BlackBerry Storm (9530) Review| By Hillary Borrud
Amid anticipation for BlackBerry Storm, there was speculation about whether the first BlackBerry touch screen phone would be a strong rival to the Apple iPhone. While RIM built innovative technologies in the Storm, currently offered by Verizon, this phone has its quirks -- some cutting edge functions don't come together as seamlessly as they should.
The main example is RIM's SurePress technology, which expands the touch screen to add tactile navigation. You can make a selection by touching and swiping the screen, and then push down to click -- it functions as one large button. This seems like an idea worth exploring, and to some degree, it works if you like tactile confirmation. But SurePress slows down messaging and tasks that require typing because each letter must be selected by touch -- and then a click.
The Storm also features an accelerometer, which change the display between portrait and landscape -- with keyboard -- orientations, depending upon whether the phone is held vertically or horizontally. That makes it easier to view photos and other media. Verizon bills the Storm as a global phone, and it supports several networks including Verizon's high-speed Ev-Do Rev. A network, an upgrade to Ev-Do service, allowing you to upload files five to six times faster.
The Storm packs a lot of features and it has the weight, 5.5 ounces with the battery installed, to show for them. It is heavier than the iPhone 3G, which weighs in at 4.7 ounces. The Storm is a good size for a sleek device with serious business capabilities. It's not a slim phone that slips unnoticed into a pocket, but from the keys to the unique screen, it feels solid and well-made.
A name like "Storm" suggests it may rock the boat with some cutting edge design, but really, it sticks to a classy and business-oriented aesthetics. One flashy feature is the silver band that surrounds the face, while the top and bottom are a glossy, black plastic. The silver echoes a similar design on the edge of iPhone.
Against the silver band, on the sides and portions of the back, a black rubbery surface provides a subtle grip. The removable back panel that covers the battery and microSD slot is an attractive, dark brushed metal and there is a silver BlackBerry logo near the top. The display is a centerpiece, with the SurePress technology behind it. A small gap separates the screen from the rest of the phone, and in a sense, the entire screen is one large button since you press it to make a selection. Hopefully, dirt won't get trapped in the gap between the screen and keys over time.
The black plastic panel at the top is also a large button, with different functions depending upon whether you press the left or right side. Pressing on the left side locks and unlocks the screen, while the right side works as a mute button to play or pause a media file, or mute a call. There is also a speaker in the middle of this panel, and a notification light on the right side. At the upper right side is a headset jack, and below it is a silver rocker volume key. A key on the right opens the camera mode, triggers the auto-focus and can be used to snap the photo. While the default for this key is to open the camera, it and a second "convenience key" on the left side can be customized to open other applications.
There are four large, familiar BlackBerry keys at the bottom for basic functions. From right to left, they are an end call and power key; an escape key marked with an arrow, to close a screen or move back to a previous screen; a menu key, with the BlackBerry logo, to open the menu in an application; and the send key. There is a micro-USB port on the left side, to charge the phone and transfer files, and a silver button with three raised dots that by default opens the voice dialing application. This is the second key that can be customized. On the back, the camera is on the upper left side and the flash and video light is on the right.
Out of the box, the Storm comes with a battery, 3.5-millimeter stereo headset, travel charger with three international adapter clips, USB data cable, an 8-gigabyte microSD card, SIM card, BlackBerry User Tools CD, Verizon CD-ROM with VXAccess Manager and VCast Music with Rhapsody.
With a 3.2-megapixel camera with flash, 2x zoom, auto-focus and video, the Storm is ready to take high-quality photos. It captures higher resolution images than the 2-megapixel ones featured on the BlackBerry Bold and Apple's iPhone 3G, although the BlackBerry Curve also offers a 3.2-megapixel camera.
Overall, the Storm camera delivers large photos that faithfully capture true colors and lighting and with the strong flash, few photos came out too dark. In close-up photos, the camera snaps details such as the individual threads in a piece of fabric. It also captures details at a distance, including the smaller twigs on branches of a tree. The lens has an impressive amount of contrast so photos generally do not look washed out or too dark. Colors were brilliant and realistic, for both indoor and outdoor photos.
At night, the camera still works well -- when there is at least some light. The flash is relatively strong, and photos are not grainy. Photos taken in dim light captures detail, but you'll need to get close to the subject for the flash to work best. When the Storm is in camera mode, a touch to the menu key brings up the options of "help," "view pictures," "options" and "video camera," among other things.
