BlackBerry Storm Hands-On First Impressions

** Update: December 8th, 2008 - Listen to our BlackBerry Storm Review Podcast>>
This review follows up the pre-release review, after having own and used the Storm **

A Pre-Release Look at RIM's First Touchscreen Smartphone

Finally! Here it is CrackBerry Nation, my first hands-on impressions of the BlackBerry Storm. Unlike my BlackBerry 9000, KickStart and Javelin pre-release reviews, this won't be the first one of the BlackBerry Storm up on the net, so I'll do my best to make up for the tardiness by at least making it the best. Though it is articles like this where I wish I was an actual journalist and not a BlackBerry Addict turned wannabe-blogger... no making fun of the number of times you see the words Sweet and Awesome in the paragraphs ahead! :-)

Regular readers of will know I've been dying to get my hands on the BlackBerry Storm for months now. Earlier this week it finally happened while in Santa Clara, California, at the BlackBerry Developer Conference. Research in Motion didn't have an official BlackBerry Storm exhibit setup, but both the 9530 and 9500 could be found in limited quantity within the exhibition pavilion at a few booths, including Verizon's of course, and occasionally could be spotted in the hands of individuals roaming the halls within the hotel conference area. The pavilion booths were constantly packed with people who appeared to be as excited about the Storm as I was, and the people I tried to corner in the wild dashed on me as soon as they glanced my name badge (for some silly reason I think they had the impression I'd try and roshambo them and take their device when they were down for the count) so though the Storm was present at DevCon, getting real quality time with it wasn't as easy as one might have hoped. Luckily and thankfully, I managed to do just that and on Day 1 of DevCon spent an hour of QT with the Storm (I will never forget my first time!). An hour flew by in the blink of an eye press of a touchscreen, and though no photos or videos were allowed at that first encounter, by the time I boarded the plane for the flight home two days later I had managed to steal away a few more precious minutes with the Storm and all said and done have quite a bit to go off of to bring you this review, though more time would have allowed me to dig deeper into the details.

* Disclaimer: As with our other pre-release reviews, please keep in mind that all of the BlackBerry Storms I used at DevCon (featured in images/videos in this review) and have based my initial impressions on are pre-release hardware devices that were running beta software. *

Since I know many of you have been waiting as long a time to read this review as I have been waiting to write it, I'll make no effort to keep it concise and short. And where I'm lacking images or info I'll borrow from some of the other excellent content that has already surfaced on the web. You can visit our BlackBerry Storm Super Page to access all of that.

Read On For My Initial BlackBerry Storm Impressions >>


The Makings of a Storm

BlackBerry Storm Official Before we move into the hands-on, let's recap some of the discussion points and key features/specs surrounding RIM's first touchscreen BlackBerry smartphone.

Background Info:

  • RIM's first touchscreen smartphone, purpose-built for Vodafone/Verizon
  • CDMA/World phone is the 9530. Vodafone/GSM edition is the 9500
  • 9530 will also become available in Canada from both Telus and Bell
  • 9530 gives customers 3G EV-DO Rev. A/CDMA technology - and (2100Mhz) UMTS/HSPA and quad-band EDGE/GPRS/GSM for global use
  • 9500 from Vodafone supports (2100Mhz) UMTS/HSPA and quad-band EDGE/GPRS/GSM networks
  • Exact pricing/release date not yet "officially" confirmed. Should hopefully be out on both Vodafone and Verizon prior to US Thanksgiving (current rumors are pointing to a Sunday, November 16th launch on Verizon - so think Monday the 17th to hopefully be in store). On contract pricing likely to fall within $200 - $350USD range (cheaper the better!), with outright purchase price suggested to be as high as $700USD

Key Features/Specifications:

  • BlackBerry OS vesion 4.7
  • Size (L x W x D): 4.4" x 2.4" x 0.55"
  • Weight (battery included): 5.46oz or 155g
  • Memory: 128 MB RAM, 1GB internal storage, plus expandable memory via MicroSD card (8GB card bundled with purchase)
  • Battery: 1400 mAhr removable/rechargeable
  • Display: 3.26" High-resolution 480 x 360 pixel color display, Transmissive TFT LCD, supports over 65,000 colors and touchscreen navigation
  • 528Mhz processor
  • Stand-alone and assisted GPS
  • USB port: MicroUSB for charging and high-speed data sync
  • 3.2 MP Camera with flash, autofocus and allows for video recording
  • 3.5mm stereo headset capable, Bluetooth supports A2DP (stereo)

The Storm packs pretty much everything a smartphone user could want, minus one thing - WiFi. Leading up to the Storm's official announcement, the possible inclusion/exclusion of WiFi on the Storm was one of the most discussed and debated topics in the CrackBerry forums. Of course it would be nice to have WiFi, but for this BlackBerry Addict it's by no means a deal breaker. Plus this way I have something to look forward to in the Storm "2" that will surely and eventually roll into town.

