Go suite lets you view and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files; viewing PDFs is also easy.
The Storm stands out in the way it leverages its touchscreen interface with helpful shortcuts. For instance, pressing and holding a contact or subject name in your inbox will automatically sort messages by the contact or subject. And by spreading your two fingers apart, you can select text and then copy and paste that to another application.
One thing that annoyed us, however, is that the Storm had trouble differentiating between scrolling up and down in the inbox and selecting multiple messages simultaneously (in which case the bottom of the screen displays options like Mark Opened and Delete Messages). Your best bet is to scroll up and down using the two arrows on the bottom right side of the screen.
Instant messaging choices include AIM, BlackBerry Messenger, Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger. We had no problems setting up our Google Talk account, and like on other BlackBerrys, you get audible alerts for new messages while using other applications.
Web Browsing on the BlackBerry Storm
Riding on Verizon Wireless’ speedy EV-DO network, the Storm delivered quick load times on our tests. It loaded the mobile versions of CNN.com, ESPN.com, and NYTimes.com in 7, 8, and 10 seconds, respectively. Image-heavy sites took longer, such as Laptopmag.com at 27 seconds. If you want to have the Storm’s browser deliver desktop-like Web pages every time, you can change Browser Identification setting in the Options menu from BlackBerry to Firefox or Internet Explorer. This is where having Wi-Fi would come in handy.
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To zoom in on a page you can either tap twice or use the zoom button on the bottom of the screen. Zooming out requires that you press the Escape key or the Zoom Out button. You can’t use pinch gestures as you can with the iPhone, but that’s not a big deal. What was annoying is that it takes this browser a while to redraw portions of a Web page as you pan around. The browser is certainly better than Internet Explorer Mobile, but the mobile version of Safari and the browser on the T-Mobile G1 are smoother.
Given that the Storm is the first touch BlackBerry, it’s going to take some time for developers to catch up to the platform. RIM will be fleshing out its Application Center in March, but Verizon Wireless promises to fill the void in the short term with its VZ App Zone storefront for downloading apps. Out of the box, the Application Center includes links to popular third-party programs such as Facebook and Flickr, as well as Verizon’s Visual Voicemail ($2.99 per month) and the aforementioned instant messaging apps, for a total of eight programs.
GPS on the BlackBerry Storm
GPS is one area where the Storm shines when compared with the competition, and it uses both assisted GPS and a bona fide GPS chip. Verizon Wireless has done a nice job optimizing its VZ Navigator application ($9.99 per month) for this touchscreen device. Launching the app took only 8 seconds, which is better than previous Verizon phones, and the latest version adds live traffic. Calculating a route from Manhattan to central New Jersey took less than 15 seconds, and the voice was positively booming from the Storm’s loudspeaker. The local search function failed to work on one occasion due to a connection error, but otherwise it delivered reliable results, finding ten nearby Duane Reade drugstore locations (while indoors) in 12 seconds.
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VZ Navigator isn’t your only option. The very basic BlackBerry Maps application is bundled with the Storm (for local search and getting directions), but it requires a clear view of the sky. We also downloaded the better-looking Google Maps for the BlackBerry Storm, which quickly pinpointed our location at a block away from where we were, but that was without a GPS signal. You can do local search, get directions, and even show traffic, but if you want the full spoken-directions experience, VZ Navigator is your best bet.
Music and Video
One thing’s for sure: The Storm puts the iPhone 3G’s speaker to shame. When playing Keane’s "Perfect Symmetry," the sound was quite loud even at medium volume, and the music application displays large album art that nicely takes up most of the screen.
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Getting your music on the Storm, which comes with an 8GB microSD Card (cards up to 16GB are supported), is pretty simple. We dragged and dropped our songs on our desktop, but iTunes users will want to try the BlackBerry Media Sync feature in the BlackBerry Desktop Manager software, which syncs your iTunes music and playlists (but not tracks purchased from the iTunes Store). Like the idea of all-you-can-eat-music? The Storm is compatible with Rhapsody to Go’s $14.99 monthly subscription plan.
Video playback on the Storm was smooth when we played a movie trailer of Bablyon A.D., and the device supports several formats, including MPEG-4, H.264, and WMV. However, the Storm doesn’t support DRM-protected content, so you can’t download movies from providers like CinemaNow or Amazon.com. The Storm will be a more interesting media device once Verizon Wireless adds support for its V CAST Music and Video services for over-the-air streaming and downloads.
Click to enlargeAs far as camera phones go, the 3.2-megapixel Storm shoots sharp pictures but takes its time doing so. The autofocus takes a second to lock in, and saving photos took longer than on other BlackBerrys. Are these images worth the wait? Yes. A picture of a flower bouquet exhibited sharp colors, and we were surprised with just how powerful the flash was when we captured a golden retriever in a very dim room. (You can also geotag your photos for viewing them on a map.) Unfortunately, loading photos for viewing took as long as 5 seconds. Even zooming in on a photo took a few seconds.
Don’t expect much from the camcorder on the Storm. While recording, the frame froze when we tried to pan from a colleague in the office to the hallway, and our footage wouldn’t play after the file ostensibly saved. In fact, the whole phone froze and we had to reset the device to use it again. We chalk our difficulties up to buggy software.
Call Quality and Roaming on the BlackBerry Storm
The Storm delivered reliable volume and clarity during most of our test calls. The other caller said we sounded better on this device than we did on the Verizon Wireless BlackBerry Curve. As we mentioned above, the speakerphone on the Storm is top-notch.
We like that you can customize what screen you want to appear when you press the Call/Send button, whether it’s the Dial Pad, Call Log, or Contacts, and you can jump among these options with the press of a button. We left the Dial Pad as the default option. Most of the time bringing up this menu took a tolerable 2 seconds, but on a few occasions it took a frustrating 4 to 5 seconds.
Those who want to use the Storm overseas can use the included SIM card and sign up for the Global Value Plan, which offers discounted roaming charges on calls made to and from 130 countries for $4.99 a month. The GlobalEmail and Data Plan includes unlimited browsing, e-mail, and messaging for $65 per month as part of a voice plan. If you’ll be using the Storm only in the U.S., data costs $29.99 per month.
We would like to do more testing before giving our final word here, but we can say that with light usage the Storm showed 3.5 out of 5 bars of battery life after 7 hours of being unplugged. After heavy data usage and making a few calls over the course of six hours, the Storm had less than 50 percent of its juice left. You’ll need to recharge the Storm daily if you use the browser and GPS often.
The BlackBerry Storm is an ambitious device, and we generally like the design and what RIM was attempting to accomplish with the interface. Plus, the GPS performance, call quality, and loud speaker are major pluses. But we’re disappointed in the sluggish performance and buggy software, and the one thing that most BlackBerry users have grown accustomed to—a superior keyboard—is frustrating to use on the Storm. Our recommendation right now would be to hold off on purchasing this smart phone until Verizon Wireless and RIM can work out the kinks.