When a photo is displayed on the screen, there are a number of ways to adjust the camera. Touch the menu key, and up comes a list of options, from "zoom in" to "view photos." If you select "options" at the bottom of the list, it takes you to a screen where you can adjust several options including the default flash setting, white balance, photo size, quality, geo-tagging and color effects. The last feature includes choices of normal, black and white, sepia and whiteboard. These menus may be difficult to use, and in several instances it took multiple attempts to delete a file because a different virtual key remained highlighted despite multiple clicks on the "delete" key.
When a photo is selected by pressing on it, you can pan around the photo and zoom in and out by touching and dragging the photo with a fingertip. As with iPhone, the touch screen allows you to flip through photo files by swiping your finger across the screen.
Video recorded indoors was occasionally grainy when the video light was turned off, and the transition from landscape to portrait view was delayed once while recording and playing video, with the screen stuck in landscape for a moment. The phone recorded clear sound when it was pointed directly at the sound, although the recording was fuzzy when the device was pointed away from the sound.
The quality of video was good and relatively sharp, although it did not capture colors as true as in still photos. Video taken indoors was slightly grainy. As with still photos, you can adjust the camera by pressing the menu button and selecting "options." You can then turn the video light on or off, select from three color effects and two video formats -- normal and MMS mode. The extremely bright video light on the Storm is almost blinding, but it helps produce decent video even in dimly lit locations. It also doubles as a flashlight in a pinch, although a message pops up when you turn on the light, warning that it will sap the battery.
The Storm camera performs well, with great detail, realistic color in most cases, and a strong flash to capture higher quality photos than many other phones. When compared with the iPhone's camera, however, the Storm didn't seem quite as sensitive to light. In an office setting, the iPhone was better able to capture the scene as it existed, without requiring the flash. The Storm's flash went off automatically in the same location, creating a slightly bluish tinted photo. While the camera is superior to those on many other phones, it still falls short of the iPhone.
The Storm comes prepared to help you keep you work and personal life organized. The device supports BlackBerry 4.7 Desktop Software which provides integrated email, phone, SMS, Internet browser, a calendar and an address book, in addition to other organizer applications. It also supports BlackBerry Enterprise Solution, which provides you with a wireless connection to corporate data, phone services, email integration for a single inbox, and instant messaging, among other things.
The Storm comes loaded with DataViz Documents to Go Standard Edition, so you can edit MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. Overall, phone is rated for up to 6.2 hours of talk time, or up to 15 days of standby time.
The interface is attractive, with colorful icons for the different apps laid out in a grid, somewhat similar to the iPhone. Using the touch screen, it is simple to swipe up or down to flip through the apps. Other unique screen features are the ambient light sensor, which automatically adjusts backlighting according to the amount of light available, and an accelerometer that allows you to view the screen in either portrait or landscape views.
The large, brilliant screen has a resolution of 480-by-360 pixels, more than other BlackBerry smartphones like the Bold which has 320-by-480 pixels. The 3.3-inch TFT, or Thin Film Transistor LCD, screen produces sharper, more brilliant images and it supports more than 65,000 colors. An ambient light sensor in the handset automatically adjusts backlighting to provide the ideal amount for screen viewing. As mentioned earlier, the screen also moves up and down slightly, so that you can click it to confirm choices or type.
The touch screen allows you to highlight, then copy and paste text, in addition to other actions like scrolling through menu items with a swipe of the finger. To adjust the swipe sensitivity, tap interval and hover point, go to Options and select Screen/Keyboard. Meanwhile, an accelerometer shifts the view between portrait and landscape. This makes it easier to view photos and other media, and a keyboard is available in the landscape orientation. Some users complain that the accelerometer is slow to follow changes. For example, the screen view remains in landscape when the phone has already been flipped upright. This did happen on a few occasions, although the delay lasted only about a second.
The iPhone has a slightly lower resolution, at 480-by-320 pixels, but supports 262,000 colors. The vibrant interfaces on both the Storm and iPhone showcase the brilliant range of hues supported on their screens, and both phones reproduce great detail. When video on the two phones is compared, the Storm produces slightly lower quality images than the iPhone. Video on the Storm appears slightly washed out and less true to life than video on the iPhone screen.
Despite the slight shortfall, when compared to the iPhone, the screen is impressive. The colors are brilliant and images are reproduced in sharp detail.
