RIM has finally embraced the touchscreen, but can a handset maker who has always firmly believed in the QWERTY keyboard crack the technology? We get touchy feely to find out.
Bigger than we expected, the Storm is a faction thicker than the iPhone (like 1mm thicker), however is around 20 grams heavier coming in a black metal back with a curvier plastic casing on the front.
The Storm features four buttons at the bottom of the screen (answer, menu, back, and hang up), a further two at the top (mute and lock), and a plethora of others done the side including the shutter button and volume. Before we get on to that 3.25-inch, 480 x 360 pixel screen, the phone also offers a 3.5mm headphones socket, a Micro-USB charging socket and microSD card slot although not hot swappable (it sits directly underneath the casing).
Continuing its charm offensive on the consumer, the Storm features a 3.2-megapixel camera (the Bold only has 2 megapixels) complete with autofocus, flash and 2x digital zoom that is controlled via the touchscreen interface and that dedicated camera button.
The first thing you are going to notice about the screen is that it moves. Yes that's right. It might be big, but it's also clickable. Why? Well so you can scroll around the interface before "clicking" your options.
The first 20 minutes of play, it has to be said, were a little awkward. Having never used a clickable touchscreen interface before you aren't really sure how much pressure to put on it. Press that hard on the iPhone for example and you'd probably hurt your finger. However, after that initial moment of trepidation we found that it became second nature. Most notably, and much welcomed, was that we could use our thumbs to type as we do on our BlackBerry Curve.
So the click works. But what it also means, and this for us is a "biggy", is that you can select copy and yes that's right: cut and paste. Holding one finger at the start of the text you want to select you can then use your other finger to select the copy before accessing the menu (that menu key remember) to press the copy button. Genius.
The Storm runs the same BlackBerry OS as the Bold (obviously with touch enabled) and that means you get all the Bold style, features and strengths just without the solid QWERTY keyboard.
That keyboard is now replicated in three different guises on screen: a full QWERTY when in landscape, the keyboard, as found on the BlackBerry Pearl, called SureType and a MultiTap offering that is like a keypad found on a standard phone. Surprisingly we found ourselves using the SureType the most. To select a key you have to click and it's robust enough to be able to type with two thumbs rather than just the one finger as on the iPhone. Rather than making the keys graphically bigger when you press them RIM has opted for a glowing blue light so you can see what you are pressing. Like the iPhone, a misplaced character doesn't mean a misspelling and the Storm will learn your mistakes to help you out.
Like the Bold the interface is completely different to previous incarnations such as the Curve. Along the bottom of the new home screen you get up to three rows of icons (customisable) for accessing your favourite applications. The list is actually devised from the top row(s) of applications within the application page.
If you've got the diary as one of your top row applications it will appear on the home screen. It's as simple as that. It's a really nice feature and one we really like. The top of the home screen gives you quick stats on battery, profile, network, date, Bluetooth and whether you're on 3G or not.
To help you manage the icons you can create folders so you can bunch all your games together, or chat applications for example, and it's all very easy to manage and use.
There is GPS, a diary, a browser, camera, email, games, search, alarm clock, contacts book, MMS support and a full multimedia suite allowing you to watch video, listen to music, view images and that's before you start downloading additional apps like Facebook, Google Maps and Opera Mini (there will be even more when the BlackBerry App store comes online in 2009).
The Storm comes with RIM's own and rather basic Maps application, Vodafone's SatNav service (chargeable) and Google Maps giving you perhaps an overkill on getting you from A to Z.
Rather than list every single app available, highlights worth noting are the alarm clock app that offers so much more. Realising that CrackBerry addicts (you know who you are) normally take their phone to bed with them you can now have the clock feature go full screen when the phone is plugged into the charger. Furthermore, beyond the three different styles of clock, there is also something called "Bedside mode" that dims the screen, turns off the LED (the one that flashes red when you've got mail) and if you don't want to be disturbed, actually turns the phone radio off so you can't get calls. It's a really nice feature and one that we are sure many BlackBerry fans will appreciate. It's like Research In Motion has actually thought about how the phone will be used.
Still keeping with the consumer angle, the multimedia elements have been increased and improved on. We've already mentioned the microSD slot and the 3.2-megapixel camera, but the multimedia player has been improved as well to benefit from that big screen.
It might be cliché, but the adverts really have got it right, video playback is stunning and in landscape mode easily good enough to allow you to watch movies or other content with little effort. The Storm supports all the usual formats including iTunes tracks that are DRM free and video playback supports H.264.
On the email front it's business as usual with the HTML support now being added so you can view images without having to worry about attachments. Emails open quickly, content is downloaded quickly, and overall it's the same experience that if you are already a BlackBerry user you will know and love.
Where the BlackBerry wins out over the Apple iPhone is that you can very quickly search email to find what you are after, you can cut, copy and paste, view HTML messages in plain text, restrict your download sizes, your roaming actions and plenty more.
New features we've found include an improved focus on search allowing you to search instantly by Sender or Subject, something that is surprisingly helpful, as well as having greater control over how the messages are displayed.
As for the browser experience, BlackBerry has added desktop and column view options. The desktop allows you to view the webpage as if you were on a standard browser. Like the iPhone your finger is used to move around the page and it's very easy. The column view allows you to zoom into specific parts of the page for supposedly easier viewing.
On a speed front, while it seems strange that RIM hasn't included Wi-Fi (a lack of space supposedly) we didn't really notice it. The storm offers HSDPA 7.2Mbps connectivity (as long as you are in coverage) and while we weren't at our home address getting full speed connectivity we still got very good speeds from 3G surfing. Certainly enough to be happy with, although it might come to bite Vodafone when services like the iPlayer for mobile catch on. It's also worth noting that Vodafone is offering unlimited surfing with the phone on all the main packages.
Has Research In Motion cracked the touchscreen? It seems they have. While the iPhone still offers plenty to the consumer, the lack of a number of key features such as MMS, video, a 2-megapixel camera, no Bluetooth data, no camera flash, no desktop pairing so you can use it as a modem and no cut and paste function has left Apple suddenly finding themselves trailing behind.
The BlackBerry Storm does all the above (bar Wi-Fi) and in our mind has the best email system on offer in a mobile device today.
It's not all perfect though. The lack of Wi-Fi will grate with some, while others will want a better camera, and then there is the battery. Like other powerful handsets on the market this is likely to be a charge every day affair.
As a BlackBerry Curve user for the last 2 years, when we played with the Bold here at Pocket-lint earlier in the year we thought we had found our next phone. Luckily a tip off told us to wait for the Storm. The wait might be have a while coming, but this is good enough for it to be my next phone.
High praise indeed.