Featuring Wi-Fi, more memory and an improved SurePress technology, Research in Motion's second-generation BlackBerry Storm is ready for primetime and wants to be touched!
It's that time again! Grab a cup of coffee or your favorite energy drink, kick back and enjoy yet another CrackBerry.com pre-release BlackBerry Smartphone review. This time around we're looking at an officially-received BlackBerry Storm2. Has RIM taken the Storm to the next level with the Storm 2, or are we looking at a minor update? Should owners of the original BlackBerry Storm upgrade? Read on to find out!
* Note:I received this review unit just after 12 noon CST today, which left me less than 11 hours to get this together before the embargo lifted. That's not much time to conduct a proper review in full out CrackBerry fashion, so we'll be following up soon with more BlackBerry Storm2 videos and walk-throughs and I'll add a few more images and screencaps to this review shortly. Stay tuned for that. Also, keep in mind I was told the handheld software (version 184.108.40.2067) is not the final version, so there may be some minor operating system changes from the unit reviewed here and what you ultimately can purchase. *
The BlackBerry Storm2. To say it has been highly anticipated would be an understatement. Before the original BlackBerry Storm was available to customers, the first rumors of the Storm 2 began to surface. Research in Motion even acknowledged the existence of the new device much earlier than they historically would, when RIM's co-CEO Jim Balsillie said in a presentation to analysts and investors (reported by Reuters) in May 2009 that they were working on a next generation of its BlackBerry Storm as part of a continuing push into the retail market. From that point, it was less than two weeks later when the first photos of the new BlackBerry Storm were posted to the internet right here at CrackBerry.com which was followed up soon after when we brought you the first video of the BlackBerry Storm 2 in action. In the weeks following and leading up to the Storm2's "official" announcement, youtube has been full of "unofficial" BlackBerry Storm2 9550 and 9520 previews (Verizon's Storm2 is the 9550; Vodafone's is the 9520) showing off early-stage hardware and firmware. Due to this unofficial nature, most early Storm2 videos/photos disappeared from the web as quickly as they appeared, but now that we have an official review unit you can rest assured knowing Storm2 content is now here to stay.
So how does the BlackBerry Storm2 compared to the Storm? When all is said and done, the most accurate explanation I can think of is to draw an analogy to the automotive industry and how car manufacturers release a new car and follow up with a new model each year. It is often said that you should not buy the "first year" of a new car, as there is bound to be issues, and nobody will argue in the case of the BlackBerry Storm that the device as it went to market experienced some issues (lag, more lag, and a bit more still lag still). RIM's strength over the years lay in making non-touchscreen devices featuring a physical keyboard, so adapting the BlackBerry operating system to touchscreen hardware was a new game for them. A few recalls (aka firmware upgrades) later, however, and the BlackBerry Storm is now a much more usable device. In fact, if you haven't touched a BlackBerry Storm in a while you might be surprised at just how well it performs. And that brings us to the next part of this analogy. If you think of the Storm as the 2009 model year, the BlackBerry Storm2 really is the 2010 model year. Yes it's new, it's improved and it features some additional bells and whistles not found in the 2009 model and overall is a better performing and easier to use smartphone, but it doesn't immediately make the old model year obsolete.
Existing Storm owners who have invested the time and energy to get comfortable on their device and have upgraded to the latest firmware (OS 5.0 just around the corner!) may find after picking up and playing with the Storm2 in a store that they're able to stick it out with their Storm until they are eligible for an upgrade. Others of course, may find the addition of WiFi alone to be enough of a reason to pay the penalties and upgrade to the Storm2 immediately. Just like cars, you're always going to want the new model year, even if you got a great lease/finance rate on picking up last year's model. But enough with the analogy, let's get to what's new in the Storm2!
