The overall experience of the BlackBerry Storm2 is far improved over the first generation. It’s more responsive, adds some nice UI elements such as screens that fluidly change/appear/disappear, and the display finally responds to you turning the device, though still not as fast as the iPhone.
BlackBerry OS 5.0
The this phone ships with BlackBerry OS 5.0 .0.287 on board, which is notably better than the earlier 4.x flavors. It offers Storm-centric features as well as other features generally applicable to any BlackBerry.
The second-generation Storm offers a much smoother — though not flawless — experience over the original. Scrolling through menus, switching screens, and switching from landscape to portrait are all much smoother, and execute mostly as expected. There tops of menus even playfully bump off the top of the screen when scrolling vertically or horizontally. This is a great improvement over the first Storm, which would freeze, lag, and ultimately do anything except for what the user wanted.
Some applications open from the center of the screen and explode out, a nice subtle effect. When adjusting the alarm time, a neat iPhone-esque scrolling wheel appears to help you navigate through time. Another aesthetic update is the icon the Storm2 uses to depict a BlackBerry. It’s gotten a makeover and looks sharper than previous ones.
This new model also makes it easier to navigate through messages. When reading an opened message, a flick to the left or right will open the next or previous message. Unfortunately not all ‘messages’ work like this: if you flick into a Facebook message, you won’t be able to flick out of it to the next unread message — not a huge concession, and overall a cool feature.
Perhaps my favorite enhancements are the ones made to the sound profile customization menu. Opening a profile, there are four simple expandable options: phone, messages, instant messages, reminders, and other. Opening up messages and then email for example allows the user to select one ring tone, a volume ranging from 1-10, and the option to set a custom vibration: short, medium, or long. This last feature makes for vibrations that are less noticeable to those around you when it goes off. Additionally in this section are two crucial improvements, two options named play sound and vibrate which offer “always, in holster, or out of holster”. All these come together to allow the user to more easily customize the volume, vibration duration, and makes it much easier to apply the same profile to both in and out of holster situations. There is also the option to integrate the vibration with the ringtone.
The OS and related experience are vastly improved over the first Storm, but not perfect.
I’ve noticed horizontal bars appearing on the bottom quarter of the screen when switching from landscape to portrait mode. It’s as if the entire screen switches except for the bottom quarter which quickly catches up. Switches from landscape to portrait and vice versa are sometimes slow and confused. When scrolling through messages the top date banner sometimes obstructs view of the messages that are scrolling by.
I noticed that at times when exiting an application the SSID super imposes itself over the LCD time display, making it hard to read either one.
Individually these quirks are not deal-breakers, though in summation they point to poor design and execution by RIM. These should be non-issues. They were present in the first Storm, and although diminished they are still present in the second offering.
Typing & Messaging
The Storm models are RIM’s first without physical keyboards, and its clear this company is still working its way up the learning curve.
The on-screen keyboard offers four modes: landscape QWERTY, portrait QWERTY, portrait multi-tap, and portrait predictive text (a nod to the keyboard styling of the Pearl).
Some keyboard behavior is awkward because of the software — it can be hard to call up the keyboard during a call, make navigating touch-tone menus difficult. There also isn’t a good way to erase a pressed key during a call. Like the first Storm, resting the phone on your shoulder sometimes results in accidentally hitting the End key.
In other environments it’s hard to hide the keyboard once its work is done. It took me several tries before I could successfully enter the WEP when setting up my Wi-Fi connection. I kept trying to hide the keyboard but ended up backing out of the application. I found similar difficulties when entering text on webpages.
These annoyances are minor compared to the major flaw of the Storm2’s typing: it’s FRUSTRATINGLY difficult to type quickly and accurately when having to click the screen in. The click-feature of the screen is changed and improved over the original Storm, and I can definitely type faster but it’s still difficult. Users will constantly find themselves hitting the wrong keys – which wouldn’t be a problem if the auto-correct was better. In portrait QWERTY mode it’s even more difficult. The majority of this frustration would be alleviated if the user didn’t have to click in, but could simply tap on the screen.
One of the Storm’s saving graces is at the end of the day – it’s a BlackBerry. It’s designed to be a crack messaging device, and integrates cool features to make messaging easy. When typing text messages, you can simply press enter to send, rather than options >> send. Email messages are delivered more reliably than its Cupertino rival, and there’s a good amount of integration between applications and messages (eg. Re-tweeting an email directly in the options menu granted you have the right client). Unfortunately, all of this great work is undone by the Storm2’s inability to type quickly and accurately.
