E-mail is the creamy, Oreo-esque core of the BlackBerry experience, and the biggest part of that is creating a reliable and trustworthy typing experience. That’s not to say the menu system and layout aren’t a polished part of the whole thing, but they really haven’t changed much from previous operating systems. The Bold’s keypad had earned accolades, but the Storm’s SurePress clickable touchscreen is a hard sell.
One of the keys to figuring out SurePress is that you can’t just go right to the click – you have to hover then click. See, the clicking mechanism has no position detection on its own, so it relies on the touchscreen for direction. I confirmed this by a simple experiment: on my home screen, I put my right thumb down on a blank area above the icons, then put my left onto Facebook. Instead of clicking with my left right on the icon, I clicked with the right, which was in the middle of nowehere, but the left had still highlight the app. Sure enough, Facebook launched.
So what’s the point? You have to give the touchscreen time to figure out where your fingers are. This particular example illustrates that multitouch isn’t a part of the magical SurePress formula, so you have to make sure you’re only hovering on one key at a time if you want the OS to recognize what’s going on. This severely stunts the maximum speed you can type, especially on the full landscape virtual keypad where you might be used to hitting more than one key at once. I was hoping that in theory this should create more careful typers, as they’re going through a select-and-confirm cycle, but sadly I found the typing to be only marginally more accurate than what I had experienced on my iPod Touch. Luckily, the predictive dictionary on SureType remains top notch, and spelling correction overall tends to keep things tidy and legible.
Now, for someone already familiar with the BlackBerry environment, learning a SurePress keyboard is manageable, but what about someone just starting out with the whole BlackBerry lifestyle. There are plenty of ins and outs to figure out, from sending a simple e-mail, to activating personal GMail accounts, to accessing voicemail, and everything else. The rather minimalist setup is very efficient for those who know where they’re going, but could compound difficulties for folks who can’t even type out what they want to on the on-screen keyboard.
This frustration could easily cause returns within the first week of use, but RIM is fully aware of that and have redoubled their help resources on the BlackBerry Storm. Upon activating, users will get a new tutorial which goes through the basic paradigms of using the menu system, return key, SureType, portrait and landscape modes, and the idea of the SurePress screen. In addition, they’ve included videos quickly and clearly explaining how selecting text works and a handful of other touchscreen tasks that are much more easily shown than told. The key there is whether or not the end-user has any patience left to go through the help system.
The keyboard certainly feels good after you get used to it, but there are some difficulties. In landscape mode, the fully QWERTY layout is difficult to stay accurate with due to smaller keys. One of the primary changes to the BlackBerry OS made for touch navigation is enlarged icons and buttons for easier access, but in landscape, the keys are only a hair bigger than those on the Bold. For this reason, I’ve found SureType to be a much more reliable format for most tasks, while switching to QWERTY for passwords, postal codes, and other odd text that might evade the predictive dictionary. That’s actually another reason why SureType is a good choice – even on the Pearl, SureType used predictive text (or MultiTap, depending on preference), so it’s already in a good spot to handle mis-pressed keys.
Of course, SureType isn’t without its own pitfalls. A lack of visible secondary modes has made finding symbols a true and royal pain. Three sets of Sym pages and a numbers page has you fiddling for ages just for a damned bracket. On the physical keyboard, all the secondary functions were right there, making it easy to know when a simple alt selection would do and when you’d have to nail the Sym key to root around.
Still, it feels good typing on it – it does actually feel like a real keypad after you get used to it, but that might not necessarily be a good thing. I had talked with a hand surgeon awhile back on so-called “BlackBerry Thumb” caused by chronic texting back in the days when the Thunder Storm was still in the realm of rumours, and the topic of touchscreens came up. The doc said that touchscreens are actually better for keeping hand injuries at bay because they don’t require the same amount of force and don’t have the recoil pushing back.
This, of course, gave me lots of hope for the Storm as being a healthy and responsible smartphone choice, since we hadn’t heard about SurePress at that point, yet here we are, back to the square one of poor thumbing habits. Many reviewers have pointed out that they actually get more tired typing on the Storm than they do on their old-school devices, and I think a big part of that has to do with an overcompensating spring mechanism which gives the SurePress screen considerably more bounce than your usual BlackBerry’s keypad.
The music application largely hasn’t changed since the BlackBerry Bold, save for accomodations on the larger screen and landscape mode. Album art looks great on the big screen, and controls take up much less room now that the track slider shows and hides with a light press. Stylish as the new player may be, there was one simple pleasure that I was lacking from my BlackBerry Bold. Right after launching the Music app, I used to be able to start typing right away (no matter what, artist, song, album, playlist) and I would start getting results right away. The immediacy was outstanding.
On the Storm, not only do you have to pull up the keypad through a menu command from the home Music screen, but it also has to transition into the Songs category, chunkifying and limiting the overall process. If that weren’t enough, the music skips whenever you get an incoming message, or when you have the Camera application running. Quite a bit to work on here, but I still managed to listen to music just fine.
One of my favourite features on the iPod Touch was the photo album. Having only filled it up only half-way with music, I had a lot of room to play with and decided to toss a bunch of pictures from abroad on there. As it turns out, having a large, high-resolution screen in something that portable with that much memory is actually really great for photos. While the Storm remains functionally the same in that it can store and display pictures, the experience is probably one of the choppiest on the OS. Panning, zooming and swiping pictures is slow and unresponsive, but really, video is the only way to properly show how bad this was. Keep an eye out for that in the New Year.
Finishing up the BlackBerry Storm software and final verdict on the next page!