RIM has a second attempt at a touchscreen smartphone. (December 5th, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: Research in Motion
Price: $180 (Verizon, 2 yrs), $200 (Telus, 3 yrs)
- Better push-down screen.
- 16GB card included; more RAM.
- Improved scrolling, typing, web browsing.
- Built-in Wi-Fi; GSM/HSPA world mode.
- Good call quality and battery life.
- Push-down screen still damages the experience.
- No real hardware changes apart from Wi-Fi.
- Competitors have moved faster.
- BlackBerry OS 5.0 a minor update to an old OS.
- Camera photos are noisy versus rivals.
- App World has a small catalog, isn't preloaded.
design and the clickable screen
On first holding the Storm2, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd picked up the first Storm by mistake. Apart from a slightly sleeker design with flush navigation buttons, the new BlackBerry is virtually identical on the outside to its predecessor. In some ways, that's a good thing: it has a reassuring heft and feels overall well-built. The physical controls are easy to reach with average hands and provide handy shortcuts for silent mode, voice dialling or volume, and it's wide enough to avoid a cramped feeling with the touchscreen keyboard.
By virtue of hewing so closely to the earlier formula, the new phone does inherit some of the same criticisms of its predecessor. Although the raw numbers don't indicate it, the Storm2 is still noticeably bulkier than most keyboardless phones, including the iPhone it will invariably be compared against. It's actually shorter than the taller-ratio Apple phone but noticeably thicker and wider; you won't put the BlackBerry in a tight jeans pocket.
This does have an upside in expansion, as before: unlike its nemesis, the BlackBerry still has a removable battery and a microSDHC slot (albeit behind the battery cover). And thankfully, you likely won't need to access the slot through the lifespan of the phone: both the Telus and Verizon models have a 16GB card pre-installed, or enough headroom for some whole music collections as well as the usual app and photo collections.
Of all the changes, though, it's the one that's hardest to see that should matter the most: the touchscreen. It's still the same 3.25-inch, 480x360 display, but it abandons the very literal downward movement of the first-run Storm for a piezoelectric system that uses pressure sensors to detect movement. In most cases, it does work more effectively as it requires less conscious effort to press and doesn't create the uneasy feeling that the mechanism could break just through heavy use.
But the real question is whether even an upgraded version of the same system should be there at all. While you do eventually get used to actually pushing down to invoke most actions, the necessity slows down virtually every task on the phone, even if just for a half-second. Typing is still especially slow as you still can't truly move to the next key before the screen is back into position.
The slowdown is enough of a hindrance that, in many ways, it ruins the primary advantage of a touchscreen: intuitiveness. Instead of simply performing an action, you're always second-guessing your behavior and taking more time to accomplish a task, not less. To put it bluntly, RIM has misunderstood what owners of BlackBerries like the Bold 9700 or Tour prefer about physical QWERTY keyboards. It's not the tactile sensation they miss, it's the certainty of pressing the right key. As it is, the Storm2 still loses that certainty but doesn't have much of the responsiveness of a touchscreen, either.
BlackBerry OS 5.0
Usually, an x.0 release is an indication of a major reworking of a program that signals a fundamental shift in how it accomplishes its goals. In a few areas, that's true for BlackBerry OS 5.0. Inertial (momentum-based) scrolling is finally in place for touchscreen BlackBerries, and it's now much easier to flick through a large list of unread e-mail or a long website. Typing is now improved, too, as there's an auto-correction feature that works on all BlackBerries regardless of keyboard format; it doesn't work as well as Apple's or HTC's but is appreciated.
Some of the features are welcome but relatively subtle. SMS (text) messages are now threaded, so it's easier to follow a conversation that wasn't conducted through e-mail. Folders now have notification markers to let you know if Facebook or another app has received new information. More of the interface elements are better-looking and make more sense in a touch environment.
All the same, what seems to define the OS is precisely how much hasn't changed: in many ways, 5.0 feels more like a tarted up version of 4.7 (or even 4.5) than an actual overhaul. Even for those used to the Storm, many of the interface elements aren't much different than they were a year ago. A few changes, like flagging messages for follow-up, are dependent on connecting to an upgraded BlackBerry Enterprise Server. Apart from better spacing for touch input, the contextual menus, buttons and options areas are still dominated by seas of text menus. There's also no true multi-touch input, like pinching to zoom -- and again, the pressure-dependent screen hinders much of what you want to do.
Moreover, despite having more RAM and a fairly fast processor, some tasks just feel slow. Browsing is still in some ways an Achilles' heel: while it may render more pages properly, sites still take an exceptionally long time to load. Wi-Fi actually doesn't prove to be much of a help here. Other than providing a more reliable connection and saving on 3G data fees, the short-range wireless doesn't radically accelerate load times. An iPhone, especially an iPhone 3GS, will run rings around a Storm2 both in accuracy and in speed.