A Preamble Ramble About the Pre-Release Devices Reviewed

All of the Storms present at DevCon that I got my hands on, both 9530 and 9500 models, were running beta software, and it was apparent. Having handled the Bold, KickStart and Javelin with pre-release software I've come to have a feel for it and would estimate that the Storm's OS as I played with it was probably 2 or 3 revisions out from what will ultimately be approved by the carriers and loaded onto the devices that go to market at launch. And like the Bold, I'm sure RIM will continue to work on the OS even after the device goes on sale. Don't let my "2 or 3 revisions out" estimate make you think for a second that the Storm's launch will be delayed though - it's likely the devices at DevCon weren't necessarily even loaded with the latest OS and I'd even bet that as I held the Storm in my hands for the first time an even newer version of the Storm's code was being compiled in Waterloo.

As for the beta glitches, I didn't experience anything fatal. The device was stable - no lock-ups or exceptions in the times I played with it, which is much more than I can say about the earliest versions of the OS I sampled on the Bold and Javelin (which had the device randomly rebooting, freezing up, experiencing glitches with the media player and camera and generating exceptions all the time - that's what you have to go through when you build a new device and need to get the OS working on new hardware). I'd fathom that what is mainly left to do on the Storm's OS as I played with it are optimizations for memory usage, speed and sensitivity. There were times when the menu and screen transitions / orientation changes were lightning quick (pun intended!), while at other times they lagged a little (and sometimes a lot). Sometimes the accelerometer worked perfect, while other times it was a bit less accurate. This was also the case with my swiping on the touchscreen. Sometimes it was loving my finger, and other times that wasn't quite the case. None of this is of concern to me at this point though, as in every respect the device showed much more time of how it will work when the OS is tweaked up and running smooth vs. any moments of lag.

With the exception of the hour spent on a Verizon Storm, my hands-on time with other Storms was limited. The Verizon Storm I spent the majority of the time on was running OS, and while I didn't make note of the code on the Vodafone Storm's, I did notice that the 9500 seemed to be running a bit smoother than the 9530s. I don't *think* this was in my head, so maybe the networks/radios played a slight difference here (9500s roaming on AT&T vs. 9530s running on Verizon).

I can't wait to see the Storm loaded with final code. I love the Storm (more to come on that later), but the extent of how much I love it is directly proportional to how fast it's going to run in final form. The BlackBerry Bold's speed has me spoiled, and for me speed is a huge part of the user experience - once you have it, you never want to give it up. I don't expect the Storm to be quite as fast as the Bold when all is said and done (528Mhz in the Storm vs. 624Mhz in the Bold), but so long as the Storm can be as speedy as it showed it has the potential to be, I think Storm users will be in for a real treat. And if it hits the market and still shows some random spots of lag, I have a feeling a few more OS upgrades will have things smoothed out quick.

When it comes to hardware, my initial understanding was that the Storm hardware I was handling at DevCon was in final commercial form, though I did hear at one point over the course of the Developer Conference that wasn't quite the case and that the final hardware would be slightly different. I don't have any secondary confirmation on this yet, but my further understanding has it that the Storm hardware in final form would feature slightly different edging to the touchscreen (reduce/lower the outer gap) and that the screen would ride on one "dome" vs. two. If this is the case, I assume we never saw these particular units on hand as they are in manufacturing or locked down at provisioning centers waiting to get loaded up with code and shipped out to Vodafone and Verizon.

As for the touchscreen flex / LCD discoloration issue that's made for lively discussion in the forums, I think I can safely squash that one. Out of six or seven Storms I handled (one for a while and the others briefly), I never experienced this once. However, I did talk to another person who said they noticed it on a Storm they had handled. My thought here is that it may have been a problem on an earlier hardware revision, but is solved now and won't be an issue moving forward.


RIM's Guiding Touchscreen Premise - Separate Confirmation from Navigation

When the first rumors of a touchscreen BlackBerry surfaced, I had no idea what to expect. Would we see an entirely new BlackBerry Operating System, or would we see RIM adapt their existing OS to touchscreen input? While I sort of had grandiose dreams of the former, RIM took the latter approach for their transition to touchscreen and I'm happy report it works great.

Though obviously different, the BlackBerry Storm user experience is very similar to previous models. With all BlackBerry smartphones to date, the premise has always been to navigate to where you want to go, and then click. With the 8700 and older trackwheel devices, you scrolled and clicked. With trackball BlackBerry smartphones you roll and click. And with the BlackBerry Storm you touch and click. Or rather, you touch and press. The Storm's touchscreen was originally dubbed "ClickThrough", but RIM has recently changed that up and is now calling it SurePress, which I do think projects a softer visual image and keeps their branding simplified since RIM already uses the SureType name in reference to their non-full qwerty keyboard.

