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Friday, December 19, 2008

Review: Blackberry Storm cellphone

I. Background: Curmudgeonly lawyer as early adapter

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was an early adapter for cell phone technology. That's when I was a big-firm lawyer who traveled a lot and who did not at all like being out of telephone contact or riding in ordinary taxis. I had the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, a/k/a "The Brick." I progressed through a series of upgrades to, in due course, the Motorola StarTAC, a/k/a "the Star Trek communicator."

But at some point — coinciding roughly with my flight from "BigLaw" to a more independent law practice either solo or in very small firms — I decided that I didn't like traveling so much, I didn't actually mind taxis, I was sick and tired of being so "in touch" all of the time, and I didn't want to be accessible 24/7/365 to anyone but my family. So for several years in the early part of this decade, I resolutely refused to carry a cell phone — any kind of cell phone, ever.

Colleagues found that perplexing and frustrating, and eventually, so too did clients — whose views I could less afford (literally) to ignore. So I bought a pay-in-advance ultra-simple El Cheapo™ cellphone whose most advanced feature was voicemail, and I used it for two or three years only to the minimum extent necessary.

I replaced it a couple of years ago with a Motorola KRZR K1m, which also did good duty as a personal MP3 player while I was traveling or exercising; it allowed me to keep up, barely, with my four kids and their increasingly phone-and-text-message existence as they moved into their teen years. And now I'm somewhat chagrined to report that I've fallen completely off the lo-tech wagon: It appears that I'm in the process of becoming a Crackberry Addict. So with my purchase of a Blackberry Storm, I'm back to being an early adapter.

II. Why not an IPhone?

The Blackberry Storm is a market reaction to Apple's IPhone, and the most obvious and significant feature of either is its touch-screen.

Blackberry Storm I'm content to be a somewhat distant fan of Apple. It's an innovative company that influences technology in indisputably important and mostly positive ways. But as a matter of principle, I utterly refuse to support it with my purchasing dollars because of its aggressive, toxicly-anticompetitive linking practices. I can't count the number of times I've rejected (and/or deleted) ITunes applications from various of my computers and other electronic devices because I refuse to subsidize a company who insists, for example, on maintaining a right to grant its permission before I can listen to a recorded song I've purchased. Thus, for philosophical reasons unrelated to Apple's comparative technological advantages, buying an IPhone was never something I considered.

Blackberry's manufacturer, however, "Research in Motion," has a fine reputation as an innovator and a nimble responder to its addicted customer base's wants and needs. I was willing to consider abandoning my stodgy old Motorola preference (rarely cutting-edge anymore, but rugged and adequately supported) in RIM's favor based on the dazzling features promised by the Storm.

I'd also had an extremely negative experience with the sole service provider for the IPhone, AT&T (as corporate successor to Cingular). Before the KRZR, I briefly used a Nokia product that proved in its first 30 days to have either a manufacturing or design defect — it was never entirely clear which — that Cingular refused to accept responsibility for. This led me to become, for the very first time in my life, a plaintiff in my own capacity in small claims court; I'm now prevented by contract from revealing the terms upon which that litigation was settled, but suffice it to say that I was once extremely unhappy with that company and I remain unlikely to deal with its cellular division by choice in the future.

It may only be the luck of the draw, but by contrast I've been comparatively pleased with Verizon Wireless' products and services, and Verizon is the exclusive U.S. service provider for the Storm. I ordered my Storm from a Verizon storefront operation on December 9, and despite their warning that it might not be delivered until after Christmas, it arrived at my house by FedEx on December 15.

III. The Storm's touch-screen and keyboard

The Storm is about the same length and thickness as my KRZR, and has the same glossy (but finger-print and smudge-prone) finish. The Storm is slightly wider. The workmanship seems to be very, very good.

