RIM's BlackBerry Storm: A new take on touch

By Yardena Arar, PC World |  Personal Tech, BlackBerry, RIM

Research in Motion has finally announced details about its long-rumored iPhone competitor, an almost-all-touch-interface 3G handset with a twist: The screen itself is a big hardware button.

The ability to mechanically click the entire screen (RIM calls the feature Click-Through technology) is the centerpiece of the BlackBerry Storm's touch interface. As with the iPhone, you can scroll and select by dragging and tapping with your fingertip. But to initiate action, instead of double-tapping, you confirm a selection by physically depressing or clicking the screen.

Four hardware buttons at the bottom offer additional--and traditional--BlackBerry and phone navigation aids: Red and green phone buttons for accessing phone features and ending calls, a button with the BlackBerry icon for accessing menus, and a return button.

Due for the holidays

The Storm should be available from Verizon Wireless in time for the holidays, RIM and Verizon officials said during a press tour earlier this week. But they did not specify an exact shipping date or price.

The device will support Verizon's EvDO Rev. A network (where available) in the United States, but it will also be able to roam internationally on high-speed GSM networks (in Europe, on Verizon stakeholder Vodafone's network). The Storm also supports both assisted and standard GPS (assisted GPS works with the cellular network to speed up location fixes) and Bluetooth. (However, unlike the iPhone, it does not support Wi-Fi.)

While the Storm dispenses with RIM's signature QWERTY hardware keyboard in favor of a capacitive touch-screen interface, it's clearly no iPhone clone. RIM's device is both shorter (4.4 inches versus the iPhone's 4.5 inches) and thicker (0.55 inch versus the iPhone's 0.48 inches) than Apple's; the touch screen is also somewhat smaller (the iPhone's is 3.5 inches, while the Storm's is 3.25 inches). Nevertheless, the display's 360-by-480 resolution looks pretty sharp at that size.

Also making a good first impression is the 3.2-megapixel camera with autoflash, autofocus, 2X digital zoom, and video-capture support.

The Storm weighs nearly 5.5 ounces (versus the iPhone's 4.7 ounces), perhaps because it carries radios for both major cellular networks (Verizon's CDMA/EvDO and the GSM/EDGE/UMTS/HSDPA technology for Vodafone in Europe and elsewhere). Verizon officials say it supports even more countries than the carrier's last world BlackBerry, the BlackBerry 8830, because this model has quad-band EDGE (versus the 8830's two-band). Note, however, that the Storm supports only the fastest GSM networks (UMTS/HSDPA) on the 2100-MHz band.

The Storm has 1GB of internal storage, but it also has a MicroSD slot and will ship with an 8GB MicroSD card. Also present: a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and a second external mic (on the back, in addition to the one for voice on the front) that picks up ambient noise data for the built-in noise reduction technology, which in theory should improve voice call quality. The Storm, like the iPhone, has an accelerometer that adjusts the display's orientation as you rotate the device.

But the Storm's most interesting and potentially controversial innovation is RIM's implementation of a touch interface, especially for typing. The Storm provides three different software keyboards: When you're holding it in landscape orientation and you need to enter text, a standard QWERTY software keyboard appears; the keys flash blue when you depress them.

In portrait mode, you have a choice: You can have a software keyboard that looks like the one on the Pearl (20 keys, some with one character, others with two) and that supports RIM's SureType predictive text entry system. Or you can opt for a standard phone keypad (although why you'd want to enter text by multiple letter taps is beyond me).

Only time and hands-on testing will tell whether the Click-Through technology will make text entry and navigation easier (for example, by helping to avoid inadvertent finger taps) or more confusing (the device has a number of tap-and-click shortcuts that take some getting used to).

Visual voicemail and more

The Storm's phone-related features include so-called visual voicemail. As on the iPhone, this allows you to peruse a list of incoming calls (identified by caller ID number or, if the number is in your address book, by name) and address them in whatever order you wish.

Like all BlackBerry devices, the Storm will have BlackBerry's first-rate e-mail features, including support for just about all corporate e-mail systems via the BlackBerry Enterprise Server. The Storm will also ship with Verizon's VZ Navigator software (but service charges apply) and with instant messaging clients for the major IM services.

However, there's no universal IM client for the Storm, so if your buddies patronize different services you'll have to run all of them in the background.

The Storm will support at least limited functionality for most older BlackBerry applications. But at launch, RIM says it will offer a developer's kit that will make it easier to adapt existing BlackBerry apps for the Storm--for example, optimizing them to take advantage of the touch screen, the accelerometer, or both.

You'll be able to buy, download and install apps from the VZ Apps Zone over the air, RIM says. And the Storm has one feature that many iPhone 3G users have moaned about missing: It lets you cut and paste text.

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