Thursday, November 27, 2008

Pogue says Blackberry Storm a Dud!

David Pogue just saved me a lot of grief. I had just received a flyer from Verizon about their new phone lineup and was looking wistfully at the Blackberry Storm. Cell phones are like cars with me - I seldom get a new one unless my current one quits. In fact, this fall when I was visiting my daughter and her family, my grandson burst out laughing when I pulled out my cell phone to make a call. No, it wasn't one of the big clunky phones from the 80s or 90s, but apparently it wasn't as sleek as the newest phones either so I felt sufficiently chastened - especially being a technology professional. Anyway, I have started keeping my eye out for a new model that has everything on my want list - good camera (I never use it but it is meant to be a backup if my camera battery dies and I have a chance to take a one in a million shot!), GPS with voice navigation (I really want to try this out. My son-in-law has a full sized Garmin GPS navigator for his car and we used it to get to Gettysburg. I was quite impressed but don't see a reason to buy a separate GPS navigator if my cell phone can do the same job - especially if I can pay for it only when I need it) and overseas calling capability, so when I'm traveling I can at least call for a cab if I get hopelessly lost. But, it sounds like the Blackberry folks have suffered a major misfire this time:

Research in Motion (R.I.M.), the company that brought us the BlackBerry, has been on a roll lately. For a couple of years now, it’s delivered a series of gorgeous, functional, supremely reliable smartphones that, to this day, outsell even the much-adored iPhone.

Well, there’s a new one, just out ($200 after rebate, with two-year Verizon contract), officially called the BlackBerry Storm.

But I’ve got a better name for it: the BlackBerry Dud.

The first sign of trouble was the concept: a touch-screen BlackBerry. That’s right — in its zeal to cash in on some of that iPhone touch-screen mania, R.I.M. has created a BlackBerry without a physical keyboard.

Hello? Isn’t the thumb keyboard the defining feature of a BlackBerry? A BlackBerry without a keyboard is like an iPod without a scroll wheel. A Prius with terrible mileage. Cracker Jack without a prize inside.

R.I.M. hoped to soften the blow by endowing its touch screen with something extra: clickiness. The entire screen acts like a mouse button. Press hard enough, and it actually responds with a little plastic click.

As a result, the Storm offers two degrees of touchiness. You can tap the screen lightly, or you can press firmly to register the palpable click.

It’s not a bad idea. In fact, it ought to make the on-screen keyboard feel more like actual keys. In principle, you could design a brilliant operating system where the two kinds of taps do two different things. Tap lightly to type a letter — click fully to get a pop-up menu of accented characters (é, è, ë and so on). Tap lightly to open something, click fully to open a shortcut menu of options. And so on.

Unfortunately, R.I.M.’s execution is inconsistent and confusing.

Where to begin? Maybe with e-mail, the most important function of a BlackBerry. On the Storm, a light touch highlights the key but doesn’t type anything. It accomplishes nothing — a wasted software-design opportunity. Only by clicking fully do you produce a typed letter.

It’s too much work, like using a manual typewriter. (“I couldn’t send two e-mails on this thing,” said one disappointed veteran.)

It’s no help that the Storm shows you two different keyboards, depending on how you’re holding it (it has a tilt sensor like the iPhone’s).

When you hold it horizontally, you get the full, familiar Qwerty keyboard layout. But when you turn it upright, you get the less accurate SureType keyboard, where two letters appear on each “key,” and the software tries to figure out which word you’re typing.

For example, to type “get,” you press the GH, ER and TY keys. Unfortunately, that’s also “hey.” You can see the problem. And trying to enter Web addresses or unusual last names is utterly hopeless.

Furthermore, despite having had more than a year to study the iPhone, R.I.M. has failed to exploit the virtues of an on-screen keyboard. A virtual keyboard’s keys can change, permitting you to switch languages or even alphabet systems within a single sentence. A virtual keyboard can offer canned blobs of text like “.com” and “.org” when it senses that you’re entering a Web address, or offer an @ key when addressing e-mail.

But not on the Storm.

Incredibly, the Storm even muffs simple navigation tasks. When you open a menu, the commands are too close together; even if your finger seems to be squarely on the proper item, your click often winds up activating something else in the list.

To scroll a list, you’re supposed to flick your finger across the screen, just as on the iPhone. But even this simple act is head-bangingly frustrating; the phone takes far too long to figure out that you’re swiping and not just tapping. It inevitably highlights some random list item when you began to swipe, and then there’s a disorienting delay before the scrolling begins.

There’s no momentum to the scrolling, either, as on the iPhone or a Google phone; you can’t flick faster to scroll farther. Scrolling through a long list of phone numbers or messages, therefore, is exhausting.

Nor is that the Storm’s only delayed reaction. It can take two full seconds for the screen image to change when you turn it 90 degrees, three seconds for a program to appear, five seconds for a button-tap to register. (Remember: To convert seconds into BlackBerry time, multiply by seven.)

In short, trying to navigate this thing isn’t just an exercise in frustration — it’s a marathon of frustration. - More ...David Pogue, The New York Times
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