The Palm Pre smartphone ($200 with a two-year contract from Sprint as of 6/4/09), along with the company’s much-anticipated webOS operating system, has had quite the buzz building up since its splashy launch in January. While the Pre isn’t perfect, it definitely does not disappoint: I found the WebOS interface clean, engaging, and intuitive. My main issues were with the hardware itself.
The glossy-black Pre has a uniquely curved slider body that’s dominated by its 3.1-inch, 320-by-480-pixel capacitive touch display. The screen slides up and curves slightly toward you, a design intended to resist glare and make the phone feel comfortable in your hand and against your face. Especially in brightly lit environments, the slight angle made viewing the screen easier than on the average phone. Measuring 3.9 by 2.3 by 0.7 inches, the Pre is incredibly pocketable, more so than a device like Apple’s iPhone 3G; it even fits unobtrusively into a woman’s jeans pocket, a rare feat for a full-QWERTY smartphone.
Unfortunately, Palm seems to have sacrificed keyboard usability in the interest of compactness. While I appreciated having a physical keyboard, I disliked the design. The vertical slide-out QWERTY keyboard looks and feels much like that on the Palm Centro; here, the keys are glossy black with orange-hued lettering and different colors to designate the embedded keypad. The keys are slightly recessed, however, and I found that the bezel lip on the sides and bottom often interfered with my 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. Though the keyboard slides out smoothly, it also feels a bit flimsy, as if it could snap off with too much use.
The keys weren’t too tiny for my small hands, but some of my colleagues found them quite cramped. On top of that, the keys feel gummy (as those on the Centro do) and lack the clickable quality you find on RIM BlackBerry devices. The Pre has no touch keyboard, either, so until a third-party developer creates an app for one, you’re stuck using the physical keyboard.
A positive note: I enountered no lag between my typing and the appearance of text on screen, an annoying experience I’ve had with other devices.
Fortunately, the Pre has a touch number pad for making calls. Call quality over Sprint’s 3G network was very good overall, though I heard an echo on one call to a landline. Parties on the other end of the line said that my voice had ample volume and sounded very clear–even when I was on a busy street corner. None of my calls dropped, and I didn’t hear any static, nor did my contacts. Battery life, unfortunately, wasn’t as good. In our PC World battery life tests, the Pre had a word score of “Fair,” clocking in at only 5 hours and 17 minutes of average battery talk time. This puts the Pre slightly lower than the iPhone, which had 5 hours and 38 minutes of talk time.
Aside from the keyboard, another disappointment is the Pre’s lack of removable memory: The unit comes fixed at 8GB of storage. Unlike the iPhone 3G, the Pre does not come in a 16GB model–at least not at this time. You can tether the unit to a PC with a USB cable, and transfer files directly from the PC to the phone, which is recognized as a mass storage device.
Controlling the Pre relies on a handful of primary gestures on its capacitive touchscreen and in its gesture area, which sits below the display on the phone’s black surface. The device supports the increasingly familiar gestures for scrolling, paging, going back (a backward swipe), and pinch and zoom. The gesture area replaces Palm’s previous dedicated navigation buttons and controls.
On its face the Pre has only one button, a rounded Center button that acts as a home button. I was happy to see that the top of the unit retains Palm’s slider switch for turning off the phone’s volume, and it also has a shortcut to jump to airplane mode (something that travelers will appreciate). The standard 3.5mm headphone jack is located next to the switch as well. The Pre’s volume rocker is on the right spine and the mini-USB charging port is on the left side. The back of the phone houses the 3-megapixel camera lens, a large self-portrait mirror, and the smartphone’s removable battery.
With the Pre, Palm also debuts its long-delayed new phone operating system, webOS. In my extended hands-on, I found webOS one of the silkiest and best-designed smartphone platforms to come along in a while–it’s right up there with Apple’s iPhone OS and Google’s Android.
But webOS does have a few quirks. For the most part, though webOS is zippy to navigate through, apps sometimes loaded slowly and the organization and placement of certain features was a bit confusing or counterintuitive at times.
