BlackBerry Storm Review (Verdict: Not Quite a Perfect Storm)

It's hard to overstate how important the BlackBerry Storm is to RIM and Verizon. It's RIM's bold effort to fend off the iPhone and Verizon's best hope for a star handset that draws people in, or at least keeps them from bailing. The Storm's major innovation is what RIM calls SurePress—the entire touchscreen is fat, honkin' button—which has been paired with a redesigned, finger-friendly BlackBerry OS. We've already showed you a lot of what the fuss is all about, but now that we've spent some quality, uninterrupted time with the Storm, here's why we think it falls short of its promise.

The Hardware
The Body
It's surprisingly heavy. Like, heavier than RIM's manly slab of smartphone, the Bold, at 155g to the Bold's 133g. It feels thick, too, thicker than it actually is, because of its squarish shape. It looks good, it feels okay in your hand. It's just kind of clunky at the same time. On the other hand though, all this substance also makes the Storm feel really robust. You'll never feel like you're going to break it.

That Button Screen
When you push the screen and it clicks, it's a genuinely satisfying tactile sensation that, as I said in my hands on, is clearly a finely tuned experience. You won't accidentally press it when you don't mean to, but you don't have to drop a sledgehammer on it, either. Like the rest of the body, it's a sturdy piece of hardware that seems like it will hold up over the many, many thousands of clicks it will endure in its life time. The only concern is that it seems like the chasm between the screen and rest of the body is a lint nest waiting to happen. But the gap is large enough you should be able to clean your pocket gunk out with the edge of a toothpick.

The Other Buttons
For a touchscreen phone, the Storm has a lot of damn buttons. Nine, to be exact: The four standard BlackBerry buttons, one side button, a volume rocker, and dedicated lock and mute keys. I wouldn't get rid of any of them. The BlackBerry button is still your best friend, since you'll still need to bring up the menu in practically every situation.

The Storm has the biggest, highest resolution screen RIM has ever produced with a 480x360 res. It's bright and beautiful, though not quite as stunning as the Bold's since it has a lower pixel density. Still, the OS and video look fantastic on it, with plenty of pop. The capacitive touchscreen is fairly responsive—on par with the T-Mobile G1—though sometimes the OS lags behind you.

We haven't fully tested the battery life on the Storm yet, but it seems to be respectable. The battery isn't quite as beefy as the beast powering the Bold, but you shouldn't have a huge problem getting through the day on one charge or anything.

No Wi-Fi is a bummer, even with Verizon's fantastic 3G network, 'cause not even it penetrates everywhere. That said, one of the Storm's greatest strengths is Verizon's network, with its basically unbeatable coverage, and you'll get a signal most everywhere that's not a subway, aeroplane or supervillain secret lair. 3G is plenty fast and more reliable than AT&T, so it's been sunshine. Any pokiness in web browsing is the software's fault. Calls sounded great to the other party, though they sounded kind of muted to me on the default volume compared to the Bold.

The camera is 3.2MP of noisy noise, like most mobile phone cameras. The camera is tarted up with some basic photo editing features and a dedicated flash, but it's nothing incredible.

The GPS seems to provide a pretty accurate location with a reasonable amount of speed, though you're stuck with Verizon's VZ Navigator as the main navigation app (no BlackBerry maps). Some people really hate Verizon's program, so you might be less than stoked here.

OS and Usability
RIM's first touchscreen BlackBerry doesn't toss the old baby out with the buttons (or something like that). It's very much the familiar BlackBerry OS, just with a UI that's been optimised for your fat fingers. It's pretty, with big, easy-to-press icons, lots of fade transition as you move from screen to screen, and standard highlight motif of lighting up a Dr. Manhattan shade of blue whenever you select something. It does take a little getting used to the idea of highlighting something being distinct from actually pushing it, but it's no biggie.

The list menus—like the menu pop up when you press the BlackBerry button or lists of messages—are just spacey enough to be touchable without pressing the wrong thing very often. The accelerometer is pretty decent at keeping up with you and will rotate the screen in all four orientations, letting you choose to the have the four main buttons on the left or right in portrait mode. It got stuck in the wrong orientation less often than the iPhone does (to me anyway), which is good, since the only way to use the full QWERTY keyboard is in landscape. In portrait mode, the only keyboard is the SureType—a virtual rendition of the Pearl's funky number/letter pad.

The major issue with the interface, at least in the main menu area, is that it lags. Like, enough to be annoying. Scrolling through the main menu, for instance, it seems like part of the scroll slowdown is deliberate (I don't know why) but the sluggishness turned to choppiness more often than occasionally. The transition fades from screen to screen, besides being inconsistent (sometimes you get 'em, sometimes you don't), make the OS actually feel slower. And when it does lag, it's somehow more frustrating because it makes you distrust and pissed off at the SurePress feedback—not good for your major selling point.

The Storm needed a little bit longer in the oven—I had lotsa lock-ups and crashes over the last two days with it. Lag was all over the place, which is a cardinal sin with a touch-based UI. It really needs to be more stable. I wonder how long before there's a software update, 'cause it needs one badly.

The Keyboard
The keyboard layouts themselves are roomy and perfect, with the QWERTY subtly divided into two halves. Which actually makes for a good guideline—keep your thumbs on their respective sides of the divide and you'll be a much happier camper when it comes to typing, since you have to consciously let the screen pop back up between every letter press. Having a true alternating rhythm between your thumbs makes it much easier to use, so you're not trying to press a key with your other thumb while the screen's already pushed in.

