The Blackberry Storm - An iPhone 'Killer'?

Like many of you who read TUAW, I use an iPhone 3G as my day-to-day cell phone, mobile email and SMS device and to watch videos, listen to music and generally be entertained while waiting at the doctor's office, in line for a movie or when I need to kill some time. As many of you also know, there's another company out there besides Apple who's had a pretty tight hold on the "smart" phone market until recently, especially when it comes to mobile email and generally taking care of business as a professional on-the-go. That company, of course, is RIM and their device is the Blackberry.

As of last Friday, RIM has released a new Blackberry they consider a potential "iPhone Killer" or, at the very least, a serious competitor for the iPhone -- the Blackberry Storm. As a Blackberry user prior to switching to the iPhone, I was of course very interested in seeing if the Storm would, in fact, offer any sort of competition to the iPhone. So, to find out, I got a Storm last Friday and spent the weekend using it alongside my iPhone to see how both devices compare when performing many of the tasks I use on a daily basis.

What follows is by no means scientific, nor is it an in-depth review of the Storm. I'll leave that to Engadget. These are just my observations and impressions as an iPhone and Mac user when also using a Storm to accomplish the same tasks.

Size and Weight: The "official" dimensions of the Blackberry Storm are 4.43"(L) x 2.45" (W) x .55" (D) and weight of 5.5 oz. The iPhone 3G comes in at 4.5" (L) x 2.4" (W) x .48" (D) and 4.7 oz. Putting the stats aside, the Storm also feels quite a bit heavier than the iPhone 3G, although about the same as the original iPhone. Regardless of the weight and size differences, neither device are particularly difficult to carry in a pocket or attached to a belt.

However, over the months I've gotten used to the iPhone's dimensions, so the Storm seemed a bit awkward, especially when turning it to enable landscape mode. It's also a bit slippery to hold, even with its textured metal battery cover. The iPhone 3G's slimmer design makes it slightly easier to hold onto, at least for me. I'm sure with more use of the Storm, the awkwardness will most likely fade. Still, as this is a device you use in your hand almost exclusively, it would be nice if it was comfortable, even upon first picking it up.

Email / General Text Entry: As email is what Blackberries are known for, it was interesting to see how the Storm stood up when compared to the iPhone. Setting up my various email accounts on the Storm using Verizon's BIS system was very easy and my email was up and running in a few minutes. Compared to the iPhone, which takes quite a bit more text entry of account particulars to get email to function, the Storm was the clear winner.

However, once the accounts were all set up on both devices, composing email or text messages was another matter entirely. Even though I'm a former Blackberry user, I had very little trouble adapting to the iPhone's way of entering text. Sure, I'm not as fast using it as I was using a Blackberry with a full Qwerty keyboard, but I can go relatively quickly. Sadly, the Storm made my text entry speed grind to a halt.

Entering text on the Storm is a painful process. When the device is in portrait mode, you must use a smaller keyboard that doesn't provide a full Qwerty experience. On top of that. you are forced to use RIM's "Sure Type" technology and can't even enable "Multi-Tap."

Perhaps its just me, but I hate "Sure Type." I much prefer "Multi-Tap" and have at least some speed when using it. I'm not sure why RIM decided to only allow "Sure Type" when in portrait mode, but I hope that changes in a subsequent software update. Or they provide a full Qwerty keyboard in portrait mode, which I would love. Until then, I was only able to achieve adequate text entry speed by using the Storm in landscape mode.

Even then, text entry is far less capable than on the iPhone. Sure, on the iPhone I occasionally hit the wrong key. But on the Storm, it was almost a constant. Having to click down on the button to make it read, while seemingly a good idea to RIM's engineers, made it more difficult to enter text. It did not provide the same "feel" as having actual keys to press. Instead, it just made it more difficult.

Accuracy was also an issue. Perhaps with more practice I will be able to strike the correct keys more frequently. But until then, it's a chore and a seemingly steep learning curve not present when I first started using the iPhone. On the iPhone, I was able to start entering text quite quickly after only a few minutes and have steadily increased my speed and accuracy while using the device on a daily basis for several months.

Phone / Network: I'm not a Verizon lover. Nor do I have a particular fondness for AT&T. If the iPhone wasn't an AT&T exclusive, I wouldn't be on AT&T and would probably still be using a Blackberry on T-Mobile. However, whatever my personal bias against Verizon, their commercials don't lie. Their network is excellent. Everywhere I went in Los Angeles over the weekend, I had a very strong signal on the Storm. I was able to make calls the first time I dialed and those calls did not subsequently drop while I drove through parts of the city.

