The BlackBerry Storm 9530 is Research In Motion’s first smartphone to dispense with a physical keyboard in favor of touch-sensitive display. As with other keyboardless devices, such as Apple’s popular iPhone 3G, the absence of a physical keyboard in the Storm means more in the way of display space and less in the way of tactile feedback.
However, typing on the Storm’s roomy 480-by-360-pixel display isn’t quite the same as tapping away at the iPhone 3G’s glass face. For the Storm, RIM has designed a touch-screen with an innovative twist-the new BlackBerry’s display is built like a one big button, so that pressing on the unit’s software-rendered keys produces tactile feedback that’s reminiscent of a real keypad.
The feature, which RIM calls SurePress, doesn’t match the tactile feedback of keyboard-bearing BlackBerry units, or of one of Palm’s venerable Treo smartphones, so if you spend more time entering text into your device than you do reading it, you’d be better off with one of those thumb keyboard units.
However, for BlackBerry adherents who rely on their devices more for viewing information than for inputting it, the Storm might just fit the bill. The Storm, which measures 4.43 by 2.45 by 0.55 inches and weighs 5.5 ounces, is available through Verizon Wireless and priced at $250 with a two-year service deal.
Hands-on with the Storm
While RIM certainly found an innovative way of attacking the tactile deficiencies of typical virtual keyboards, the Storm’s SurePress interface comes with its share of Version 1 rough spots. For one thing, compared with the iPhone, screen-scrolling on the Storm seems to be stuck in low gear. On the iPhone, you can quickly scroll down a page by flicking your finger across the display. On the Storm, there’s one speed for scrolling, and it isn’t very fast.
This was a major annoyance when I was installing applications through the Storm’s Application Center. For each application I installed, the device presented me with an extremely long EULA that I had to flick, flick, flick my way through to get down to the Accept button.
The Storm displays its EULAs within the device’s Web browser, and I found that on most Web pages, my screen-presses would cause the current Web page to zoom in, rather than result in a click.
So, once I reached that far-off Accept button, the chances were good that my screen-press would result not in a button click, but in a zoom-in operation. To click on things such as EULA Accept buttons and Web page links as I intended, I had to get into the habit of waiting a second for the link I wished to click to become highlighted.
The Storm packs an accelerometer-as does the iPhone-which it uses to switch automatically between portrait and landscape mode, depending on how you hold it. In portrait mode, the virtual keyboard uses the two-letter-per-button input scheme found on RIM’s Pearl, and in landscape mode, the keyboard expands into a QWERTY keyboard.
I found it much easier to type on the Storm in portrait mode. In landscape mode, I found myself too often hitting the wrong keys.
On the bright side, both of the problems I experienced with the new touch-screen are software-based, so it’s possible that RIM could shore up these issues with a firmware upgrade.
Host of Cellular Radios
Next to the new touch-screen, the Storm’s most distinctive attribute is the host of different cellular radios with which the device is studded, which combine to provide the Storm with support for 2,100MHz UMTS/HSPA, 850/900/1,800/1,900MHz GSM/GPRS and 800/1,900MHz CDMA/EvDO (Evolution Data Optimized) networks. All told, according to Verizon Wireless, the Storm should be able to keep its users connected in most spots around the world.
Verizon Wireless is a CDMA shop, but the Storm ships with a built-in, remotely provisionable SIM card for use with the GSM-based networks the device supports.
I found call quality on the Storm to be about average.
In addition to its bevy of cellular radios, the Storm sports both Bluetooth 2.0 and GPS radios. Notably, however, the Storm lacks a Wi-Fi radio. According to RIM, there was no space left for Wi-Fi with the unit’s complement of world phone radios. For now, users who value Wi-Fi in their smartphones will have to stick with keyboard-based RIM devices, or jump ship to the iPhone or G1.
However, the Storm does offer a set of smartphone amenities that the iPhone does not, beginning with an SD card slot (prepopulated with an 8GB card) for peripheral expansion beyond the Storm’s slim 128MB of built-in Flash storage.
Also, the Storm features a removable battery, which the company rates at up to 5.5 hours of talk time and up to 15 days of standby time between charges. In my tests, the Storm’s battery lasted through just over 6 hours of talk time.
What’s more, the Storm offers all the enterprise-oriented characteristics for which BlackBerry devices are prized in many organizations, and which the consumer-focused iPhone lacks. For one thing, the Storm can handle upgrades to its software over the network, where the iPhone needs to be connected to iTunes for this to work.
Also, the Storm offers encryption of data, both for its built-in storage and for memory cards. And the Storm comes with a “memory cleaning” feature that deletes sensitive data from the unit’s temporary memory in certain circumstances, such as when you insert your device in a holster, lock the device or synchronize with your computer. In addition, the Storm offers an optional content protection feature that will, for instance, block a calling contact’s name from appearing on the display of a locked device.
The new touch-screen BlackBerry also provides granular support for controlling third-party application permissions, such as allowed network ports, levels of access to other applications on the device, and control over Bluetooth, GPS, Phone and USB access.
eWEEK Labs Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.