We’ve seen a good run on hot smartphones being released since the iPhone 3G. The T-Mobile G1 was introduced recently as the first Android-based smartphone and RIM has been releasing Blackberry models every few days, at least that’s what it seems like. One of the most anxiously awaited smartphones is the Blackberry Storm as it takes a path RIM has never taken before, and that’s to shed the physical keyboard. Blackberries have always enjoyed a great reputation for good keyboards and the Storm drops one entirely. Many have been waiting to see how well RIM could provide the Blackberry experience with just an on-screen keyboard and just a few days before launch on Verizon in the US we’ve got one of these jewels in our hands.
The short answer to the question of how good a Blackberry can a device be without a keyboard is pretty good, at least the Storm is. The innovative touchscreen is in essence not one but two keyboards depending on the orientation of the screen. We’ll address that in detail below but first here’s a video overview of the hardware to get things started. Pay close attention in the video and you’ll see you can in fact cut and paste on a touch screen. The rest of the review is after the jump, including another video showing off the sweet web browsing on the Storm.
Let’s get the official specs out of the way first so we can get right into the hands-on impressions of the finest Blackberry we’ve ever used.
- Size: 4.4"x2.4"x0.55"
- Weight: 5.46 oz
- Memory: 1 GB onboard + 128 MB flash
- Expandable memory: microSDHC slot with 8GB card included (yes, included)
- Battery: 1400 mAhr (removable); 15 days standby, 6 hours talk time
- User interface: SurePress touch screen, accelerometer auto-rotating between portrait/ landscape
- Navigation: SurePress touch screen
- Display: Half-VGA 480×360
- Camera: 3.2 MP still and video; flash; auto-focus; image stabilization
- Keyboard: on-screen- portrait SureType, landscape QWERTY
- Voice I/O: integrated speaker & mic; hands-free headset, Bluetooth headset capable, speakerphone
- Media Player: audio- MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, wma, wma ProPlus; video- MPEG4, H.263, MPEG4 Part 2 Simple Profile, H.264 (encoding and decoding 30 fps), WMV
- Bluetooth: 2.0, Headset, handsfree, stereo audio *A2DP/AVCRP), DUN
- Headset: 3.5 mm jack
- USB: charging and syncing USB A to micros-USB B
- Power: +5DC/500 mA AC adapter
- Network: Quad-band: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz GSM/GPRS/EDGE; Single-band: 2100 MHz UMTS/HSPA; Dual-band: 800/1900 Mhz CDMA/ EVDO Rev A
- GPS: integrated
Wow, that’s about everything and as you can see the Storm is packed with just about everything you can put in a phone with the exception of WiFi. Yes, there is no WiFi in the Storm, a fact that will turn off some folks who depend on WiFi for data connection. It’s not a big deal to me as the Verizon 3G network is solid but the lack of WiFi may be a factor to those in more rural settings without EVDO coverage. It is a bit surprising to find that Verizon is touting right in the box that the Storm can be used with DUN to tether to a laptop to provide 3G connectivity.
It’s a Blackberry
First and foremost the Storm is a Blackberry which makes it a messaging powerhouse. The lack of a physical keyboard does not impact the messaging capability even a little bit and those who love their Blackberry will love the Storm just as much. RIM has put the Blackberry OS 4.7 in the Storm, a new version that supports the touchscreen better than previous versions. It also adds some very nice HTML browsing that we’ll address in a bit.
When you first power on the Storm it takes you through the typical setup wizard to get the phone set up and walks you through the email setup process. Verizon has included the ability to work with virtually any email account you might have, including POP/IMAP, Blackberry Internet Server (BIS), and Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES). I set this up with my GMail account which only took a few minutes. I then installed Google Sync which now supports the Blackberry and in five minutes my Google Calendar and Contacts were synced up on the Storm.
The standard messaging application is the key program on the Storm like every Blackberry, although RIM has optimized the touch interface for working with email. When you have an email body open you can swipe horizontally on the screen to move to the next/ previous email. This makes it a breeze to spin through a lot of emails with just one fingertip. The entire email experience is totally user configurable as on all Blackberries so you can tailor it to fit your preferences.
