Hands On: The BlackBerry Storm

Summary:First off, a warning: Be very skeptical of any review you read in the next 24 to 48 hours that proclaims to be the definitive word on the Blackberry Storm.While clearly I have my own early impressions, the Storm is so different than any other smartphone I've used, that I assume I'm not the only one who is experiencing a bit of a learning curve.

First off, a warning: Be very skeptical of any review you read in the next 24 to 48 hours that proclaims to be the definitive word on the Blackberry Storm.

BlackBerry Storm
While clearly I have my own early impressions, the Storm is so different than any other smartphone I've used, that I assume I'm not the only one who is experiencing a bit of a learning curve.

In case you've missed all the pre-launch ruckus, the Storm ($199, after $50 rebate and two-year committment) is Blackberry's first touchscreen device, and RIM, the Storm's manufacturer, and their launch partner Verizon Wireless, are clearly hoping they have the first serious iPhone competitor on their hands.

And while I would love to give you my definitive take on whether or not they've succeeded, my rather lame answer is I don't know yet. So far there are some things I really like, some things I'm not so happy about, and others for which the verdict is still out.

Given my fence-sitting, I'll come back to this topic several times over the next few weeks, and I promise that by early December, I'll actually try to quit the equivocating and take a stand.

So, for now, here are my first impressions and thoughts.

You can also check out my BlackBerry Storm photo gallery here.

Typing and the clickable screen

RIM is hoping that it is able to attract folks who were either too scared to try typing on the iPhone's touchscreen, or tried and simply never got the hang of it (you can put me in that second camp). So, instead of relying on the same touchscreen technology as the iPhone, the Storm features a screen that actually clicks when you type on it (they're calling it "SurePress"). So far, I haven't found myself typing any faster than I can on iPhone, though I am slightly more confident that I'm hitting the right keys as I go.

As my colleague Wayne noted, the center of the screen actually seems like it has a bit more give in it than the outer edges, and we both found ourselves taking slightly more time when hitting those outside keys. [Note to Wayne: See, ask for a shout-out, and you shall receive.]

In other applications, and in general navigation, you have to learn when to touch the screen lightly, and when to actually click in. For example, if you want to pause a song or video, you have to lightly tap the screen to bring up the playback options, then depress the button you're looking for. If instead of initially tapping you actually press down on the screen, nothing happens. This is not a criticism, but rather just flagging something that will likely take folks some getting used to.

While web surfing, the UI is a bit more intuitive -- you simply click on the screen to zoom in.

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Screen rotation

BlackBerry Storm - vertical
Like the iPhone and the G1, the Storm contains an accelerometer which is meant to rotate the screen between portrait and landscape mode depending on how one is holding the device. Unfortunately, at this early stage, the accelerometer is my biggest beef with the Storm. I find that the screen rotates way too easily -- it frequently rotates unexpectedly -- and there's often a serious lag when it switches between portrait and landscape. I would hope this is something that can be fixed with a future software update. (And while there are settings for adjusting screen sensitivity, adjusting the sensitivity of the accelerometer is not an option.)

Messaging

E-mail has of course always been the BlackBerry's strength, but whether or not you think the Storm measures up will ultimately be determined by how much you like the SurePress screen.

BlackBerry Storm - horizontal
When holding the phone vertically, you're presented with a SureType keyboard, which uses shared keys (for example a single key for Q and W, another for E and R), and RIM's very good predictive software then guesses what you're trying to say. While I have never been a huge fan of SureType, I do know folks who love it, and love the fact that it improves over time. Once you rotate the screen 90-degrees, however, you'll have access to a full QWERTY keyboard, which I strongly prefer.

In addition to working with corporate email, the Storm (like all BlackBerries) can work with personal accounts, as long as you configure them with the BlackBerry Internet Service.

The Storm also supports texting and MMS, and comes with AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, Google Talk, and BlackBerry Messenger (though I have yet to meet anyone who uses that last one).

