Review: BlackBerry Storm bridges business and lifestyle

Unmistakably a BlackBerry with strong messaging, connectivity, and extensibility, the Storm delivers a new level of usability

The new BlackBerry 9530, or Storm, has the familiar fingertip navigation and flick-to-scroll gesture common to most widescreen phones. Apart from that, the 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; the 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 WLAN, but I'd advise that you'd be making a mistake to do it without at least looking at the smartphone yourself.

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 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 comparable 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, the 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; it will jump with you to any carrier you choose.

The Storm's tower-triangulation-assisted GPS powers Google Maps, E-911, location-aware Java and JavaScript applications, and navigation.

E-mail attachments can be viewed on the 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 analogue clock from 15 feet away in total darkness), can be saved to flash memory or sent via email or Multimedia Message Service.

RIM got perspective rotation absolutely right. All the 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 Storm entirely by Bluetooth. This app is available only for Windows. It runs fine under Boot Camp.

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 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. BlackBerry runs software in the background, and every so often, conflicts within and among apps will lock up the handset.

The 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. Storm's whole touchscreen is one big button, like Mac notebooks' new 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 Storm applies globally (thus, 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, Storm's abbreviated portrait keyboard. SureType auto-completes words and corrects fumbled text with "how did it know that?" accuracy.

The BlackBerryStorm 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. You expect standard voice dialing and audio recording from a BlackBerry, and of course Storm delivers.

I'm pretty attached to QWERTY, so the T-Mobile G1 and BlackBerry Bold are a more natural fit for me than the iPhone and its like. But the 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 adds up to a device that I wouldn't hesitate to carry.

Perhaps the strongest feature of all, this touchscreen handset is a genuine BlackBerry. Among BlackBerry users, there's no substitute for that.

Vodafone is due to launch the Storm in New Zealand on Monday with a retail price of $999.

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