Out of the box Verizon and RIM have put a lot of programs to make the Storm an online juggernaut. Here’s a list of the programs installed (or installable) out of the box:
Contacts, messaging, SMS/MMS, calendar, browser, VZ Navigator, Visual Voicemail, media player (audio, video, ringtones), clock, camera (still and video), IM (Windows Live, Yahoo, Google Talk, AIM, Blackberry Messenger), Tasks, calculator, Dataviz Word To Go, Sheet To Go, Slideshow To Go, Voice Notes, voice dialing, BrickBreaker, Word Mole game, Flickr, Facebook, Blackberry Maps, MemoPad.
If that sounds like a lot of utility you are not mistaken, the Storm is a veritable online workhorse out of the box. All of the familiar Blackberry programs are there and the inclusion of the three Dataviz programs means you can not only open Office Word, Excel and PowerPoint files but you can also edit them on the Storm. This turns the Storm into the type of enterprise-ready phone that you expect from a Blackberry, even though the Storm is clearly also aimed at the consumer market. You can almost leave the laptop at home on short trips with the Storm in your pocket.
The Storm is a global communications solution similar to the 8830 on Verizon. There is a SIM card included that will work outside the US where CDMA networks are not available. Business travelers can thus use the Storm almost anywhere in the world with optional voice and data plans from Verizon.
Battery, SIM and microSDHC
It’s the keyboard, stupid
The biggest question we had about the Storm is in the area of the on-screen keyboard(s). There is no substituion for a physical keyboard for serious text creation and the Storm goes the route of the iPhone and dumps the keyboard entirely. So how did RIM do with the on-screen keyboard? Very, very well. The Storm screen can be likened to the new MacBook trackpad in that the entire screen is a big button. This means when you press a key on the keyboard or a menu item you hear and feel a click just like pushing a real button. This provides a level of tactile feedback when typing on the screen never before experienced on another device. The button clicking means you can ramp up your typing speed pretty quickly and typing on the Storm feels a lot like typing on a "real" keyboard. The SurePress technology as RIM calls it is simply stunning in its performance.
When the keyboard is invoked in portrait mode the Blackberry SureType keyboard is the default. This keyboard puts two letters on each big key and uses prediction to input the correct word as tapped on the keys. This technology is simply amazing in how accurate it is when you type a word on the keys. It’s impossible to describe you must try if for yourself to see how well it works. If you are someone who simply must have a QWERTY keyboard RIM’s got you covered there too. Simply rotate the screen to landscape orientation and the keyboard switches to a big QWERTY keyboard. This works just like a thumb board on any phone and with the SurePress key clicks even feels like one. I found I could type with two thumbs very quickly with a low error rate. It works much better than I thought it would and I got used to it very quickly. I really like this keyboard.
Browsing the web
The draw behind all of the phones of late with large screens is in the web browsing. The iPhone set the bar for mobile internet browsing that all other phones must reach for in their own implementation. I am happy to report that the web browser on the Storm, new to OS 4.7, is very good. I wouldn’t say it’s as good as the browsing experience on the iPhone but it’s pretty darn close, certainly close enough. Web pages are rendered quickly in full page mode and when you double tap on the screen the browser zooms in to column mode, much like the iPhone. There is no pinch and zoom like the iPhone but every time you double tap the screen lightly the browser zooms in another level. Simply hit the Back hardware button and you instantly zoom back out. To see what I mean take a look at this video shot of the web browser in action:
Best Blackberry to date
We’ve only had the Storm in hand for a few hours but so far it’s easy to state that the Storm is the best Blackberry we have used to date. It is a phone that is definitely focused on the consumer with advance media player, web browser and online tools but it’s still a Blackberry meaning it works well for the professional too. Verizon is offering the Storm for $199 with a two-year contract and we think that’s a pretty good deal. The Storm will be available at Verizon on November 21.
These are a few of my favorite things
My favorite things on the Storm so far:
- Visual Voicemail: works much like the iPhone app. Shows your VMs and who left them.
- Web browsing: the browser is very good indeed and as I get used to the zoom/unzoom more and more I really like the way it displays the page. It is easy to get anywhere on a page quickly and zoom right in to a readable level.
- Threaded SMS
- Media Player: the video playback is stunning and the audio quality is very good. Photo viewing is optimized for touch control.
- Documents To Go: it is very powerful to be able to interact with and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents.
- On-screen keyboards: the SureType keyboard is uncanny how often it guesses the word I want. The keypresses feel almost like a real keyboard and I find I can already type really fast.
- Camera: the 3.2 MP has auto-focus, image stabilization and a real flash. Takes great photos.
- It’s a Blackberry: gotta have a Crackberry fix, you know.
Here are some additional photos to provide your gadget lust fix: