Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The iPhone 3GS and the Storm

I am sure there are about a million posts on the Internet comparing the iPhone to the Blackberry Storm (and soon, the new Storm 2). This, as they say, is one of them.

I have an iPhone 3GS as my personal phone, and I recently got a BB Storm as my work unit. It replaced a much unloved Blackberry 8830. I did not expect to like the new Storm as much as the 3GS, and I do not. It has been pretty much exactly what I thought it would be. It is better than the 8830 in most ways though.


At the core of my dislike for the 8830 were two things: Crummy (small) screen and tiny mechanical keys. I am firmly in the virtual keyboard camp. I had a slight hope that the Storm's virtual keyboard would be better than it is, even though none of the reviews supported that hope. I based it off one thing: That every review I read of the Storm virtual keyboard was that it was *not* a mechanical one, like a proper BlackBerry should have.

I had not really realized it till I was reading about the Storm ahead of getting one but there is a huge contingent of people that like... even prefer... mechanical keyboards on their cell phones. Watching someone that is really good at the BB keyboard is pretty amazing, I have to admit: Their thumbs blazing at what is probably 50 or 60 WPM.

Getting going that fast on the 3GS would be a real challenge, and doing it in the Storm would not be possible. The Storm does have a virtual keyboard, but it is hampered by several things:

  1. The processor is too slow / the OS is too slow. I do not know which it is (I have the 3rd release of 4.7: The latest Verizon has issued), but there are pauses and herks and jerks that keep the keyboard from being a fast-to-register-a-keystroke affair.

  2. The entire screen has to be pressed to register the keystroke. the Storm 2 is supposed to fix that. I supposed the idea was to make the virtual keyboard more like a real one, and it utterly missed the point *of* a virtual keyboard.

  3. The idea of the feedback to register the keystroke was the illuminate the key being pressed is blue, with a slight halo: All well and good, except I have wide fingers and I can't see it.

For all of this, I prefer the Storm keyboard to the 8830. I can at least read the markings, and the blue backlight of the 8830 was useless in the dark: I had to find a strong light source to use the keyboard.

The 3GS keyboard is more or less the same as it has been since the Generation 1 iPhone, except that more apps work in landscape mode, and in landscape mode I can fairly fly on the iPhone. Not as fast as the Mini 9, or the Macbook, but not too bad either.

Screen and Flip

The Storm display is very nice, and reading email on it is *far* easier than the 8830 every was. It is not just the size of the screen, or its better colors and backlighting, although those are all huge helps: it is also that the email app uses a better, more readable font, and when you are looking at letters that small, that really helps.

The apps listing is OK: Readable, if not easy to configure. The 3GS's way of allowing icons to be re-arranged is infinitely better than the setup process you have to use on the Storm, but at least it can be done.

The Storm 2 is supposed to add inertia to the screen flips, and that is sorely missed. Having to page up and down the screens on the storm is far slower than being able to flip your finger on the 3GS and the faster you do it, the faster and farther then screen rolls, in a very intuitive way.

Looking at pictures on the Storm is way better than the 8830, and nearly as nice as the 3GS, but pan and zoom are horrible.


The quality of the 3.2 MegaPixel camera is OK, and not that much worse than the iPhone (in bright light), but once again slowed either by the OS or a slow processor: it takes forever to focus and snap a picture on the Storm. Movies looked more or less the same on either unit though. The Storm overall seems to favor slight overexposure of the images relative to the iPhone.

In low light, the Storm camera is far better than the iPhone's, other than having to wait forever for it to focus. It also has a "light", which I have never used, but should mean that the Storm is good for even lower light situations than those I have tested: Places where the iPhone would not work at all.

Going to the Store

This really has very little to do with the Storm per-se, since the same App StoreWorldthingy is on all BlackBerries. It is easier to "shop" on the storm, with its superior-to-keyboarded-BB's screen. If this comparison was to any other BB, then Storm would be killer here. However, the 85,000+ apps of the iPhone, and the far better in-phone store app, not to mention the iTune Store shopping option just make the BB's couple of hundred apps appear quite feeble. Wimpy. Not even trying.

The few apps I have loaded are also pale shadows of their iPhone brethren. The Facebook app for example is truly wretched on the Storm. I can not imagine what it is like on any of the smaller screened BB's. The new 2.x iPhone version is in some way better than the web interface.

The Web

The built in browser on the BB used to be a joke. The one on the Storm is actually not too bad. It is slow, and does not render everything the 3GS built in Safari will, but it is light years ahead of the old browser. I put Opera on, and that helps, especially for things like zooming in on areas of pages to be able to read them.

