Test Center review: BlackBerry Storm bridges business and lifestyle

The first touchscreen BlackBerry pairs RIM's familiar enterprise strengths with superior ease of use, but Wi-Fi goes missing

The new BlackBerry 9530, commonly called the Blackberry Storm, has the familiar fingertip navigation and flick-to-scroll gesture common to most widescreen phones. Apart from that, the BlackBerry Storm is very much its own device, unmistakably a BlackBerry in its strong messaging, connectivity, and extensibility, but carried to a new level of usability by a touchscreen display and a redesigned GUI.

The iPhone, T-Mobile G1, and Touch Diamond have Wi-Fi; BlackBerry Storm does not. For some readers, the absence of Wi-Fi and the inferior Web browser (RIM's is barely serviceable) will add up to a showstopper. I can't keep you from blowing off the Storm for the lack of Wi-Fi, but I'd advise that you'd be making a mistake to do it without at least looking at the smartphone yourself.

[ Competition among business smartphones is heating up. See InfoWorld's guide to next-gen mobile and Test Center reviews of the iPhone 3G, T-Mobile G1, Palm Treo Pro, and HP iPaq 910c. ]

RIM had to make some sacrifices to bring the Storm to Verizon for less than $200. This isn't a device that RIM could stamp out from its standard QWERTY template. Everything is new, and until the R&D is paid down by volume, something had to give. In the BlackBerry Storm, Wi-Fi got the chop. If this inclines you to blow off this handset, I suggest you take a beat. Omitting Wi-Fi made room for an enormous combination of features you don't find in sub-$200 devices. It's a matter of balance, and I consider the scales tipped decisively in the buyer's favor.

Getting past Wi-Fi
For file transfers, BlackBerry Storm works as a mountable USB Storage Class device; no drivers or proprietary client software is required. Storm operates on CDMA/EvDO and GSM/UMTS 3G networks, so it's global without caveats; plus, once you've paid your debt to Verizon, it will jump with you to any carrier you choose. Verizon bundles a removable 8GB SD (Secure Digital) card, and its data plan supports tethering, so you can use the phone to connect your notebook to Verizon's network with functionality identical to Verizon's very popular cell data access dongles/cards. Verizon client software for Macs and PCs configures the Storm as a modem automatically, but even that utility is optional.

The BlackBerry Storm's tower-triangulation-assisted GPS powers Google Maps, E-911, location-aware Java and JavaScript applications, and VZ Nav, a very cool voice-enabled turn-by-turn navigator. VZ Nav gets a fast fix on your location down to the street address, and if someone wonders where you are, you can e-mail or text them your whereabouts from within the navigator. I have yet to determine whether VZ Nav is trialware, as Sprint Navigator is on the Touch Diamond, but with BlackBerry Storm's loudspeaker and big display, I'd pay for it or my prevailing BlackBerry turn-by-turn favorite, TeleNav.

E-mail attachments can be viewed on the BlackBerry Storm without being bounced to a server. Attachments can be saved to flash memory and transferred via USB, or attached to outbound messages. Images and video shot with the onboard camera, a 3.2-megapixel device with optical auto-focus and a very bright LED lamp (I was able to shoot an analog clock from 15 feet away in total darkness), can be saved to flash memory or sent via e-mail or Multimedia Message Service.

RIM got perspective rotation absolutely right. All the BlackBerry Storm's applications, including the entire library of existing BlackBerry and Java MIDP software, operate in portrait and landscape mode without having to be rewritten for it. Screen orientation flips easily and only when you want it to, unlike the iPhone and Touch Diamond, which sometimes have trouble figuring out which way is up.

Voice dialing, multistandard IM that runs in the background, and a loud speakerphone are not afterthoughts or accessories. Updates and software are delivered over the air without requiring a connection to a PC or Mac. BlackBerry Desktop will manage the BlackBerry Storm entirely by Bluetooth. This app is available only for Windows. It runs fine under Boot Camp's Windows on the Mac (and should run fine in a VMware Fusion or Parallels Desktop Windows virtual machine).

Driving the Storm
If you've seen one icon-grid home screen, you've seen them all, and flick to scroll is everywhere as well. The BlackBerry Storm does pop-up menus, so you don't have to chase back to Settings to change app-specific parameters. A convenience button on the left side brings up an app switcher. The BlackBerry runs software in the background, and every so often, conflicts within and among apps will lock up the handset. This is one of a handful of issues that will make Storm users glad for Verizon's over-the-air firmware updates.

[ Does the iPhone beat the BlackBerry for business? See "iPhone 3G's enterprise scores are in" and "iPhone OS 2.2 update doesn't fix key business flaws." ]

The BlackBerry Storm's on-screen keyboards operate like real BlackBerry keys. You glide your thumbs across until you get to your key, then press it down for a satisfying click. Buttons and menu items light up under your finger, so you know where your click is going to land. You never lift your finger off the screen to tap, so both one-handed and two-thumbed operation are easy. The Storm's whole touchscreen is one big button, like the new Mac notebooks' touchpads.

Gliding around the screen is not a metaphor for a pointing device. There is no cursor, although something like it is sorely needed for positioning and selection in text fields. I recommend choosing a larger system font, a setting that the BlackBerry Storm applies globally (thus, the BlackBerry is the best choice for those with imperfect vision) to make buttons and other controls larger and easier to hit.

Keyboards can be swept off the bottom of the screen with the same flick gesture that scrolls, and since gliding and clicking are distinct actions, scrolling never accidentally activates an on-screen control, a common issue with tap-to-click. A keyboard can also appear for applications such as terminal emulators and IM clients that don't present text fields.

I'm not quite used to the QWERTY keyboard. It has the same foibles as the iPhone's in that moving your finger a millimeter between the glide and the click selects the wrong letter. I took a quick liking to SureType, the Storm's abbreviated portrait keyboard. SureType auto-completes words and corrects fumbled text with “how did it know that?” accuracy.

The BlackBerry Storm more than passes muster as a media player. Its speaker is plenty loud enough to cut through road noise when delivering that drive-time podcast. RIM and Verizon documentation conflict over Bluetooth stereo and remote control, and my deadline hit before I could charge my Plantronics headset. I'll follow up. You expect standard voice dialing and audio recording from a BlackBerry, and of course the Storm delivers.

I'm pretty attached to QWERTY, so the T-Mobile G1 and BlackBerry Bold (up for review next) are a more natural fit for me than the iPhone and its like. But the BlackBerry Storm's tactile click, portrait- and landscape-mode support for all apps, integrated camera, built-in assisted GPS with navigation, and large, bright high-contrast screen, as well as Verizon's 3G network, add up to a device that I wouldn't hesitate to carry. At $199 with an 8GB flash card, the BlackBerry Storm is a best buy. Perhaps the strongest feature of all, this touchscreen handset is a genuine BlackBerry. Among BlackBerry users, there's no substitute for that.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Multimedia (10.0%)
Extensibility (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Messaging (20.0%)
Networking (20.0%)
Usability (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
BlackBerry Storm 7.0 9.0 9.0 10.0 7.0 8.0 8.4
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