Blackberry Thunder Revisited

A few months ago I mentioned the fact that – despite the loud and rather public dismissal of touchscreens by Mike Lazaridis – the folks up at RIM were indeed working on an iPhone inspired and touchscreen-based device that they privately referred to as the “Apple Killer” or “AK” if you were one of the cool kids in the RIM development labs.

That device is now pretty much ready to hit the street. Units are in the hands of the folks at Verizon for pre-release testing and just to confuse the issue they are going to sell it as the “Storm” in the USA (or at least with Verizon), the “Thunder” in Canada (and probably the rest of the world), and – because they still love their numbers up in Waterloo – the marketing drones at RIM will still call it the 9530.

Aside – regardless you were either wanting 3G speed, or not caring because most of the 3G networks in North America suck ass, the “30” at the end of the model number means that the Storm / Thunder / whatever is packing CDMA instead of 3G, so that is one less thing to worry yourself about. Whether that holds true in Canada will have to wait until we see the number that gets attached to the Thunder when it hits the Rogers inventory lists on this side of the border.

However – all of that is window dressing. What is important here is that I got to spend some quality time with the Thunder recently, sequestered in the back corner of a high-security top-secret facility known as a Second Cup. There is a lot to like about where RIM is going with this model, but also a lot of really silly and downright puzzling things that may serve to drag down and make ordinary what could be a seriously awesome device … one that has the potential to be a killer step forward for the rather moribund products currently being sold under the Blackberry name.

First and foremost, and something long overdue, is a touchscreen and electronic keyboard. This is an absolute must for offering a satisfying and usable mobile web experience, something that has passed both email and phone as the most important thing people want from their smartphone / palmtop / whatever they are calling mobiles this week. It also gives you the ability to serve markets that use other alphabets and languages without having to product double handfuls of different hardware, you just select a different language and off you go. And I have to say that this is the most incredible touchscreen I have ever typed on – it has a tactile “give” when you press it and it “clicks” under your fingers in much the same way the Wii remote does when you use the onscreen keyboard and it is totally awesome. I don’t know how they did it, but they did. Absolutely amazing, except for one thing that puts the brakes on the whole thing. When the device is in the standard upright portrait mode, the keyboard comes up as a SureType pad:

Blackberry Thunder - SureType keypad

WTF?

There is more than enough room to put a full QWERTY keyboard on the screen, why in the hell would they go to the horror of SureType? I can only guess that they were worried that their core users would not be able to give up “edging” their keys when they type and make the leap of faith that you need to type on an iPhone-style keyboard, where you plant your finger right on the key and cover it up entirely. These keys are huge and were obviously designed to let users hit the edges of the things and still see the letter underneath. It’s too bad, because this would have been a champ to type on all day long with a proper layout of keys.

Oh -if you are wondering about the seriously bad pictures, I apologise profusely for the poorly framed and kind of blurry results. I took them surreptitiously while hovering my iPhone over the unit to “compare sizes” and I was lucky to get these at all. So shush.

The problem with the keyboard layout disappears when you turn the unit on its side, however, and it copies the iPhone’s functionality by swapping the screen into landscape mode and giving you a wider keyboard:

Blackberry Thunder - real QWERTY pad

This is more like it! It would be just about perfect except for – once again – the size of the damn keys! They have kept the gigantic keys here, and they eat so much real estate that you are left with a teeny ribbon of screen space to actually see what you are typing. It’s a huge disappointment and glaring flaw in the UI that seems to reinforce the fact that there is a lot of inertia up at RIM and the old guard still has the ability to put the brakes on real changes.

This is reinforced by the fact that the address book and calendar are the same weak efforts that we have seen before, and the whole UI at the “ribbon” (yeah, I still call it that) is the same thing as on current models. The only real difference is that scrolling around the ribbon is damn near impossible, and switching back and forth from the touch screen to the hard keys at the bottom and back is really, really, really awkward.

But – and this is a great but – since everything is in firmware, they can work the bugs out as they go. And regardless of the limitations at this point, this a giant leap forward for both RIM and the culture up in Waterloo. Changes are definitely afoot at RIM, and for the better. I just hope it isn’t too late.

As far as other “two thumbs up” items go, it does use WebKit for the browser engine which immediately puts it head and shoulders above anything coming out on the Android platform, and the long-standing memory crunch that RIM products have been crippled by has been solved by the simple – and completely sensible – method of putting a microSD slot in the thing. Expandable and manageable memory has look been a staple in regular computers, why not in handhelds? Great call there. The Verizon model will ship with an 8GB card in the slot, and they are supposedly offering a super-cheap upgrade at the point of sale. You can expect that Rogers will cheap out and give you 2GB or an empty slot for the same price. But a quick trip to Costco solves that right quick.

The “Storm” should hit the shelves in the U.S. in very early November. The original plan was mid-October, but sales and setup training for the Verizon employees is running right up until the first day of November. And look for Rogers to start pumping this out in early January, with a very outside chance at getting it on the shelves before Christmas.

Stay tuned.

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