The premise behind the touchscreen design is that you "touch" the display to highlight what you want to do and then physically "press" in on the screen to make it happen. Corresponding to the press, the entire screen physically presses downward into the phone and quickly rebounds upon lifting. Though it is the entire screen that's moving, the actual sensation actually feels localized to the area just under your fingertip. Having now used the device, I can understand all of those touchscreen haptic / tactile feedback rumors we reported on earlier. It's not that the tipsters were reporting bad info (what they were holding in their hands were indeed early versions of this device), but rather the vocabulary used to describe what they were feeling was a bit off the mark.

BlackBerry Storm SurePress
SurePress touchscreen on the BlackBerry Storm (photo credit)

When I first read about the SurePress concept I was a bit skeptical as it gave me the impression of being inefficient. Think about it - you're now carrying out two steps on the Storm vs. one step on regular touchscreen phones where the navigation and confirmation is carried out in the initial touch event. How wrong I was! Just because there are two steps to SurePress doesn't actually mean there have to be two steps! When it comes to typing on the keyboard or selecting items that you are sure about, you simply tap with a bit of "force" (not a lot of pressure is actually required to make the screen go in... just think of it as the same amount of pressure that it takes to type on a standard BlackBerry). So when it comes to you carrying out actions that you are sure about, the Storm is really like every other touchscreen phone. But when it comes to make accurate selections when many clickable options are in close proximity, say on menus or in the web browser when many clickable links are present, SurePress allows you to always hone in on what you want the first time by lightly touching the screen, and then pressing anywhere on the screen for confirmation. Once an item on the display highlighted, you don't actually have to even press in on that location to activate the item - pressing anywhere on the screen is akin to pushing the enter key. This comes in handy when selecting an item that's surrounded by many other clickable items as you can simply click on an empty part of the screen to ensure you don't accidentally select an adjacent item.

It's kind of crazy - in the end SurePress seems like a simple, mechanical solution to a very complex problem that companies have been trying to address through some crazy means for a long time, but it is pure genius through and through. And in the case of SurePress it seems that at least one other company already feels good about the concept. Apple's newly announced Macbook and Macbook Pro feature a glass multi-touch trackpad which pushes in and out like a giant button. Sound familiar? I haven't checked yet to see if there are any Intellectual Property rights on this concept to be fought over, but regardless, it works.

Form Factor

At 155grams (5.46oz), the BlackBerry Storm is a dense little phone. I personally wouldn't call it "heavy" as that feeling of weight makes it sturdy and gives the impression of top-notch build quality, but there is no doubt that the Storm is meatier than it looks. This actually is the opposite of the BlackBerry Bold. Whereas the Bold looks like a big device, at 133g it is deceptively light in weight for its size. The weight factor really sort of shocked me at first touch, as visually the Storm's form factor is so similar to the BlackBerry Curve 8900 (Javelin) I recently reviewed. Comparing the Curve 8900 to the Storm, they share a similar upper body (3.2 MP camera, hidden lock/mute keys), similar dimensions/layout down the side, and a similar overall appearance, but where the Curve 8900 has a physical keyboard the Storm has giant display and the bottom of the Storm is really the top reversed and features the control buttons sans trackball. Yet throwing the Curve 8900 on my kitchen scale right now, it weighs in at under 120 grams. I guess the Storm's display, underlying mechanism, and beefed up chassis/metal battery door all contribute to the Storm's weight.

BlackBerry Storm and Bold Side by Side
BlackBerry Storm and Bold side by side

In hand, to me the Storm feels better than the Bold (little bit narrower) but not as a nice as the Curve 8900, which in my opinion is basically the ultimate form factor for a non-touchscreen smartphone. Compared to the iPhone 3G, I think it's a matter of personal preference. The Storm is a little shorter, but also a bit thicker. I placed the Storm in my front jeans pocket (yes I was tempted to dash and not return it) and it was definitely ‘pocketable.'

The BlackBerry Storm, Bold and iPhone 3G hardware compared side by side

Looking around the perimeter of the phone, as mentioned the BlackBerry Storm is similar to the Curve 8900 in most respects. The left side of the phone features the Left Side Convenience Key, but unlike the Curve 8900 also features the MicroUSB charging/syncing port. On the Curve 8900 this is located on the bottom right corner of the phone (which I'm still not used to - I'm glad it's on the left on the Storm). The right side of the Storm features the Right Side Convenience Key along with Volume Up/Down keys as well as the 3.5mm headset jack. Also like the Curve 8900 (or I guess in reality the Curve 8900 that will feature this similar to the Storm), the top of the phone has two hidden buttons - a dedicated lock key on the left as well as the mute key on the right, which you can hold down two seconds to enter standby mode.

