BlackBerry Storm2 hands-on and impressions

For a company with the most starched, buttoned-up roots of any major wireless manufacturer, RIM's venture out of its enterprise comfort zone to the consumer space went amazingly smoothly thanks to the introduction of the original Pearl, a phone that's still sold in a variety of colors, configurations, and carriers to this day. At some point, though, it became clear that the industry was moving toward touch -- a space RIM had never dabbled in -- and the trend gave birth to the Storm, a product that had obviously been rushed to market with countless software bugs and a dodgy SurePress concept that caused more problems than it solved. With prototypes floating around in the wild mere months after its predecessor's release, RIM's message was loud and clear earlier this year: "we need to fix the Storm, and we need to do it quickly." Ultimately, it's ended up taking the company just about a year to get the Storm2 to market, a product that attempts to tweak Waterloo's touchscreen strategy just enough to undo a few mistakes and send it down the right path. Mission accomplished? Read on.

At a glance -- particularly as a non-Storm user -- you might say "wait a second, that's just a Storm." And in reality, you wouldn't be far off with that assessment. Put simply, this phone is less Storm "2" and more Storm "1.1" -- a hardware service pack, if you will, designed to correct very specific shortcomings in the original model while preserving the overall concept. We doubt RIM would come right out and put it that way, of course, but the fact that the Storm2 makes essentially no effort to look different than the Storm should be evidence enough.

So, what are those shortcomings, exactly? The big ones -- the ones that could ultimately convince a Storm user to upgrade -- are the addition of WiFi and a thorough revamping of SurePress. On the original Storm, SurePress consisted of a single mechanical switch mounted below the center of the display, leading to wobbly, uneasy clicks and -- far more devastatingly -- an inability to actuate more than one screen element at a time, which made the keyboard more of a hassle to use than it should've been. Don't get us wrong, we can understand RIM's impetus in creating SurePress; the company prides itself on producing devices with fabulous physical keyboards that make mobile email as painless of an experience as possible, and it wanted to port as much of that experience to a soft keyboard as it could. Ironically, in doing so, it actually made the transition harder for ex-8300 and 8800 users than a traditional soft keyboard would've. SurePress was so bad, in fact, that rumors had initially suggested the Storm2 would abandon it altogether in favor of a screen that stays in place when you press it (imagine that), but co-CEO Mike Lazaridis insisted that the technology was "here to stay." Indeed, the Storm2 keeps SurePress around but thoroughly revamps it by replacing the single mechanical switch with four piezoelectric ones mounted beneath the display's four corners.

The net effect of the Storm2's rethought SurePress is that it's unquestionably better -- but frankly, we still don't get it. Multiple keyboard actuations are now possible (shift plus a letter, for example), though it's not perfect -- things start to get flaky as your second press gets physically close to your first one, which makes some sense considering that the switches are placed at the screen's four corners. It generally works, but it's still a novelty; we can't think of a single good reason why you'd want your touchscreen to be able to click like this. What's worse, the Storm2's implementation requires a surprising amount of effort to actuate, meaning that long messages were a chore to type out -- not only do they wear out your fingers, but it gets old hearing the screen's loud "thunk" each and every time you type a letter, which we find considerably more noticeable than the traditional click of a physical QWERTY keyboard. It's also unclear why RIM bothered using fancy piezoelectric switches rather than simple mechanical ones, because they're not doing anything with the technology other than letting you click -- when you turn off the phone, the switches "harden" and prevent you from pressing the screen, but there's no option to keep that effect going when the device is on. For anyone who finds SurePress as distracting and unnecessary as we do, that omission alone could be the difference between buying a Storm2 and a Tour when you walk into the Verizon store.

Going back to the physical appearance of the phone for a moment, it's not necessarily a bad thing that it looks like the original Storm; apart from the fact that it's got a bit of infamy to outgrow, the old model was a pretty sharp-looking handset and the Storm2 refines that look in all the right ways. We're liking both the black chrome bezel and the touch-sensitive buttons, which eliminate virtually all of the visible gaps on the front of the phone to give it that smooth, slate-like appeal that full-touch handsets typically want to shoot for. The phone also feels great (SurePress click notwithstanding) -- as solid as the best-built physical QWERTY BlackBerrys, we'd say, but with the added benefit of tastefully rubberized volume, camera, and voice control buttons and a smooth, solid display covering almost all of the front of the phone.

