"But, BlackBerry, everyone loves you! Why would you come here?"
If you're an American, there are certain cartoons you just HAVE to watch during the holiday season no matter how many times you have seen them, such as "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", "A Charlie Brown Christmas", "Frosty the Snowman" and the venerable (and my absolute favorite) "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" , which was part of the Rankin/Bass series of stop motion animated specials that were produced during the mid-1960's thru the mid-1970's. Oh, they don't make them like that anymore.
Verizon Wireless recently capitalized on America's endearment with the classic animated special by airing a parody commercial in which the reigning rival smartphone, the Apple iPhone arrives at the Island of Misfit toys because AT&T's 3G reception is spotty. Unfortunately, what Verizon doesn't tell you is that they have a misfit toy of their own -- the BlackBerry Storm 2.
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Since the recent coverage of my early experiences with Verizon's DROID (which indeed I feel should be considered the wireless provider's premier smartphone) I was contacted by Research in Motion's public relations firm, Brodeur, and asked if I'd like to look at Verizon's latest and greatest high-end Blackberry offering, the Storm 2, which is currently selling for $179.00 on the Verizon Wireless web site with a new 2-year contract. Being a gadget freak and former lover of all things BlackBerry, I said sure, ship one over.Now, understand that while I am currently a DROID user and a Verizon customer, I was previously a BlackBerry user. Specifically, my last two devices were a Bold 9000 and an 8820, both on the AT&T Wireless network. The ultimate reason why I abandoned the BlackBerry was because I no longer needed mobile access to corporate email and was was able to end my wireless contract early.
The fact that AT&T Wireless was dropping my calls and the lousy 3G coverage sealed the deal, but if my employer were still paying for corporate email integration, I would almost certainly still be using my AT&T BlackBerry Bold 9000 today (which I have now given to my wife, who is still under contract) until which time I could get a comparable BlackBerry on Verizon.
Corporate email and messaging is BlackBerry's greatest strength. The fact that virtually all BlackBerry devices have some sort of keyboard along with an easily navigable interface is what makes Research in Motion the 800 pound gorilla in the business smartphone space that it now occupies.
While the BlackBerry OS platform itself is aging in comparison to the other market players from an application standpoint, such as iPhone and Android, there is absolutely nothing out there that can match it as an enterprise messaging device.
Despite being behind in mobile web browser capabilities (a problem which the company is seeking to rectify using a modern WebKit-based browser with its recent purchase of Torch Mobile) no other device has comparable enterprise email and calendaring integration, has the ability to deploy IT policies for securing enterprise mobile data or has guaranteed message delivery using a privatized and secure network that Research In Motion uses with BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES).
So when I received the BlackBerry Storm 2, I had to evaluate it on the merits of its BlackBerry-ness as well as its role as a smartphone within the diverse Verizon portfolio of device offerings.
The Storm 2, like the original Storm that came before it, is unique in that it is a keyboard-less BlackBerry and is a completely touchscreen-based device like the iPhone. It is also unique to the Verizon network as no other wireless carrier in the United States has it in its stable. In Canada the GSM version of the phone, the 9530, is available on multiple carriers including Bell, MTS, SalkTel and TELUS.
First, let's get to the good. The build quality of the Storm 2 is excellent. It's definitely one of the sleekest smartphones out there in terms of industrial design, rivaling the iPhone in pure sex appeal, in that it feels wonderful in your hand and and slips nicely into your shirt pocket. The capacitive 480x360 touchscreen is one of the best and brightest I have ever seen in terms of visual quality, although in terms of pure resolution it's no match for the DROID's 480x854 -- but then again no other phone currently sold in the US market is.
What I'm saying here is nothing new. Our own Gadget column blogger Andrew Nusca also looked at the Storm 2 shortly after it launched in late October.
I'm not going to repeat a lot of Andy's verbiage because I think his assessment of the product is dead-on and well worth reading. However, I think that from the perspective of someone who has been a habitual BlackBerry user for the past two and a half years, my views differ in the area of my practical experience with RIM's devices and how Storm 2 compares to previous generations of their own hardware.
