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BlackBerry Storm review

January 1, 2009

in All Articles,Cellphone reviews

[Andy’s note: After this article, be sure to see my review of the Storm2.]

The BlackBerry Storm from Verizon Wireless (also called the BlackBerry 9530) is an excellent smartphone. Comparisons and contrasts to the iPhone are of course inevitable, but the Storm can hold its own. It’s not an iPhone killer, but it does have some advantages over the iPhone. Depending on usage type and available networks, both the Storm and the iPhone are great in their own rights.

Before we do the direct comparisons, let’s look at the BlackBerry Storm and start with the Big News Items: the touchscreen and virtual keyboard.

BlackBerry Storm touchscreen interface

The Storm is the first BlackBerry to have a touchscreen interface. There is no physical keyboard, just a large display with hardware buttons below the display and on each side of the phone. The traditional BlackBerry trackball / rollerball / scrollwheel navigation device are gone, replaced by a conductive glass touchscreen interface.

The Storm’s touchscreen is different in that you can “select” an item as well as “click” it. You select something by lightly touching the screen. (You also use this same technique for dragging and scrolling through pages of text.) You “click” something by pressing down a little harder. When you do so, the glass plate of the screen depresses just a little – maybe a millimeter or two. You then feel a “click”.

I like the touchscreen interface. I like the “select” versus “click” implementation. It’s easy enough to use, and when using the virtual keyboard, the key you’re about to click is highlighted, cutting down on entry errors.

Storm virtual keyboard typing techniques

While we’re talking about the touchscreen, I want to address the virtual keyboard. I discovered a few things that help improve my typing, as well as (from what I can see) an undocumented but critical editing feature – how to move the cursor around your text.

Touch, don’t stab: Don’t “stab” the virtual keyboard at first. Touch it and leave your finger on the keyboard while moving over the keys. Then press the appropriate keys as your finger passes over them. This entry is slower but more accurate than just stabbing the keys and hoping you’ve hit the right spot, and works great particularly in portrait mode. I expect that after months of use, you’ll use a combination of both techniques.

Keep other fingers off the keys: The Storm can only process one touch at a time, and having multiple fingers on the keyboard will confuse text entry.

How do you move the cursor? It’s easy, though not documented where I could easily find it. Say you’ve got a line of text where, earlier in the line, you’d like to make an edit. Just touch (don’t click) the line of text. The cursor will change from its usual appearance to just an outline. Then just drag your finger left and right, and the cursor will move along the line of text.

Cool stuff on the BlackBerry Storm

Here is a miscellaneous list of several things that impressed me about the Storm:

Browser identification spoofing: You can tell the browser to impersonate itself as a different browser type. This is great for visiting sites that say things like “you must visit here with Internet Explorer in order to view this page”, and “your browser type is not supported”. A quick selection in the Storm’s browser options allows your Storm to browse as a BlackBerry browser, Internet Explorer or Firefox.

Documents to Go: This software allows you to create, read and edit documents made with Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. A requirement in a Microsoft-centric environment, I’m very glad this software made it on the Storm.

Message filtering by name or subject: Say you’ve got a list of 100 emails in your message inbox, and you want to only display ones by a particular sender, or by a particular subject line. While viewing the message list, just select (but don’t click) on an email subject line or sender name. After a second, you’ll see a scroll bar move over the text. Keep your finger there and let the scrollbar move over the whole text. When it completes, it’ll filter the list and show you only the messages containing the text you’ve selected. (Note: instead of touchscreen selecting, this same function is found with the Menu button’s “Search Sender” and “Search Subject” options.)

3.2 MP camera: Built-in cameras are getting better and better.

1GB of onboard memory and 8GB removable memory are included: This is a good amount of storage for the average user. And the Storm can handle cards up to 16GB.

LOUD external speaker: The Storm is great for movies and audio, and for these the volume can get LOUD. At full volume, I think this is probably the loudest speaker I’ve yet heard on a smartphone.

