Hands on with BlackBerry Storm
The Storm developed a hurricane of hype before it was launched, only to be met by, well, a storm of criticism on its initial release as the first reviews rained on its parade.
I’m here to tell you the BlackBerry Storm is OK. It’s more than OK. It’s a great handset. Let’s go though those snarling objections one by one, from the Wall Street Journal’s grousing about the touchscreen keyboard to Wired’s “tranquilised Yak” quip.
First, a quick recap on the $999 Storm’s feature set vs the iPhone.
The Storm lacks the iPhone’s wi-fi, multitouch gestures or, crucially, an equivalent to the treasure trove that is the Apple iTunes AppStore (though Rim has its own “AppCenter” on the way).
Against this, the Storm can pull tricks Apple’s handset can’t, such as shooting video, sending photo messages and cut-and-paste. It has a full HTML browser, and of course it supports all RIM’s famed push email service and all the usual BlackBerry smarts, including much superior handling of PC files.
The Storm also has the still camera advantage at 3.2 megapixels to the iPhone’s 2mP.
Both handsets have GPS chips, and capable support for Google Maps and Street View. Both support HSPA (aka 3G Broadband) for download speeds of up to 7.2Mibt/s on Vodafone's network (currently HSPA is confined to a slither of Auckland's CBD, but watch for much wider coverage in the New Year). And both have superb video and music playing ability. Only the iPhone offers native support for Apple’s online music store, of course, but the latest BlackBerries come with a cheeky utility lets you copy DRM-free tracks from your iTunes library.
The Storm measures 112.5 x 62.2 x 13.9mm and weighs 155g, making it a fraction thickier and heavier than the iPhone, whose vital statistics run to 115.5 x 62.1 x 12.3mm and 133g. But although it’s slightly bulkier the Storm’s striking aesthetics have drawn immediate rave reviews, plus comments that it feels more robust.
At 3.5-inches (8.89cm, measured diagonally), the iPhone's screen is a tad larger than the Storm's 3.25-inches. But on casual use you'd be pressed to notice any difference. Both are exceptionally crisp, great looking displays, and superb in landscape mode for messaging or multimedia.
Now, to those Storm grizzles:
Complaint: It’s buggy
Valid? Used to be
Back in the mists of tech time, three weeks ago, the first BlackBerry Storms were released, running on BlackBerry’s System Software Version 4.7. They were buggy, sometimes crashing or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
RIM rush-released a software upgrade, BlackBerry System Software V 4.75, which addresses most of the glitches.
It was made available on BlackBerry’s website about a fortnight after the phone’s original release, but that was too late for the first wave of reviewers. Naturally, the bugfest didn’t put them in a particularly positive frame of mind as they considered BlackBerry’s first-ever touchscreen, and its radical new way of doing things.
If you buy a Storm, check the System Software version straight away. It’s still on 4.7, get an upgrade to 4.75 before you walk out of the shop. Sorted.
Complaint: The OS is difficult and awkward
Many people instinctively expected the Storm to work like an iPhone.
It doesn’t; it reacts to its own collection of taps, swipe and flick commands.
It’s no better, or worse, than iPhone’s way of doing things. It’s just different.
The biggest cultural leap, for iPhoners, is that the Storm requires you to select an item, then press down the whole screen (which acts as a kind of giant mouse button) to confirm or “click” your selection. Personally, I like this “SurePress” set-up. It’s not quite as quick as the iPhone OS, but it helps avoid mistakes.
Some of the Storm’s idiosyncrasies do take a while to get used to. For example, when confronted with a vertical scroll bar, your first instinct is to swipe your finger upward or downward. In fact, doing that gesture in the bottom half of the screen throws up the virtual keyboard (or banishes it); you need to swipe on the top half of the screen. Still, you soon acclimatise.
Complaint: The display is slow to re-orientate
Valid? Mostly, no
Yes, the Storm’s screen takes a beat to automatically re-orientate itself when you tilt the phone from landscape to portrait mode, or vice versa.
But look; this is a good thing.
I’m also using Nokia’s N96 at the moment (for my sins, I usually have three phones on the go at any one time). The N96 has an auto re-orientate feature, too, but the handset arrives with it switched off. That’s a smart move on Nokia’s part. Turning the feature on, I found the screen re-orientated with a snap – half the time when I was just tilting the phone back, or to one side, just slightly. It drove me crazy and soon switched it off again.
\Waiting a beat before it re-orientates means the Storm doesn’t twirl crazily between landscape and portrait modes.
More to the point, it’s not “tranquilised Yak” speed. In most instances, the screen re-orientates in less than a second. It can take longer if you have more apps open at once – especially multimedia apps. But again, that’s true of any smart phone.
My most common reason to spin the Storm into landscape mode is to access its full Qwerty keyboard while messaging. In that mode, it snaps around in one Mississippi.
Complaint: No multitouch
Valid? Yes, but ...
iPhone remains the only handset to accept multitouch gestures, such as a pinch to zoom in on a photo. The Storm doesn’t support such manipulative gestures, but it does let you use two fingers to select a block of text (one digit touching either end), or to select multiple items at once.
Complaint: no wi-fi
Valid? Yes, and here it matters
Maybe this isn’t such an issue in the US, where most cellphone users are on all-you-can-eat monthly data plans. But in New Zealand, with nosebleed charges once you but your daily or monthly allowance, you’ll seldom want to suck down a large file over the cellular network. Wi-fi is a convenient way to access said files without faffing around with cables.
Complaint: The virtual keyboard’s too difficult
Tech doyen Walter Mossberg complained the Storm reverts to a shared-key mode when held vertically. Why not allocate each letter its own virtual key? Or why not give the user a choice of a half-dozen keyboards, since it’s all just software?, he asks.
Uncle Walt’s got a good point about the vertical keyboard.
But I never use it. When emailing or SMSing, the first thing I do is flip the phone into landscape mode and use the full Qwerty version of the virtual keyboard.
I confess I have mental issues with a virtual keyboard. Somehow a physical keyboard still feels more correct somehow; more psychologically satisfying; and less stressful.
But in practical terms, the Storm’s virtual keyboard is fine. My thumbs fly across it just as quickly as they do on my traditional keyboard BlackBerry Bold (RIM’s second new handset; more of which later in the week). A blue light shines on a key as you hover around it, aiding accuracy. There’s also an optional haptic buzz, or force-feedback, when you touch a virtual key, which makes things feel a bit more “proper”.
The usual shortcut key options and a capable voice-dialling feature mean the virtual keyboard isn’t usually an issue for calls.
Complaint: Lousy battery life
Even without battery-sucking wi-fi, the Storm needs a charge every night.
A giant colour screen is inherently power thirsty, which makes the Storm and iPhone equal offenders in this regard.
In summary, it's hard to separate the Storm and the iPhone for useability, or hardware smarts. Each has the edge in differnet areas, and it comes down to personal preference. But while Storm seems to be selling very well, it needs an equivalent service to Apple's phenomenally successful AppStore if it's to turn back the iPhone's invasion of RIM's traditional business turf. What for more developments in that area in the New Year.