Picking up the BlackBerry Storm2, it's clear that Research in Motion's thought process here was simply to build a better BlackBerry Storm. They weren't thinking about building an iPhone killer or worrying about what Palm is up to with their Web OS or what the next wave of Android phones might look like. RIM looked at the original BlackBerry Storm, assessed where it was great, where it was good, where it was bad and where it was ugly and they fixed it. I'm sure many of the BlackBerry Storm2 reviews that emerge will state the BlackBerry Storm2 is what the original BlackBerry Storm should have been, and well, they'll all be right. We don't want to dwell too much on the Storm's shaky start; after all, it was a pretty big success for RIM from a sales standpoint, but it's impossible to review the Storm2 without looking back at the original BlackBerry Storm.
BlackBerry Storm2 Key Specifications: Be sure to follow the link following for the BlackBerry Storm2's Full Specifications and Features List. Below is a summary of the key highlights:
BlackBerry Storm2 Specifications
|Size (LxWxD)||112.5 mm x 62 mm x 13.9 mm|
|Weight (battery included)||160 g / 5.65 oz|
|Memory||256 MB Flash memory, 2GB eMMC|
|Expandable Memory||MicroSD located under battery door cover (up to 16 GB)|
|Battery||1400 mAhr removable/rechargeable cryptographic Lithium cell|
CDMA: 11.2 days standby, 5.5 hours of talk time
GSM: 12.7 days standby, 5 hours of talk time
UMTS: 11.7 days standby, 6 hours of talk time
High-resolution 480 X 360 pixel color display 3.25" (diagonally measured)
Transmissive TFT LCD
Supports over 65,000 colors
Dynamic hardware brightness control
|Camera||3.2 MP camera, flash, auto focus, image stabilization, 2X digital zoom|
|GPS||Integrated GPS with A-GPS|
|Wi-Fi||802.11 b/g enabled|
BlackBerry Media Player
Video format support: MPEG4 H.263, MPEG4 Part 2
Simple Profile, H.264, WMV
Audio format support: MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA,
|Headset||3.5mm stereo headset capable|
Quad-Band: 850/900/1800/1900MHz GSM/GPRS/
Single-Band: 2100 MHz UMTS/HSPA networks
Dual-Band: 800/1900 MHz CDMA/EVDO Rev A network
Comparing the specs and features list of the BlackBerry Storm2 to the BlackBerry Storm on a line by line basis does not actually reveal that many changes, yet the changes that have been made are significant. According to Research in Motion,
It's important to note that while the BlackBerry Storm at the time of this post is still running BlackBerry Handheld Software v4.7, that most of the UI refinements touted above for the Storm2 will soon be available to BlackBerry Storm users when v5.0 software is rolled out to existing devices. So while this is an "official" enhancement as of now (you can already find leaked versions of OS5.0 for the Storm - dig into our Storm forums), soon the Storm will receive many of these benefits (exception - those benefits derived from the Storm2's hardware improvements, such as clicking multiple parts of the screen at once and the face detection while on a call. More to come on that...).
* Update - October 25th, 2009 - Verizon has released OS 5.0 for the original BlackBerry Storm 9530 *
Let's address these one at at a time:
In the hand, the BlackBerry Storm2 now has the look and feel of a polished consumer product. The same can't comfortably be said for the original BlackBerry Storm, which has something of a commercialized science fair project feel about it (harsh, but true). Not all Storm owners will have the same gripes, but for me the Storm's form factor strikes were:
That's a long list of form factor complaints for the first generation BlackBerry Storm, but RIM must have agreed, as the BlackBerry Storm2 addresses each and every one of these form factor gripes. The BlackBerry Storm2's display has extremely tight tolerances. While there is still some vertical movement associated with the SurePress click action, there's no real wiggle or jiggle to the display. Instead of having physical buttons, RIM has implemented the core send/end/menu/escape keys to be part of the display (and as we have begun to see on other new devices, the green talk/send key now faces up vs. down). These changes combined eliminate the issue of backlighting shining through the gaps and should prevent dust from getting into the unit. On the backside of the device, RIM now has a smooth battery door that is held on by a newly designed single pressure fit clasp underneath. The speaker port has been relocated towards the bottom of the device so that even when lying flat the sound escapes cleanly without the need for original Storm's speaker feet. RIM also managed to flush mount the headset port, which cleans up the Storm2's aesthetic lines.