Worldwide coverage: The Storm has global connectivity, “giving customers access to high-speed 3G mobile broadband networks in the United States, Europe, India, Australia, South America and New Zealand”. Here are the networks the Storm supports:

Quad-Band: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz GSM/GPRS/EDGE networks
Dual-Band: 800/1900 MHz CDMA/EVDO Rev A networks
Single-Band: 2100 MHz UMTS/HSPA networks

HTML in email reader and messages: If someone sends you HTML-formatted email, some smartphones simply chop out the offending HTML and show you plain text. The Storm can render HTML, making message reading prettier.

Built-in GPS and BlackBerry Maps: Think of this as BlackBerry’s version of Google Maps, with route planning using an integrated GPS. It’s not the turn-by-turn audible directions like in VZ Navigator, but it has a simpler, faster interface. It’s also available worldwide, while VZ Navigator is currently just for North America.

Visual Voice Mail: This is a built-in application that gives a visual interface to your voice mailbox. Listen to messages out of order, respond to VMs via voice or message, and use this application to delete any message. It’s a great way to maintain your vmail without having to log in via the audio-only interface.

Good battery life: The Storm’s marketing material states it can get 6 hours of talk time. I did not have an opportunity to test this, but if reality is anywhere near 6 hours, that’s very impressive.

The Application Center: The Application Center and “Wireless Upgrade” tools allow you to display all apps loaded on the Storm, and then download and install any available updates for them:

This may seem small, but to me is huge. Previous smartphones are a pain to update, either for firmware or application updates. The Storm can do all these for you, all over the air – no manual downloads and installs required. The end user gets increased stability and functionality with less maintenance.

Good size: I like the size of the Storm. The display is big enough to contain the virtual keyboard, but not so big it’s unwieldy. It’s fairly flat, too. Here it is with a Treo 755p and a Leatherman for size comparison:

BlackBerry Storm criticism and negative reviews

I’d like to take this time to address some negative Storm reviews flying around the Internet, because 1) there seem to be more than normal for a phone launch, and 2) I don’t agree with many of them. Instead of picking from the plethora, I’ll use as my example a review by David Pogue from the New York Times. I picked this review because I consider Pogue to be an excellent technology reviewer, and I have a lot of respect for his opinion – I’ve even interviewed David Pogue myself. This allows me to address a compilation of Storm problems detailed by a guy who really knows his stuff, and is someone I trust.

In Pogue’s article, I see the following (paraphrased) criticisms. My comments follow each.

The BlackBerries have traditionally had a ball/wheel selector. Giving the unit a virtual touchscreen keyboard was a bad move, because the keyboard itself doesn’t work well. “Clicking” the letter you want is too much work, “like a manual typewriter”.

First of all, yes, a hardware keyboard is easier, faster and less error-prone than a virtual touchscreen keyboard. But I did not experience problems typing (or rather, no more than with any other virtual keyboard I’ve used). It’s just another interface that requires some practice before you’re comfortable with it.

The SureType keyboard in the portrait view is not accurate for entering uncommon words and web addresses.

Then don’t use it. You can also have the portrait view use the “Multitap keyboard”, which has no predictive output. In portrait mode, you can switch between “Multitap” and “SureType” on the fly. Here’s an animation of both:

The Virtual keyboard does not have keys for commonly-used combinations like “.com” and “.org”.

This is true, it doesn’t. But it takes about 1.5 seconds to type “.com”. I agree having this feature would be nice, but for me it’s a minor inconvenience. And after you visit a site once, its address (and extension) are remembered when typing it in for future visits. Productivity improvements like this will hopefully be added in future firmware updates.

Scrolling the screen by “flicking” your finger across it is poorly detected. Scrolling through long pages is annoying.

The first sentence initially caused me concern. In fact, my demo Storm had this same problem with scrolling – it couldn’t always tell when I wanted to scroll versus when I just wanted to select something. Then after experimenting, I found out that this can be easily fixed by going into the Storm’s Options -> Screen/Keyboard menu.Experiment with the value for “Swipe Sensitivity” and find what works best for you. Problem solved. A specification about this in the Storm manual would help, and I couldn’t find this touchscreen calibration info in the manual. All the more reason to endorse the online resources, specified at the end of this article.

