RIM's BlackBerry Storm: Awkward and Disappointing

BlackBerry fans who've been yearning for a touch-based handset à la iPhone now have one, but the BlackBerry Storm--which Verizon Wireless plans to start selling Friday for $250 with a two-year contract--might not be the smart phone of their dreams.

The decision by Research in Motion to differentiate the Storm by giving its capacitive touch screen a mechanical component (the entire screen functions as a button for confirming selections or initiating actions) turns out to be more confusing than helpful. Ultimately, the Storm's touch interface feels like a failed experiment.

BlackBerry Storm in landscape mode
It's too bad, because the Storm has some nice features and makes a great first impression. Encased in shiny black with silvery accents on the front and a removable matte metal cover in the back, the Storm is shorter, slightly narrower, and somewhat thicker than the iPhone--not surprising since it packs support for Verizon Wireless's fastest network (EvDO Rev. A), for quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE, and for 2100-MHz UMTS/HSPA networks, enabling overseas roaming on the fastest networks available. The Storm also has a GPS receiver and Bluetooth, but no Wi-Fi.

A quartet of familiar BlackBerry hardware buttons sit below the 4.4-inch display. They are, from left to right, a Send button (marked with a green phone icon), which brings up the phone menu and initiates calls or dispatches messages; a Menu button (with a BlackBerry icon) to bring up contextual menus; an Escape button (with a return arrow) to close menus or go back to the previous screen; and an End/Power button (with a red phone icon) for ending calls, returning to the home screen, or turning the handset on or off. The phone lock and mute controls on the upper left and right corners, respectively, though not discrete buttons, are clickable under the casing.

Hardware features on either side repeat those found on other recent BlackBerrys. These include volume controls on the upper right; a button for activating the 3.2-megapixel camera and capturing snapshots on the center right; a voice recording button on the upper left, and a mini-USB charging/syncing port on the lower left. Above the volume controls is a port for a standard 3.5mm headset (the earbud headset bundled with the Storm was excellent, however, producing first-rate audio quality).

The Storm's accelerometer lets you use it in landscape or portrait mode for most applications (it orients the phone in portrait mode only, though). My shipping test unit powered on with the same good-looking analog-style (that is, with hour and minute hands) clock seen on the BlackBerry Flip (you can even use it as an alarm clock).

A Disappointing Touch

The touch-screen interface differentiates the Storm from its RIM brethren--and there I was disappointed. Here's a video of the Storm in action.

Though RIM generally produces first-rate hardware (especially the QWERTY keyboards that it pioneered on handhelds), I found the Storm awkward to use for everyday data entry tasks. RIM's stated intention in developing its Click-Through technology was to enable users to navigate with the touch screen and to make menu selections (most of which appear in blue when highlighted) with a fingertip; depressing the screen would confirm a selection and initiate the selected action.

But in my tests, things sometimes didn't work out that way. I'd tap a menu item, for example, but then when I depressed the screen, the selection would somehow shift and a different item would execute. At times it was difficult to figure out what action was required: In setting up the free, downloadable AOL Instant Messaging application, I had difficulty selecting radio buttons to show that I had read and agreed to the user agreement, resulting in my having to scroll through the agreement several times to try again.

Scrolling was generally slow, too. When looking through contacts, I had no way to get quickly to the general area of the alphabet I wanted to check (a nice iPhone feature)--and then scroll quickly to the appropriate entry with a fingertip swipe. Swiping moves you just a few entries in either direction, making it too time consuming to be practical with an address book the size of mine (1500-plus entries). Consequently I had to resort to typed searches to speed things up.

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