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BlackBerry Storm Detailed Review: Awesome and Awful

Updated on March 17, 2009 (I guess I feel lucky). Below is my updated BlackBerry Storm review. Most of my review has become more positive, but a few areas are still weak or worse. My new title should be "More Awesome Than Awful".

As I promised, I have now had a chance to set up and use my new BlackBerry Storm for a couple of weeks. Since one of my pet peeves is reviews that don’t go beyond the challenges of the initial box-opening and early learning curve, I made sure to withhold judgment until I had a good feel for the device.

Background

OK, first a few disclosures. I have been using the BlackBerry 7250 for about two years now. As I have stated previously, I am both a packrat and an early adopter. I will jump on cool new technologies but I also hold on to them until there is something new that represents a significant upgrade to what I already have. That is a high bar usually, since many times “new stuff” really is yesterday’s meatloaf with a few new features. For me to upgrade, I need to have a step-level improvement in features or functionality.

So I have been using the 7250 for about two years. Before that, I had a series of Nokia and Motorola phones that really hadn’t changed much in core features for about ten years. I switched to BlackBerry in the first place, probably a couple of years too late, because I wanted a serious business email device. The 7250 did that for me and I felt I achieved an order of magnitude of functionality from what I had before. Most of the time, new business technology actually only makes you more miserable. It gives you more work to do and further invades your personal life. But in the case of the BlackBerry, it improved my life. Before becoming a “CrackBerry” user I fell victim to severe laptop addiction—anytime I tuned the thing on, no matter what reason, at least 3 hours would fly by. But now with my new BlackBerry, I could do email triage with confidence, reducing the times I had to boot up the computer at work or at home by about a third.

So it was with this background and anticipation I ordered the new BlackBerry Storm as soon as it was available.

Major caveat: Software Update

OK. Before we get into the detailed review one major, huge caveat--- RIM clearly shipped the Storm while the software engineers were chasing the first crate from China down the block, trying to get their latest version of firmware into the thing. The Marketing/Sales guys won the arm wrestle (or foosball) match that day. After first unpacking, charging, and firing up the BlackBerry Storm I was ready to throw the thing against the wall after about two hours. It was horribly slow and buggy. Some applications (e.g., camera) seemed to crash the whole system and the keyboard which uses a sensor to change its horizontal orientation took seemingly forever. The device was almost unusable. In my desire to be fair, and having launched products like this myself (I was the evil Marketing guy with the engineers chasing me down the block, but I am exceedingly good at foosball), I luckily tried to find a software upgrade. It worked and the review below assumes all of you do the same. To avoid being dainty or obscure--- first download the latest version before trying to use the BlackBerry Storm!
Update March 17, 2009: I also hear they have a new firmware update coming out soon that should help improve the acceleramator and camera.

Initial Impressions

At first glance the new BlackBerry Storm was only OK. I guess I expected a form factor that was bit more revolutionary. Instead, I got a device that looked a bit plain, but for the nice color screen that covered 80% of the face. For one thing, the Storm, like the 7250 before it, did not feel very sleek or even stable in my hand. Instead, it fell like it would fall out without a firm grip (which in fact has happened several times). I was disappointed in this because I figured, after all these years, BlackBerry would finally build a smart phone that was easy to hold in both typing and phone modes. Instead, another phone with nothing for my fingers to naturally curl around. Another phone where I felt like my fingers were always invading some space, some button, where they didn’t belong. My fingers asked the Storm to dance, and she flatly declined.
Update March 17, 2009:
I have indeed dropped the Storm several times. The good news is that it survived every fall.

But let’s talk about that pretty face-- the vibrancy and crispness of the Storm’s colorful screen really is unrivaled in a small device. I can’t say enough how bright the colors are and visible the resolution even without having to zoom.
So while the 7250 could be used as a browser only as a last resort, the Storm rivals the browsing of my laptop. For one thing, it allows a few different browsers, including the native BlackBerry one, a truncated mobile version, as well as a full browser that uses a combination of window scrolling (both horizontal and vertical) and zooming to achieve a high degree of usability. Suffice to say the Storm vastly exceeded my expectations as to what a mobile device can do for Internet browsing.

If the beautiful colorful screen and Internet browsing exceeded my expectations, the multi-media and video streaming functions delighted my soul. I admit I have only played around with this feature a bit, but what I have seen is very impressive—some movie trailers and Internet short clips, all in high enough definition to make you forget you are staring at a small screen.

