BlackBerry Unleashes A Storm You Can Touch
First there was the wheel. And then came the trackball. Now, there's the touch-screen.
The BlackBerry Storm, Research In Motion's first touch-screen smart phone, goes on sale Friday through Verizon Wireless. The timing — just prior to the start of the holiday shopping season — and the phone's features position it as a competitor to Apple's iPhone, offered through AT&T, and the G1 phone, which runs Google's Android software and runs on T-Mobile networks.
All three phones run on a 3G, or third-generation, network or the equivalent (Verizon calls its broadband network EV-DO Rev. A), which means users can surf the Web, send and receive e-mail and send or receive text messages, photos or video at faster speeds.
"RIM is going after a different market than they have been with their traditional BlackBerry user," says Michael Gartenberg, a vice president for mobile devices at the research firm Jupitermedia. "They're looking for someone who likes the idea of the cool touch-screen experience, but needs the BlackBerry integration."
What's most striking about the sleek, black device, just slightly longer than the BlackBerry Curve and shorter than the iPhone, is its large 3.25-inch glass touch-screen. That's the new interface for everything from dialing a phone number and typing e-mails to accessing contacts. It has a built-in accelerometer, which switches the screen between vertical and horizontal positions a few seconds after the user turns the handset. This feature is handy whether you're surfing the Internet, composing an e-mail or checking your calendar.
"It's completely different than anything out there," says Bonnie Cha, a senior editor for CNET.com.
RIM is targeting both consumers and business users who want more than just BlackBerry's e-mail service coupled with Web browsing. The Storm includes GPS, along with multimedia features such as music, a camera and a video recorder and player.
The Storm will cost about $200 (after a $50 mail-in rebate) with a two-year contract, and consumers can expect to pay up to $100 a month for access to all voice and data features including unlimited text, picture and video messaging. But there's a cheaper workaround for a total of $80 per month if you don't need unlimited messaging to people outside the Verizon network: Consumers can sign up for Verizon's least expensive voice calling plan for $40 per month and then add on a $30 personal e-mail and Web plan, plus a $10 messaging plan that has some limitations. Data-only plans are also available.
A New Screen Technology
The technology behind the screen is called SurePress, and it makes for a different touch-screen user experience. After positioning fingers on the screen, icons or letters on the keyboard turn blue to indicate a selection. Then you push down on the screen and it clicks, providing a tactile response. It feels a little bit like a trampoline for your fingers.
"It's a weird sensation to actually press down on the phone," Cha says. She's concerned about this new technology and whether the suspension system at work under the display will hold up over the long term if exposed to dust, dirt or water.
Users have two keyboard options: a SureType keyboard (a virtual version of what users would find on a BlackBerry Pearl) and a full keyboard. Both keyboards feel cramped, but the SureType starts to give you word suggestions as you go. Typing on the full keyboard wasn't as graceful as one might hope. My thumbs kept hitting the wrong key from time to time. This was a little frustrating since it seemed to be highlighting the right key but when I pressed in, I got the wrong result.
One feature that was especially useful for typing and reading e-mail was the ability to enlarge the font size, up to 14 point.
Multimedia users may appreciate the phone's 3.2-megapixel camera with image stabilization. It's also possible not just to view but to record video — a feature that both the G1 and iPhone don't have.
The bright screen seems well-suited for viewing videos: The video was sharp and the colors were rich when viewing a movie trailer.
Cha says the device was a little slow to process when it was engaged in multimedia use or when the accelerometer was activated. Storm users have the ability to sync their music through their computer, but Cha says that, unlike with some of its competitors, it's not possible to purchase music wirelessly.
Broadband networks can drain battery life quickly. The Storm has a replaceable battery and seems to have a battery life that will last more than a day, Cha says. But she adds that the back of the phone can get warm to the touch after extended use.
RIM says the Storm has an "enhanced browser," and this browser did work more smoothly in loading pages compared with older BlackBerry devices. It's easy to zoom in and out to be able to read more easily. The Storm, however, does not offer WiFi access. Having WiFi is helpful if you happen to fall out of the broadband coverage area.
Cha says she would have liked the ability to use two fingers to zoom in on a Web page — something that is possible on the iPhone — but said she appreciated the ability to use two fingers to copy and paste text.
The ability to view and edit existing Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint files may attract business users. But time will tell whether they'll be willing to tap on a screen — instead of a keyboard — to get their message across.