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Hands-On: BlackBerry Storm

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Oct 7, 2008, 11:24 PM   by Rich Brome

Our hands-on report of the just-announced BlackBerry Storm touch-screen phone for Verizon. Our first impressions with plenty of photos.

Hardware 

 

Body

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Research In Motion (RIM) and Verizon Wireless are preparing to launch the new flagship BlackBerry - the Storm 9530 - in time for the holidays. The Storm joins an increasingly large group of phones with large touch screens and new interfaces designed specifically to be manipulated with your finger, like the iPhone.

I recently spent time with a pre-production Storm 9530. I came away very impressed. Read on to see what surprises the Storm has in store.

The Storm isn't excessively large, thick, or heavy. It's not going to impress in these departments, but it's reasonably pocket-friendly. If it's a half-ounce heavier than I would like, the upside is that this weight adds to a feeling of solid construction. Indeed, the overall build quality feels excellent. The rear battery cover plate is made of metal, which also helps. In terms of size, it's shorter than the iPhone. It's slightly larger than a Curve, although tapered edges help it feel smaller in the hand.

The display is huge and very high-resolution. At 480 x 360 pixels, it has 12% more pixels than the iPhone, and those pixels are more dense, making details exceptionally clear and crisp. The Storm bucks the wide-screen trend with an old-school 4:3 aspect ratio.

The big news about the display is the touch technology. First, it's capacitive, like the iPhone and the HTC G1. This alone is great news, but the real innovation is the true tactile feedback. The whole screen is essentially one giant physical button that you can press down for a gratifyingly real "click" action. There are no haptics or funny tricks here; just good ol' tactile feedback, and it works very well.

As you would expect, the click action lends a great deal to the experience of pressing virtual buttons and text entry. However, it also enables a whole new dimension (literally) in touch interaction. Capacitive touch technology requires no pressure; it responds to the very lightest touch. This means the Storm has two distinct ways to press the screen. A light touch is just a "touch", while a more forceful press results in a "click". This makes the Storm the first phone we know of with what could be considered a "3D" touch screen.

RIM has implemented a few clever uses for this in the BlackBerry interface. For example, the browser has a "cursor mode" that simulates a desktop browsing experience. Touching the screen moves a visible pointer around the web page just like using a mouse, while clicking (of course) clicks. Browsing email lists, a click will open that email, but a touch-and-hold will search for all emails with the same subject or sender. The QWERTY keyboard also has a touch-and-hold shortcut for accessing accented versions of letters, which is very useful for non-English languages.

Moving on to the rest of the hardware... there's an accelerometer, of course. Rotating 90 degrees in either direction flips the whole interface; it's quick, works on most parts of the interface, and works equally well for lefties.

The front has four physical buttons: Menu (BlackBerry), Back, Send and End. They are all easy to find and work well. The top sports two semi-hidden physical buttons: mute and lock. The top buttons are completely smooth with the rest of the plastic at the top, but their placement at the corners keeps them easy to find and use. There's also the usual assortment of side keys, all of which work well.

You'll also find a standard micro-USB connector (which supports charging) and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack for use with a headset or your favorite music headphones. Stereo Bluetooth is also supported.

On the subject of sound, and moving to the back of the phone, there's a secondary microphone on the back which provides active noise cancellation. The speakerphone is also on the back. It's surrounded by two protruding rubber bumpers. These really stick out quite a bit and make the Storm harder to slip in and out of pockets, but they do their job of keeping the speakerphone loud and clear when the Storm is sitting flat on a desk. The speaker is quite loud and clear in all situations.

The microSD memory card slot is located under the battery cover, but it's easily accessible without removing the battery. The Storm comes with 1 GB of built-in memory plus another 8GB on the included memory card. Cards up to 16 GB are officially supported, and it should handle 32 GB cards in theory. Metal battery covers will be available in several colors, allowing some degree of customization.

Also on the back, you'll find a 3 megapixel auto-focus camera.

Besides the unique touch screen, the other feature of the Storm that blew me away is the roaming capability. This is simply the most global and most 3G-savvy phone made to date.

In the States, naturally it will work on Verizon's CDMA 850/1900 network. Not only is it EVDO, but the faster Rev. A flavor of EVDO, so you get the fastest data experience Verizon's network has to offer.

It's when going abroad that the Storm breaks new ground, though. The Storm supports all major overseas GSM and 3G networks. It's quad-band GSM, which gives you full GSM roaming even in Latin America. It also has HSDPA 2100, so you get full 3G data speeds in Europe and Asia. Verizon has roaming agreements already in place that support those 3G networks, and Verizon does not charge extra for 3G roaming; it's the same rate as GSM/EDGE data. The Storm 9530 even works in Japan and South Korea. A SIM card comes with the Storm, so it's ready for all this global action right out of the box.

The only thing missing is WiFi, but with so much 3G love, this is one of the few times we almost buy Verizon's argument that WiFi would be redundant.

Software 

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.

 

Text Input

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

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.

 

Menus

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

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.

 

Browser

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

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.

 

Media

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

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.

Conclusion

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.)

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Comments

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Subject Author Date
Problems in the future? Miranda523 Oct 14, 2008, 10:00 AM
BlackBerry Storm mayhem Oct 16, 2008, 6:43 PM
sprint? Cinnamongoddess19 Oct 27, 2008, 3:07 PM
Google Maps?? tcoche Oct 10, 2008, 4:51 PM
I HAVE TO GET MY HANDS ON THIS! KellyH Oct 8, 2008, 8:52 AM
why does it show a sim card slot? truetravis9287 Oct 8, 2008, 5:13 PM
Price Azeron Oct 9, 2008, 9:17 AM
  • Re: Price by HawkeyeOC   Oct 10, 2008, 1:43 AM
    • Re: Price by catstide   Oct 19, 2008, 4:02 PM
Storm Simulator mighty14 Oct 12, 2008, 10:25 AM
BlackBerry Messenger marcr92 Oct 14, 2008, 12:28 AM
Storm - Very heavy in weight eric815 Oct 13, 2008, 11:01 AM
Availability? codyphobia Oct 13, 2008, 11:30 PM
Will Verizon cripple the GPS on this phone too? cyberwks Oct 8, 2008, 10:40 AM
WiFi vs 3G -- am I missing something? abccell Oct 8, 2008, 10:45 AM
exclusively verizon? dmbecker Oct 8, 2008, 4:08 PM
Exchange support reclark5 Oct 13, 2008, 12:21 PM
Just get a browser to work!!!! lone_gentleman Oct 8, 2008, 10:11 AM
Switching from iPhone to this device and Verizon modine Oct 8, 2008, 5:15 PM
awesome goodness .. iheartvzw Oct 10, 2008, 11:23 PM
Gonna need a new phone soon, advice please.... VTHOKIE4LIFE07 Oct 10, 2008, 5:04 PM
Does any one else see the ROGERS MALL on the first picture !!! cell guy jamie Oct 8, 2008, 9:26 AM
 
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