Rumour has it that the BlackBerry Storm concept was first spawned after Vodafone lost out to O2 in the iPhone bragging rights. But can its purpose-built credentials amount to the first bona fide touchscreen challenger to the Apple' device? Possibly.
RIM has traditionally held a rather dim view on touchscreen mobiles. It's no surprise, then, that the company's first outing into the world of touchy-feely handsets holds something completely different in store – a fully 'clickable' screen.
In effect, the whopping 3.25in screen is actually one giant button enabling users to genuinely feel the screen move downwards when an icon or key is pressed. Put your finger gently on one of the tiled menu icons and it will flash blue, with a pop-up letting you know what action the key controls; press down fully and you activate the function.
When it comes to tapping out emails and texts, the Storm attempts to be all things to all men. Hold the handset in portrait mode and you're presented with RIM's compressed SureType keypad layout – or, if you prefer, switch to old-school Multitap input; flip to landscape and the layout automatically switches to full QWERTY courtesy of an accelerometer.
The full keypad is fairly sizable, which limits the amount of message text you can see – but you can't have your QWERTY cake and eat it. Unlike the iPhone, it does support copy and paste. Just click the beginning and end points of the text, press the Menu key and select Copy and repeat for Paste. Easy.
So, with a touchscreen handset living and dying by its finger-friendliness, how does the Storm measure up? Like anything, it's a case of getting used to it. Spend a bit of quality time with the Storm and you'll soon eradicate those emails that display the same grasp of spelling as your four-year-old nephew. But many – especially the less dextrous – will find there's no substitute for old-fashioned buttons.
Responsiveness can also be a big issue, with the menu overly sluggish at times. More infuriating is the slowness of the accelerometer, and although the angle at which it is activated can be adjusted, the speed of response remains unchanged – a major hindrance to the handset's ease of use.
RIM may have given the Storm an alluring facelift, but communication is still at its core. Email is – as you would expect – dealt with adeptly. In addition to the usual outstanding Enterprise functionality it's now even easier for the less business-inclined to set up personal accounts simply by entering a username and password. Inboxes can be kept separate, with push email instantly alerting you to new messages in each account.
Document viewing and editing is seamless using DataViz's Documents To Go, so email attachments can be dealt with fluidly. There's also RIM's usual set of calendar and address book functions, which can be synced to your PC using the accompanying BlackBerry Desktop Software.
BlackBerry Application Centre
But RIM is determined to prove the Storm isn't just for suits, and the inclusion of a raft of Instant Messaging apps for download as well as a Facebook and Flickr apps will add to its zeitgeist appeal. All of these are available to download free from the Vodafone-hosted Application Centre, which also offers apps like YouTube and Google Maps. These will be joined by many more next year when RIM launches its own Application Storefront in March.
The Storm's social networking apps are well integrated into the furniture of the handset. Once downloaded, you can upload your photos to Flickr or videos to YouTube at the click of a button. Geo-tagging is a notable absentee, despite the inclusion of GPS. As a nod to its business roots, companies will still have the ability to control what apps its employees download.
The camera itself is a capable 3.2-megapixel number offering auto focus, zoom and auto flash (well, LED light). There's a small lag between focus and taking a picture, but images are still reasonably crisp – not quite up to Sony Ericsson's Cyber-shot or Carl Zeiss imbued Nokias, but more than acceptable for the likes of Flickr and co.
The music player keeps things clean and functional but still supports cover art and the ability to create playlists on the device itself. The built-in speaker is surprisingly rich, and audio quality in general is above par. A 3.5mm jack is provided to connect your own headphones, and side buttons (real ones) act as volume controls.
Supported formats are extensive and include MP3, AAC and WMA. There's also iTunes 'syncing' with your PC, although not quite in the way your iPod does it. Essentially the BlackBerry Media Sync software allows you to see and import your iTunes library – but will not copy over any tracks downloaded from the iTunes Store due to that harbinger of doom, DRM.
Watching movies on the vivid 3.25in screen is also enjoyable. Fortunately storage isn't an issue either, with 1GB of onboard memory supplemented by an expansion slot supporting microSD/SDHC cards up to 16GB.
Wi-Fi missing from the party
When it comes to connectivity, there's good news and bad news. The good news first: HSDPA is included for faster mobile browsing, while USB and stereo Bluetooth are both present and correct. You can even use the handset as a tethered modem. The bad news is there's no Wi-Fi.
It's debatable as to how big a deal this is – for many though it could be a deal breaker. In reality, Vodafone has implemented a variety of 'all-you-can-eat' style internet and email tariffs, removing the worry of humungous mobile bills at the end of the month. Which just leaves the issue of speed. With no Wi-Fi you're at the mercy of Vodafone's 3G and HSDPA coverage, and while one of the best around in this respect, nobody's perfect.
True rival or pretender to the crown?
Whether the Storm has done enough to topple the iPhone is very much in the balance. Performance is excellent: voice calls are clear, email is handled seamlessly and battery life is good for a push email HSDPA device. Add to that the potential of the upcoming Application Storefront and generally swish looks, and things appear rosy for RIM.
The real question is whether the innovative ClickThrough touchscreen will be welcomed with willing fingers, and whether issues over menu responsiveness and the accelerometer are dealt with swiftly. If not, frustration will win out, and the Storm may well blow over.
Ease of use: 7/10
Call quality: 10/10