Turning our attention to the software, the Storm2 runs BlackBerry OS 5.0 -- RIM's latest -- but as with virtually every new BlackBerry OS version in modern memory, it takes a keen eye and a long history of BlackBerry use to ferret out what has actually changed. As with the hardware itself, the Storm2's interface is all but identical to the Storm's 4.7 builds; the devil lies in the details, and to be fair, those details will be important for some users. Strictly from a usability standpoint, 5.0's addition of inertial scrolling throughout the platform makes a world of difference -- it works smoothly and effectively, and should be an effortless transition for anyone moving from another platform (like iPhone) that supports it. If you didn't like the Storm's overall look and feel, though, don't expect a revolution (or, really, even an evolution) here.

We don't want to harp on SurePress too much, but since there's a decided lack of physical QWERTY in play here, the Storm2's soft keyboards bear another mention. If you can get past the muscle fatigue-inducing clicks -- we couldn't, but who knows, we could be particularly weak-thumbed -- the layout and function of the keyboards is mediocre at best. For one thing, they don't look particularly good; white-on-black is always a tough scheme to pull off, and RIM didn't do itself any favors by skimping on the anti-aliasing and leaving keys looking exceptionally jaggy. Whatever, though; keyboards are about functionality, not appearance, right? We found ourselves making more mistakes than we should've on the portrait full QWERTY mode because the Storm2 lacks character pop-ups like you find on Android and the iPhone -- there's a blue glow cast on the key, which is all well and good except that... well, you're thumb isn't transparent. In portrait mode, even a small thumb can easily cover two keys, so it's impossible to tell with certainty which key is actuated. We also noticed that the keyboard doesn't contextually customize itself enough; from the screenshot above, for example, you can see that "Go" replaces the normal Enter key in the browser and there's a period key in place of the spacebar, but when entering email addresses, there's no @ key. Not a deal breaker, but again, for a company that prides itself in elegant input methods, this should be the best soft keyboard on the market today.

As much flak as the BlackBerry browser takes, we actually found it acceptable on the Storm2 -- likely a direct effect of RIM's alleged improvements made in 5.0. Inertial scrolling worked reasonably smoothly and new regions of the page that scroll into view load relatively quickly. We like to use Engadget as a baseline for testing devices because it's a fairly complicated page that tends to choke some mobile browsers, but it loaded drama-free on the Storm2. That's not to say it was a perfect experience: it takes forever to get past the "Requesting" phase and graphics look truly awful -- both a result of BIS' magic, we suspect. Ultimately, we'd take a good WebKit browser over this any day, but the platform just isn't there yet.

One bright spot for the phone is its camera -- in a word, we were impressed. It took a while to focus (perhaps a second to a second and a half), but once it did, pictures were extraordinarily clear and were easily able to achieve macro ranges without setting a macro mode. We'd take this 3.2 megapixel sensor and bright LED flash over a crappy 5 megapixel unit without flash in a heartbeat.


As more modern mobile platforms become enterprise-savvy, RIM's on the cusp of losing its identity -- and products like the Storm and Storm2 prove that it's well aware of the situation. Only problem is, Waterloo is clearly woefully unequipped to handle the creation of exceptional, effortless usability that's demanded of a lustworthy mobile device these days. The Storm2 oozes most of the same personality traits espoused by its older brother -- traits that suggest a "Bold with a touchscreen" attitude -- and when you're fundamentally rethinking your device's user experience, that's not the right attitude to take.

For existing Storm owners who've been saying "if only this damn thing had WiFi" through clenched teeth for the past six months, the Storm2 makes an elegant, hassle-free replacement. For the rest of the world, though, we totally understand why Verizon has elected to bury the phone's launch beneath a pile of Google -- it's an underwhelming experience for today's multimedia-centric, ADHD-afflicted buyer.