Editor's Note: As of publishing time Verizon Wireless could not confirm final pricing or availability for the Storm2. We will update this review with that information as soon as it becomes available.
It's really more like a do-over than a sequel. While the original BlackBerry Storm suffered from sluggish performance, glitchy software, and a maddening touchscreen keyboard, the Storm2 fixes nearly everything we criticized about the earlier device. It's faster (especially when surfing the Web), more stable, and typing is more accurate and feels less like a chore. Plus, RIM has added Wi-Fi connectivity, and doubled the amount of onboard memory. But just because the Storm2 is better than its predecessor doesn't necessarily mean it's better than the competition.
At first glance, the Storm2 looks nearly identical to the original. It has the same dimensions as the Storm (4.4 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches) and the same 3.3-inch display, but it's slightly heavier at 5.6 ounces (versus 5.5 ounces). The device certainly feels solid, and we appreciate the sturdy metal back cover. It's worth noting, however, that the Android-powered Motorola Cliq has the same weight, yet manages to cram in a full physical sliding keyboard.
Upon closer inspection of the Storm2, you'll notice the tinted chrome accents around the rim, which give the handset a slightly sleeker look. The right side of the phone still houses a 3.5mm headphone jack, but we like that the volume controls and camera launch button now have a soft, rubbery feel, as opposed to silver plastic. The volume dial key on the right side is given the same treatment.
Up top, you'll find the power button (where the lock key used to be) and mute button. The controls beneath the touchscreen (Send, Menu, Return, End) are now part of the screen instead of being physical, discrete buttons. This is the first clue that the Storm2 takes a different approach to touch input than its predecessor.
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RIM still calls the touchscreen technology that powers the Storm2 SurePress, but this implementation is vastly different than the Storm's. Instead of the entire screen physically depressing to provide tactile feedback, SurePress on the Storm2 is all electronic. So even though you feel and hear a clicking sensation when typing, making menu selections, and activating Web links, the 3.3-inch display doesn't move.
The result is a vastly improved user experience. We made far fewer mistakes when selecting on-screen objects than we did with the Storm. However, you'll still get the best results if you highlight an item with your finger before pressing in, which is more effort than the iPhone and other touchscreen phones require.
Another welcome enhancement is inertial scrolling with Snap Back. In other words, if you're on a Web page or in some other document, you can move more quickly through that page with a fast flick of your finger. Copying and pasting text has also improved; you still highlight text by simultaneously touching the area before and after what you want to copy, but now there are anchors you can use to drag around and fine-tune your selection. This process was smoother within e-mails than it was in the browser.
With the exception of a few touch-friendly tweaks--such as an updated box that lets you set an alarm by spinning numbers--the rest of the interface (mostly white icons on a black background) remains largely unchanged. In other words, the Storm2 still feels like the Bold or Tour, minus the physical keyboard. Those familiar with BlackBerrys will feel right at home, but several other devices offer more exciting touch interfaces with widgets, or other means of putting more info at your fingertips. The HTC Imagio for Verizon Wireless, for example, has TouchFLO 3D (with quick access to messages, weather, music, and more), while the Motorola Cliq's Motoblur interface puts social networking updates front and center.
The Storm2 could also be confusing for smart phone newbies. For example, there are seemingly three separate folders just for applications. There's the Application Center, which is prepopulated with popular apps that are ready to install out of the box (like Google Talk, Flickr, and Facebook). Then there's Applications, where you'll find programs like MemoPad, Tasks, and DataViz Documents To Go (this is also where Facebook went after we installed it). Last but not least is Downloads, which is where programs acquired from BlackBerry App World reside. Yes, you can move things around, but some streamlining is certainly in order.
One thing we do like, however, is how much more quickly the accelerometer kicks in on the Storm2 when you want to change orientations. In fact, some may find this phone to be a bit oversensitive in that regard.