The front of the Storm is dominated by the Storm's massive display. Above display is standard ear speaker (it is a phone after all!) and the good ‘ole LED notification light. Below the display are the standard BlackBerry buttons. Send/End keys on the outside, with the BlackBerry button/menu key (I still don't know what to call that button) and back/escape key in the middle.

The back of the Storm features the 3.2 megapixel camera which is located under a lens cover which helps keep the dust and pocket lint out while providing a much sleeker look. The battery door is made of metal and will be available in different colors to provide for a personalized look. The door latch mechanism is different than the one on the pre-release Curve 8900 I raved about earlier, but is also equally sweet. There are two little sliding latches on either side of the Storm's battery cover that allow the door to be removed. The back door also features a speaker port and two little "feet" that give the Storm some lift even when sitting on the table thus allowing for the sound to escape. Speaking of speakers, I found the Storm's to be quite good. Not quite as good as the premium get-up on the BlackBerry Bold, but the units I played with weren't too tinny (maybe a bit tin, but definitely better than the existing Curve 83xx series).

Under the hood there is room for the 1400mAh battery, SIM card and MicroSD card. While some people would prefer an externally accessible MicroSD card, I much prefer RIM's approach on the Storm. For the frequency with which I actually change my MicroSD card combined with the ease of removing the battery door, I'd much rather have it out of sight. I'd be willing to be bet just about anybody I could remove and replace the MicroSD card on the Storm (or Curve 8900 for that matter) faster than they could on the Bold, which by the time you fiddle with the door and get your finger nails grasping at the ejected card, tends to take a while. The slide in / slide out friction-fit mechanism on the Storm is much easier.

Another a new non-familiar to BlackBerry feature to the Storm that's located under the battery door but is not in sight is the internal accelerometer which allows you to rotate the orientation of the Storm's display between horizontal and portrait modes. Some people have speculated that the rotation of the screen is 360º, but that's not the case. You can only view the Storm's display three different ways: upright (portrait) or horizontal (landscape) in both directions. Having the phone viewable both ways in horizontal mode makes the phone equally friendly for both left and right handed users. RIM chose to not allow for the phone to be viewed in portrait mode upside down since it would kill the intuitive nature of the phone/menu buttons, which are required for use of the phone (it just wouldn't make sense to have them upside down when that's the ‘top' of the phone).


Drum Roll Please.... I know you're all waiting for this one.... Typing... on... the... BlackBerry... Storm... is....... Awesome! That doesn't mean it is immediately easy to type on with perfect accuracy, but it shouldn't take a Storm owner long to become proficient with it.

Landscape, Full Qwerty - When you turn the Storm sideways and the keyboard goes into full QWERTY mode, the keypad/letters are HUGE. When you ‘touch' a letter, the key you are on glows in a purple haze, which actually looks pretty cool when typing in the dark. I almost think that's where the BlackBerry "Storm" name may have come from -- you can almost visualize it -- you'll be sitting in a dark movie theatre and the guy seven rows in front of you will be pounding out a message on his BlackBerry Storm which in the dark just looks like sheet lightning radiating from his hands (at least you'll have one too so you won't get mad at the guy for using his BB in the theatre).

Within a few seconds of using the Storm's keyboard, I came to a conclusion - the Storm's philosophy of separating navigation from confirmation doesn't actually make any difference for typing accuracy. The reason for this being that when you type fast, you are not waiting around for confirmation of which letter you are on before pressing down on the display. You simply aim and press (just as you would on an iPhone or any other touchscreen smartphone). What makes the Storm's keyboard easier to type on than its competitors in landscape mode is its physical size combined with the click (tactile feedback).

BlackBerry Storm Keyboard
BlackBerry Storm Keyboard in Landscape/Full-QWERTY (photo credit)

Because each letter on the keyboard is BIG and is separated from adjacent keys by ample spacing, the strike zone for each key is hard to miss... once you get used to it. Existing BlackBerry users are familiar with slightly tighter keyboards, so I think most of those who first pick up the Storm will likely be making a few typos until their thumbs get used to the ample keyboard space.

The tactile feedback comes into play not for accuracy, but for generating rhythm in your typing which helps improves speed. It's kind of like playing sports or dancing where the key to being fast/smooth is to always have your legs bent and be loose. That's sort of the situation here. When you type on an iPhone for example (yes I own one so I'm not ignorantly/blindly saying this), your finger hits the screen and you have to sort of manually lift it off and type your next letter, which is sort of like having your legs locked/being stiff. It's not a huge deal, and I know lots of people who can type fast on the iPhone (myself included), but on the Storm's keypad you keep that bounce going, which keeps you loose, smooth and fast.

