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BlackBerry Storm: not just an iPhone wannabe

  • David Haskin (Unknown Publication)
  • 22 November, 2008 22:00

Is Research In Motion's new BlackBerry Storm just an Apple iPhone wannabe or is it an innovative, highly usable smart phone in its own right? The answer: Yes, on both counts.

The Storm is obviously a response by RIM and Verizon Wireless to the runaway success of Apple's iPhone, which is offered exclusively in the U.S. by AT&T. Features such as a touch-screen-only interface and automatic switching between landscape and portrait modes are sure indicators of that. But the Storm also has some appealing advantages over the iPhone, such as the ability to read and edit Microsoft Office documents.

Business first

While Apple has taken steps to make its iPhone enterprise-friendly, RIM has far more experience in that regard. For example, the Storm's e-mail capabilities are basically the same as other current RIM smart phones. Besides connecting to personal e-mail accounts, Storm works out of the box with Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Domino, Novell GroupWise and, of course, BlackBerry Enterprise Server. And many IT folks are already familiar with BlackBerry's e-mail capabilities, making it easy to integrate the device into existing setups.

The Storm comes with two other significant advantages for enterprise users. The first is DataViz's Documents To Go, which enables you to view and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. A longtime staple on Palm smart phones such as the Treo, this application provides seamless access not only to Office documents uploaded from your desktop computer, but also to e-mail attachments. In addition, the BlackBerry Storm has support for cutting and pasting, a significant shortcoming with the iPhone.

Another big advantage for business users is Storm's ability to travel the world. True, it is currently available in the U.S. only from Verizon, which uses CDMA technology, including EV-DO Rev A for 3G data access. CDMA technology is proven and reliable, but it is not used as much as GSM technology outside the U.S.

But the Storm also comes with a subscriber identity module (SIM) that enables it to work on GSM cellular networks worldwide. This makes the Storm a true world phone, a capability that is rarely built into other CDMA phones.

Another advantage for travelers is that, unlike the iPhone, the BlackBerry Storm has a removable -- and replaceable -- battery.

Given these capabilities, Storm is quite useful for document-centric mobile professionals and business users, especially those with business in other parts of the world.

Using the Storm

The Storm is a bit shorter and about as wide as the iPhone, but it's noticeably thicker -- .55 inches versus .48 inches for the iPhone. Still, the Storm felt comfortable in my admittedly large hand.

One lovely feature is its 3.25-in. screen. With 480-by-360 resolution, it has a somewhat sharper image than the iPhone's slightly larger 3.5-in. display with 480-by-320 resolution. Images, text -- everything, really -- displayed beautifully.

Because it relies entirely on touch-screen navigation, the Storm is very different from its predecessors; it doesn't have a physical keyboard, a side-scroll wheel or a navigation button on the front. As a result, longtime BlackBerry users have to get used to the Storm. But that shouldn't require much time -- this device is easy to use.

It's impossible, of course, to review the Storm without making comparisons to the iPhone. Like the iPhone, it lets you scroll through items such as documents and Web pages with finger flicks; I took to this method immediately, with no learning curve.

Also like the iPhone, if you turn the Storm 90 degrees, it automatically switches between portrait and landscape modes, which simplifies reading things like densely packed pages. By default, the Storm performs this trick in more circumstances than the iPhone. For instance, its collection of home-screen icons and the built-in e-mail program both rotate.

The Storm lacks the iPhone's ability to scroll faster the more vigorously you flick your finger. Another missing feature is pinch-zooming, in which you resize on-screen items such as Web pages by pinching your thumb and forefinger in and out when touching the screen. With the Storm, you tap the screen twice to zoom in and press the Escape key to zoom out. These missing features aren't essential, but they're part of what makes the iPhone fun.

The Storm does have one interface feature that the iPhone should adopt: tactile feedback when you press something on-screen such as a button in a dialog box. When you do that, it feels like you're actually pressing a physical button. Initially, I found this a bit clumsy and frustrating because it requires more pressure to make something happen than the iPhone does. But I came to appreciate this feature, because the tactile feedback made it less likely that I'd press a key by mistake.