I will not pretend that holding it to one's ear — like a classic old Ma Bell telephone handset, or even the more conventional clamshell cellphone handset — is natural and aesthetically satisfying. Instead it's like talking into a deck of playing cards. But that mostly misses the point. During my KRZR (or should I say KRZR-ier?) days, I became one of those people on the top of the Borg's lists of likely assimilation candidates — yes, one of those people often seen driving or sitting at a restaurant wearing a Bluetooth headset, with a flashing LED, in one ear. In particular, I love to type or pace back and forth while I talk on business calls. With my Storm, as with my KRZR, essentially all of my longer calls will be on a hands-free Bluetooth headset with the phone either on my desk or in a belt holster. So the Storm's shape — which, again, is all about the touch-screen — makes plenty of sense, and is no significant disadvantage.

Unlike the IPhone, the Storm's touch-screen is tactile, and you actually have to press on (not just touch) it to register your inputs. I have moderately large hands and fingers, and whether it's with a touch-screen or some sort of mechanical keyboard squeezed down into phone size, there's no chance that I'll ever match my computer keyboard typing speed and accuracy on any phone. (I'm an excellent touch-typist who can exceed 100wpm with superb accuracy on my desktop keyboard; indeed, my high school typing teacher once insisted that I had a promising career before me in law — as a court reporter.) That being acknowledged — and it's a nontrivial point, but an unavoidable one — I'm pretty happy with the Storm's touch-screen, and in particular with its keyboard, after a few days' use.

Look, I managed to burn neural pathways sufficient to let me poke the "7" chiclet-style button on my KRZR four times in quick succession for every occasion on which I wanted to include the letter "S" in a text message to my 17-year-old daughter. When it's oriented in landscape mode, the Storm's QWERTY touch-pad keyboard lights up before you actually press it; if you pay a reasonable amount of attention to that, and are willing to learn/burn your new neural pathways with both thumbs (which is vastly faster than using one index finger), you'll adapt to the Storm's keyboard pretty quickly. Blackberry's predictive typing software (suggesting what you really meant to say) is unobtrusive and useful, too.

Will I use my Storm to write 3000-word screeds — or, for that matter, to compose posts on BeldarBlog? Not likely. Will I write the Great American Novel on my Storm? Umm, no. But it's already clear that for text-messaging the kids (or letting a client know I'm running five minutes late to a meeting), using the Storm will be vastly better and faster than trying to text-message on a traditional cellphone.

And for uses other than typing, the Storm's screen is simply gorgeous. It's crisp and bright and clear in full daylight. Reading incoming emails is a pleasure. I have no expectation that my new cellphone will wholly replace either my laptop or my desktop computers. But in a pinch, it can do a lot of what they can do. And that's pretty cool.

IV. Other applications

I have a pretty beefy Contacts list that I normally maintain using Microsoft Outlook, and that represents a large time investment in data acquisition and capture. Motorola's proprietary "Phone Tools" software, while extremely frustrating in its Verizon-friendly versions (because of its ruthlessly planned inability to manage non-Verizon-purchased music files or other media files), did a decent job of synching that Contacts list to my KRZR. And I had grown utterly dependent upon — and extremely fond of — using my KRZR's voice activated dialing software with a Bluetooth headset. Being able to push a button on my Bluetooth headset and say, "Call Dyer, Sarah, mobile" to immediately reach my daughter's cellphone while I'm driving (without ever touching the phone itself) was a very important feature to me.

Fortunately, the Storm has the exact same voice activated dialing software. Its initial refusal to perform was remedied by nothing more complicated than turning the Storm off and removing, then reseating, the battery (causing the phone to do a hard re-boot). The voice activating dialing is now working flawlessly, and paired with a Bluetooth headset, it's worth more than the phone's weight in gold as far as I'm concerned.

Another outstanding app is the "Visual Voice Mail." With it, instead of simply getting an icon indicating that I had one or more missed calls and that I now have one or more voicemails waiting, I get a list of line items for each missed call with the number — and name, if it's someone from my Contacts list — along with a button on the touch-screen to push that permits me to immediately play (and replay and delete) just that particular voicemail message.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, that is a useful application. Being able to view and navigate this via the Storm's touch-screen — as opposed to through a voicemail menu — is a huge improvement in my ability to manage my missed phone calls. Being able to pick my clients' (and a few judges' chambers') voicemail messages to me out of a long list, and to listen to and respond to them immediately during a busy, busy day, is simply huge, and well worth the extra $3/month.