The distinct click also lets you know that you made a key press, and only one key press. So when you make mistakes, which is bound to happen (people make mistakes on non-touchscreen keyboards too!), you basically stop right there and correct it. Or, like on a regular physical keyboard, you just ignore it and keep typing away. Unlike some other touchscreen phones, it's very hard to run completely amuck when typing on the Storm.

But again, I want to stress, in landscape mode it's not the separation of navigation and confirmation that make the Storm's keyboard a king among touchscreens for typing, it's actually the physical size combined with the push feedback that make the difference when typing fast. You can really dance on it.

Will I be able to type as fast on this keyboard as on my full-QWERTY BlackBerry or will the touchscreen slow me down? My answer.... You will be slower, but it shouldn't be by too much. While the rebound after typing a letter seems quick (doesn't seem to slow you down), the issue is that every letter typed on the touchscreen keyboard is a distinct stroke met with a distinct click. To illustrate this, think about typing the word ‘are.' On the Bold's keyboard for example, after you type the ‘a' you move your thumb over and type out the ‘r.' But once you type out the ‘r' you simply roll your thumb over to the left one space and you've already got the ‘e' pressed, without need to life your thumb and strike again. On the Storm, the ‘r' and the ‘e' become two distinct keystrokes, which takes more time as you are losing out on the speedy "rolling" effect. Keep in mind this isn't definitive - it won't be until the Storm is out on the market and we log some real time with it that we can conclude this. But my hypothesize is probably pretty accurate in this regard.

One last cool bit about the full-QWERTY keyboard. Hovering on a letter (not tapping it) for two seconds brings out alternate forms of the letter. So if you want to spell é, simply hover on the e for an extra second and select é on the drop down.

Portrait, SureType - Easiest BlackBerry SureType keyboard to type on EVER! In portrait mode, the Storm's SureType keyboard is big and roomy, and you can pound out messages with one hand quite comfortably (or two if you prefer). And when it comes to SureType auto-suggesting words, the touchscreen adds to the efficiency as you can quickly tap the suggestion you want to use vs. rolling the trackball around to make it happen. Though I'm by no means a SureType master, my hunch is that once practiced you will actually be able to type faster on the Storm's SureType keyboard than on the Pearl's (flip or candybar). And if SureType isn't your thing, you can always revert back to Multi-Tap in portrait mode, but why would you want to?!

Switching to SureType
Switching to SureType

Now that I've said the Storm's separation of navigation from confirmation approach doesn't make a difference when typing at full speed, it DOES make a difference when typing slow or when in a bumpy environment! When do people type slow? How about in meetings when you have one eye on your boss and one under the table at your BlackBerry with less than full concentration given to the smartphone. Bumpy? How about being a passenger in the backseat of a NYC taxi cab weaving in and out of traffic taking you from the airport to a meeting. One of the best traits of a BlackBerry with a physical keyboard is the ability to slow-type messages in conditions that are less than ideal - and the Storm does not sacrifice that ability at all.

* Update: I'm actually writing this paragraph 30 hours after this review initially published. Why? A comment to this review pointed out another benefit of the SurePress concept that I missed out on in the paragraphs above - preventing accidental keystrokes. With a lot of other touchscreen smartphones, it's easy to accidentally type letters you don't want to by way of "lazy thumbs." After you type one letter, if you 'drag' your thumb over to the next vs. cleary lifting it off the touchscreen, you're going to type a bunch of letters along the way. With SurePress, this is fine - you can drag your thumbs all you want as the keystroke only registers upon press. I overlooked this as on the iPhone (the other touchscreen smartphone I have the most experience with) I tend to hold it my left hand and peck with my right index finger, but for anybody using a touchscreen other than the Storm and typing with both thumbs, accidental presses is definitely a problem, and it's a problem the Storm solves. End Update. *

One last feature I noticed on the BlackBerry Storm was the ability to pretty much bring up the keyboard within in any application or part of the OS (any screen I attempted to do this on anyway it seemed like an option) by hitting the BlackBerry Button / Menu Key and selecting Show Keyboard. While this option makes sense for some screens, I wasn't sure why this would be there on every screen. I assumed RIM's famous keyboard shortcuts would be gone on the Storm (don't think it's possible to do a three key combo like Alt + Caps + H and bring up the HelpMe! screen) but I do have a feeling there may be even more to this keyboard story yet!

