Palm Pre: An Inside Look at Its Hardware and Software

The new Palm Pre smartphone is slickly designed and offers lots to like, but it also has a few flaws. Let's dive in.

At Home With the Quick Launch Bar

The Palm Pre smartphone has built up tremendous tech buzz over the past few months. It doesn't disappoint: The $200 phone (with a two-year Sprint contract) has a slick design, and an even slicker interface. The Pre's gorgeous, 3.1-inch, 320-by-480-pixel capacitive touch display dominates the phone, sitting front and center. Running along the the bottom of the home screen is the phone's Quick Launch bar, which gives you fast access to frequently used functions such as e-mail, contacts, the calendar, or any shortcut of your choosing.

Next: Smooth and Easy to Hold

Smooth and Easy to Hold

The back plate of the Pre is smooth, with a soft, rubberized finish; together with the Pre's compact size, the finish makes the phone very easy to hold. Visible at the upper right is the large speaker area. Phone audio from the speaker sounds crisp and clear, and not as tinny as we've heard from some handsets. You press a slim button at the bottom of the phone to release the back cover, a process that's easier if you have long fingernails. You'll need to replace the cover if you want to use the Touchstone charger (more on that later), or if you want to replace the battery (a boon considering that phones like the Apple iPhone 3G continue to leave the battery locked inside the chassis).

Next: Camera Lens and Self-Portrait Mirror

Camera Lens and Self-Portrait Mirror

The phone packs a 3.0-megapixel camera with an LED flash but no zoom. One convenient touch is the built-in mirror for self-portraits. The mirror is on the back plate of the display; you just slide the screen up to reveal this clever feature. (Ahem, how often do we all hold a camera an arm's length away to take a snap? Exactly.) Despite its less-than-impressive specs, the Pre’s camera took satisfactory pictures. In our snaps, the LED flash did a good job. Dimly lit indoor environments had sharp details and fairly accurate color. Outdoor shots looked even better, with excellent color saturation and very little image noise or distortion. The camera lacks a dedicated shutter button, though; you have to press an on-screen button.

Next: Standard 3.5mm Headphone Jack and Ringer Switch

Standard 3.5mm Headphone Jack and Ringer Switch

The top of the Pre retains Palm's slider switch for turning off the phone's volume, and it has a shortcut to jump to airplane mode (something that travelers will appreciate). A standard 3.5mm headphone jack, a welcome feature for any multimedia phone, is located next to the switch. On the other side of the switch is the Pre's tiny power button. When you press it, a menu pops up for you to choose whether to turn the handset off, switch to airplane mode, or cancel.

Next: Comfy Curve

Comfy Curve

This view shows the graduated curvature of the Palm Pre. The curve works well: Not only does it increase the comfort of the Pre in your hand, but it also makes the screen more easily readable (in direct sunlight the angle helps minimize glare, while indoors the angle helps keep you from craning your neck in uncomfortable ways). On the left spine of the phone, an inch down from the top, you can (barely) see the dedicated volume up and down buttons. Unfortunately, though the buttons are slightly raised, they still feel fairly recessed when it comes time to press them. That’s more of an issue when the screen is up--then, the buttons are virtually impossible to depress, because they’re either flush with the screen itself or, in the case of volume up, beneath it.

Next: Right Spine

Right Spine

On the right spine sits the cover for the micro-USB charger. The cover is sturdily attached, and it's made from plastic, the same as the chassis; it blends in well and stays in place. Again, though, fingernails will come in handy here: Without them, removing the cover is virtually impossible. If it were not awkwardly situated on the side like this (which, incidentally, makes talking on the phone while charging a pain), the cover would feel superfluous. (Read our blog post "Palm Pre: Why I'm on the Fence" for more.) Most phones don't bother blocking the critical connection bits anymore.

Next: The Gesture Area

The Gesture Area

A flick here, a motion there. The gesture area is assigned to the lower section of the phone, an area just shy of an inch tall that sits below the display. Here, you can use gestures to navigate the phone; these gestures supplement the gestures you can do on the multitouch screen itself (now-familiar motions such as sliding your finger left and right for scrolling to another screen, or pinching and squeezing for zooming in to an image). The gesture area supports such motions as flicking your finger on an arc back or up to move through content. As for the center home button, it's just that, a button--we wish that it could navigate, as well (as the trackball does on RIM BlackBerry units).

