BlackBerrys Again Get Sleeker but Can't Challenge iPhone

From left, the BlackBerry Storm, Pearl and Bold, from Research in Motion.
From left, the BlackBerry Storm, Pearl and Bold, from Research in Motion. (By Frank Franklin Ii -- Associated Press)
By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, December 18, 2008

Research in Motion's BlackBerry was once the dump truck of smartphones: ugly but useful at its assigned task.

Then a few years ago, sleeker models like the Pearl and Curve brought some style to the package. Now two new camera phones -- the BlackBerry Bold 9000, which shipped in early November, and the BlackBerry Storm 9530, which debuted later that month and received a bug-fix software update last week -- bring some of the same refinement to the software inside that package.

These two represent an impressive advance over the BlackBerrys of two years ago, not to mention the competing Palm OS and Windows Mobile devices.

Problem is, Palm and Microsoft are no longer RIM's main competition. Apple's iPhone is, and both the Bold and the Storm fall short of the standard set by that device and other new contenders, such as Google's Android phone.

The Bold, sold by AT&T Wireless for $399.99 before a $100 mail-in rebate, provides more satisfaction but shows less creativity. The Storm, a Verizon Wireless exclusive that sells for $249.99 before a $50 mail-in rebate, can be more frustrating to use and yet shows more promise. (Those prices require a new two-year contract; if you're still in an AT&T or Verizon contract, you'll pay more.)

With each device, the immediate attraction is a badly needed update to RIM's software. Instead of a mishmash of tiny icons and blocky, low-resolution text, the Bold's and the Storm's home screens light up with big, clearly drawn, cleanly labeled buttons -- though clicking past them still reveals too many extraneous menu items.

RIM also upgraded the core Internet and multimedia programs. Their Web browsers can display full-size pages without gagging. Their e-mail applications can finally show Web-formatted messages as written; they also come paired with software to edit Microsoft Office attachments. And they include decent music and video playback tools.

With the Storm, however, RIM also tore a chapter out of its pattern book by eliminating a physical keyboard. Instead, its SurePress touch screen responds differently whether you swipe it with a fingertip (to select something) or push down on it (to issue a command).

This screen makes the Storm a better phone but a more obnoxious Internet device, thanks largely to RIM's choice of keyboard interface.

When you're tapping buttons on the screen, the Storm appears blissfully simple. Instead of spinning a trackball to scroll through menus, you plant a finger on an icon and push down, and the screen responds with a barely audible click. For instance, turning on the Storm's speaker phone demands only a press of a large "speaker" icon; on the Bold, you must select that command from a 14-item menu.

Typing this way, however, is painful and inaccurate -- and that's with the keyboard displayed in a standard QWERTY layout when you hold the phone sideways. With the Storm held right-side up, the phone shifts to the two-letters-per-key "SureType" layout of BlackBerry Pearl models, which often handcuffs typing attempts.

The software update Verizon pushed out last week may have made this phone faster, but the review model was not much more stable. It crashed and required rebooting -- a 2 1/2 -minute(!) process -- twice in two days. You have to hope we haven't seen the last bug-fix release for this model.

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