Copying and pasting

Ha, take that iPhone fans -- the Storm actually allows you to copy and paste text.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that it definitely takes a little getting used to. You first tap the beginning of the portion of text you want to copy, then, while keeping your first finger in place, touch the end of the text with another finger. After your text is highlighted, you use the toolbar to copy and paste. In theory, sounds easy, right? In practice, actually focusing in on -- and highlighting -- the correct words can take a lot of trial and error. This is one of those tasks that I hope gets easier over time.

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Connectivity

In the US, the Storm operates on Verizon's CDMA-based network, but it also contains radios that will function internationally, supporting quad-band: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz GSM/GPRS/EDGE networks and single-band: 2100 MHz UMTS/HSPA networks. It also includes GPS and Bluetooth functionality.

Unfortunately, the one thing it's missing is a big one -- WiFi capability, which becomes even a bigger drag if you can't get onto Verizon's stellar EV-DO high-speed data network. If you have access to EV-DO, while it's clearly slower than WiFi, the difference is actually not as great as you might expect.

The screen and multimedia

BlackBerry Storm - video player
I think I would have been more impressed with the Storm's display had I not been recently playing with the BlackBerry Bold, which is arguably the nicest phone display I've ever seen. That said, the Storm's 480x360 screen is perfectly nice, and video playback was more than acceptable. While the external speaker is impressively loud, the sound is not nearly as clean as that on the Bold.

While you'll see RIM and Verizon touting the ability to sync the Storm with iTunes (via the bundled MediaSync application), you should note that like all devices other than the iPhone, you'll only be able to sync music that's DRM-free.

The Storm will also work with Verizon's V CAST Music with Rhapsody subscription service, which for $14.95 a month provides access to a five-million song library. Initially, you'll need to connect your Storm to a PC in order to sync your music, but expect over-the-air downloads down the line.

The Storm includes a 3.2 megapixel camera (a step-up from the 2 megapixel camera on the Bold), with a flash, which takes perfectly good photos, and the bundled video player is certainly more than adequate for a smartphone.

Phone and voicemail

Oh yeah, this thing is a phone, too. I found voice quality to be very good -- people on the other end of my calls were crystal clear, although none could be fooled into thinking that I was on a landline. The Storm includes all of the basic calling features, as well as voice-activated dialing, and, best of all, visual voicemail.

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Memory, battery life, and other specs

The Storm has 1GB of on-board memory, and another 128MB of Flash memory. The phone also ships with an external 8GB microSDHC card.

Verizon is claiming up to 15 days of standby time, and six hours of talk on CDMA networks/5.5 hours on GSM. While battery life has been good, I can't yet confirm whether it comes close to those numbers. And of course, like any phone not called "iPhone," the battery is removable.

In addition to a USB power/sync cable and travel adapter, the Storm includes universal power adapters, which is a very nice touch.

Other specs:

Size (L x W x D): 112.5mm x 62.2 mm x 13.95 mm

Weight (battery included): 155g

Ringtones: 32 polyphonic - MIDI, MP3

Video Format Support: MPEG4 H.263, MPEG4 Part 2 Simple Profile, H.264 (encoding and decoding 30fps), WMV

Audio Format Support: MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA, WMA ProPlus

Bluetooth: Bluetooth v2.0; Mono/Stereo Headset, Handsfree, Phone Book Access Profile (PBAP), and Serial Port Profile Supported. Bluetooth Stereo Audio (A2DP/AVCRP), DUN

Headset: 3.5mm stereo headset capable

USB Port: Enables charging and high-speed data synchronization via USB "A" to micro-USB "B" cable

Power Adapter: +5V DC/500 mA AC power adapter, with interchangeable, location-specific plugs

Network Support: Dual-Band: 800/1900 MHz CDMA/EV-DO Rev A networks; Quad-Band: 850 / 900 / 1800 /1900MHz GSM/GPRS/EDGE networks; Single-Band: 2100 MHz UMTS/HSPA networks EV-DO Rev A networks

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Service plans

The bottom line is that plan pricing is about what you would expect.

There are a variety of options (quoting from Verizon's press release below), but a couple of things to note. One, Verizon will let you use the Storm with a data-only plan, which is a nice touch. Two, once you're a Verizon Wireless customer for at least 60 days, you can ask  the company to unlock your phone for you if you're traveling overseas to a country that uses GSM, allowing you to use local prepaid SIM cards, as opposed to paying exorbitant international roaming rates.