Before we move on from the screen, we really need to discuss the primary input device-- the touch-screen and on-screen keyboard. For many BlackBerry users, especially business power users, the ability to crank out a barrage of emails, IMs, and texts with a high level of confidence, without going back to correct typing mistakes, was one of the main draws of the BlackBerry. While there has been some debate about the keyboards of various models over the years, including size, lay-out and whether a full keyboard was necessary, I for one resisted all of the non-QWERTY varieties. I had become so adept at the two-thumb and occasional index finger approach that nothing else could intrude on my love affair with the BlackBerry’s reliable text input buttons. The feel of those raised pads was so enticing, so gratifying.

So when I saw that the Storm would take the very iPhone approach and forgo the physical buttons, I was worried. Until I saw that both a QWERTY and 2-button-share soft keyboard were provided, including what some were calling a “tactile, clickable, interface.” So, after almost three weeks of usage, I am sad to report that text input is marginal at best. Sure, Research in Motion introduced some wonderful innovations to make it easy and gratifying. Keys, whether numbers or letters or characters, light up as you caress the screen to ensure proper finger alignment, and only trigger entry when one actually presses down on the touch screen (yes, the screen depresses slightly and gives the sense of clicking a button- very cool). This allows you to get better over time—first by staring at the screen to see what keys your fingers are triggering, later by flying along and then checking your work. At first, my data entry was horrible, which I chalked up to user error and the learning curve. But after several weeks, I am still only at about 85% success rate, which might seem good until you consider that every 9th or 10th letter in an email or text you have to go back chasing after to correct, adding 3 or 4 multiples to the time you would expect to compose new messages. Also, I have found that the onscreen keyboard is optimally used with both left and right thumbs working in unison, since the engineers at RIM seem to have skewed the virtual buttons a little to the left or right depending on what side of the screen they are on. So all in all, the BlackBerry storm has functional text-based inputs which can be cool or annoying depending on how you use them, but in the end, unlike its browser, it does not have you thinking you can replace your computer for serious email or text composition. Sigh, opportunity lost here methinks.
Update March 17, 2009:
The keyboard has gotten much better over time. I don't mind it much anymore really, and the "sure-type" intelligence is very smart. For most emails or texts, I never have to go to the full QWERTY keyboard since it usually knows what words I am trying to type (the obvious exceptions are acronyms or special characters).

Some other major positives of the BlackBerry Storm:
• Telephone network-- Verizon has by far the best voice quality, network coverage, and fewest dropped calls. I know that from both my background as a telecom technologist, and as a user of both Verizon and AT&T and Sprint/Nextel over the years. iPhone’s exclusive availability on AT&T was one of the major reasons I did not even consider switching from Verizon.
Update March 17, 2009:
Still love Verizon (gushing).

• Telephone voice quality and features-- I was a little worried about this since the 7250 had weak voice quality. I had trouble hearing folks in noisy rooms and people always complained they could not hear me. On the Storm, while I thought the voice quality initially was a bit tinny, its phone capabilities have really grown on me. For one thing, the volume is really loud if you want it to be and the speaker-phone is excellent. But just as important, after several test, my friends and family assure me they can hear me quite well whether in regular or speaker modes. Thank you RIM for this necessary improvement.
• Easy email setup-- RIM has perfected this. Whether it is personal email or work email through the Enterprise BlackBerry server, you can have great confidence in retrieving the messages that matter to you.
• Desktop synchronization-- Once again, BlackBerry excels at synching not only email, but tasks, calendar items, etc. The Storm also has very reliable functions for reading and composing Microsoft Office applications like Word and PowerPoint and Excel—a business user’s life blood.
• Visual Voice Mail-- I strongly encourage you to pay the extra few bucks to subscribe to this service. As a mobile warrior like many of you, I often struggle to get through all of my voicemail, sometimes over 20+ per day when I am on the road. Sometimes I am listening to messages at a noisy trade show, or want to skip through previously saved messages, all tasks that are frustrating with a typical telephony number pad-type interface, especially when you can never remember the correct commands. With visual voice mail, your voice mail messages are treated like email messages with a audio recording attached. You can sort through them by sender or timestamp, and easily skip, rewind, or delete messages.
Update March 17, 2009:
I am giving up on this feature. It just is not accurate enough in synching to my "real" voicemail. Too bad Verizon, you'll be losing my $5 a month.