Anyone who has used a current-generation BlackBerry for any length of time will first try to move their thumb where the trackball (or trackpad) is in order to move through the menus. On a Storm 2, the trackball/thumbwheel isn't there. So in absence of a scrolling device, you touch and swipe the screen with your finger in order to get your way around. You get this immediate feeling of being an amputee, that something is missing from the experience.
To replicate the "clicking" paradigm of depressing the trackball in on a traditional BlackBerry, the Storm 2 has a unique "SurePress" interface where the simple act of just lightly touching the screen doesn't cause any application activity other than the icon or menu item itself lighting up. You actually have to press into the screen until you feel a click, which is somewhat unnerving because I have a built-in psychological aversion to pressing hard on LCDs for fear of damaging them, and probably so do a lot of other people.
The adaptation of a touchscreen interface to a BlackBerry is weird to say the least. I'm not accustomed to thinking of BlackBerry OS as one that is optimized for touch, and for lack of a better expression, it seems unnatural on a Storm 2.
My Storm 2 was preloaded by Verizon with an email address, but I wanted to get the full experience of integrating it with my existing email, so I went through the process of going through the Setup wizard and adding my GMail address and using the BIS service.
This of course requires that you have to type in information. No biggie on a traditional BlackBerry -- those have physical keyboards. But on a Storm 2, you have to use the virtual keyboard.
I am sure there are plenty of people out there that are used to the concept of a virtual keyboard and might even be able to type effectively on them. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. Like previous generations of Perlow men, as my father and and his father before him, both of which worked with their hands (both were dental professionals) my digits are larger than what the ideal Storm 2 customer probably has.
Still, my ogre-like fingers aside, it's hard not to think that based on the UI experience, the target Storm 2 customer must have the hands of a pre-schooler or an elf, because the level of accuracy for the on-screen keyboard in full QWERTY-mode when the device is in landscape view and in alphabetical predictive portrait mode is just plain awful.
Essentially, you don't "Type" on a Storm 2 per se. Instead, you "Slide, light up and press". If you simply just press on a letter, chances are you will probably touch the adjoining letter, which will highlight/light up. The technique that I found for achieving the most accuracy with this device was sliding my index finger in a somewhat hovering fashion over the keys until the appropriate letter lit up and then pushing in until the Surepress feedback clicked.
Even after having this device a week, I still can't get it right more than 50 percent of the time. The times when I have had to really interact with the virtual keyboard have been when I have had to enter my account information in an application (Such as the native GMail Mobile app, FaceBook for Blackberry or OpenBeak, a popular Twitter client) and use passwords.
On a keyboard-based BlackBerry it isn't such a big deal when you make a typing mistake because it can be very quickly corrected, but when you can't see your password being typed, or can only see the character pop up for a fraction of a second before the masking asterisk appears, you'll find yourself tearing your hair out when you mess up logging into an account multiple times in a row.
Once you get your accounts set up and have the menus and icons tweaked exactly the way you like -- a process that seems like hours on a Storm 2 -- it's more or less business as usual in terms of the way the standard BlackBerry apps work, unless of course you actually have to type something, such as respond to an email. Then it's back to slide, light up and press hell again.
There may certainly be people out there that could have a positive experience with this device, but I can't imagine it would be the majority of folks out there, especially if they are existing BlackBerry customers. If you're an existing BlackBerry user on AT&T or another carrier and want to migrate to Verizon, I would be very hard pressed to recommend this phone to you based upon my own frustrating experience.
Instead, I'd recommend a more traditional RIM design, such as the BlackBerry Tour 9630 or BlackBerry Curve 8530. The Tour has the benefit of Quad-Band GSM for world use but lacks the Wi-Fi capabilities of the Storm 2 or the Curve. The Curve has a somewhat less durable build quality and a far less impressive screen than the 9630 or Storm 2, but it has Wi-Fi as well as the updated trackpad which isn't susceptible to being gummed up.
Ideally, I would like to see a version of the Blackberry Bold 9700 on Verizon, but so far, the phone is only available on T-Mobile and AT&T. So far, it seems that if you want to be a BlackBerry customer on Verizon, you have to be willing to compromise on at least one major feature (Keyboard, Wi-Fi, or screen and overall build quality) I'm hoping that Verizon rectifies that soon.
Is the Storm 2 Verizon's "Misfit BlackBerry?" Talk Back and Let Me Know.