Sadly, AT&T's performance was not nearly as good. Granted, they've made improvements to their network in the time the iPhone has been available. But still, I experienced dropped calls or, at several points during the day, the inability to make a call at all due to poor network signal or no service entirely. The Storm, on the other hand, performed flawlessly and had none of these issues.

The iPhone's 3G coverage was also spotty. Several times during the weekend I was unable to get a 3G signal and had to use the Edge network to check something via the web browser, at greatly reduced speed, or navigate with Google Maps. Conversely, the Storm. which uses Verizon's EVDO network, had none of these issues. Whenever I didn't have a 3G signal, EVDO was available on the Storm. Speed test results, when comparing the Storm's EVDO to the iPhone's 3G, showed the Storm as the clear winner as well.

Multi-Media / Sync: Both the iPhone 3G and the Storm can play music, video and take photos. The Storm can also record video, which the iPhone inexplicably lacks. Still, even with the Storm's greater number of megapixels (3.2 versus the iPhone's 2.0), the photos it takes are not vastly superior to the iPhone's. They have slightly better contrast but still appear a bit washed out.

And the lag experienced when taking pictures with the Storm means you have to hold the Storm quite a long time before the picture is actually taken. Something that will surely spoil pictures quite often if you forget and move the Storm too soon. The iPhone, however, takes pictures quickly and its camera, while not great, takes passable photos. The Storm's built-in flash is also a nice addition, but not something I really missed when using the iPhone, so it doesn't really help the Storm's case here.

For music and video, there's really no comparison. The iPhone, with its tight integration with iTunes, is a superior music and video player. Getting songs and videos on the iPhone is extremely easy and they look and sound very good. While the audio and video quality of the Storm is mostly comparable to the iPhone, the way you get music and video on it is far more convoluted -- especially if you don't happen to have a Windows machine around.

Fortunately, you can use the Storm as a USB mass storage device and drag and drop music and video files onto it. However, only non-DRM files will work. So if you've purchased music or video from the iTunes store, you can't play it on the Storm.

You can supposedly also use Pocketmac's software to sync some data with the Storm -- although in my limited testing over the weekend, it did not work as expected. I need to investigate this further and in the meantime will use the USB method or a Windows machine for music and video. I also did not test the Storm with VMWare Fusion or Parallels, but I will and report back my findings.

Sadly, the USB method does not help when you want to put contacts from Apple's Address Book or your iCal calendars on the Storm. For that, I used Google's Sync tool for the Blackberry in combination with BusySync and the Address Book to CSV converter and was then able to sync my Google calendar and contacts to the Storm.

This works fine if you happen to use Google for your contacts and calendar or want to take the time to configure all the extra software you need to accomplish it. But if not, and if you can't get Pocketmac to work, you're stuck entering everything on the Storm manually, with no reliable and non-convoluted way to sync with your Mac.

There are rumors of new software that will sync Macs with Blackberries like the Storm. However, until its released, there are a still a few methods and work-arounds to accomplish it. But none of the methods or work-arounds matches the simplicity of the iPhone -- especially for Mac users.

Conclusion: So, is the Blackberry Storm an "iPhone Killer"? I don't think its so much a "Killer" as a worthy competitor late to the contest. It does have quite a few good things going for it, especially the Verizon network. But the iPhone's ease of use, integration with other Apple software like iTunes and its overall design, give it the edge over the Storm.

Do I wish the iPhone was a better phone, had better 3G coverage, recorded video and was easier to setup email? Of course. But I use the iPhone as more than a phone, so with that in mind, its a better and more well-rounded device for me. In the end, the iPhone, like most Apple products, is just easier and more pleasant to use.

The Storm, as a first generation device, still has a lot of room for improvement. But then again, so did the first generation of the iPhone -- which was not without its share of issues. Perhaps with time, and some updates to the software, the Storm will improve and one day equal, or even surpass, the iPhone? Anythings possible. Until then, unless you just love the Blackberry and have to have the latest device and/or are already a Verizon customer, you should probably just stick with the iPhone.

Update: Turns out, after more use of the Storm and info from a few helpful tipsters, you can enable "Multi-Tap" when in portrait mode. I still couldn't seem to get it to be the default, for whatever reason, but it can be enabled by selecting it in the Blackberry menu when, for example, composing an email or text message. So, that's a good thing and one more small step for the Storm in the right direction.