01 Dec One Week with the New BlackBerry Storm

New and exciting smartphones are coming out every few months from the major players and November was no different. Smartphones include products like the 3G iPhone, the BlackBerry Bold, and the G1 Android, which I blogged about last month. These little guys do a lot more than make phone calls as they are slowly becoming mainstream portable devices to access cloud services as well as light computing and entertainment. The latest smartphone to launch is the BlackBerry Storm through Verizon, and I wanted to share with you my first impressions during a weeklong trip to see my parents in Florida.

I have been using BlackBerries for years and currently carry the Bold, so I knew that the combination of touch-screen with haptic feedback would be an interesting adventure…. and it certainly was. My point of comparison for this analysis is the BlackBerry Bold, the G1 Android, and my wife’s iPhone. (R to L: Bold, G1, Storm, and iPhone with cover)

The Plusses

Digital camera: I took very high quality pictures at 3.2MP with 2048×1536 max resolution. The built-in flash is bright, unlike those “toy” flashes you get with other phones. One other cool feature is that the photos get “geo-tagged” meaning the GPS coordinates are captured, allowing users to sort and file pictures by location in a program like Picasa. I would like to see photo capture time sped up as some pictures took 3 seconds from “click to save”.

Screen: This display is gorgeous at 480×360 pixels and is haptic-touch capable. This means you touch the screen and it “clicks.” The Storm also features auto-orientation, meaning that whichever way you hold it, you get the screen in a viewable orientation. I found my accuracy rate improved versus the iPhone on clicking icons and sending short messages. Videos, pictures, MS-Office files, and web sites looked great also.

Music player: I easily synched my iTunes playlists with the Storm and all my non-DRM’d songs played. The album art also transferred which was a nice “extra” I didn’t expect. The speaker volume was unexpectedly loud and could save consumers from paying extra for external speakers and is certainly convenient.

Web surfing column/page orientation: All smartphones should have the capability like the Storm to press one button to convert multi-column web sites into one column. NYTimes.com has 5 columns and to navigate on an iPhone, you have to multitouch all over the place. It’s cool, but I am not accurate with it on the web. With the Storm, you press one button (or automatic if bookmarked) you instantly get to the content in readable size and format. (Left is Page Mode, Right is Column Mode)

Upgradeable storage and replaceable battery: While something you would expect in modern electronic devices, iPhone doesn’t have it, Storm does. Theoretically, you could have unlimited storage by interchanging multiple 16GB microSD cards to store movies, videos, music and of course, documents. You don’t need to remove the battery like previous BlackBerry designs to get access to the memory, but unlike the Bold, you must remove the back cover. Don’t worry about running out of juice after getting off a 21 hour overseas flight. Charge up two or three of them and throw them in your bag.

Messaging and advanced notifications: It’s a BlackBerry so it’s arguably the best, ‘nuff said. Long message, short message, medium message, push, pull, whatever. You want a bird sound to chirp only after 6AM only when it’s in the holster and buzz once, you got it.

MS Office Doc Support: Built-in and free, you can download, save, view, and even edit the latest PowerPoint, Word, and Excel files. Excel wasn’t that useful given column width issues, but Word and especially Powerpoint was impressive.

Audio navigation: The Bold comes standard with the VZ Navigator, an application that will provide audio and video turn-by-turn instructions just like an auto navigation system. It also provides a 3D video interface that of course you aren’t supposed to look at while you are driving.

 

Video playback: RIM says that the Storm plays back the following formats: MPEG4 H.263, MPEG4 Part 2 Simple Profile, H.264, and WMV. That’s very broad, given the iPhone plays ONE format. I successfully played back video files for my Ipod (Gen 5), Nano, Flip video camera, and even low res XVID formats. Storm ships with video conversion software called Media Manager from Roxio. You can convert batch loads of video and takes advantage of four processor cores. I used an AMD Phenom TM X4 9950 quad core processor overclocked to 3.2Ghz (using AMD Fusion for Gaming utility) and was appreciating all four of those wonderful cores.¹

Solid: Unlike the G1 or Bold, the Storm is built like a tank. It just feels solid. Maybe it’s the weight, maybe it’s the brushed-aluminum backplate, I don’t know, but it could come in handy in times of self-defense. :>

The Minuses

No Wi-Fi: That’s not a typo. G1 has it, Bold has it, iPhone has it, heck my Archos has it, Storm does not. This was excruciating for me this week while I stayed in a house with no Verizon data support. I wanted to surf the web and I couldn’t.

Random lockups: A few times while using the video camera and also while task switching, the unit locked up. I lost two Thanksgiving videos, which was real, real bad. Knowing how rock-solid BlackBerries are, I would bet money this will get fixed and soon.

Random sluggishness: Every so often, the touch user interface would come to a crawl. Sometimes the auto-orientation was snappy, other times it was slow. Same thing occurred while navigating around web pages.

Slow web Java-script: Web surfing was fast on most sites until I hit java-lscript-aden sites, then the browser appeared to slow down. The default browser setting is “off” and if a site really needs Java-script to accomplish a major task, it asks you. My point of reference here is the iPhone and the Touch which has fast browsing with or without Java-script turned on.

Lack of applications: With the mountain of applications for Andoid and iPhone already available, even if you only like 5% of them, Storm is still way behind. If the application strategy is to hit the top applications, Storm needs a full-featured FaceBook and Twitter app. If RIM wants to attack the consumer market, seems like a few showcase apps would be in order as well. Remember the first time you saw Shazam, Pandora, Imeem, ShopSavvy, or G1’s full-screen Street View?

Too Early To Tell

Long e-mails: I can type full page emails with ease on the Bold and previously the Pearl, but I just don’t know yet on the Storm. I am slower on the Storm, but then again I needed training on the Pearl before could write long-winded corporate dissertations.

Battery life: I will leave this to the expert reviewers, but my “feeling” is that it’s around the same as the iPhone and longer than the Android while performing similar tasks. Anything that touches GPS was a MAJOR battery draw, so watch how you use it. One strange thing I encountered was the slow charge time while the phone was in operation. I needed to turn off the phone occasionally to charge.

Verizon Network: They were first in the U.S. with 3G EVDO service and I can actually get 2 bars at my house unlike AT&T or T-Mobile, but then again, their devices more than make up for that with Wi-Fi support. I read that AT&T’s service is faster, but I will leave that analysis up to the pro’s.

Summary

Net-net, I liked the Storm and am fairly confident (HOPING) that RIM will quickly address the initial issues with the platform. With one OTA update I experienced the G1 improve speed and stability a few weeks after launch, so I am optimistic. The iPhone also rolled out many improvements since launch. For those looking for large touch-screen, superior business-class messaging, consumer multimedia features, and stylish access the cloud, the Storm is worth a look. Also, if you are serious about watching your family videos on the Storm, I recommend getting a system powered by an AMD Phenom™ X4 processor to do the video conversion.