I did have one frustrating problem: Because I also use Microsoft's Office Live service to host my business website and business email, my Outlook 2003 Contacts are actually maintained remotely on one of Microsoft's servers, rather than as part of a local Outlook .pst file. Blackberry's included Desktop Manager CD has a straight-forward application to sync the phone's Contacts list to most personal information managers, including Outlook and Outlook Express, but it couldn't find the online version that I'm now using. I ended up doing a temporary work-around — exporting my Contacts data from Microsoft's server to a cvs file on my hard drive, then importing that into my (never-before-used) Microsoft Express, then syncing my Storm up to that instead of to Microsoft Outlook. That's the kind of kink that is to be expected, though, in a brand-new product. If you're not game for finding a work-around for that kind of problem, you probably ought to put off buying any touch-screen cellphone for a few more months.

Per Blackberry's reputation, I also had no trouble at all in configuring my Storm to download and display both my POP-account based personal email and my MS Office Live online-based business email accounts in separate (virtual) buttons on my Storm's touch-screen. The Storm always offers me the option to delete only the handset copy of the emails I read on it or both versions. And when I read through and winnow my personal and business emails on my laptop or desktop computers, the Storm syncs up to those changes in my email lists automatically too. So keeping my personal and business emails synced is going to be a snap.

(This, though, is where the "Crackberry" name comes from. You can of course configure the Storm to give you an audible tone whenever you receive a new email, and the temptation to review each one as it comes in is almost irresistible. I suspect I'll end up keeping the audible tone for my business email address, and suppressing it for emails that go to my personal and blog email addresses. It's either that, or ask one of Pavlov's dog's to make room for a new pallet in the cages.)

For my non-copy-protected music files, RIM's Blackberry Desktop Manager did a straightforward job of copying them into my Storm. I haven't messed much yet with the camera or video functions. And I haven't yet made any attempt to use the GPS/directions functions, and remain skeptical of those. As much a creature of habit (who rarely gets lost) as I am, and as reliant as I am on my regular video and still cameras, all those functions are frankly likely to remain in the "glad to know I have it if needed" capabilities. I also haven't yet worked on getting my Storm to act as a cellular phone modem for my laptop, but that's definitely on my "To-Do" list for those places where I can't get WiFi for the laptop.

V. Conclusion

I expect that Blackberry will be at least as successful as Apple has been with the IPhone in attracting people to write "third-party apps" for the Storm. And I don't want to rule out the possibility that some new, unforeseen use for the Storm will suddenly capture my affections.

And I'm also relying on Blackberry and RIM, frankly, to continuing investing in firmware upgrades. Some of the reviews of the Storm that I'd read reported that it was extremely sluggish and frequently buggy. Personally, I've only seen hints of that so far: Mostly my Storm has been responsive and quick, performing as it's intended to perform.

Nor would I want to oversell the Storm as being "simple" or "intuitive." The various menu trees are sound and well thought out, to the point where I've had many "Aha! That's how you do that!" moments already within my first week of ownership. But if you still have a VCR video recorder and its clock is flashing "0:00" right now, you probably ought not buy this cellphone.

Overall, however, I'm a happy camper. I'm convinced that my Storm is going to add to my personal productivity, and its frustrations so far have already been counterbalanced by its utility and coolness points.


UPDATE (Tues Dec 23 @ 6:40pm): After a few more days, I'm yet more pleased with my Storm, and sufficiently inspired to add a few more remarks to an already over-long review. The whole design is simply far more elegant, flexible, and powerful than I had originally realized — to an incredible degree for a product that's new in so many fundamental respects.