The second sentence about the scrolling time for long pages is indeed true – there is only one scrolling speed. Where the iPhone scrolling has high-speed scrolling and the scrolled pages have “momentum”, the Storm does not, and will stop scrolling the second you remove your finger from the screen. I could not find a way around this while browsing super-long web pages. In these instances, you do have to scroll and scroll. However, long pages in email and messaging have virtual buttons for “Scroll Up / Scroll Down”. Clicking these buttons will scroll a page at a time. Holding the button down for longer than a second will immediately move you to the very top or bottom of the document.

Note that a few applications force you to accept an End User License Agreement before the application will start. Instead of scrolling through zillions of pages of text (there is no “Skip to the end” feature), instead hit the Menu button (the one to the right of the green Dial button), and you’ll have options to Accept or Decline.

The Storm has slow performance. The auto-rotate and application loading and closing are far too slow.

I did not experience this issue with my phone. This review was conducted on a Storm with firmware version This firmware was released the day after I got the phone. Before and after I applied the update I didn’t experience any problems with speed. Auto-rotation and application load times aren’t immediate – they take anywhere from 1-3 seconds. I don’t consider that long. Others may. It’s not as fast as an iPhone. While I call the iPhone performance “fast”, I would not call the Storm performance “slow”. (How’s that for a non-specific benchmark? Keep reading below for more direct comparisons between the iPhone and the Storm.)

Note that phone performance will slow down if you run multiple CPU-intensive applications at the same time (VZ Navigator is one culprit, since it’s designed to run while you’re doing other stuff on your phone).

The Storm does not have Wi-Fi.

This is true. It may affect those who need access to either local network resources (like accessing company files from inside a network) or the faster transmission rates a local network brings. It’s up to the user to determine how important Wi-Fi is to them, and how often they’d use it.

There are many software and hardware bugs, including freezes, reboots and non-responsive controls.

I think this was because the phones reviewed by Pogue had early (and buggy) firmware. I had no such problems. My personal evidence indicates that these specific bugs have been fixed.

Here’s a direct quote from Pogue’s review:

“I haven’t found a soul who tried this machine who wasn’t appalled, baffled or both.”

I think this is a maxture of (now fixed) bugs and different people liking different things. Everyone who saw my demo Storm did like the phone. This consisted of two non-techs, as well as six experienced computer network engineers (and die-hard techies). Two of those techs owned what I consider competitors to the Storm (aniPhone and a Samsung Behold). This incidentally allowed me to do live comparisons in performance differences between the phones. In all these non-scientific speed tests (primarily screen rotation, screen refresh and scroll rates), the iPhone performed faster than the Storm. The Storm performed consistently equal to or faster than the Behold. Here they are side-by-side for size comparison:

Again, the speed tests were subjectively rated, but were done to the best of my ability. This review therefore requires that you trust me, but those who have read my previous reviews know that I’m very willing to recommend against a product. In this case, I won’t. I like the BlackBerry Storm. I would use one myself. I recommend it.

Advanced phones require information and, in some cases, training

The days of “pick it up and use it” are quickly receding for some products. Smartphones are one of these. We have many different providers with many individual models. Some of the problems above can be addressed by taking the time to learn how the phone works, and practicing. The Storm is in my opinion an excellent phone, but like most complex hardware, you’ve got to take time to learn how it works. See the end of this review for links to tutorials and knowledge bases for the Storm. If you don’t, you may be disappointed or frustrated. If you do, you’ll find you have a powerful and versatile tool.

BlackBerry Storm problems

While I didn’t have any of the bugs mentioned by other reviews (these, as I said earlier, seem to have been fixed), I did have two problems.