Storm problems solved, the BlackBerry Storm2 features some other notable form factor changes. The overall look of the device is slightly different. The top and bottom of the device feature that BlackBerry chromed-out look and have slightly different geometry. The silver plastic convenience keys and volume button have been replaced by soft-touch rubberized ones, and RIM decided to replace the hidden ‘lock' button at the top left corner of the device with a ‘power' button, which quickly powers the unit's display on and off.
The only arguably negative change that has taken place moving from the BlackBerry Storm to BlackBerry Storm2 occurs on the scale, where the Storm2 tips in at 160 grams, a full 5 grams heavier than the Storm (the results of my Tale of the Scale: BlackBerry Weigh-In were slightly different, but not by much). I say arguably negative, because in reality the Storm2 feels better/lighter in the hand. Both Storm1 and Storm2 are heavy as far as smartphones go; the iPhone 3GS is 135 grams and the Curve 8520 is only 106 grams in comparison, but the weighty feeling of the Storm2 to me feels more like a sign of quality than of bulk. For some it will undoubtedly be a bit heavy for everyday comfort, but its ok for me.
I know this will sound lame, but I tend to think that, just like living spaces, smartphones have their own sort of feng shui about them. There was something about the original BlackBerry Storm that was a bit un-BlackBerry like. I think between all the of the little form factor gripes listed above, it just gave off a slightly negative vibe. With the BlackBerry Storm2, the feng shui is much more positive.
In recent months leading up to the BlackBerry Storm2's announcement, this has been the topic of greatest interest to Storm2 chasers. Is it that much better to type on? How is it different? Like the BlackBerry Storm, the BlackBerry Storm2 features RIM's SurePress technology, which separates navigation from confirmation by allowing the user to touch the screen to select an item and then press down on the screen (you'll feel it move and hear the ‘click') to take action on an item.
The SurePress concept is a debatable and controversial. Some love it. Others hate it. Some wish they could turn it off or on at their choosing. For more on this, you can check out our BlackBerry Storm review where we get into the theory of SurePress and also this recent CrackBerry poll where we ask readers if they want SurePress on their touchscreen BlackBerry.
On the BlackBerry Storm2, the theory behind SurePress is unchanged, but the actual hardware and execution is much better. The photo below shows the difference of what's under the piece of display of the BlackBerry Storm and BlackBerry Storm2. Whereas the BlackBerry Storm's LCD essentially floats on a single physical button located in the middle of the display, the BlackBerry Storm2's display is attached to four buttons, spaced out evenly, and their operation is now completely electric.
Looking back at the BlackBerry Storm's original SurePress design, it suffers from a few issues:
A unique feature about the BlackBerry Storm2's SurePress technology, which we first pointed out here on CrackBerry.com, is that when powered off the screen locks into a fixed position. In other words, when the display is powered down (it's off/black), there's no click. This happens when you use the power off button located on the top left side of the phone and also happens when on a call (not only does the display turn off while you're speaking, but it also disables SurePress).
With all of the improvements RIM has made to SurePress in the BlackBerry Storm2, you can't help but ponder the question Where does SurePress go from here? The move to electric powered SurePress has obviously given RIM the ability to exert much more control over its actions - for example, powering it down while on a call. Maybe with time we'll see RIM code in even more control, such as allowing users to set the firmness of the "click" or potentially disabling it in specific applications (say you want to use the keyboard without SurePress but use it for web browsing) or even disable it altogether should one wish to do so. You never know. I wouldn't be surprised to see it happen in later revisions of Storm2 hardware, or if not on Storm2 for some additional SurePress options to show up in Storm3?!