None of them use the gestures of the iPhone, and in Safari, with flicks and pinches and amazing speed, the web is still more accessible on the iPhone.


Really RIM? Why did you even bother? The built in Map app is a complete waste. No OS integration. No gestures. No resolution in the maps. No composite views. No GPS or Compass integration. Low resolution. Slow slow slow. Not even trying. The Storm 2 or at least OS 5 *has* to have a better map app than this... right? Or at least Google maps in the app store?

This app is the very definition of a checkbox exercise:

"Hey! They have a map app! Do we have a map app?"

"Yeah Boss: We got a map app. Got it right here. See, It says 'Maps' on it and everything."

I went to our office in Minneapolis this week, and I was told that people with Tom Toms and other GPS had gotten utterly lost because of how weird it is to get to the building. I'll have to admit that the iPhone Maps gave me some choices about possible locations, and the first one I went to was not it: but the second one was, and it knew the weird route to get to the building. All the really means is that Google knows that route though, and that is what the BB needs: Google Maps.

(update: I have been told by some that there are Google Maps for the BB. They are just not in the App Store. You have to manually install them.)

Verizon and AT&T

My Storm came from Verizon, and of course the iPhone is AT&T. I have to say that I do not understand anyone that says that AT&T's network is not as good as Verizon's. I can not imagine where that is. It is no place I go.

At any given place, and at any given time, the iPhone and the Storm have about even chances of having or not having a signal. And I can move two feet, and have signals invert in strength between the two, especially in downtown areas.

Standing on Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco, both are strong. In North Beach at Rogue Public Ale House the BB is weak, and the iPhone slightly degraded. Up the street towards Chinatown, the BB gets a slightly better signal for a few blocks.

Most places they both have 4 or 5 bars. Same in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Minneapolis, Dallas, Alpine, Fort Davis, Marfa .... on and on. Neither one is obviously better than the other, with this single exception: when the signal is weak, and the phone is powering up its amplifier to pull in the weak signal, the Storm, and the 8830 before it, will eat its battery in a matter of a few hours: Far faster than the iPhone will. Not that the iPhone won't eat its battery fast: it does. Just not as fast.

This inverts when Bluetooth is the radio in question. If the iPhone can not find the Bluetooth ear piece, it will burn through the juice in the matter of less than 8 hours, where as the Storm and the 8830 seemed to not obviously use any more power when their paired earpiece was off or out of range.

(Update: Actually, the Storm does appear to use battery far faster when it can not find it's headset. Still not as bad as the iPhone, but the 8830 was the king here.)

As for speed: There is no comparison. As long as I have digital service the iPhone is far faster. the iPhone in Edge is about the same speed as the Storm on "1XEV'. That probably means the high speed EVDO is not the bottleneck more than likely, but the speed of the OS and the hardware is.

Smart Phone

If there had never been an iPhone to compare it to I would be amazed by the Storm, but the fact of the matter for me and my virtual keyboard loving ways is that it is not as good a design as the original iPhone was, more or less the 3rd generation iPhone. I assume the Storm 2 will be better on all points, but I also assume from some early reviews that it will be only reaching some sort of parity with the Generation 1 iPhone, and still be a long way from where the iPhone is today. If nothing else the push-the-whole-screen-to-register-a-keystroke thing is gone.

I rode in an elevator the other day with a man who had a Storm. I asked him how he liked it. He shook his head, and said "I had a Google phone before this one. I wish I had it back".

On the plane the other day I sat next to a man with a Palm Pre. I watched with interest as he flicked about the bright, beautiful screen. It looked very iPhone like, at least until he opened the keyboard. Gaah! Chiclet keys! What were they thinking?

Still, from what I can tell, the Storm is not as good as iPhone's, Palm Pre's, and Android based phones. It is not just a hardware problem either: the OS is a mess. It feels like three of four different OS's crammed together. Configuration screens don't match in style or function, and are spread all over, The Apps are weak, and un-unified in look, feel, and OS integrations. The Storm, running WebOS or Android would be leaps and bounds better, and not having the push-to-click screen of the Storm two would fix the Storms major weakness: Really: That idea is like New Coke. It may have tested well, but in reality it is a pain.

I'll have this Storm for another two years I guess. Hopefully by then RIM will get it right. In the meantime, it *is* far better than the 8830 that came before it, so I am not ungrateful. And the camera isn't bad.

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