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Typing on the original Storm made us want to pull our hair out, but tapping out messages, Web addresses, and notes on the Storm2 is a relative pleasure. Because the keyboard now supports multitouch, it now feels like you're flying when typing out longer e-mails. Some may feel like the SurePress feedback is slowing them down, but we found it to be a satisfying experience. When we typed the above sentence in a note on the Storm2 as fast as we could go, there was not a single typo (although the smart autocorrection software helps).
Overall, we preferred typing on the Storm2's landscape keyboard, but you can use the full QWERTY or SureType layout (found on the BlackBerry Pearl) in portrait mode. We prefer the former, because SureType has a steeper learning curve, even though it's better for one-handed typing. Anyone who has used the iPhone's QWERTY keyboard might feel as though even the improved Storm2 is slowing them down, but typing on the Storm2 generally feels as natural as typing on a physical keyboard.
E-mail and Messaging
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One area where the Storm2 remains very strong is e-mail. You get the same stellar push experience that other BlackBerrys deliver, and RIM offers some touch-friendly improvements. Most important, there is now a clickable envelope on the top right of the screen for sending messages. With the original Storm you had to either whisk the keyboard away (with a downward gesture) to use the Send command on the bottom of the display, or click on the Menu button and then Send.
RIM continues to offer top-notch attachment support, thanks to the inclusion of Documents To Go. You can view and edit Excel, PowerPoint, and Word files. It's still as simple as ever to search for messages, and the Storm2 includes touch-friendly shortcuts for finding those sent from a specific person or in a specific thread; all you have to do is press and hold a given contact or subject line.
Unlike the original Storm, the SMS app on the Storm2 now supports notifications, emoticons, and threaded chats. When we tried sending a text to an older BlackBerry Curve, though, our tongue-sticking-out emoticon just showed up as text. (It should work properly, however, if you have a BlackBerry with the latest 5.0 software.) The Storm2 still offers a wealth of instant messaging apps, including AIM, Google Talk, and Yahoo, but the latest BlackBerry Messenger is the most compelling app. This service now lets you add avatars, do group chats, and share photos.
The difference in download speeds between the Storm and Storm2 is quite striking. Over Verizon Wireless' EV-DO network, it took us only 19 seconds to download The New York Times' homepage on the Storm2; it took a whopping 43 seconds on its predecessor. When we loaded Laptopmag.com, it took the Storm2 17 seconds, versus 54 seconds for the Storm.
We wouldn't get too excited about the addition of Wi-Fi to the Storm2; Laptopmag.com loaded in a slightly faster 14 seconds, but NYTimes.com still took 19 seconds. The main reason why surfing doesn't seem much quicker over Wi-Fi is that the browser loads all of the data and most of the images before displaying the page; on the iPhone, Palm Pre, HTC Hero, and most other smart phones, you can start reading and scrolling around the page long before it has completely loaded.
The good news is that pages fill in faster when you're panning around them on the Storm2, and that the inertial scrolling works well. The bad news is that you still can't use pinch gestures for zooming in as you can on other smart phones (double tapping is your best bet), and that you can't open a new tab when browsing. Overall, the surfing experience is better on the Storm, but we'll be happier when RIM integrates a WebKit-based browser.
This is one category where RIM still needs a lot of improvement. BlackBerry App World offers only about 3,000 apps, compared with more than 10,000 for the Android Market and more than 85,000 for the iPhone App Store. Worse, you still need to have a PayPal account to buy premium apps, all but assuring that most users will stick to free programs. (A credit card option and carrier billing option have been promised but not yet delivered.) Another annoyance: Some apps won't complete installation until you reboot the phone.
What we like about BlackBerry apps is how deeply some of them are integrated into the rest of the phone, and how well the Storm2 multitasks. For example, if you're listening to streaming Internet radio on Slacker, you can adjust the volume even if you're surfing the Web or checking e-mail. And if you download the Facebook app, you'll see an option to upload photos to your profile from within your picture library.
In terms of categories, RIM has most of the bases covered, but we'd like to see more graphically rich games offered for the platform. In order for this to happen, though, it will likely require the integration of Flash Player 10.1, which is promised for next year.