Storm Keyboard Video - The Video below features a BlackBerry user (not me) who hasn't used the Storm for all of two minutes typing out a messages in both QWERTY and SureType modes. It's not best example of speed and mistakes are made (new user + awkward angle to hold a smartphone at while typing on it), but it also shows how the mistakes that get made are easy to correct. So when you watch the video, be sure to keep it in context. Once I actually get a Storm in my hands to call my own I'll post one of me typing on it nice and fast with next to no mistakes.

A first time Storm User typing on the touchscreen keyboard



After a monster section about the Storm's keyboard, thankfully we can keep the paragraph about the display nice and short. The Storm's high resolution, 480 by 360 pixel, 184 pixels/inch, transmissive TFT LCD display supports over 65,000 colors and is simply fantastic AMAZING. Is it glass? I didn't get an answer on this (honest to god it slipped my mind!), but if it's not glass, then it's something that feels equal to glass.

The BlackBerry OS looks great on it, the apps I've had a chance to play with look good (should be nice and easy to view/edit excel files) and the video playback is awesome. The Storm's display also seems to be pretty responsive to the touch (will address that later). As for smudging, it's kind of funny... I never noticed any on-screen smudges when I actually had a Storm in hand and was using it. It was only when looking back at the few photos that I managed to snap where some images showed a pretty smudged up Storm (which you can keep in mind was being handled by literally hundreds of people).

I don't think many people (any people?) will be able to find bad things to say about the Storm's display, as is the case with the Bold and Curve 8900's displays as well. To the eye they are all seriously bright/crisp/sharp/etc., but the sheer size of the Storm's display (it makes the Bold's display look puny when the devices are placed side by side) makes it a winner in my book. Just don't drop it! The Storm seems pretty solid, but I'd rather not find out what would happen just in case.

A short Speed Racer clip played on the BlackBerry Storm


Other Hardware...

Standalone and Assisted GPS, 3.2 MP camera, just about every radio known to man... in the limited time I had with the BlackBerry Storm I obviously couldn't put every aspect of the device to the test but I'm sure it's safe to say the above will all live up to high standards we all have for RIM's hardware.

General Storm Use, Navigation and Gestures

When handling the Storm for the first time I couldn't help but think back to the Smartphone Round Robin we held a year ago. If you're not familiar with that event, the editor's of the different Smartphone Experts websites swapped phones for a week each. Over the course of a month I gave up my BlackBerry Curve and got some real hands-on time with the AT&T Tilt, Treo 650 and Apple iPhone. My big takeaway from the Round Robin was that I found both the Curve and the iPhone to be the most intuitive devices to use (and thus my favorites), even though their ideologies (full touch vs. no touch) were at opposite ends. With both of these devices, it's always clear how to hold and use the phone. With the iPhone every possible option (item to tap) is displayed on the phone at any given time, while on the BlackBerry you know to use the menu key for all of your options and are never confused by method of input (keyboard/trackball). When it came to the Tilt and Treo 650, I was less able to get comfortable with the devices as I was always a bit uncertain over how to best hold/use the phone at any given time, due to the mixed methods of navigation and input available (for more info check out the Round Robin website). You'd think that more options should be better, but at least for myself I like to keep things simple and efficient, which I believe is at the core of RIM's smartphone philosophy. As David Yach, RIM's CTO of Software, said at the BlackBerry Developer Conference, it's all about the red light test - you should be able to pick up your smartphone and accomplish anything you want to do in the time you would spend waiting at a red light. He also put it another way... the BlackBerry experience is all about adding an hour to your day by giving you the ability to turn all of those one minute chunks of time we all waste into productive time.

With all that said, I found the BlackBerry Storm to be a little less immediately intuitive than a standard trackball BlackBerry or the Apple iPhone. With a trackball BlackBerry, I'd immediately pick it up in my right hand, put my thumb on the trackball and roll/click away (even for doing something like taking pictures this basic grip wouldn't change). But with the BlackBerry Storm, I wasn't quite sure at first if I wanted to hold it in my right hand and attempt to swipe, hover and tap with my thumb, or hold it in my left hand and use my index finger to get around. Push come to shove, I don't know that there is a right or wrong way, as it's designed to work both ways. I'm sure with just a bit more time I'd find my favorite way to use the Storm, but within that first hour I was definitely tossing it back and forth between hands quite regularly. Though I am also sure the always-logical guys at RIM have given some thought to this question and I would love to know exactly how they suggest holding the Storm for optimal use in any given situation.

