Hands-On: BlackBerry Storm
If there's one thing RIM absolutely had to get right on the Storm, it's the QWERTY keyboard. I'm happy to report that I think they nailed it.
As I mentioned before, the screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio, which makes it more square than phones with wide screens like the iPhone and Instinct. While wide screens are nice for watching movies, putting a QWERTY keyboard on one doesn't leave room to see what you're doing. The Storm's display, however, is the perfect size and shape for a QWERTY keyboard, with plenty of space left over to see what you're typing.
The physical click feedback works great, and there's also visual feedback in the form of a large blue glow to show you which key you pressed. In case you do hit the wrong key, there's also automatic word correction, which works just as flawlessly as on the iPhone.
If you need to work one-handed and/or in portrait orientation, just flip the phone upright and the rotation sensor does its thing; the interface flips quickly, and the keyboard changes to a SureType layout.
As for menus and the interface in general, it's not easy to rework a whole smartphone OS like BlackBerry to work for touch, while keeping it consistent with the non-touch version. I'm reminded of Nokia's S60 Touch interface that we previewed just last week. Nokia did a decent job of it, but I think RIM did an even better job with the Storm.
Even though the scroll wheel and trackball are gone, long-time BlackBerry users will feel right at home. Everything works just the way it should. In some ways, they've even made parts of it easier to use, while also adding new advanced functionality for power-users.
For new users, there's still the odd "BlackBerry key" to get used to. As always, this requires a definite learning curve if you're used to phones with more-typical soft keys. However it's a simple lesson to learn, and once you learn that one thing, everything else is intuitive.
The browser holds some impressive innovations, but it's also the Storm's one Achilles heel.
I mentioned the nifty cursor mode, although of course there's also a more typical mode where you drag your finger to pan, click to choose a link, etc. A quick touch (rather than a click) toggles full-screen mode. Like the iPhone, a double-tap zooms in intelligently, fitting whatever you tapped on to the full width of the screen. In general, the browser interface is great, and it renders pages well.
Unfortunately, it does none of this quickly. Pages were slow to load and render, and zoom/pan operations were slow and jerky. This ruined what would have otherwise been a pleasurable surfing experience.
However, this is a software issue that may be addressed in future software revisions. The software we tried was definitely not final. In fact, it was very buggy, which is probably part of the reason Verizon has yet to commit to a specific launch date. Of course we do expect the major bugs to be fixed by the time launch day rolls around.
The browser does not support Flash.
The Storm's multimedia functions are fairly standard. The photo gallery supports "flick" gestures to move between photos, like most finger-touch phones.
Video playback is quite impressive; 720p HD video plays back smoothly and looks fantastic on the high-res display.
There's plenty of room to store both video and music with the 1 GB of built-in memory plus 8 GB memory card. The way the two memory areas are handled is smart. When you plug the Storm into a PC via a USB cable, two drives show up: one for internal memory, one for the memory card. This gives you full control to put files where you want.
Back on the phone, when you browse files with the file manger, you'll also see the two separate memory areas. However, in the music player and gallery applications, all of your media from both areas is displayed as one collection.
There's a lot for both the BlackBerry faithful and news users to like. The innovative tactile touch screen alone will sell quite a few of these. My only major gripe - the browser speed - is definitely the kind of thing that can be - and often is - addressed by a software update. If you're the kind of user who's been tempted by the iPhone, but just can't quit your CrackBerry, your new drug is coming soon to your neighborhood dealer (Verizon dealer, that is.)