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The Storm2 holds its own as a media player, and RIM includes both 2GB of built-in memory and a 16GB microSD Card for all your music, pictures, and videos. If you don't mind paying $2 per track, you can buy the latest tunes over the air through V Cast Music with Rhapsody. If you want to save money and have unlimited access to music, you're better off signing up for a $15 monthly subscription and transferring tracks from your PC.
We'd like to see RIM offer access to the Amazon store (like Android or webOS phones) for cheaper a la carte downloads. There's an app called 7digital that does just this, but we found the downloads over Wi-Fi to be slow, and the software to be buggy. On the plus side, transferring non-DRM tunes from your PC to the Storm2 is a snap with the BlackBerry Media Sync program, which supports both iTunes and Windows Media Player.
Scrolling through photos on the Storm2 was swifter than on its predecessor, and zooming in out was also faster (though, again, multitouch gestures are still absent). The Storm2 supports both MPEG-4 and WMV video files for playback, but you'll need to use separate Media Manager software for transferring clips. It took a couple minutes to convert and sync a 5-minute MPEG-4 clip to the Storm2, but the footage looked a lot blurrier after the Media Manager "optimized" the video for playback on our phone.
Camera and Video
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Photos taken with the 3.2-megapixel camera on the Storm2 generally looked sharp on our 20-inch desktop monitor, so long as we waited about a second for the autofocus to kick in before pressing the shutter. A shot of yellow mums taken outdoors had a surprising level of detail, as did an indoor shot of a small orange juice carton. You'll need to wait about three seconds before taking the next shot, which is tolerable. As noted earlier, it's easy to upload pics to Facebook, Flickr, or other services if you have those BlackBerry apps installed.
A short video clip we captured of Times Square in New York City looked quite good when played back at close to full screen on our PC. A FedEx truck appeared slightly blurry, and we saw some artifacts, but overall the 480 x 352 footage was solid. (The iPhone 3GS records at 640 x 480 pixels.)
GPS and Navigation
Like other Verizon Wireless BlackBerrys, the Storm2 comes preloaded with VZ Navigator; it took about 20 seconds to create a route from New York City to central New Jersey, and we liked that the app showed traffic along the way. The app can also perform local searches, as well as along the route. We also appreciated how loud the turn-by-turn directions sounded, although we noticed a significant difference in volume between generic instructions and specific street names. Hearing "Broadway" shouted out was a bit jarring.
Call Quality and Battery Life
We never had any complaints about the original Storm when it came to call quality, and the Storm2 doesn't disappoint either. During two test calls the person on the other end of the line said that we came through loud and clear, and that she didn't have to strain as much to hear us as she usually does with the BlackBerry Curve 8330. On our end the volume and clarity were both good on the streets of Manhattan, but we found ourselves holding the phone closer to our ears than usual (at max volume) while trying to have a conversation on a moving bus. As with the original Storm, the speaker on this smart phone continues to be booming, making it good for conference calls (a feature that is just a touch away).
Because the Storm2 is a world phone, it has different ratings for talk and standby time depending on the band being used. After taking the Storm2 home from work with a full charge and using it frequently over the course of an evening--and again the next morning--we had to recharge the device by around 10 a.m. With heavy usage we would expect to charge this device daily, but with light to moderate usage you'll likely be able to charge every other day.
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If there were a most improved award for smart phones, the BlackBerry Storm2 would win hands-down. The new touchscreen makes this device much easier to use than its predecessor, and the typing experience rivals or beats most other devices in its class. However, other smart phones still have better Web browsers, and the interface on this handset feels a bit stale when compared to the iPhone and such newer Android phones as the HTC Hero and Motorola Cliq. The fact that RIM also continues to play catch-up in the app race is also disapointing. Don't get us wrong--the Storm2 is a satisfying sequel, and it offers reliable data performance and call quality. Nevertheless, Verizon Wireless customers may want to wait for the carrier's first Android devices to arrive before they pull the trigger.