BlackBerry STorm in Portrait
BlackBerry Storm in Portrait (photo credit)

When it comes to what's available on the operating system, the Storm will be very intuitive to existing BlackBerry users, but I could see it being a little less intuitive to first time BlackBerry owners. Again, looking at the Apple iPhone, one of the friendly aspects of its full touchscreen user interface is that every option you have is viewable on the screen. It's basically WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). This approach does mean you're likely to have less options/functionality on any given screen (like C&P) and it's not always the fasted for getting things done (dialing a number, quickly checking/responding to a new email, etc), but it does make the phone very easy for new owners to use since there's one path of navigation for any given task. Since the Storm puts a ton of items under the menu key, it doesn't sacrifice on BlackBerry functionality at all, but it does mean new-to-BlackBerry owners will want to be clicking the menu key regularly until they find out all of the Storm's BlackBerry Operating System's secrets.

With speed of use in mind, RIM has taken the approach of making an application's most used/needed functions available on the display vs. hiding them under the menu key, so in situations where your thumb/index finger is already swiping and tapping away, you'll be less likely to need to move your finger off the screen and onto the menu key. A good example of this is within the web browser, where the zoom in / out / url / cursor view buttons appear once you quit being active on the page. Another great example along these lines are the up/down scrolling arrows that become visible at the bottom of screens that have more to display. In the situation where you are holding the Storm in your right hand, scrolling up/down by tapping on these arrows is much more convenient than having to shift your grip and swipe with a finger. It really shows that in RIM's transitioning of the BlackBerry Operating System over to touchscreen input that they are thinking every step of the way about what can speed up and improve the end user experience and have it stay true to the traditional BlackBerry user experience. Nicely done RIM.

Storm in Landscape
Homescreen in Landscape (photo credit)

With no trackball or scroll wheel to be found, I know many of you are wondering what it will be like to get around and navigate on the Storm. From my experiences, pretty darn easy! The Storm's screen size and resolution give every item you want to select a big strike zone so you press on it accurately. Even when accessing options on the menu, I think most people should be able to simply press on items with authority in one smooth motion. Though if the spacing is too tight for those with big hands or chubby fingers, again, the SurePress display permits you to highlight what you want to select first, and then push in on the display for confirmation so you never miss-press. Application icons on the Storm are nice and big, and the Storm mimics traditional BlackBerry smartphones in a clever fashion - when on the homescreen you get a condensed selection of icons, along with your selected wallpaper and full notification list at the top of screen. Turning the Storm horizontal is the same as pushing the menu key, and displays the entire ribbon of apps. Very slick.

While pressing selected items was a no brainer, at first it seemed the Storm wasn't totally fond of my swiping technique though I did quickly improve upon it. I'm guessing my past experience with the iPhone may have tainted this initial experience somewhat. From what I gathered, the Storm uses more of a touch and slide approach to swiping/scrolling vs. the flick approach that seems to work well on the iPhone. Within the Storm's Screen/Keyboard settings on OS4.7 there are touchscreen options labeled Tap Interval, Hover Period and Swipe Sensitivity. I never had a chance to fully explore the effects of changing these settings, though I'm assuming I'll be able to use them to precisely dial in the touchscreen to my liking.

Touchscreen Options
Touchscreen Options

While keyboard shortcuts may be in short supply on the BlackBerry Storm, the passion and ingenuity behind them is still present by way of what I have currently dubbed for now as "SureCuts." I already mentioned one SureCut above in the keyboard section - the ability to hover over a letter for an extra second in order to have it display alternate forms of the letter. Another cool SureCut occurs within the mail application. If you hover on a sender's name or email subject for a few seconds, the inbox begins filtering to show related messages (awesome!).

Other notable navigation improvements on the Storm don't relate to the touchscreen, rather to enhanced functionality of the menu key (err.. BlackBerry button). First, when selecting a highlighted item on an open menu, in addition to tapping the screen with your finger you can actually just click the menu key again and it will act like an enter key (or touchscreen click) and select the item. This is a big time saver considering RIM has given a lot of though to what item is always highlighted by default on any given click of the menu key, so more often than you might think you will be able to just click the menu key twice to make a desired selection. The other notable improvement, which I think needs to be made in future OS upgrades and made available to all existing BlackBerry smartphones, is the ability to launch the Application Switcher by simply holding down on the menu key for two seconds. I personally always set my Left Side Convenience Key to the application switcher, but having it as a hold on the menu key makes way more sense and is a real multitasking time saver.

An hour with the Storm went by in seconds, so I wouldn't doubt if there are many more shortcuts and SureCuts to be discovered still. I did manage to get some text copied and pasted, which was a relatively simple task thanks to the Storm's multi-touch functionality. By putting my fingers at the start and end of the text block I wanted to copy (tapping and then dragging allows you to hone in on your exactly location) I was able to highlight the text and then click the menu key to copy it to the clipboard.