The main point worth supplementing has to do with the touchscreen: I'm becoming a genuine fan of this device, to the point that I'm now skeptical of other brands' conventional ones (meaning, mostly, the IPhone's). Two things I understand now that I really didn't before, and that were obviously not understood either by many of the early reviewers whose opinions I'd read:

  1. Once a particular area on the screen is highlighted — which the lightest touch will do — then the "strike zone" for the subsequent press-down (to achieve the tactile "click") is considerably larger than what's outlined. Trivial example: While touch-typing, my pinkie lights up the Q key but the actual press-down is about half on top of the Q, about half on top of the W. The Storm will reliably register that the Q "key" was pressed. Non-trivial example: I want to put a check-mark or dot into a tiny, tiny box or radio-button circle on a webpage I'm viewing in the browser, such as a "remember my data" box. The figure itself is too small by to press down upon by itself. But once I can see that it's been high-lighted by a touch, then my subsequent press-down in that general area — even if it looks like it would smush other "keys" or "figures" in the vicinity — will only actually activate that box or radio button. The overall point here is that being able to highlight without the equivalent of a mouse-click makes the touchscreen vastly more responsive to (and accurate for) relatively fat fingers in the real world than you'd think just from looking at the size of the keys or boxes or circles themselves.

  2. Related point: Because you actually do have to press down and get the tactile click, you don't have to be careful about random and erroneous touch-highlighting. In particular, during touch-typing, you don't have to worry about keeping your fingertips lifted up completely off the screen. If you've dragged a fingertip across the keyboard — accidentally highlighting the F and V key en route to the B key — it just doesn't matter: So long as the B key is highlighted before you complete the stroke with the tactile click, there won't be any mistakes registered. I had frankly underestimated how much more like an actual keyboard this feature makes the Storm's virtual QWERTY keyboard. If I'd bought an IPhone instead, would I have learned eventually to be bouncy-and-tappy straight-up-and-downy instead of a bit more sloppy? Oh, yeah, probably so. But then again, the number one complaint of my long-suffering piano teacher was that I never learned to do that well for her notwithstanding years of lessons and much scolding.

It's also become clear to me how much general Blackberry lore and protocol is designed into the Storm. I've spent some time browsing around the various online forums where the "power users" (i.e., most desperately Crackberry addicted) trade tips and hints. Even as a new and revolutionary product, the Storm is packed with non-obvious shortcuts. A trivial fer-instance: When you're typing an email address, if you just use two space instead of switching to the "symbols" screen twice to enter an "at"-sign and a period as part of the address, the Storm will presume that you intended that first spacebar press to be the @ and the second to be the dot before the address' .com or .net or whatever. A non-trivial fer-instance: When you're in an app what's likely to include text entry, you can open the virtual keyboard with a non-clicked touch-swipe from the bottom of the screen to the top, or close it with a touch-swipe from the middle of the screen to the bottom. That avoids having to press the "Blackberry" key and select "open keyboard" or "close keyboard" from a scrolling menu in those apps. Or — as I've chosen to do — you can re-program one of the "convenience buttons" on either side of the phone to toggle the virtual keyboard open and closed. (The defaults for those buttons are starting the voice-activated dialing and camera apps.)

Posted by Beldar at 10:01 PM in Technology/products | Permalink


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(1) Mark made the following comment | Dec 20, 2008 10:34:34 AM | Permalink

Out of curiosity, did you look at the T-Mobile G1? It's the first Android/Open Handset alliance phone. It's greatest weakness is being on the T-Mo network, but it is a great phone, and the Android framework really the opposite of the Apple "our way or the highway" approach to doing business.

I agree with you about Apple. They are great innovators, but sometimes they make MicroSoft look like corporate Mothers Theresa... I can remember the days when tech pundits joked Apple's slogan should be "buy our stuff or we will sue you too".

(2) chuckR made the following comment | Dec 20, 2008 11:01:00 AM | Permalink

A Crackberry review by a member of the primary addict class....

Please be discreet about using it in public. The way so many users fondle the damn things is positively obscene. Doesn't do much for your image.

(3) Phelps made the following comment | Dec 20, 2008 12:47:40 PM | Permalink

You don't like Apple because they will comprimise with the poxy record labels and agree to the terms of the copyright agents... but you will support a company that violated standing patents and fled the country with its servers when it became clear that it would lose the patent litigation? On a service that is much more authoritarian than Apple has ever been? To the point of disabling functions already on the device in order to generate more revenue? That is Kerry-class nuance.