The BlackBerry Storm didn't have WiFi. The BlackBerry Storm2 does. It's as simple as that. AMEN. Leading up to the release of the BlackBerry Storm 9530/9500, we had heard of units floating around that actually had WiFi onboard. So whether it was a carrier mandate to not put WiFi on the original BlackBerry Storm or a technical limitation at the time, it is clearly apparent now that the carriers want it and that RIM can deliver it.
The BlackBerry Storm2 doubles, across the board, the amount of memory on the device compared to the BlackBerry Storm:
As mentioned above, the BlackBerry Storm will be receiving the same v5.0 Handheld Software that the Storm2 ships with, which should run much quite smooth on the original Storm. But comparing the Storm at launch to Storm2 at launch is a complete night and day difference. When the BlackBerry Storm hit the market, owners were staying up all hours of the night waiting in hopes of a firmware update to leak in the forums, with the aim of improving the usability of the device. With the BlackBerry Storm2, this won't be necessary. Out of the gate the version 5 software runs very fast and smooth, quick screen orientation changes included. I'm sure CrackBerry readers who are Storm2 owners will still be online 24/7 looking for the latest firmware, but in the case of the Storm2 it won't be nearly as necessary.
That covers the major improvements of the BlackBerry Storm2 that address the lingering issues of the BlackBerry Storm. Basically, the above are items / features we wished the original Storm would have done better / possessed, but simply didn't. We're glad to see that RIM learned from their first touchscreen BlackBerry experience to make the second one that much better.
While the BlackBerry Storm2 fixes a lot of the issues owners had with the BlackBerry Storm, it doesn't just stop there, but packs additional performance into many areas of the device.
The BlackBerry Storm2's performance is snappy. From what I can tell (don't shoot me if I'm wrong), the Storm2 is using the same processor as the Storm, though it seems to be turbocharged or on steroids in comparison. Some of this could be attributed to the additional flash memory, but while putting the BlackBerry Storm2 to work beside two BlackBerry Storms (one on OS4.7 and one on 5.0) and tapping away, everything is just a little bit quicker on the Storm2- apps open faster, photos load quicker, transitions are snappier, video controls are smoother, etc.. During my trials, the Storm with 5.0 proved to be quicker than the Storm with 4.7, though the Storm with 5.0 still isn't quite as snappy as the BlackBerry Storm2.
As stated earlier, the BlackBerry Storm2 feels great in the hand - the improved feng shui is noticeable. Between the integrated keys and tighter design it feels more object-like than gadget-like, which is cool. I have noticed one issue with my review unit though - when sitting it flat on a desk, the integrated end key doesn't want to press down smoothly all of the time (it sort of hangs up a bit and doesn't want to press down, though the rest of the keys - send/menu/escape - remain easy to press whether on desk or in hand ). When held in the hand the end key works flawless though. I'm not sure what the exact issue is here, but hopefully that's a one-off and not something we'll be hearing about often.
Though the BlackBerry Storm and BlackBerry Storm2's displays have the same specifications listed on their spec sheets, to my eyes the BlackBerry Storm2's display seems to be improved. Putting the BlackBerry Storm2 beside a BlackBerry Storm, you can see that when powered off the Storm2's display is much darker. Still side by side but now powered on watching the same music videos, the Storm2's display is brighter, with darker blacks and whiter whites. It really is impressive. The only improvement I'm longing for here is to reduce the amount of black border surrounding the edge of the display which would create a noticeable jump in screen real estate.
While there has been plenty of debate in the forums about whether or not the BlackBerry Storm2 will support OpenGL (3D graphics support), to date there has been no official mention of it yet. At last year's BlackBerry Developer Conference, this was one of the most sought after features developers wanted to see in the BlackBerry platform. With the 2nd Annual BlackBerry Developer Conference just around the corner, I can't help but think maybe there is more to the Storm2 than meets the eye in this department, and that RIM will announce upcoming OpenGL support at the event and at a later date will be able to flick the OpenGL switch on the Storm2. I know I'd be pretty stoked to find later that the Storm2 has the support built-in. I guess time will tell...
