Research In Motion’s (RIMM) first touchscreen BlackBerry, the Storm, goes on sale Friday at Verizon Wireless. It’s RIM’s — and Verizon’s — best hope to challenge Apple’s/AT&T’s iPhone this holiday season, so it has to be good.
Good news for RIM: It is pretty good. Not as polished or sexy as Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone, but a solid gadget that should sell well to BlackBerry email users, long-term Verizon (VZ) customers, or anyone who’s turned off by AT&T (T) or the iPhone.
Most important: This will help RIM and Verizon compete better with Apple and AT&T, which should help RIM and Verizon’s subscriber growth and revenue.
Pricing: Both phones are priced about the same — around $200, though Verizon forces you go through the nuisance of a mail-in rebate; and both cost about the same $70 per month for service. Verizon charges $10 per month extra for turn-by-turn GPS, which the iPhone doesn’t offer yet. Verizon also charges $3 per month for “visual voicemail,” which is standard and free with the iPhone.
Typing: RIM tried to set itself apart from Apple by building its entire touchscreen into a big, floating button. To type with its touchscreen, you have to press pretty hard, and “click” the keys. This offers a nice effect when you’re clicking the large buttons on RIM’s navigational menu. But for typing text, it’s a hassle that forces you to slow down your typing speed or risk missing keystrokes. We don’t like it yet, and we’re not sure if most people will. (We also wonder how this floating screen will work after a few months’ worth of pocket lint has accumulated. Guess we’ll get back to you on that.)
Email: We are gadget-savvy, yet we had a very hard time setting up our IMAP email on the Storm. In fact, we got so frustrated that we gave up, and just registered a new Verizon BlackBerry email address. (Seriously!) We figure we’ll have time to set up our email later. Meanwhile, once you get some sort of email set up, it’s as good as advertised. RIM’s “push” email is truly instantaneous — and you can search through your email, which you can’t do on the iPhone.
Apps: The iPhone wins here by a wide margin. The Storm has some apps available, but few. And the ones we tried — Facebook, Maps, games — weren’t nearly as good as those available through the iPhone App Store. If there’s truly a next-gen mobile software platform war brewing here between Apple, RIM, and Google, then RIM really needs to work on this. But we’re not sure how many people are buying phones for the third-party apps yet.
Web browsing: Decent on the Storm, but still much better on the iPhone. The Storm suffers, like all other phones, because it doesn’t have the multi-touch “pinch” zooming that the iPhone has.
Internet/network: There’s a reason people love Verizon’s mobile phone network: In our informal, unscientific tests, it’s been much better than AT&T’s. For instance, in our ground-floor Brooklyn apartment, we barely get any AT&T service on our iPhone, but Verizon’s Storm gets a strong signal — four of five bars. However, the Storm does not have wi-fi, which is a major omission. Why doesn’t it? Verizon’s official statement: “WiFi would add bulk, cost and is a drain on a battery so when we looked at that in context of our nationwide 3G network, we chose not to include Wi-Fi.” Bad move, folks. Wi-fi is a huge asset when travelling abroad — international data roaming is a ripoff — or when you’re in a lousy coverage area.
Design: The Storm’s operating system and user interface are functional, but they don’t show nearly the attention to elegance or detail that Apple’s do. The UI graphics are lousy. Scrolling by flicking your finger is still much smoother and more natural feeling on an iPhone — the Storm’s response is slow and laggy. And some things are downright clunky on the Storm. For instance, you can’t even read the entire text of many of the buttons on the phone’s “home” screen, such as “SMS and M…” and “VZ Naviga…” and “Visual Voic…” And sometimes you just have to guess when you’re supposed to use the “BlackBerry” button to pull up a contextual menu — there aren’t many cues. If you don’t care about design or elegance, or are already a BlackBerry pro, that won’t matter.
Multimedia: We didn’t get around to trying to play music or video on the Storm. Why not? We were told we’d need to find third-party software to use it with our Mac until RIM releases a new Mac media centre app. We imagine if you have a PC, it’s pretty easy getting your music and movies on the Storm, and that playback is functional. But we’re curious where — besides BitTorrent, of course — you’ll be able to get DRM-free TV shows and movies to watch on the Storm.
Camera: Better on the Storm, and shoots video. But still not as good as a real digital camera.
Bottom line: If we could buy any one phone in the world, we’d still buy an iPhone. If we were serious BlackBerry email users, or signed onto a long-term Verizon contract — the carrier has 70-plus million subscribers — we’d buy a Storm. (If we were BlackBerry email users and not under Verizon contract, and preferred a real keyboard, we’d opt for the Bold at AT&T.)
If you have any specific questions about the Storm, let us know in comments below or via email to [email protected] We’ll try to answer as many as possible today. We’ll also work on some video, including side-by-side browser tests to compare the Storm with the iPhone.
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