I expect that Blackberry will be at least as successful as Apple has been with the IPhone in attracting people to write "third-party apps" for the Storm.

Your expectation is already failing. Development is drying up for RIM, and iPhone development is skyrocketing (developers know they will get paid through the iTMS, the SDK is easier to use, and iPhone sales are rapidly overtaking blackberry.)

And visual voicemail? Old news. I've had that since I bought my iPhone in June 2007.

(4) James made the following comment | Dec 21, 2008 1:16:34 AM | Permalink

I also haven't yet worked on getting my Storm to act as a cellular phone modem for my laptop, but that's definitely on my "To-Do" list for those places where I can't get WiFi for the laptop.

I recommend against doing this. Instead, see about getting an aircard. If you like Verizon, on their website look under wireless, then broadband access.

It's a much cleaner solution than trying to rig up the phone itself. For the one I use (from Sprint) I got a router from Fry's that can act like a standard home firewall with the aircard as the internet connection.

(5) Beldar made the following comment | Dec 21, 2008 1:35:29 AM | Permalink

Mark (#1 above), I didn't look at any of the products T-Mobile offers because I already have, and have been satisfied with, service through Verizon. My family members are all also on Verizon, so it would be considerably more expensive for me to switch to a different carrier. And as a renewing customer locking in to another two-year commitment, I was able to get Verizon's $50 promotional discount on the Storm credited to my purchase price without having to go through their mail-in rebate procedure. I don't doubt that there are indeed other manufacturer's products that will provide the IPhone with healthy competition. Let a thousand flowers bloom (albeit these flowers all come tethered to long-term service contracts).

chuckR (#2 above): I take your drift, which is why I was able to joke about becoming a "Crackberry addict" in my original post.

Phelps (#3 above), do not use my blog's comments section, please, to try to put words in my mouth that are inconsistent with what I've already posted. I explained my beef with Apple. You're free to disagree; you're on the borderline of incivility in hurling what you intend, and I interpret, as an insult by comparing me to John Kerry. But don't try to replace the argument I actually made with a rationalization you'd like to make about Apple and digital rights management software.

I'm not trying to violate anyone's copyright, nor steal anyone's intellectual property. But when I buy something, I choose to buy it in a format in which I can actually own it and use it as I choose (so long as I don't violate the copyright laws by, e.g., re-merchandising it). That means I choose not to buy music from Apple, or use ITunes, or permit it on any of my computers. You may instead choose to pay the same or more money to buy an ephemeral "license" for a deliberately crippled bit of data that you can thereafter use only if, as, and when Apple decides. I think that's a foolish decision, but Apple obviously finds that there are a sufficient number of fools out there who are willing to pay, and pay, and pay again for the same music. (I've been such a fool in the past, having invested a couple hundred bucks in DRM-crippled downloads from Yahoo! that are now no longer supported and that I can't simply sync up to my mobile devices, including my Storm; I knew of the risks when I made the purchase, but I figured that surely, surely Yahoo! was a large and stable enough concern that they wouldn't leave me high and dry. I shan't repeat that mistake ever again. Walmart.com gets my music download dollars now, because for less than Apple charges I get files I can actually use in the same manner than I would vinyl or CD versions.)

I didn't mention it in my original post, but one other reason I don't buy Apple products is that I'm uncomfortable with the mania that surrounds them, the company, and some (not all) of their users. I'm not saying the IPhone sucks; to the contrary, I went out of the way to explain that I recognize that the Storm is a competitive reaction to its innovations, but that I never seriously considered buying an IPhone because of my broader objections regarding Apple. Nor am I trying be a Blackberry partisan. This is the first of their products I've ever owned. But I'm pleased with it so far, and more specifically, I like it better than some other reviews I'd read of it before buying it suggested that I would; in some measure, my review is in response to those. I haven't done any of the research I'd need to in order to evaluate or respond to the factual arguments you've made about RIM one way or another, and you've provided no links or sources to back up your assertions — but your comment is written in a fashion that leads me to question your objectivity. There certainly is Apple-flavored Kool-Aid, and your post makes me wonder just how much of you've already drunk.

