TechWatch: Buy The BlackBerry Storm

You didn't want an iPhone anyway.

Go ahead - run to a Verizon store on Thursday, November 20th and plunk down your hard-earned $200 for RIM's new touch-screen marvel, the BlackBerry Storm. If you haven't already bought an iPhone from Apple and AT&T, then the Storm is inevitably the smartphone for you.

Who am I to make such a personalized exhortation? Well, the question really is: who are you?

If you've been aching for a smartphone and haven't yet taken the plunge, it means a few things. Firstly, you probably don't have a Mac. If you did, you'd already be sold on their stellar OS X operating system, and you'd blindly - and correctly - trust that the diminutive iPhone version of OS X would work great. You would have already bought an iPhone, and you'd be puttering around with some magical screen-sharing app instead of reading up on BlackBerrys.

If you do indeed have a Mac, but you haven't gone with the iPhone, you might be a Verizon customer already locked into a contract. You can breathe easy, Verizon customers. You don't absolutely have to switch to AT&T to get a good smartphone experience; the Storm provides a great one. But if you are a Mac-and-Verizon person, beware: BlackBerry's serviceable MediaSync software won't be released for Mac until sometime next year. So it'll be a while before you can sync your new Storm with your Mac contacts, calendar and iTunes playlists.

If you're not a Mac or Verizon person, and you haven't bought an iPhone, then you might be an enterprise user who is sick of the subpar quality of the Pearl or the relative obesity of the other BlackBerrys. The good news is that the Storm finally makes use of the too-big BlackBerry footprint and offers a litany of cool stuff: a gorgeous, bright 480x360 display that lets you type emails and surf the Net in landscape mode; visual voicemail; world-phone functionality; and expandability of up to 16GB (an 8GB SD card is included.) No longer are you forced to carry around a brick just to have a keyboard and decent Exchange email service. And notably, the Storm is more brick-like than any BlackBerry before, weighing 5.5 ounces. By comparison, the Curve weighs 3.9 ounces, and the iPhone 4.7 ounces. It feels substantial, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Of course, as an enterprise user, let's say you have the luxury of being carrier-agnostic, and you're trying to choose between AT&T's new BlackBerry Bold and Verizon's boy wonder. That decision is a relatively simple one; AT&T's Bold has WiFi, which the Storm, horrifyingly, does not. But the Storm can play video in big format on its glorious 3.5-inch screen, has a better camera (3.2MP over 2MP) and has an hour more of talk-time on its battery (4.5 hours vs. 5.5 hours). Pick your preference: WiFi or long-lasting multimedia.

What about T-Mobile's Google phone, the G1? It's not a truly touch-screen device with its pop-out keyboard, so it doesn't merit equal discussion here. But if you're considering the G1, too, then check out the FastCompany.com review here.

Is the Storm an ideal device? By no means. Besides its heartbreaking lack of WiFi, it has other niggling issues: namely, the cognitive load involved in using a device that is both touch- and button-navigated. With the iPhone, everything you can do in a given application appears on the screen, so your know your options with a glance. With the Storm, there are two levels of input - the buttons that appear on the screen, as well as the four keys below it. That can engender some confusion.

For example, in the browser, the best way to go back is via the “back” key below the screen, even though the rest of the browsing is done with finger taps. And when making a call, you're best served by opening the call menu with the “send” key, even though to enter your contacts, you'd touch the screen. It's nothing that you can't get used to, but hand the Storm to someone who's never used it before - even a smartphone veteran - and they might get frustrated quickly. Another unfortunate: when the phone is in portrait mode, the only two available keyboards are SureType and regular keypad multi-tap. This is infuriating when you're trying to enter a contact with a proper name, and you have to either do it dumbphone-style by hitting number keys repeatedly, or deal with SureType trying to botch every surname. The accelerometer is also not as responsive as it should be, leaving the phone hanging in the wrong orientation seconds after you rotate it.

On the other hand, the Storm excels at a number of tasks where other smarphones like the iPhone drag. The Storm allows users to copy-paste, meaning that editing Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents is a breeze in landscape mode, with the screen's full QWERTY keyboard. It also has a wonderfully detailed 3 modes of calendar viewing, pretty good GPS mapping, Verizon's solid turn-by-turn driving directions, and a decent 3.2MP camera that takes video with sound. It probably goes without saying that Verizon's mobile broadband feels snappier than AT&T's does, and that it has more consistent coverage. Another bonus: a loud, clear speakerphone. The iPhone's is still impotent, even after it was bolstered in the 3G model.

Other plusses are small, but they add up. Stereo Bluetooth is a nice touch, as is the ability to tether to a laptop and share mobile broadband. A dedicated “mute” button on the top of the device pauses music at a touch, and two hotkeys on either side are programmable, as with other BlackBerrys - with the Storm held in landscape mode, one of those buttons is ingeniously placed to act as a shutter key. Press it down halfway, and the camera focuses, and then press it fully to shoot a 3.2MP picture. This is how all phone-cameras should work. Hear that, Apple?

On, finally, to the SurePress screen - the infamous “clicking” touchscreen. The good news is, it's not a cheap gimmick; the screen doesn't flex, or vibrate, or do anything cheesy like that. Instead, the whole glass face of it acts as a button, so when you push on it, the entire thing depresses into the body of the phone. This is crucial because it allows you to select things on the screen by tapping, without actually activating anything. (This is what makes cut and paste possible, since you can drag your finger to select text.) It works quietly, unobtrusively, and intuitively. However, it's arguable that the SurePress screen is just as much a work-around for an OS that relies too deeply on menus - stop, select, open menu, select - as it is a usability feature.

To boot, you don't always want to be clicking things just to activate them. Typing is the task that comes to mind here. I prefer light, quick taps to get the job done, as they do on the iPhone, and I didn't find that having to “click” the key actually made my typing any more accurate. The system may be meant to appeal to users familiar with the hard-buttons on traditional BlackBerrys, but since there's no key-feel, I found my Curve experience moot. Using the QWERTY keyboard was satisfying, if a little sluggish. You just can't click very fast with your thumbs when you can't feel the keys. Or at least, I can't; try one before you buy it.

If it sounds like I'm being critical of the Storm, it's only because it's the first touch-based smartphone that can be considered in the same class as the iPhone. The comparison will be more fair once RIM's app store gets off the ground, but existing applications like Facebook and Flickr bode well for the Storm's platform. In a field of imitators, RIM has proven once again that they're blazing their own trail, and while it may not be as scenic as Apple's just yet, it is surely going somewhere good.

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1 Comments

  • Anomoly Smith

    Time will really tell, i know that RIM had to do something to fend off apple.