• SMS and IM functions-- Worked like a breeze. Set up Yahoo IM in seconds. Sweet. Now I just wish I could stop my little teenage nieces from texting me all the time. At our annual Christmas party, I caught several of them texting each other-- from across the room! Why do they do that!?
Update March 17, 2009:
• Bonus function-- Two words: Word Mole! Totally addictive game and great for killing subway stops or hours on the plane. Please email me if you can beat my high score: 6,742 (this score is quite ridiculous since I was in the “zone” and my previous best was 4,358) or my best single word high score: 135.
Update March 17, 2009:
LOL. My new high score is 11,500. Beat that!

Mixed or TBD:

• Music-- Couldn’t get the thing to work. It is supposed to support Rhapsody and Verizon’s V Cast. I will stick with my iPod for now.
Update March 17, 2009:
I actually use the Storm as an iPod now. There is a feature for randomly synching songs from your iTunes list. Works great when your iPod is out of batteries. Storm earbuds sounds better than standard iPod ones.

• Navigation-- Ditto. You are supposed to be able to use the Storm’s imbedded GPS for turn-by-turn navigation. I tried for 30 minutes, including calling an 800 number that put me in IVR hell, but couldn’t get the thing to work or Verizon to help me. If I eventually get the thing working (which would be great and another of those “step-level improvements” I was telling you about in the first paragraph) I will update this review.
Update March 17, 2009:
To be fair to our friends from Networks in Motion, I haven't had a chance to call Verizon to try to get this working again.

• Menu system-- I am still a little lost here. Sometimes you need to press a button on the on-screen keyboard (they are different for each application). Sometimes you need to hit the physical “menu” button at the bottom of the device. Sometimes you need to speak Latin incantations while standing upside down (maybe not this last one, but you get the idea). After several weeks, I still find myself searching for when to hit “back”, when to hit “menu” when to scroll or search around for a hidden option. My trusty 7250 had a simple and easy to remember menu system and scroll-wheel ( I really miss that little wheel) while the Storm has you wondering and wallowing too often. Of course the Storm does a lot more too, but you would think there would be some mean, grumpy, menu-system-enforcing engineer that would have driven simplicity and consistency.
Update March 17, 2009:
I have gotten used to the menu system now. It doesn't really bother me.

• Unlock key-- Oh my goodness. Put the Storm in your pocket and the thing locks without any explanation on how to unlock it. For newbies like me it took several minutes and key combinations (and a little Latin) to figure out how to get out of it. FYI- the unlock button is on top of the device to the left. Please send $5 to…
Update March 17, 2009:
What, no checks?

Awful:

• Camera function-- Just terrible. This was one of the worst things before the latest software upgrade but it has only gone from completely unusable to completely impractical. The camera menu system is kludgey. The camera itself snaps several seconds after you press the button and is almost always out of focus. After taking a picture, there seems to be now simple way to quickly take another picture before backing out of a “save as” function the pops up. This is a bummer since I was really hoping this function would add to the reasons why I switched from the 7250.
Update March 17, 2009:
Still awful. The new firmware update is supposed to improve the camera but don't hold your breath.

• Video camera-- Same as above. Don’t waste your time.
Update March 17, 2009:
To be fair, I have actually gotten some decent utility out of this when I needed to record a demo at a trade show. It still crashes and freezes up about a third of the time, and almost always when I try to record beyond 3 minutes. As a result, I am looking to buy a Flip or Vado.

Review Summary

All in all, the BlackBerry Storm has delivered on most of its promises. It is indeed a major improvement from earlier models, and more than competitive (if not superior) to rivals like the iPhone. If you are looking for the latest generation smart-phone with all the support for business applications you have come to expect from Research In Motion and improvements that make it a great quality phone and mobile Internet browser and multi-media playback device, the BlackBerry Storm is for you. As a primarily software-based device, we can only hope and expect some of the annoyances I have outlined above to get better with future releases (those engineers are only getting better at foosball I hear). The color touch-screen is truly beautiful. The surrounding apps are solid. The input keyboard is functional but could be better. The desktop synch is strong as always. In short, all the things you will use most, line up to make the BlackBerry Storm the right device for me. And maybe for you too.
Update March 17, 2009:
I am sticking with the Storm. It has grown on me and I am confident that most of the negatives will be fixed with firmware updates. The iPhone is still not an option for me due to the poor quality of the AT&T network.

Please comment with your feedback.

-Brian

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