A big part of the BlackBerry OS philosophy is discovery. You can pick up the basics and learn how to navigate around the phone in a minute or two, but in the weeks and months ahead you discover little tips and tricks that push you away from BlackBerry Newbie status to Expert status. I think the BlackBerry Storm follows this pattern of discovery. All in all I was really impressed with the Storm's user interface and functionality and am already jonesing for one to call my own. I'm still a Storm newbie, but am sure if I had my own I would become an expert in no time!!

Native Apps

I didn't have *that* much time with the BlackBerry Storm and for much of that time I simply stared in awe, so suffice to say I didn't get too deep into the Storm's native apps, never mind gather much sense for what 3rd party apps will look like on the Storm (I can't wait to see some apps that make use of the accelerometer... get on it developers!!). The following are some of the highlights:

BrickBreaker - the first app I tried out. Yup it's there, and it is AWESOME. The touchscreen motion combined with the Storm's big and bright display make this the most addicting version of BrickBreaker yet.

BrickBreaker played on the BlackBerry Storm

Web Browser - like the Bold, the Storm does a solid job rendering web pages (adios Opera Mini), but thanks again to the big display I'd take the Storm over the Bold for web browsing in a heartbeat. Navigation within the web browser is pretty simple on the touchscreen, and the Cursor mode makes it easy to drag the page to wherever you want to be. As mentioned at the Developer Conference, RIM wants to make the web browser the second pillar of the BlackBerry experience, so I expect they will be continuously working on the browser to make it better and better.

A short BlackBerry Storm montage showing off the Web Browser, Calculator, Menu actions and Video Camera App

Camera - Having the Storm's full screen as a viewfinder makes for a solid camera photo taking experience. I didn't spend too much time here, but the touchscreen controls made it easy to zoom in and out and snap a picture.

Phone App - Click the Green Button and the BlackBerry Storm is still an easy to use phone!

I think it's pretty apparent that the BlackBerry Storm will be the most application friendly BlackBerry to date, thanks in part to the Storm's massive touchscreen which equates to a better user experience. Bigger is definitely better when it comes to apps. Another untested feature that we know about on the Storm is compatibility mode - which will allow the Storm to run older applications that weren't even created for the device! Compatibility mode allows the Storm to convert trackball events to touchscreen events - so if you're one of those BlackBerry Addicts with 50 software purchases in your ShopCrackBerry Software account, have no fear as they should work without issue on the Storm. I'm definitely excited to put this to the test.

That's All For Now Folks!

One of the inevitable questions that will pop up in the comments to this post are "So Kevin, are you going to switch to the Storm or keep using your Bold?" In anticipation of the question, my first response is I DON'T KNOW!!!, my second response is DON'T MAKE ME CHOOSE! and my third response is AH HELL, JUST GIVE ME BOTH. I guess the good thing here is that this decision will be partially be decided for many of us based on the Storm's carrier offering. Looking at North America - if you're on Verizon / Telus / Bell, the Storm is going to be no brainer for you... get ready to wait in line! If you're on AT&T, T-Mobile, Rogers, etc.... then it becomes more of a struggle. Do you jump one carrier ship for another? Or do you unlock a Vodafone Storm and live with EDGE speeds on your GSM network? Or go for the Bold, which is one fast and smooth device. Or if you a fanatic about form factor, do you stick it out and wait for the Curve 8900. At this point, I'm pretty sure there's no one right answer and you can argue the decision any which way you want (sorry I'm not more help here!) based on written specs and features - for some of you, you'll just have to wait until you actually get these devices in your hand and decide from there which BlackBerry will be your next. 

Seriously, every smartphone I have ever used to date compromises somewhere along the line. Think about BlackBerry smartphones historically - the BlackBerry was a communication tool first and foremost, dominant from 9am to 5pm, built for people who have stuff to do and need to get it done. Think about the Apple iPhone 2G - the not-so-easy-to-type-on touchscreen made it less effective as 9am to 5pm tool, but that same screen made it a media winner and a dominant choice for 5pm to 9am fun... maybe not as good at getting stuff done quick as the BlackBerry, but a good choice for people who were looking for stuff to do. With the introduction of the BlackBerry Bold and iPhone 3G, with the Bold taking the BlackBerry's media capabilities to a new level and the iPhone 3g beefing up its enterprise attractiveness (sort of), the two companies have begun encroaching on each other's distinct 9am to 5pm and 5pm to 9am turfs more and more.

Enter the BlackBerry Storm. With its easy to type on touchscreen keyboard, the Storm is just as effective as any other BlackBerry for the work day, but with the benefits of a BIG ‘ole touchscreen isn't about to call it quits when happy hour begins. Sure, there's still some room for improvement: WiFi, more RAM and better graphics support... but sum up all that the BlackBerry Storm has to offer and it's surely one of the first smartphones to effectively bring you the best of both day and night, with little compromise in between!


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