Like the iPhone, the Storm uses an on-screen keyboard. Actually, and somewhat annoyingly, that should be plural -- keyboards. In landscape mode, the Storm displays a full QWERTY keyboard, but in portrait mode, it shows only a modified keypad similar to the physical keypad used on the BlackBerry Pearl. That modified keypad assigns two letters to a key and uses predictive text technology to guess which of the two letters you mean to use.

RIM's predictive text works well most of the time, but I found it disorienting to have two different types of keypads. RIM would do better to use the full QWERTY keypad in both landscape and portrait modes.

Connection pros and cons

The Storm's ability to work on cellular networks around the world is a huge plus, particularly for business travelers. However, it doesn't support Wi-Fi, which could be a deal-breaker for some users. After all, cellular coverage isn't available everywhere and is often spotty indoors, where Wi-Fi is more common.

Also, Wi-Fi is typically faster than 3G service, so even if you're just sitting in a coffee shop browsing the Web, the lack of Wi-Fi will slow you down. Plainly put, it was a bad decision by Verizon Wireless and RIM to not include Wi-Fi.

My reaction to its Web browsing capabilities was decidedly mixed. The Storm's browser does a much better job of handling Web pages, particularly complicated Web pages, than previous BlackBerries. But it still doesn't get it quite right when rendering pages not optimized for small screens.

Like a lot of smart phone browsers, BlackBerries previously stacked multiple elements such as frames one on top of the other. It no longer does that, but it still treats each element separately. So, for instance, a page with a frame on the left containing a site index is initially laid out on the screen correctly in relation to the larger frame to the right that holds the bulk of the page's content. However, you can horizontally and vertically scroll both of those elements independently. This means that the page may look fine at first, but after a bit of use, the independent navigation can create a disorganized-looking mess.

Finally, a few words about voice calling, which gets short shrift these days in smart phone reviews (we do still use these devices to make phone calls, right?). I found the Storm's sound quality to be quite clear, perhaps because of the effectiveness of the built-in noise-canceling capabilities. The device includes voice commands for dialing and support for standard calling features like speed dialing and conference calling.

More media

The BlackBerry Storm is more media-centric than previous BlackBerries. In fact, one way in which it is clearly superior to the iPhone is that it has a 3.2-megapixel camera that records video, while the Apple device has a 2-megapixel camera that doesn't.

I found playback of all media to be quite good. I still have a slight bias toward the iPhone's music playback quality, but the Storm provided bright and nicely textured sound. It supports common audio formats such as WMA, MP3 and AAC, although it doesn't support any of those formats with digital rights management (DRM) attached. That means you can't listen to DRM'd music you bought on iTunes or may have downloaded from a music subscription service such as Napster.

Happily, the Storm has a 3.5mm jack for headphones -- many smart phones use the smaller, non-standard 2.5mm size, meaning you can't use your favorite stereo headphones. Video playback was sharp and clear without a hint of stutter and, of course, video benefits greatly from the Storm's ability to switch to landscape mode.

Storage, a key issue for media fans, is better than on most smart phones but not as good as on the iPhone. While Apple's device is available in 8GB and 16GB models, the BlackBerry Storm comes with 1GB of built-in storage plus an included 8GB microSD card.

Overall, then, the Storm's media capabilities are excellent compared to most smart phones, but still don't match the iPhone.

RIM is going to offer a store for new applications for the Storm, but that won't launch until next March, so until then there's no easy way to add new applications like the iTunes App Store.


The bottom line: At about $200 (after a $50 rebate and a two-year contract), the BlackBerry Storm might well be the most attractive smart phone currently available -- after the iPhone.

The BlackBerry Storm isn't as breathtakingly cool and fun as the iPhone, but it's reasonably close -- and may be a better choice for enterprise users, especially world travelers and those who need to read and edit Office documents. Which is why, given its other advantages, this smart phone should meet with success.