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11/21/2008
02:26 PM

Review: Touch-Screen BlackBerry Storm Gets Mixed Verdict

Research In Motion's first touch-screen BlackBerry, from Verizon Wireless, boasts an ultra-fast Web browser and great multimedia. But the SurePress keypad takes some getting used to.



I've spent the past three days using Verizon Wireless's new BlackBerry Storm extensively. Quick verdict? If you type a lot of messages, steer clear. If you want a multimedia device more than a messaging device, then perhaps the Storm makes sense. Let's look at why.

The Storm comes to market just as touch-screen-based devices are beginning to take off with mainstream users. Blackberry manufacturer Research In Motion is meeting the competition head on in hopes of keeping customers from defecting to other devices. The Storm offers everything that BlackBerrys are traditionally known for: killer e-mail and messaging capabilities, tight enterprise integration, and solid performance and quality of voice calls.

RIM has adapted the latest version of its operating system fairly well for touch input. Some nice innovations in the e-mail application, for example, include the ability to quickly sort e-mails by sender or subject line. This allows you to zero in on a specific thread of e-mails in an instant. You do this by quickly swiping your finger across the subject or sender field of the e-mail. This is a nice touch.

With such a large screen, reading through e-mails is a joy. Rather than using a trackball or scroll wheel to zoom through the messages in your in-box, the Storm works like other touch devices and allows you to swipe up and down with a flick of the finger. With an e-mail open, you can also swipe your finger side-to-side to scroll through your messages without the need to return to the inbox. There are some software buttons at the bottom of the screen to send replies or forward messages.

The Storm will integrate with your business's e-mail systems and Internet-based e-mail just as any other BlackBerry. Setting up accounts works seamlessly. Enterprise IT departments have full control over many of the Storm's functions, so it is a solid business-oriented smartphone.

Voice-Call Clarity

In the tests I performed on the phone, the quality and clarity of voice calls was excellent. The speakerphone was nice and loud, and pairing the Storm to Bluetooth headsets (both mono and stereo) was easy.

The browser performed excellently, too. The Storm has a full HTML browser and pairs it with Verizon's fast EVDO 3G network. Browsing speeds were blazing fast. I loaded lots of Web sites that are heavily laden with images, and the Storm pulled them all down quickly. Sites such as CNN.com, NYTimes.com, ESPN.com and others all loaded rapidly. Using your finger to pan around Web sites is simply the most efficient way to browse the Web on small devices.

What I liked most about the browser was a well-conceived navigation tool. The navigation page has the address bar, Google search bar, bookmarks and browsing history all accessible on one page. This means finding the Web sites or content you want is extremely easy.

The Storm covers most of the BlackBerry basics well. One area where it fails to perform is with battery life. RIM claims that the Storm gets 6 hours of talk time. I completely killed the Storm's battery in a single day. It had a full charge at 8 a.m. and by midnight, the Storm was flashing "low battery" warnings at me. Granted, I used the phone a lot that day, but I expect busy professionals also would be using it heavily throughout the day, especially when traveling.

Aiming beyond just business users, the Storm includes the best multimedia feature set a BlackBerry has ever had. The 3.2-megapixel camera takes good pictures, the MP3 player is very capable, and watching videos on the luscious display is great.

The Storm's 3.2-megapixel camera outperforms the iPhone's in a big way. The autofocus and very bright flash go a long way toward making sure pictures turn out good. It may not be the fastest phone-based camera, but it does a solid job at capturing images. Same goes for video. The video footage I shot with the Storm was clear, free of jittery, herky-jerky movement, and free of ghosting or smearing. It beats the camera on the iPhone -- and the cameras on other BlackBerrys.

As for music, if you're an MP3 junkie as I am, the Storm has you covered. It comes with 1 GB of permanent memory and an 8-GB microSD card installed. That gives users 9 GB of storage for applications, media, and content out of the box.

Using the Roxio software that comes with the Storm, syncing music and playlists is a snap. You also can choose to drag-and-drop files directly from your PC, and RIM said that it will have a syncing client that is compatible with iTunes available in the coming weeks. With the full 3.5-mm headset jack, you can use most any pair of headphones you wish, and music sounded very good.