Sound from the Storm is strong, projecting loudly from the speaker. Unfortunately, at the loudest volume the sound had some static and acquired a slightly tinny sound. One way to open music files is to click on the music icon on the main menu screen, which then leads to files sorted into several categories such as artists and playlists.
Audio and other media files can also be accessed through the media icon, which pulls up a screen with options to select music, videos, ringtones, voice notes or pictures. The Storm can play polyphonic, MIDI and MP3 ringtones, and comes with 68 preloaded ringtones. It also supports MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA and WMA ProPlus audio formats.
The Storm provides a wide variety of messaging options with text, picture, video and instant messaging, in addition to email. You can receive corporate email in real-time by syncing with a company's server, Microsoft Exchange and IBM Lotus Domino accounts, and also up to 10 POP3 or IMAP4 accounts using the BlackBerry Internet Service. SurePress screen offers two options for convenient dialing and messaging: when you hold the phone vertically for portrait mode, the phone displays a SureType keypad; with the phone held horizontally and the screen view in landscape, the virtual keyboard.
These keys are smaller and it initially looked daunting to tap the right keys. But touch one of the keys lightly, and the possible choice is highlighted in blue -- giving you a chance to check whether you're about to press the correct key. One problem some users have reported is the SurePress screen makes it more complicated, and ultimately slower, to type on the screen because, in addition to touching a virtual key, you have to click it.
Despite the strong business credentials, it also provides opportunities to pass the time with games, music and video, among many options. Soon, it'll also be easier to increase the range of apps. RIM plans to launch a BlackBerry Application Center and BlackBerry Application Storefront in March, so you can download more apps like Facebook for BlackBerry Smartphones, which is already available. The Storm also comes with Flickr Photo Uploader for BlackBerry.
The broad range of apps available for the iPhone is a major attraction if you want fun and unique options, so the ability to challenge Apple will depend largely on whether the BlackBerry storefront succeeds. With Verizon's VCast Music with Rhapsody, you'll have access to more than five million high-quality audio tracks. VCast Video allows you to download or stream video clips of news, sports and entertainment.
With the BlackBerry Media Sync, you can load files from their iTunes libraries. It supports MPEG4 H.263, MPEG4 Part 2 Simple Profile, H.264 and WMV video formats, as well as MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA and WMA ProPlus audio formats. The Storm also comes has integrated GPS, but you'll have to subscribe to Verizon's VZ Navigator for spoken turn-by-turn directions and other services. Two games come loaded: BrickBreaker and Word Mole.
The Storm runs on Verizon's Ev-Do Rev A. network for faster data downloads up to 3.1-megabits per second and uploads up to 1.8-megabits per second, about six times faster than on non-Ev-Do networks. You'll soon be able to access the BlackBerry Application Storefront through the BlackBerry Browser. The full HTML browser works in portrait or landscape views, and you can navigate websites with the touch interface by swiping your finger to scroll and pan, and double tapping to zoom in. With a subscription to Verizon's Broadband Access plan, the Storm can function as a wireless modem for a laptop computer, which you may want to consider, because it doesn't have Wi-Fi.
There is a lot of room to store media. With its 1-gigabyte on-board memory, it exceeds most BlackBerry smartphones. The Storm also has 128-megabytes of flash memory and room for a microSD card. Fortunately, it comes with an 8-gigabyte SanDisk microSD card. As with many phones, the slot for the card is behind the removable panel on the back, but with this phone, RIM located the slot so you don't have to remove the battery to reach it.
The Storm has Bluetooth 2.0 and supports profiles for headsets and headphones and handsfree car-kits, as well as file transfer from one Bluetooth device to another.
The Storm provides a wealth of opportunities for you to stay connected to email. It also offers decent multimedia apps. But SurePress needs to integrate more seamlessly -- it is an interesting idea, but combining the touch screen with tactile navigation is a hit and miss.
The Storm has more potential for fun than other BlackBerry devices, and it draws closer to the iPhone's camera, screen and high-quality touch screen than many phones on the market. But with a less sensitive camera that seemed slightly washed out, the Storm still has room for improvement.
One outstanding question is whether BlackBerry's app store will rise to the level of the Apple's store, which is a major attraction for some. For now, the Storm is still best suited for business people. But if you who can accept the challenges of typing with SurePress, and some slight delays with the transition from portrait to landscape view and vice versa, then the Storm is a decent choice to consider. ♦
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