BlackBerry Storm hands-on
RIM's going back to its roots here, and once again reminding us why corporate users tend to holster their phones instead of pocket them -- the Storm is a large one. It's not that you can't slide it into a jeans pocket (it's 0.55-inches thick), and in fact, there's no particular dimension that the Storm exaggerates beyond reason in comparison to, say, an iPhone, but folks who felt that Apple was already pushing boundaries there won't take kindly to this beefy phone. The traditional BlackBerry weight advantage is gone as well -- the Storm's large glassy touchscreen and related clicking mechanism, in addition to a very solid build means the weight certainly matches the size.
The 3.25-inch screen itself is bright, colorful and high-resolution (480 x 360). Video playback is sharp and smooth, and the extra pixels on the large screen means eye fatigue won't be much of an issue. Unfortunately, as far we can tell there's no hardware video acceleration, which shouldn't be a problem for correctly-compressed video, but there aren't any Apple or Nokia-style swooping transitions in, we don't have high hopes for gaming, and stuff like browsing through photos and and panning around web pages is fairly choppy. The lack of hardware acceleration could also cut down on battery life, which RIM is pegging at 15 days of standby and 5.5 hours of talk, but hasn't fleshed out with media playback figures.
In addition to the touchscreen, there's a full complement of standard buttons for getting things done: rocker switch and camera button on one side of the device; another function button on the other side; call, end, back and BlackBerry buttons on the face; invisible mute and lock buttons up top.
Like we said before, RIM didn't want to reinvent the wheel here, and didn't. In fact, almost the entire interface -- besides the recent aesthetic overhaul enjoyed by both the Bold and the Storm, which brought much needed perks like readable fonts and a modicum of glamor -- is standard BlackBerry. That means the standard, business-friendly strengths of RIM remain intact, while some of the long-standing interface annoyances (like incessant scrolling) can be overcome with a simple tap or click of the touchscreen.
In standard RIM fashion, one-handed navigation is a priority and totally doable, but now there's actually room for two hands, which could speed all sorts of actions -- click the app switcher button with one thumb, tap your desired app with the other, not mind-blowing, but helpful. There are other perks brought on by touch that will take a bit of exploration to discover. For instance, if you tap and hold the screen (without clicking) on an email address or an email subject for a couple seconds, the phone will search for related emails. Multitouch makes a reluctant appearance in the form of two-fingered selection. Hold one finger above and another finger below a block of text to select it, then tap and drag to fine-tune the selection. Unfortunately, stuff like two-fingered zooming and rotation isn't happening here, but RIM promises to work on other helpful uses for touching -- it feels a tad underutilized in its present form.
Speaking of the browser, RIM has made great strides in the past year or so, but its homebrewed Java-based app still doesn't quite match the Nokia / Apple / Google-favored WebKit in terms of rendering speed and accuracy. We also didn't see the sort of smooth and effortless scrolling the iPhone provides, that no other touch phone has managed to replicate so far.
RIM's core apps are obviously just as solid as ever when it comes to email, calendaring and contacts, and are increasingly being integrated with the browser and outside apps like Facebook. What's still lacking is a truly powerful and cohesive media player -- it still seems tacked-on, though the search feature in the music app is a nice touch. RIM's clearly working on this, but there's more to be done. At the time this post goes live we're still not sure if those leaked App Center screenshots are legit, but it'd certainly be a nice shot at Apple and Google, and a chance to bring RIM's existing developer community to the forefront.
Carrier (Verizon) and budget (unknown) constraints aside, what it's probably going to boil down to is whether or not the BlackBerry OS is your style. RIM hasn't done an overhaul to make touchscreen viable, instead banking on its navigation / execution paradigm to make the transition to touch -- which for the most part it does brilliantly. RIM hasn't in any way made the phone unattractive to its traditional corporate loyalists, and might just manage to snag other users looking for a flashy phone with decent email, but when it comes to browsing, media playback and other forms of consumer-friendliness, RIM still has a ways to go.
*Verizon is currently in the process of acquiring AOL, Engadget's parent company. However, Engadget maintains full editorial control, and Verizon will have to pry it from our cold, dead hands.