One of the Storm's best features is its display. It simply looks fantastic. It is highly readable even in direct sunlight. Verizon preloaded a movie trailer on the Storm and watching it on the Storm's big screen was great. If you need to kill some time, the Storm is a capable video platform and will get you most of the way across the continent before the battery dies.

About that Keyboard...

OK, I won't keep you in suspense any longer. What is it like to type on the Storm? Honestly, I can't stand it.

The Storm's display is touch sensitive for navigating the menus, swiping up and down and back and forth. In order to actually open folders or applications, you have to press the screen forcefully. The entire screen is one big button. You'll feel it click, giving you the physical feedback that other touch phones lack. This is fine for selecting applications and interacting with most of the Storm's features, but it just doesn't cut it when it comes to typing.

The Storm has a software version of RIM's SureType keyboard when the phone is held vertically. This means there are two letters per key, as on the Pearl or Pearl Flip. Perhaps it's because I am so used to being able to lightly touch the software keyboards on so many other phones, but physically pressing the Storm's screen down to type each letter was just tiresome.



The QWERTY keyboard is much more difficult to use than the SureType keyboard. Obviously, the phone needs to be held sideways to use the full QWERTY software keyboard. RIM calls it SurePress, playing on the fact that you're actually pressing the Storm's screen to type. The full QWERTY is spacious, and gives your thumbs plenty of room, but my thumbs felt real fatigue after typing out a 100-word e-mail.

I am not the only person who feels this way. If you read reviews of the Storm on other Web sites, you'll see my sentiment is shared by many. The upshot is that the Storm's typing experience is not for me, but I am sure there are plenty of you who won't have any problems with it.

Dark Clouds Ahead

Now for the really bad news. The Storm has issues. The review unit I tested experienced severe bugginess and problems all over the place.

The accelerometer, for example, rarely works as it is supposed to. I would rotate the phone and wait up to a minute for the phone to recognize that I had turned it on its side. Other times, the phone would randomly switch from vertical to horizontal orientation even though the phone hadn't been rotated at all. That's unacceptable.

The camera software and video playback software both crashed the phone completely several times, requiring me to pull the battery to reset the Storm.

Another issue I experienced was serious lag and lack of responsiveness from the user interface. The Storm would fail to register finger presses, the "back" button worked only about 50% of the time, and panning around was slow and jittery. Applications behaved strangely and would randomly quit.

If you think I got stuck with a bad unit, think again. In order to be as fair as possible, I requested a second review unit from Verizon Wireless. The second review unit experienced all the same problems and issues. Again, if you check other reviews, you'll see similar reports of bugginess. RIM and Verizon Wireless need to come up with a fix for these problems fast. People may have lined up early this morning in eager anticipation of buying the Storm, but if I were a consumer, I would have returned the Storm by now.

Early adopters are going to pay a heavy price in testing what is clearly unfinished software on the Storm.

Odds and Ends

Other aspects of the Storm that are worth mentioning include the Application Market. The Storm will be one of the first BlackBerrys that can access the RIM Application Market. Similar to the iPhone Apps Store and Android Market, RIM's version will let you browse through and download applications from third parties. For example, I downloaded and tested the Facebook application, AOL's instant messenger program, and several others. The Application Market isn't live yet, but will be in the coming weeks. The preview of the market installed on the Storm shows promise.

The Storm has GPS on board. It comes with Verizon's Navigator software preinstalled. This service has a monthly fee attached, but will provide turn-by-turn directions to anywhere you might choose to go. I also downloaded Google's Maps for Mobile. I was disappointed that the "My Location" feature performed terribly. The Storm's GPS wasn't able to pinpoint my location accurately at all. The closest it got was about a mile away. That's not very good.

If you're thinking about buying a Storm, I'd recommend you proceed with caution. I'd strongly encourage you to go to a Verizon Wireless store and test the typing experience for yourself. Don't just press the screen a couple of times. Use it to type an e-mail. BlackBerrys are messaging devices, after all.

Be warned that the Storm isn't finished. The software needs more development time. The bugs and user interface performance issues are real and get old quickly. Perhaps RIM and Verizon Wireless will be able to update the software to a more stable and faster version.

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