The very first time you touch the BlackBerry Storm—RIM's first all-touchscreen keyboard-free smartphone, just announced for Verizon Wireless—you will be startled. No matter how many times your fingers dance on the screen like you've been trained on every other touchscreen, nothing will happen. At least, not until you push the screen all the way down and you feel a click. Yes, the screen is a giant button, one you have to punch for basically every action, even every letter you type, completely breaking the touchscreen paradigm. Surprisingly, it works.
While the Storm's defining feature is this, what RIM ungracefully calls ClickThrough, the phone is much, much more. The term "iPhone killer" is clumsily tossed around by bloggers and journos (including us) to describe almost any phone with a touchscreen, but by trying to actually innovate rather than imitate, RIM has conjured up the phone most deserving of the title yet. It's got an innovative multi-touch UI (thanks to ClickThrough), runs on Verizon's EV-DO 3G network in the US, as well as any GSM HSPA 3G networks when abroad, so it's a true global smartphone. OK, maybe there never will be an "iPhone killer"—it's a stupid idea anyway—but based on our limited time with the BlackBerry Storm, it seems like it will definitely hold its own against every other marquee handset on the market. Typing on that clicky touchscreen Let's talk more about ClickThrough, since using the Storm means using it. RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, who notoriously said he can't type on a piece of glass, told me that it was in development for years as they looked to evolve past the trackball while accomplishing something no touchscreen has before: Separating navigation from confirmation. So you have to push the touchscreen like a button every time you do something. Typing with it takes some getting used to, even if you can fly on an iPhone or other touchscreen device, because you have to retrain yourself to actually lift your thumb back off of the screen to let it pop back up between every single letter. Since you can't "flow" continuously in a stream but are pounding out a series of clicks, it's hard to tell in the limited time I had with it how fast you would be able to go once you're completely re-trained. It's a unique and finely tuned sensation, and I liked it, but I could definitely see people loathing it. Getting around More on navigation. One annoyance when typing is that it highlights letters in blue rather than doing a magnified pop-up like the iPhone or LG Vu, so letters will probably be obscured if you have fat fingers. One of the weird inconsistencies (there are a few) with needing to clickthrough for an action actually occurs with copy and paste, which took a few seconds to get down since it involved a long hold and drag when it was demoed for me—they oddly didn't show me the multitouch method shown in the leaked user guide, though RIM later confirmed it would be there. Also worth noting is that it has an accelerometer (which seemed to be a hair more sensitive than the iPhone's), so it detects whether it's in landscape or portrait orientation, using the QWERTY keyboard for text entry in the former and SureType for the latter. While the BlackBerry OS has been optimized for grubby fingers, all of the standard BlackBerry navigation paradigms are in play, so there's plenty of pushing the four buttons along the bottom of the screen: menu, back, send and end like you would on a regular BlackBerry to get around. Browsing and network The browser improves upon the one in the Bold and is even more competent at rendering HTML. You have a couple different ways to navigate around a page, though the most unique makes use of the whole screen as a trackpad, so that once you have the cursor pop up, you can put your finger anywhere on the screen to move it around, just like on a notebook. It's context sensitive, so it'll do what it's supposed to when you hit a link or whatnot. It had some trouble with a text entry field in the browser, as well as some other jitters, but then it obviously wasn't a final version. RIM's concern with the user experience is very apparent, so I expect it to be cleaned up when the final version ships in November, though I'm not holding my breath for flash support. Overall, it was a solid browsing experience, though one thing to take note of that is per Verizon standards, you'll be doing it over EV-DO, not Wi-Fi, since it doesn't have the latter. Lack of Wi-Fi is one of the biggest knocks on the phone, no matter how damn good Verizon's network might be. The fact that it packs both EV-DO and HSPA into a single phone is a truly impressive feat worth marveling over, but why couldn't they cram Wi-Fi in there too? Screen, multimedia and consumer features The screen is gorgeous. I haven't seen the HTC Touch HD in person, but barring that, the 480x360 184-pixel-per-inch stunner could be the best screen on the market. It's bright, contrasty, the colors are beautiful and the viewing angle is ridiculous. I think I could watch the whole of Iron Man on it. Media navigation isn't as intuitive as the iPhone, basically re-using the usual BlackBerry UI, but it's not difficult to get around by any means. Still, RIM clearly intends to take the fight seriously, since the Storm supports a bunch of audio and video formats, will come with an 8GB microSD card and supports stereo Bluetooth. It'll also have Verizon's V CAST, naturally. The Storm is RIM's most consumer-oriented device yet, but it's also still a BlackBerry heart, with all of the standard enterprise features like Office document editing, full email search, Exchange support—everything a BlackBerry user expects. Not to mention littler touches like BlackBerry Maps (it'll have Verizon's VZ Navigator too), BrickBreaker and Facebook pre-installed. The outlook You've already seen the app store in leaks, and RIM told me that there will be an SDK for the phone in short order. The weird explosion of consumer-oriented BlackBerry apps a little while ago was not a coincidence—RIM seems fully aware that a strong developer community and killer apps are more critical than ever in the consumer smartphone market. This will be the most important phone in Verizon's lineup, and from the looks of it, the best. Some people will hate ClickThrough—it's not a perfect solution, but it's genuinely innovative and really damn good. Some people will hate that it's not the iPhone (or the G1, since it's another tightly integrated hardware/software package). But for BlackBerry users looking for a touchscreen phone, or Verizon customers who don't want to do without the carrier's superior coverage area, this is the best there is. If you've got questions, leave them in the comments, I'll answer them.