And yes, if you got it unlocked, hypothetically that means you could use it on a US GSM carrier, like AT&T or T-Mobile. Of course, you would still need to pay for your Verizon service, so it doesn't make all that much sense, and a Verizon representative said she wasn't sure that 3G speeds would be available in the US if you used the device on a network other than Verizon's -- I haven't been able to check that out.

If you want VZ Navigator's turn-by-turn functionality, you can add an additional $9.99 a month to the below figures.

Here are the plans:

Personal E-mail: Customers who purchase a Verizon Wireless Nationwide voice plan can also subscribe to the E-mail and Web for BlackBerry plan for an additional $29.99 per month.

Data Only: Customers who choose a data-only plan pay $49.99 per month for unlimited personal e-mail and access to the Internet.  The plans may be used with any Verizon Wireless BlackBerry and allow customers to access up to 10 POP3 and IMAP e-mail accounts via BlackBerry Internet Service.

Nationwide Email: Offers customers a bundled plan with voice allowance and wireless data usage for quick and easy remote access to personal and corporate e-mail on BlackBerry devices. Monthly access starts at $79.99 beginning with 450 minutes per month for voice.

Nationwide Email & Messaging: Offers customers a bundled plan of voice allowance, unlimited text, picture and video messaging, Internet access and wireless data usage for quick and easy access to e-mail on BlackBerry devices. Monthly access starts at $99.99 beginning with 450 minutes per month for voice.

Corporate Email and Voice plans: Business customers who are using the BlackBerry Enterprise Server or using ActiveSync, Good Mobile Messaging or Wireless Sync may subscribe to this plan for $44.99 added to any Nationwide Voice plan.  Customers who want the Storm as a data only device may subscribe to this plan for $49.99.

Global Data Plans for Storm travelers.

Verizon Wireless offers a range of plans to accommodate international travelers.  Their subscription to any Global plan comes with a Global Support Card enabling them to call from nearly any wire line phone in the world and connect to our global help desk free of charge.  This 24 hour help desk provides customers with technical support when they need it most.

Global Data plan: For $20 monthly access on top of a Nationwide Email Plan, customers can get email from over 150 different destinations.

Global Data Only Plan: Customers who want to add Global data to an existing voice plan, pay $64.99 and as a data only plan $69.99.

Pay-as-you-go data use: Customers who feel that their data usage is minimal may opt for a pay as you go option that charges $20.48 per megabyte ($0.02/KB)

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The [early] bottom line

There's no question that the Storm is an impressive piece of gadgetry. With the notable exception of WiFi, RIM has managed to squeeze just about every feature that an ardent smartphone user could want. And despite a couple of annoying glitches -- like the aforementioned "screen rotating on its own" issue, and the noticeable lag time during rotation -- after 36 hours, the Storm has actually held up pretty well for a first generation device.

Physically, the Storm is  a bit chunky -- it certainly lacks the graceful lines of the iPhone, and in fact, it's almost the size as the super-stocky Bold (it's roughly the same thickness, though a drop shorter and narrower). It's an attractive phone, but not a head-turner.

While web browsing isn't nearly as graceful as it is on an iPhone, it's still a very good experience -- especially compared to other devices out there. And the Storm holds up remarkably well as a media player -- assuming you have DRM-free music and video files.

At $199 (with a two-year contract, and after a $50 rebate), the Storm is at exactly the same price as the 8GB iPhone, and $100 cheaper than the BlackBerry Bold, which seems about right to me.

But ultimately, the Storm's success will be based on whether or not the masses take to the SurePress touchscreen, and my guess is that it's going to be a love it/hate it kind of thing. My only problem is that I haven't picked a camp yet.

Stay tuned.

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Topics: iPhone, BlackBerry, Collaboration, Hardware, Mobility, Networking, Verizon

About

Armed with a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Journalism, Josh keeps a close eye on the telecommunications industry, the National Broadband Network, and all the goings on in government IT.

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