Next: The Keyboard

The Keyboard

We almost feel like we should put this text in all caps, considering how much has been made of contrasting physical-keyboard phones with software-keyboard ones (comparisons in which physical keyboards often win out). In this case, though, the physical QWERTY keyboard is a disappointment: The keys are slightly recessed, and we found that the bezel lip on the sides and bottom often interfered with our typing. Furthermore, the top row is a few millimeters too close to the edge of the slider screen, so you have to angle your fingers to press those keys. While the keys weren’t too tiny for our small hands, some of our colleagues found them quite cramped. In addition, the keys feel gummy (as those on the Palm Centro do), and they lack the clickable quality you find on RIM BlackBerry devices such as the BlackBerry Bold, or even on earlier Palm models (like the Treo 680).

Next: Stylish Touchstone Charger

Stylish Touchstone Charger

Palm makes charging sexy with its Touchstone Charging Kit. The $70 kit provides a special back plate, as well as a slanted dock whose surface uses inductive charging technology. Inside the Touchstone are inductive coils that generate an electromagnetic field that then transmits charge through the special back cover for the Pre. It's slick, because it requires no wires. Palm has done a good job customizing the Pre for use with the Touchstone, too; for example, if you place the phone on the dock while you're on a call, it will automatically reroute the call to the speakerphone.

Next: The Launch Screen

The Launch Screen

The Launcher houses all of the Pre's apps and tools. You can customize the arrangement of the icons to your liking, and it has plenty of room to add more. Out of the box, your Pre's Quick Launch bar will have the dialer, contacts, e-mail, and calendar shortcuts, but you can customize that as well from the Launcher. You simply drag the icon you wish to remove off the Quick Launch bar and onto the screen, and then drag an icon from the Launcher and drop it where you want it placed.

Other apps that come loaded on the Pre include YouTube, Google Maps, the Amazon MP3 store, a PDF viewer, a document viewer, a calculator, a task list, and a memo board (which looks like a corkboard). You can also access the Palm App Catalog to buy more. Sprint apps, such as Sprint TV and NASCAR Sprint Cup Mobile, are also preinstalled on the phone.

Next: Multitasking Made Easy With Card View

Multitasking Made Easy With Card View

Like Google Android, Palm's webOS can handle full multitasking--something the iPhone OS can't do. The Pre manages multitasking with a deck-of-cards visualization: You can view each of your open applications at once, shuffle them any way you choose, and then discard the ones you want to close. You accomplish all of that with gestures that mimic handling a physical deck of cards. Apps remain live, even when minimized into the card view, so changes can continue to happen in real time, even if you've moved on to another activity.

Next: Full HTML Browser

Full HTML Browser

The Pre’s full HTML Web browser renders pages beautifully. You can have as many browser windows open as you want (you're limited only by the available memory), and you can still save pages for offline viewing (for example, while in flight)--a huge boon that Palm OS devices have always had and competing devices lack. Pages loaded quickly for us, as well. When we used Sprint's 3G network, the home page took about 20 seconds to load. Over Wi-Fi, the site took about 14 seconds to load.

Navigating the browser is easy thanks to the Pre's multitouch technology. To zoom in on an area of a page, you simply pinch out. To zoom out, you pinch in. You can also double-tap to zoom in and out if you prefer, and you can view pages in both portrait and landscape modes.

Next: Flexible Music Player

Flexible Music Player

Syncing your media with the Pre is a snap. You can load your DRM-free music via iTunes or do it manually with an easy drag-and-drop. The media player is pretty standard: You can view your music library by artist, album, songs, or genre, see album art, and create playlists. And, of course, you can run the music app in the background.

The Pre supports MP3, AAC, AAC+, WAV, and AMR files. Music through the included earbuds sounded clear with no noise or static, but it lacked bass. You can also access Amazon's Mobile Music Store from the Music app, for purchasing and downloading DRM-free tracks directly to your phone.

Next: Gorgeous 'Now Playing' Screen

Gorgeous 'Now Playing' Screen

The Now Playing screen displays the song and artist title as well as the corresponding album art. If you listen to your music in shuffle mode, the screen shows the album art from the previous and subsequent songs on either side of the currently playing album. You can also switch to playlist view by tapping an icon in the upper-right corner. Shuffle and repeat buttons sit in the left and right corner, respectively.

Related Stories:

Read our full Palm Pre review.

Watch our video of the Palm Pre in action.

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors