Threatened by the rapid rise of the Apple iPhone, smartphone market leader Research In Motion is fighting back with two new BlackBerry models, one with a touchscreen and one without.
Both are sleek, sexy and run on a radically updated BlackBerry operating system that leaves older models in the dust. Both also handle music, video and Web surfing much better than their predecessors.
The BlackBerry Storm ($199 from Verizon Wireless, with contract) is a revolution, in BlackBerry terms. It's the company's first model without a physical keyboard. Like the iPhone, it displays a virtual keyboard, and as with the iPhone, it's not that easy to type on.
RIM's big-sell gimmick, which adds considerably to the weight of the handset, is that the Storm's entire touchscreen is one big button that physically clicks as you press on it. But that doesn't really make it better than the iPhone screen.
The BlackBerry Bold ($299 from AT&T, with contract) is more evolutionary. It's a better-looking, much-upgraded version of the BlackBerry Curve and earlier models targeted at "prosumers" — halfway between consumers and professionals.
I can earnestly recommend the Bold. But prospective customers should wait on the Storm, at least until some software bugs are worked out. (RIM says a patch is on the way.)
First, the good news: Both the Bold and the Storm have big, bright, beautiful color screens well suited to watching video clips.
The Storm's 480-x-360-pixel screen orients itself vertically or horizontally, depending on how you hold the unit; the Bold's 480-x-320 screen is physically much smaller, but crisp and clear.
Both come with new versions of BlackBerry Desktop, which allows you to sync the units with Apple iTunes music libraries on PCs (sorry, no Mac software yet).
I found that the syncing software worked well, though the album-cover images visible in iTunes and on iPods didn't make it across.
Music playing is good, with the ability to shuffle songs and create playlists. Both phones come with standard 3.5-mm headphone jacks, although the supplied earphones are decent and come with in-wire mute buttons.
Transferring and playing back video clips was easy as well, though it's best to opt out of the sloooow video "optimization" process offered by the Bold's licensed Roxio media-management software.
The Bold comes with AT&T's cellular-video application preloaded, though it doesn't always work well. I wasn't able to get the similar Verizon Wireless VCast service to work on the Storm due to password problems.
Best of all, both units have real Web browsers — and real 3G cellular networks that permit fast downloads.
Until now, built-in BlackBerry browsers have painfully mangled Web pages, rendering them almost unreadable.
The new browser is a vast improvement. It first displays the entire Web page, then allows you to zoom in (two taps on the Storm's screen, a click of the trackball on the Bold) to the part you want.
That's where the Storm runs into trouble. Even zoomed in, it's difficult to select a text link on a page without accidentally selecting one above or below it. The Bold avoids this problem with a trackball-controlled cursor that flits around the page.
The lack of touchscreen precision hurts the Storm in other areas. Keys on the virtual keyboard light up as your finger brushes over them — but you can't see what they are because your finger's in the way. (The iPhone shows "pop-ups" of selected letters to get around this.)
The Bold, on the other hand, has not only the best keyboard I've ever seen on a smartphone — it's one of the best keyboards I've ever seen anywhere.
Each key depresses, clicks and bounces back with the comfort and precision of a Mercedes-Benz driver door, and is slightly scalloped to add just that much tactile feedback.
It's much easier to type an e-mail, edit a Word document or enter a URL on the Bold than on the Storm, making Web surfing more efficient on the former even though it's got half the screen size of the latter.
That brings me to the next bone to pick with the Storm: There's no Wi-Fi.
I know Verizon Wireless is notoriously stingy with Wi-Fi — it often switches off Wi-Fi chips when it brings Asian or European phones to this country — but the Storm doesn't even seem to have a chip built in.
In a 2008 smartphone, that's inexcusable. Trying to compete with the iPhone, the T-Mobile G1 and the Bold without offering Wi-Fi access is like going into battle without ammunition.
Even RIM's low-end offering for the fall, the BlackBerry Pearl Flip, has Wi-Fi — because it's on T-Mobile, not Verizon Wireless.
There is a bit of an upside: The Storm is one of the few handsets that can run on both Verizon's (and Sprint's) native CDMA network standard and the GSM networks common overseas.
But since AT&T already uses GSM, that means it only catches up to the Bold and the iPhone. (In my opinion, CDMA offers clearer calls with more range.)
To be frank, when Verizon's 3G EV-DO network signal is strong, its Internet access is almost as fast as Wi-Fi. It loads pages a bit faster than either the iPhone and the Bold, both of which use AT&T's HSDPA 3G technology (though not as quickly as the T-Mobile G1 phone, which has a very fast browser).
Verizon's 3G rollout reaches further into small cities and rural areas than any other carrier's, including AT&T's, but it still leaves vast areas untouched — which is why the Wi-Fi option is essential for users who live in Nebraska instead of Chicago.
Other problems with the Storm could be resolved with software upgrades. There's a noticeable lag time in switching between portrait and landscape mode when you reorient the phone.
The full horizontal keyboard gets even harder to use when the phone goes vertical and switches to the annoying "predictive" two-letter-per-key layout found on BlackBerry Pearls. Couldn't they just have made smaller keys?
Third-party applications such as Facebook and AvantGo have a hard time adjusting to the new layout, with the virtual keyboard either covering half the screen when entering text or refusing to go away when it's not being used. (Both applications work well on the Bold.)
The Storm does have the Bold beat in a couple of categories. I don't think I'd want to watch a full-length movie on the Bold's screen, for example. And flicking through applications is faster using your finger than a trackball.
And in one key area, the Storm rules. Its version of BrickBreaker, the block-smashing game built into every BlackBerry, lets you move the two-dimensional paddle directly with your fingertip, making for a much faster and more satisfying game than the hard-to-control one on the Bold.
Both models also offer a few things the iPhone doesn't — editing of Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, for example. Decent cameras with zoom, flash — and video. A MicroSD slot for removable memory cards.
Call quality is clear and signals are strong on both, which makes them better telephones than the iPhone, and they can attach images or music files to text messages, a feature Apple has mysteriously resisted.
The bottom line? The gorgeous Bold is a natural upgrade for the prosumer or corporate BlackBerry user, right down to the imitation leather covering the back.
There's really nothing wrong with it, and those who can justify the $300 price tag will find it money well spent.
As for the Storm, it's also physically stunning, but the software imperfections make it seem like it was rushed out the door for the Christmas shopping season before it was fully ready.
AT&T reportedly kept the Bold off the U.S. market for a few extra weeks so that the bugs could be worked out. Verizon Wireless should have done the same.