RIM makes a big deal out of the fact they've separated navigation from confirmation with their SurePress thing. That, hypothetically, is a means to an end, the end being more accurate typing than a standard, feedbackless touch keyboard. In that respect, it fails. Even after two days, with the keyboard's great layout and perfect size, I was leaning just as hard on the autocorrect on the Storm as I ever did on the iPhone. Here's why: Confirming I've pushed a key doesn't actually tell me whether I've pushed the right one. Which makes the feedback, as far as typing on a keyboard goes, basically useless. It's made worse by the fact that RIM's glowing blue highlights also are far less effective than pop up letters at indicating what key you're pushing.

I hate to say this, but I kind of came to hate typing on it. Pushing the screen in over and over requires so much more effort than simply gliding my fingers around a good touch keyboard. It was tiring. SurePress is a bit less annoying with the onscreen SureType keyboard in portrait mode though. One other gripe is that you can't get a QWERTY keyboard in portrait, even though its screen is as wide as the iPhone's.

Other Touchiness
Copy and paste! Yeah, Storm's got it. You highlight text by putting your fingers on either side of the text you want to highlight, then you've got a little menu that pops up below asking what you want to do with it. Your fingers are probably too big to do it correctly every time, but once you've learned the process of how to float the cursor with a long touch, it's easy and it works most of the time. Moving the cursor around within text isn't quite as intuitive as the iPhone's magnifying glass, but once you hover to take it into cursor mode, the whole screen acts like a trackpad, so you ca n move anywhere around it. It works. There are some other cool UI things here—in your inbox, hovering over an email will bring up every one in that thread.

Email and Texting
It's a BlackBerry, so yes, the Storm is everything you'd expect from one in the email department, like search, push, the works, just touched up with a touch UI. For instance, the aforementioned easy search feature, which also bring a menu when you hover over a person's name to do things like send them an MMS (take that iPhone!) or add to contacts that works really well with touch. Thankfully, I saw lag in the email app far less than anywhere else in the phone—it was always snappy, and works really with the touch UI. It's also got a few subtle aesthetic enhancements over the email client in the Bold. I'd like threaded text messaging, but it's the standard BlackBerry setup here that looks just like email.

Calling and Visual Voicemail
The phone UI is pretty dandy, with giant buttons all around and easy access to logs, contacts, and contact search. Contacts is a fairly standard list thing with search. Visual voicemail though, that is a snazzy looking app. It's kind of busy, but I think it's one place I like the UI better than the iPhone.

The first thing I asked the RIM rep was how much better the Storm's browser was than the Bold, which kind of eats it when it comes to scripts. He said it was improved "but don't expect a miracle." That's a good assessment. It's fast, faster than the Bold whenever I put them side by side, but not quite the fastest browser on the planet. It's also smarter than the Bold, rendering pages more accurately where the Bold slipped. Performance once pages loaded was good. I'll be doing some more formal benchmarks, like with our browser Battlemodo earlier today, shortly.

One thing RIM gets really right is the browser UI. You have lots of of options for getting around—two prominent zoom in and out buttons, plus you can zoom by clicking. Very easy. You've got two main navigation modes though—pan mode, where your finger swipes zoom around the page, and cursor mode, where the whole screen acts like a trackpad. I mostly stuck with pan mode. SurePress comes in handy when scrolling, because you'll never accidentally press a link again. One thing I'd like is multitouch zooming (sorry, gotta say it) and a way to quickly get to the bottom of the page, since a hard flick doesn't send you flying like on mobile Safari. Overall though, RIM delivers pretty big here.

The biggest improvement over the Bold, media wise, is that the Storm comes with an 8GB microSD card. Unfortunately, everywhere else, it's mostly the same. The media player UI is essentially identical, with minimal tweaks to make it touchable. On the actual playback screen, it's fine, and album art looks great. However, the list system it uses is fairly tired and straight out of the old BlackBerry playbook essentially. The bigger pain point, if you're comparing it to the iPhone's multimedia muscle, is the crappy Roxio Media Manager. New phone, same crap. Please please please get better media software, RIM—this stuff is beneath you. Video looks really great on that screen though!

Okay, so you've got Verizon's Navigator as the main navigator app. It's okay and has some solid features, but not as easy to use as Google Maps. I haven't roadtested it, but it's more responsive than on other phones I've used it on, and benefits from the Storm's big screen.

You'll probably be excited when you see an icon in the main menu for the Application Centre. The Storm's App Store it is not. It's just where you can download Verizon and RIM's pre-approved apps like Google Talk, AOL Instant Messenger, Flickr, Facebook and the like (there are a lot of IM clients). It's where you'll grab software updates for the phone, but don't expect to be using it frequently since updates will be few and far between. It's browser based, which is annoying. The actual app store, the one you want, won't hit until next year, and we're waiting impatiently for it. In the meantime, you can find BlackBerry apps the old fashioned way, on the internets.

The Storm is a strong effort from RIM, but it's not quite the killer phone that they or Verizon need it to be. It's good—RIM clearly put a lot of thought into the design. But I think it fall short of what they were aiming for, and ultimately what all the hype is driving people to expect. Some of this is fixable: The damn thing needs to crash less often. But SurePress is not the end-all, be-all of touchscreen technologies—it's not really an evolutionary step forward, even. The experience may be fairly refined, but more polish is still needed. Had this Storm been left to brew a bit longer, it would've been much more powerful.

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