If you’re willing to take it slow and you’re patient, this issue won’t bother you. If you want to be able to type without looking, or type without having to go back and replace your words, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Two features worth noting in this arena, however, are the integration of phonebook entries into the custom dictionary (uncommon last names will pop up as recognized suggestions), and cut and paste. Though cut and paste is not new to BlackBerrys, the Storm2 utilizes its screen well to do so. On a message, or webpage, simply put both fingers on the screen. Two guides will appear and you can drag them left or right to correctly select the text you want. The options to cut, copy, and paste will automatically appear.
The Storm2 offers just one browser: the default BlackBerry browser, which somehow seems surprisingly simple and straightforward for a Verizon product. The browsing experience is not vastly different from other BlackBerrys, and still lacks compared to the iPhone, Android, or webOS. The most noticeable browsing difference between the Storm2 and other BlackBerrys is a result of the larger screen size.
Empirically Verizon’s network seems slower than AT&T’s 3G network, a problem that’s easily overcome by the addition of Wi-Fi. When connected to a hot-spot browsing speeds are decent, otherwise the experience goes largely unchanged.
The Storm2 and its quirky clickable screen actually offers a positive use when browsing. When on a page, tapping the screen (but not clicking it), will zoom into the page. If you wish to zoom out, you’ll have to click on the zoom-out key however. In order to select a link, you can rest your finger on it, ensure its highlighted and then click in. This is a useful application of the screen and actually makes browsing easier.
When entering a URL, the enter key on the keyboard dons a green outline and displays “go” instead of the standard return arrow. Likewise, the spacebar displays a period. These two features show the benefits of having an on-screen keyboard – it can change to become more relevant to your application.
The usual suspects are all present in this BlackBerry: App World, BlackBerry Messenger, download links for GoogleTalk, Yahoo Messenger, MSN, and AIM (conspicuously absent: ICQ, perhaps RIM got the message that this isn’t 1995 anymore). There’s the now-standard Documents To Go suite, along with social media apps from Flickr, MySpace, Facebook.
For entertainment, the Storm2 offers Tetris, BrickBreaker, World Mole, and the Sims 3 as an added treat! Finally the Storm2 offers BlackBerry Maps, Slacker Radio, and Application Center to manage and update all your apps — though this seems to overlap the duties of App World.
There are of course, the Verizon additions to this bunch: V Cast Music | Rhapsody, VZ Navigator, a link to the My Verizon portal, and V Cast Song ID (poor man’s Shazam).
The Blackberry Storm2 offers Wi-Fi, but by now anyone reading this review knows this. It’s standard issue 802.11 b/g and there were no significant quirks. It provided solid continuous coverage.
Likewise the GPS integrates nicely with your apps, including BlackBerry Maps which comes standard.
For the international travelers in the audience, the Storm offers a pretty impressive collection of antennae: EV-DO, UMTS/HSPA (2100 MHz), EDGE/GPRS/GSM network support. It comes preloaded with a SIM-card, but don’t be expecting to jump onto AT&T or T-Mobile’s network stateside without some wizardry.
Call Quality & Coverage
I’m generally a fan of Verizon’s call quality, and I’m generally impressed by RIM’s sound quality, but I was a bit let down by the Storm2 in this area. The sound quality suffered at the highest speakerphone volumes, and the call quality was sometimes choppy. I also noticed fluctuations in displayed signal strength, though calls always came through even if no bars were shown. At other times, there was outright no signal where I had AT&T and even T-Mobile coverage, a major surprise, especially given Boston’s urban setting I’m testing in.
The sound quality may rest on RIM’s shoulders, but the choppiness and coverage disparities point to Verizon. I’ll be optimistic and hope that this is due to a network being strained as Verizon prepares its next-generation network.
The Storm2 retains the solid 3.2 megapixel camera with auto-focus, flash, and video recording that the first Storm offered. It takes decent pictures, and allows you to use either the convenience key to focus and take pictures or the touch screen itself. It would be nice to see more digital zoom however.
Off a fully charged battery with Wi-Fi and GPS enabled, with moderate phone usage and normal BlackBerry messaging strain, the Storm lasted about 30 hours. Not bad considering the size of the screen it has to light up.
This is about on par with other smartphones — generally you’ll be charging any smartphone you buy every night.