While on the topic of watching music videos, it makes sense to comment on the Storm2's speakers, which sound solid. The original BlackBerry Storm can get pretty loud, but it really tends to distort/get tinny as you crank the tunes up on the external speaker. The Storm2 gets loud, but has less distortion at the louder volumes. The sound coming out of the speakerphone on calls also seems to be a little clearer/louder from my initial testing on this review unit.
We spent a lot of time above explaining the improvements RIM has made to SureType on the BlackBerry Storm2, but what really matters is how the hardware and software translate into a user-friendly typing experience. So is it better? Yes, the Storm2's keyboard is better. How much better is going to be up to your skills, previous device history, and time spent on the device. But unlike the BlackBerry Storm which to me seemed to take a while to get used to, I think new Storm2 owners (first time BlackBerry owners included) should be able to pick up the device and get up to speed quite quickly. Honestly, reading about the keyboard in a review or even seeing it in a video can't convey how it performs. You're going to have to head down to your Verizon or Vodafone store and try one out to decide for yourself just how good it is.
Compared to the BlackBerry Storm, the improvements to the Storm2's keyboard are most noticeable in landscape mode. This is where the new SurePress design really makes an impact, as you can use both thumbs more effectively now thanks to the multi-press input and improved screen responsiveness. Two thumb/finger typists on SurePress or the Portrait Full Qwerty keyboard will also enjoy these benefits. Those who type with only one thumb/finger on the current Storm's keyboard (common to type on SurePress with one thumb if you're holding the device only in one hand) will still appreciate the feel of the new SurePress, though I'm not sure there is as big of a speed gain to be had here (switch to two thumbs to go faster!).
The RIM specs on the BlackBerry Storm2 list three other notable enhancements:
Personally, I'm one of those BlackBerry users who never felt quite at home on the BlackBerry Storm no matter how much I used it. I'm comfortable in saying though that I could make the BlackBerry Storm2 my daily driver and be pretty happy with it. I'm definitely going to try and do that over the weeks and months ahead and see how it goes.
I sort of think no matter how much I use the Storm2 I'll still be able to type faster, with more accuracy and comfort on a physical BlackBerry keyboard simply because that's what I've been using for so long. But practice makes perfect, so you never know. I sure hope I can get as comfortable though, as I love the Storm2's big display. It'll be a happy day for many BlackBerry users out there when RIM releases a slider with a physical keyboard and a big touch screen -- no trade-off required.
How does the keyboard stack up against other touch screen smartphones on the market? That too is going to depend on your past device history, your dexterity and personal preference. As we've seen debated time and time again since the launch of the BlackBerry Storm, there are those who love the SurePress concept, those who hate it, and those who just wish they could control when to use it. For me, I can type pretty fast on a standard touch screen keyboard (like the iPhone's for example) with minimal errors and I enjoy the fact this typing is effortless - tapping on a flat piece of glass may not provide tactile feedback, but it requires no effort so you can tap all day without ever getting tired. In contrast, the Storm2's SurePress gives your thumbs more of a workout, but also provides more feedback (a more natural typing experience perhaps?) and allows you to hone in on what you want to select before you take action (extremely helpful in the web browser, or when typing in bumpy environments). I'm sure it's a debate that will continue on through the release of the BlackBerry Storm3, 4 and 5!
Thankfully, if you're not satisfied with the native browser, third party browser support is here and on the way via Bolt Browser, Opera Mini and SkyFire. Likewise, RIM knows their browser is a weak spot and is working to improve it as demonstrated by their recent acquisition of Torch Mobile. It's coming. We have faith in you RIM.