James (#4 above), my laptop actually has a built-in aircard, and it may be that the additional data fees I'm committed to for the Blackberry might also cover the aircard use with Verizon. I'll check into that — excellent suggestion, thank you.

(6) PC14 made the following comment | Dec 21, 2008 10:43:30 PM | Permalink

I was really far behind in cell phone technology around 2001-2002. I had a one of those big Motorolas that you had to carry on your hip (in a neoprene case) while others had their little clam shells. The funny thing is that it got so outdated that many folks thought it was a satellite phone and I was ultra cool and way ahead of the curve.

(7) Peg C. made the following comment | Dec 22, 2008 7:22:04 AM | Permalink

Very glad to be able to read a good user review of the Storm. We have iPhones and are very disappointed. My first one died after 8 months, taking a TON of music and pics with it (yes, we're very invested in iTunes on several computers, unfortunately! I totally agree on Apple's fascistic DRM policies). Died with no warning and left no trace of itself behind. I have since read online of many users' iPhone batteries dying just as suddenly. The Apple store replaced it with the current warranty and now I don't trust it a bit. An upgrade to the 3G would have cost me $299. My phone was $400 1 year ago! I won't put music on it and the thing is endlessly annoying me. We both find it to be very hard to hear even in speaker mode. Surfing is OK but way too small and slow to be practical. We're soon going to break our contract and chuck them happily for something cheap and loud. $160/mo. for the 2 of us is unacceptable considering the poor technology. I have to say I don't recommend the iPhone or AT&T at all.

(8) Bench made the following comment | Dec 23, 2008 5:13:00 PM | Permalink

"Walmart.com gets my music download dollars now, because for less than Apple charges I get files I can actually use in the same manner than I would vinyl or CD versions."

Is Walmart cheaper than Amazon's MP3 downloads? I think Amazon has a wider selection and they are all non-DRM-whatever, just like Walmart. I'm an Amazon junkie, I admit it, but I've been real pleased. I had the iTunes thing bite me on the butt one too many times (buy an album, try to put it on my new laptop, oh! too many computers. Very frustrating).

On the BlackBerry side of things, I am tired of my Pearl. It's been great, don't get me wrong, but it's always been a bit small for my hands, and I just have the upgrade bug. But, I was dissuaded from the Storm by all the nasty reviews, so I got a Curve. I wish I'd stopped by here before doing so; at least it would've inspired me to research it a little more.

(9) Glenn made the following comment | Dec 25, 2008 1:06:46 AM | Permalink

When I got my first cell phone all those years ago I carried it around switched off. When someone asked me why I couldn't be reached, I showed it to them and told them I bought my phone so I could call people not the other way around. Sounds a little arrogant but sometimes you have to put a marker down.

(10) Donna B. made the following comment | Dec 30, 2008 2:15:39 PM | Permalink

I used to be an early adopter, getting a mobile phone in 1972 -- the kind where you picked up the receiver and waited for the operator to place your call for you.

It wasn't until 1985 that I got a cell phone. My brother had the brick, but I chose the permanently installed in the car model.

We haven't had a landline since 2005. I can 'build' a computer, do a bit of simple scripting and such and a Blackberry is definitely in my near future.

However, the clock on our VCR is blinking 00:00.

(11) Nicole made the following comment | Jan 18, 2009 12:45:41 PM | Permalink

I just wanted to say thank you. I started to read your blog during the election and I have found your posts to be very informative. I was planning on upgrading to the Curve (my husband loves his Curve) but after reading your review of the Storm (I thought it would be too hard to use) I decided when the time came I would try it. When my flip phone broke earlier this week I purchased the Storm and I could not be more happy with it. Being able to stay in touch with customers and look information up on the internet while I am away from my computer will help my business grow. But the best part so far - watching a movie on my phone while waiting at the ice rink for my daughter for 3 hours yesterday! Thanks again for your post, without it I probably would have gone with the Curve and I don't think I would have been as happy!

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