The first “problem” is a complaint applicable to almost every smartphone except the Treo. Changing sounds to “Vibrate only” or “Silent” isn’t really accurate. Applications (like VZ Navigator) will continue talking at full volume, even after you’ve told the phone to be quiet. Not good for people who want a guarantee that their phone won’t start yelling during a time it shouldn’t. The Treo’s sound on/off hardware switch should be on every phone, in my opinion. Either that, or we need a button labeled “Come on now, I really mean it!

The second problem is a feature that’s becoming more and more prevalent as phones get “smarter”: Multitasking and memory use from open applications lead to a slower smartphone. Most smartphones can run many programs at the same time. But when you do so, the device’s performance slows down. So you then have to open the programs you’re not using and close them. Smartphones need more intuitive memory and application management functions. The Storm, for example, allows you to switch to any open application via the Menu button. But the “Switch application” tool allows you to only do that – how about also allowing us to close an application from that menu? Or “Close all except active?” Or auto-terminate all non-active applications, unless specified by the user? Why do the applications for camera, browser and media player even need to be open at all if we’re not actively using them? For techies, this isn’t a problem – I worry more about the users who get a smartphone, open a ton of apps, then wonder why performance is dragging.

BlackBerry Storm versus the iPhone

Looking at the more popular uses, the Storm beats the iPhone in coverage, integrated Verizon features and some functionality. The iPhone beats the Storm in performance, navigation controls and its integrated Wi-Fi.

Apple hasn’t released the specs on the iPhone, but current rumor has it that the iPhone CPU top speed is around 620-667 MHz, and it actually runs at around 400 MHz. The Storm’s top CPU speed is 528 MHz, and I don’t know what the actual usage speed is. So the iPhone has an arguably faster CPU. The result – along with some great software design – is that the iPhone is fast. The Storm is not. Notice I’m not calling it slow. The Storm operates at what I’d consider acceptable speeds. But response time and screen update speeds on the iPhone are better than the Storm.

The Storm has features that are either not available on the iPhone or are only available for more money per month. These include Visual Voice Mail, filtering messages by subject or sender, downloading music/video over the cell network (iPhone can’t do this unless you’re in a Wi-Fi hotspot) and removable memory and batteries on the Storm. This last one is pretty important to me – I like to know that a spare battery is a backup option. I‘m also a power user, and removable memory is almost a requirement for me. I want unlimited storage, particularly on a heavily-used multimedia device.

Finally, there are the aspects of reception and coverage. I know a couple people who have purchased iPhones, and later had to return them because of poor coverage at their homes or workplace. AT&T’s network just isn’t as wide-ranging and pervasive as Verizon’s. Verizon has arguably the best network and coverage in America. The Storm is on that network. The iPhone is not. And for world travelers, you’re out of luck with the iPhone, whereas the Storm is truly a world-wide capable smartphone.

BlackBerry Storm review conclusion

The Storm is a great phone. During my test, I enjoyed using the phone and showing it off to others. It’s full-featured and stable. As a first-generation smartphone, I’m impressed. I think some earlier reviewers suffered because they were working with earlier, buggier versions of firmware. While I question why those earlier phones were allowed to be reviewed, the end of that saga is we now have a Storm that works well. It’s not as fast or elegant as the iPhone, but it does have some advantages over the iPhone. Your own particular situation and preferences will determine if the Storm is right for you. In terms of build quality and functionality, I was impressed with my demo Storm. The Storm should be a successful brand. I look forward to future improvements and models.

The BlackBerry Storm is available from Verizon Wireless for $200 and a two-year contract.

BlackBerry Storm tech support, software tutorials and other information

Verizon phone tech support

Verizon smartphone setup guides, tutorials and FAQs

BlackBerry Support

BlackBerry Storm support, tutorials, knowledge base and software downloads

Verizon BlackBerry information

Verizon BlackBerry software update downloads (including downloads of BlackBerry Desktop Software and VZ Access Manager – your Verizon cellphone number is required)

Verizon mobile phone portal (visit this mobile-formatted website from your phone for device information, news, entertainment, applications and support)

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