With not much time between getting my BlackBerry Storm2 unit and getting this review written up, I haven't had a full chance to grind through every feature and function of the Storm2 to the extent I would like to. A few phone calls later shows that the Storm2 should be solid as a phone, and the GPS located me on the map in a matter of seconds. I took a few pictures on the camera as well and they look good, but haven't had the chance yet to pit them head to against photos taken from the Storm or competition. Oh, and the Storm2's vibration function is seriously powerful (though kind of loud). I'll come back and add to this section later as I have a chance to spend more time putting the Storm2 through its paces.
I often take for granted that if you're reading CrackBerry.com you're likely a BlackBerry user and are familiar with the BlackBerry operating system experience. If you're completely new to BlackBerry you'll want to hit our BlackBerry 101 section and Smartphone Round Robin articles to learn the basics about the platform and what it can do for you (everything!). As for Handheld Software version 5.0, we'll have a full walk through of all the improvements coming soon in a future article. The BlackBerry Storm2 and Bold 9700 will be the first new devices to launch with it, but it will be rolled out to existing devices on the market so we'll want to do an in-depth job covering it for everyone.
A noticeable BIG improvement to OS 5.0 for the BlackBerry Storms is the inclusion of inertial scrolling with snap back. It provides a much more intuitive and friendly user experience. Other good news on the BlackBerry Storm2 is that it features the new and improved threaded SMS chat client (w00t!). Combine this with the recently released BlackBerry Messenger 5.0 and the native IM clients are at a whole new level of addictiveness.
The BlackBerry Storm2 comes preloaded with BlackBerry App World. The review unit I received also comes with the Application Center pre-loaded, which seems a bit redundant since App Center contains App World and all the other apps (IM clients, Facebook, Flickr) can be found in App World itself. If and when you take delivery of your BlackBerry Storm2, you'll also want to check out our CrackBerry App Store. There are a lot of compelling reasons to load up CrackBerry App Store Client on your phone (themes, better pricing in many cases, sales and promotions, etc.). Check out this article for Getting Apps on your BlackBerry which goes through the process. As the Storm2 hits the market we'll be sure to put out a Top Apps for your BlackBerry Storm2 article.
If you're a BlackBerry Storm owner planning on purchasing the BlackBerry Storm2, you'll need to do your due diligence on which accessories will still work and which won't (visit this page on BlackBerry Storm2 Accessory key points). You shouldn't have much of an issue with loose fitting accessories, like BlackBerry Storm2 cases (top pouches and leather holsters should be fine, skins should be close) and BlackBerry Storm2 batteries (1400mah, like the Storm, 8900 and Tour), but the differences between the Storm2 form factor and original Storm are big enough that accessories like the always popular BlackBerry Charging Pod may not quite work. To see compatible Storm2 accessories, you'll want to keep it locked to our BlackBerry Storm2 Accessories page at ShopCrackBerry.com. And as we did for apps, we'll also put together a Top Accessories for the BlackBerry Storm 2 article once the device hits the market.
(updated - October 26th, 2009)
While Research in Motion and Vodafone announced the BlackBerry Storm2 the same day as this release wen up, Verizon waiting until October 26th, two days before the device is scheduled to be available for purchase (October 28th) to make the Verizon BlackBerry Storm official. Initial pricing is $179 after a mail-in rebate on a 2yr contract. View press release.
With a new device like the BlackBerry Storm2, it's going to take some time to work through every feature and improvement to see how they play out with extended use. That is exactly what we'll do, but as you just read my initial impressions are very positive.
The Storm2 fixes many of the BlackBerry Storm's outstanding issues and makes a ton of incremental improvements, all of which add up to something that feels noticeably better. In a way that never quite applied to the original Storm, the Storm2 could legitimately be called the flagship BlackBerry.
If you're a Verizon or Vodafone customer jonesing for a new touchscreen smartphone, you'll want to line up the day the BlackBerry Storm2 goes on sale and get one. Period.
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