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BlackBerry Storm is good iPhone challenger

Review: BlackBerry fans can rejoice: the Storm, Research In Motion’s first all-touchscreen Blackberry will make even iPhone users salivate just a little bit over some of the features of this very slick and sophisticated smartphone.

BlackBerry fans can rejoice: the Storm, Research In Motion’s first all-touchscreen Blackberry will make even iPhone users salivate just a little bit over some of the features of this very slick and sophisticated smartphone.

Is it an iPhone killer? Depends on whether you lose sleep at night thinking about such things. Folks at RIM and Apple do, of course, and there might be some in Cupertino counting sheep with the release Friday of the BlackBerry Storm 9530, as it’s officially called.

Apple and RIM are in a heated battle to have their phones appeal to opposite ends of their markets. BlackBerrys are a staple in the business world, and Apple wants the iPhone to capture a good chunk of the briefcase set. With the Storm, RIM is obviously reaching deep into the iPhone’s lifestyle territory, not only matching the iPhone in some areas, but exceeding it as well.

The Storm has some features the iPhone could really use in its nifty bag of tricks. Among them: a video camera, and the ability to text or e-mail video files, built-in voice-activated dialing and a virtual QWERTY keyboard that can be used when the phone is held horizontally.

There’s also copy-and-paste functionality with text, something all BlackBerrys have.

Easier for thumb texters
Texters and e-mail users will thrive on the Storm. It’s designed for two-thumb action, something the iPhone isn’t logistically suited for, although it can be done.

Those who relish Web surfing on the iPhone will find it good on the Storm, but not quite as good as on the iPhone. It still commands the lead when it comes to the best mobile Web browsing experience, especially on its 3.5-inch screen.

The Storm’s 3.25-inch screen is sharp and clear, with a 480-by-360 display, compared to the iPhone’s 480-by-320 display.

Photos and video look excellent on the Storm, but Web site viewing falls a little short compared to how sites are rendered on the iPhone. The browsing experience itself — getting from one site to another — is easier and more facile on the iPhone.

iPhone is simpler to use
The newest BlackBerry has dazzle, but it’s also a BlackBerry, first and foremost. That means it’s a solid piece of equipment. But it’s one that requires a bit of time to learn how to operate, making your way through a maze of drop-down menus, options and screens.

The iPhone is just a simpler device to use. I’d mentioned this recently when comparing it to Google’s new Android phone, the G1, saying that with the iPhone, all roads lead back to one button on the front of the phone.

That means no matter how you’re using the phone, or what screen you’re in, if you press the one round button on the front of the phone, your other programs pop back up on the screen, waiting for you to choose where you want to go next. That’s true ease of use.

The Storm is not quite as simple. Similar to the G1, there are four physical buttons on the front of the Storm. One is specifically for the phone, the next offers a drop-down menu of options, depending on the program you’re in; the third is a “back” button, and the fourth is a combination home/end call button.

Touchscreens, ubiquitous now mainly because of the iPhone, aren’t for everyone. Few touchscreens are graceful in the way that the iPhone is, with users needing to only lightly touch, pinch or flick to get where they want using Apple’s Multi-Touch Technology.

Image: BlackBerry Storm virtual keyboard
The virtual keyboard on the BlackBerry Storm 9350 can be used vertically or horizontally.

The Storm has some flicking, highlighting, tapping and scrolling, but mainly touch with a slight feeling of a dip in the screen and a low-key click sound to let you know you have indeed touched a letter or number or icon on the screen. That can be reassuring. However, it also takes a little practice to remember how to touch what and when.

Practice, too, is required on the three different keyboards available on the Storm, compared to the iPhone’s one. In vertical, or portrait, mode, there’s RIM’s SureType keyboard, with two letters to a key, or a “multi-tap” keyboard that resembles a dial pad. In horizontal, or landscape, mode, there’s a QWERTY keyboard, with one character per key, and my favorite of the three.

As with the iPhone’s keyboard, I still hit many a wrong letter or number on all three of the Storm’s keyboards. Those who are diehard “CrackBerry” proponents and not ready for a touchscreen will want to consider another recent RIM release, the BlackBerry Bold, which does have a physical keyboard.

The built-in voice-activated dialing is outstanding and accurate. (Perhaps it works a little too well. The button to use it is prominently on one side of the phone, and it’s easy to hit it by mistake. “Say a command!” I was commanded by the phone several times until I saw I could say “Turn prompts off” to stop the madness. There's also an option to do so in the "Tools" area of the phone.)

More camera capabilities
The button for the camera and another for volume are on the other side of the phone. The camera is 3.2-megapixel and comes with a flash and variable zoom. The iPhone’s 2-megapixel camera does not have flash or zoom.

The Storm wins on the camera front, not because its camera is necessarily better than the iPhone’s, but because you can send photos with text messages, something you can’t do with the iPhone.

Both phones resemble each other somewhat in shape and size. The iPhone weighs 4.7 ounces; the Storm is slightly heavier at 5.46 ounces. The iPhone is 4.5 inches high, 2.4 inches wide and .48 of an inch deep. The Storm is 4.4 inches high, 2.4 inches wide and .55 of an inch deep.

Among the iPhone’s draws is Apple’s App Store, which has made available thousands of programs for the phone, some free, some for pay. The “apps” are easy to download to the phone from an AppStore icon on the device.

Like other BlackBerrys, the Storm lacks an app store, but not for long. RIM recently announced plans to open its own “application storefront” in March.

Variety of pricing plans
The Storm is being sold exclusively through Verizon Wireless. The iPhone is available exclusively from AT&T. Both phones are 3G, meaning they run on the carriers’ faster wireless networks, crucial for Web surfing and e-mail. Verizon Wireless’ is more robust at this point; AT&T’s is coming along, but is still not completely built out.

Battery life for the Storm is rated at six hours of talk time. The iPhone is rated for up to five hours’ of talk time using the faster 3G network, and up to 10 hours on the slower 2G network. The iPhone also has Wi-Fi for wireless connections; the Storm does not

Verizon Wireless, which has seen some of its customers flock to AT&T for the iPhone, is being very competitive price-wise with the Storm.

It costs $199.99, after committing to a two-year contract and a $50 mail-in rebate. That price matches the 8-gigabyte model of the iPhone. The Storm comes with an 8-gigabyte microSD card; you can substitute up to a 16-gigabyte card. (Apple’s 16-gigabyte iPhone costs $299.)

AT&T’s least-expensive iPhone plan is $69.99 a month for unlimited Web and e-mail and 450 voice minutes. Text messaging costs 20 cents a message unless you opt for a text plan, which starts at $5 a month for 200 messages.

Verizon Wireless has more plans from which to choose, but it will cost you about the same per month if you go with the most basic of plans. The company has a “personal e-mail” BlackBerry plan for $29.99 a month if a customer purchases the Verizon Wireless Nationwide voice plan. The least expensive choice in that plan is $39.99 a month for 450 voice minutes.

There is also a “data only” plan that costs $49.99 a month for unlimited e-mail and Web access, but does not include use of the BlackBerry as a phone.

For those who want unlimited text, picture and video messaging as well as Internet access, there’s a $99.99 a month plan that includes 450 voice minutes.