Lastly, there's the concern that some one-time BlackBerry advantages have been negated. It's nice to have a free GPS navigation app, BlackBerry Maps, but it now has to compete against Google Maps Navigation on Android phones, where the true turn-by-turn, spoken-out directions and (on Android 2.0 devices) voice-guided searches can often replace a dedicated GPS unit altogether; position lock also isn't as quick as on competitors. A Storm2 will make for a decent media player, but it now not only has to compete against the clearly more feature-rich iPhone but still quite capable Android phones as well. It's time RIM took its non-business apps more seriously.
a note on BlackBerry App World
If you've read our recent BlackBerry reviews, you'll know that App World has been a mixed bag. For better or worse, that's still true here. The interface is still reasonably easy to use, and the catalog has its share of useful and simply interesting apps. Even so, it still feels like a "me too" product that doesn't expose you to relevant apps as well as the iPhone's App Store does.
It certainly doesn't have the breadth. At the end of 2009, App World had just a few thousand titles where the iPhone had over 120,000 and even Android Market had well over 10,000. We'd be the first to acknowledge that quantity doesn't make up for quality, but many of the apps for BlackBerry handsets already have ports or equivalents on other platforms that perform roughly as well, or in some cases better. Unless your business needs dictate a specific BlackBerry app or a BlackBerry is your only alternative to the iPhone's current app limitations, third-party software can sometimes be a weak point.
We'd further point out that App World isn't even preloaded on many blackBerries. Whether it's RIM's policies or (more likely) carriers trying to squeeze out competitors to their own stores, just getting the store on the Storm2 and other BlackBerries still requires a web search for the store, downloading an app and installing it. This is quite probably the reason why the BlackBerry hasn't taken off as an app-friendly environment, and if the policy isn't reversed it might tarnish the whole platform.
Photography and video recording on the Storm2 have remained virtually unchanged from the Storm2. Where the Bold 9700 jumped to a larger-resolution sensor, the touchscreen phone still has the 3.2-megapixel sensor, autofocus and flash it did a year earlier. It may be flexible for closeups and low-light shots, but the results we garnered weren't what we would consider quality. Compared to the recently tested HTC Hero and Droid Eris -- both of which cost about half as much on contract -- the Storm2's shots were clearly noisier. That the Android phones also produce a higher resolution 5-megapixel image (partly responsible for the reduced visible noise) hints RIM has some catching up to do.
A pleasant surprise came from the video, however. Versus the Hero and Droid Eris, the Storm2 produced smoother output and was much better at adapting to movement or changes in light levels. It's still relatively low-resolution and prone to drab, muddy output compared to the clear and vivid iPhone 3GS, but we'd prefer the BlackBerry over the Hero if on-the-fly movie making were the deciding factor. We just wish RIM had implemented a means of uploading directly to YouTube from the video app rather than turning to third-party tools or e-mail.
call quality and battery life
As a series, the BlackBerry line has usually produced good call quality on both ends. That holds up with the Storm2, as calls were loud and clear. Being on a CDMA network is still a limitation, though. By its nature, CDMA tends to produce a slightly "digital" sound to the voice that was noticeable for anyone we talked to. Ironically, it will be when the phone is roaming on GSM or (in Europe) HSPA networks that it should sound the best, if just for the change in protocol.
Reception hasn't been an issue in our testing.
Longevity isn't significantly affected by the presence of a touchscreen. We'd still highly recommend that the phone be charged once a day as moderate use will drain it of most or nearly all its charge in a single day, but a full phone can be left overnight with about 80 to 85 percent of its charge remaining and still have about half its charge a day later.
We should quickly clarify that the Storm2 isn't a bad phone. Many aspects are done well, and some of the previous show stoppers (lack of Wi-Fi, the screen mechanism, unnatural scrolling) have been cleared away. For the business of actually taking calls and viewing e-mail, it's up to the task.
Our chief worries revolve around RIM's priorities in light of its competitors. Nearly all of the changes between the first Storm and the Storm2 exist only to shore up glaring weaknesses in hardware. Other hardware features have been left untouched, and the concept of a push-down screen is well-meaning but fundamentally the wrong approach. Software also needs more than just a few tweaks, especially when many of those changes have been applied to the older model through a software update.
Meanwhile, many of RIM's competitors have moved the goalposts considerably. In the year between Storms, Apple has not only closed up feature gaps like its compass, MMS and voice dialling but has produced a much faster phone with superior image capturing and a major OS revision that's even more suited to touch. In the same interval, Android has had a more meaningful upgrade and leapt from the relatively modest HTC Dream and Android 1.0 to powerhouses like the Motorola Droid -- which has not only better hardware but a major software revision, too.
What we have is thus a phone that will still appeal just to a fairly niche market of BlackBerry users that crave a touchscreen but won't change platforms, either out of necessity for work or pure preference. RIM's improvements in the Storm2 can be likened to bailing out the water from a leaky ship with buckets: they may do an admirable job of preventing the ship from going under before it reaches port, but they don't address the long-term problem of the hole in the boat.