Research In Motion's new BlackBerry Storm has created quite a stir, largely due to its innovative touch-screen interface. This is clearly a bid to capture the imagination of consumers, but has RIM done enough to keep its corporate customers on-board?
The Storm is available exclusively from Vodafone in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. As we understand it, this version of the device will never be available from another operator. In the UK it starts from free on a £35 per month, 24-month contract and free on a £40 per month, 18-month contract. On less expensive contracts the device costs £99.
The Storm is quite a hefty smartphone. It measures 62.2mm wide by 112.5mm tall by 13.95mm thick and weighs 155g. Despite RIM's new-found consumer leanings, the design remains relatively subdued, which should pacify potential business users. The fascia is a shiny black plastic while the battery cover is made from metal and finished in slate-grey with a slight patterning. The remainder of the back and the sides are black with a slightly rubbery feel to assist with grip.
A silver sidebar runs down the long edges and frames the fascia. It shifts to the back at the top and bottom, but is continuous all around the device. The top and bottom edges are also curved and shaped rather than squared off.
The front of the device is almost entirely screen, but there's a quartet of buttons in a row beneath the display. The inner two are the BlackBerry Menu and Escape keys, with Call and End keys flanking them. There's no 'Pearl'-style mini-trackball — presumably because RIM is confident that every operation can be carried out using the new touch screen.
There are two buttons on the top edge. One is an all-important screen lock and the other is a mute key. Both look like touch-sensitive buttons, but are in fact physical buttons.
Moving to the sides, there's a volume rocker on the right and 'convenience keys' on both left and right. You can allocate the latter to any application you choose — the default settings are the camera for the right key and voice dialling for the left key.
These convenience keys are not, in fact, very conveniently located — or perhaps it's just that they're too sensitive. In any event, we found it too easy to accidentally start up the camera software when picking the Storm up off a desk. If this gets too irritating, you can set the keys to do nothing.
The left edge also houses the microUSB power/PC connector socket, while the right edge has a 3.5mm headset jack.
The screen, which measures 3.25in. across the diagonal and has a resolution of 480 by 360 pixels, is the star of the show. It's clear, sharp and bright, and presents content such as web pages, emails, calendar and images extremely well.
The Storm's unique feature is the way that the whole screen depresses about a millimetre when you press an icon, a menu option or other on-screen element. RIM calls the system SurePress. If you simply touch the screen, your selection is often highlighted with a blue (on black) background, and only 'actioned' when you press fully.
The upside is that you get real tactile feedback from a screen press. However, there's a short delay between a screen tap and the desired action, which can limit your speed. This is no problem when you're simply choosing applications or menu options, but if you're trying to enter serious amounts of text it could prove irritating.
We found that when making selections from menus we had a tendency to hit the selection below the one we really wanted. We got used to it after a while, but in the early days it was frustrating.
On another ergonomic point, the vertical 'sweep to scroll' feature does not vary according to the speed of your sweep, but follows your finger movement precisely. This makes working through long texts or web pages rather irritating.
We also have a concern about the engineering of the screen, as it doesn't fit flush to the edges of the casing — there's a small but noticeable gap all the way around. One consequence is that in dimly lit conditions the backlight bleeds through, which does nothing for the Storm's aesthetics.
More worryingly, you can move the screen left and right, up and down by pushing a fingernail into the gap. We can't help wondering how robust this screen will prove, and whether dust, water and other foreign bodies may find their way through the gap. Peering inside, we couldn't discern any protection for the Storm’s inner workings.
The BlackBerry Storm ships with an AC adapter, a USB PC cable, a stereo headset, a printed getting-started guide and a software CD. You also get a cleaning cloth for the screen and a carry case. Unlike most other BlackBerry cases, this is a simple slip cover. It completely covers the screen, but leaves about 18mm of the device proud at the top. Presumably this is to provide access to the status light and headset jack, which is on the upper right edge.
The Storm is a classic BlackBerry device in that it supports all the usual mobile email standards. It works with BlackBerry Enterprise Server for Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Domino and Novell GroupWise, and will also pick up POP email via the BlackBerry Internet Service.
You get 1GB of on-board memory plus 128MB of Flash. Storage can be expanded with microSD cards and our review unit came with a 1GB card. The microSD card slot is under the battery cover, but at least you can swap cards without removing the battery.
The Storm is a quad-band GSM phone with GPRS/EDGE and 3G/HSDPA support. There's no front-facing camera for two–way video calling but the Storm does have a 3.2-megapixel camera at the back. This shoots video as well as stills, the former at 176-by-144 and 320-by-240 pixels.
The camera has an LED flash and autofocus; if you touch the on-screen shoot button a small window appears, which is the area on which the autofocus system concentrates. If you press too hard your photo will be taken without the autofocus option. We found the camera a bit slow to shoot, making it all too easy to take blurred photos.
The Storm has an integrated GPS receiver, which you can use to geotag your photographs. You also get BlackBerry Maps, Google Maps and Vodafone Find&Go.
Bluetooth is integrated, but Wi-Fi is notably missing from the spec sheet. Wireless networking is a standard feature for handheld-format smartphones these days, and its absence here is both surprising and disappointing.
The user interface is essentially what we first saw in the BlackBerry Bold, with some enhancements to take advantage of the touch-screen.
The main screen offers two rows of four icons at the foot of the display that access various commonly used applications. Tap the area above these icons and you get a fuller 4x4 grid of icons. You sweep your finger up and down to scroll though all available icons, tapping the one you want to launch the relevant program.
A similar sweeping system works within menus (which are called up by hitting the BlackBerry Menu key beneath the screen): if there are more menu options than the display can show, a sweep will bring up the remainder. Irritatingly the 'Close' option for an application is at the bottom of the list so you often have to sweep down to get to it. Similarly, the 'Switch applications' option is the penultimate one. In many applications there's often also a row of tappable options along the bottom of the touch-screen.
If you choose the clock (an analogue display that occupies the entire screen) and then call up the menu, you can set an alarm and enter a rather useful 'bedside mode'. This leaves the clock running but stops the phone from issuing any alerts, except for any alarms you may have set.
Like a number of touch-screen handhelds, the Storm has an accelerometer that flips the screen into landscape format as you turn the device in your hand. On our review sample this didn't seem particularly well calibrated: it seemed to flip into widescreen mode at any opportunity, but was reluctant to flip back into portrait mode. We were assured that we had a final sample of the device, so this is a concern.
Text input is via an on-screen keyboard. Start creating an email or SMS message and if the screen is in portrait format, you get a SureType-style keyboard with (mostly) two letters per on-screen key. Switch to landscape mode and the keyboard changes into a QWERTY unit. We couldn't find a way to force SureType in landscape mode, which could annoy fans of that system.
Performance & battery life
We had no problems with call quality and battery life was a highlight. In our non-stop music playback test, the Storm delivered 14.75 hours of music from a full battery charge, which is impressive for any handheld device. In everyday use we had no trouble getting through a couple of days between charges.
When we first got hold of it, we really wanted to like the BlackBerry Storm. It looks smart, and the innovative SurePress system sounds great on paper. But having lived with the device for two weeks, we're not convinced that SurePress is as good as it could be. We also have some concerns about the engineering of the device, while the lack of Wi-Fi may be a deal-breaker for a significant number of users.