The home-screen interface has customizable application widgets running at the bottom. Touch a widget, and the app instantly pops up. Unfortunately, you can display only four shortcuts of your choosing (plus the Launcher shortcut, which you can’t switch out) at a time.
Like Google Android, Palm’s webOS can handle full multitasking–something that iPhone OS 2.0 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 do 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. Overall, I found this arrangement a playful and intuitive experience for managing multiple apps.
webOS also has a great notifications feature, a small alert that pops up at the bottom of the screen when you have an incoming call, text message, or e-mail, but that alert comes up without interrupting the app you have open (similar to Google Android). Though the notifications are nifty, I found their placement–below the Quick Launch Bar–a bit annoying: I kept accidentally hitting the Notifications when I wanted the Launch Bar (or vice versa). I prefer Google Android’s layout, in which the notifications run across the top of the screen. Notifications also pop up on the Pre’s stand-by screen.
Fans of Palm OS will be happy to know that the Pre retains the copy-and-paste function: You simply hold down Shift on the keyboard and then drag on the touchscreen to select the desired block of text. Afterward you open the application menu in the upper-left corner of the screen and select copy, cut, or paste.
Social Networking Synergy
One of the most important components of webOS is its ability to synchronize, and synthesize, information from various sources into one seamless, integrated view. Palm calls this concept “Synergy,” and it is incorporated into the contacts, e-mail, and messaging applications. For example, you can sync the Pre to your Google, Facebook, and Microsoft Exchange accounts; it will grab your contacts from those accounts, and all of them will appear in the Pre’s Contacts app.
On the surface, the idea of having all of your contacts pulled into one list seems like a good approach. In practice, however, I found it a bit overwhelming–and honestly, I’m not sure if it’s for me. A lot of my Facebook friends are not people I regularly communicate with, so having them appear in my Contacts was a bit unnerving. And unfortunately, you don’t get a way to load specific contact lists from those accounts–it’s either all of your contacts or none.
If you’d rather use a desktop app to store your contacts, calendar, and tasks, such as iCal and Address Book (Macs) or the desktop Outlook or Palm Desktop (PCs), you can download a third-party app that can sync your desktop software to a Google account. You can then sync your Google account to the Pre. You can also sync Outlook directly with your Pre over Wi-Fi using the third-party app PocketMirror (currently available in the Palm Apps Catalog).
The Calendar app has color coordination and multiple calendar support. The big news is that you can subscribe to public and specific calendars, like those on Google and Facebook. If you use the Pre to add something to your Google calendar, for instance, that info will sync with the details on Google’s Calendar Web site (though it takes a few hours to appear online).
Likewise, the Synergy e-mail app makes checking and searching through multiple e-mail accounts easy. Select a contact, and webOS will autopopulate an e-mail message with that contact’s info. Better still, if you have multiple e-mail accounts set up, you can choose which address to send from while within the message.
The Messaging application now combines both SMS and instant messaging under a single umbrella. The conversations are threaded (as they are on current Palm OS-based phones), and they can represent ongoing conversations with one contact, across multiple systems (for example, you can start the conversation via text, and continue in AOL Instant Messenger if your contact goes offline).
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 (say, while in flight)–a huge boon that Palm OS devices have always had, and that competing devices lack.
In addition to the messaging software, the Pre comes loaded with a few other apps: 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 Sprint’s NASCAR program, are preinstalled on the phone as well.
Syncing your media with the Pre is a snap. You can load your 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. Pre users will have access to Amazon’s Mobile Music Store, also seen on the Google Android-based T-Mobile G1. The store makes downloading DRM-free tracks directly to the phone simple.
Video quality was also quite good on the Pre’s gorgeous display. The Pre has a dedicated video player that supports MPEG-4, H.263, and H.264. The YouTube app, which comes preloaded on the device, delivers video in high-quality H.264 format regardless of whether you’re on Wi-Fi or on Sprint’s EvDO network.
The camera is adequate, offering 3.0 megapixels and an LED flash, but no zoom (a feature that even some midrange phones carry). Despite its less-than-impressive specs, the Pre’s camera took satisfactory pictures. In my snaps, the LED flash did a good job; dimly lit indoor environments had sharp details and fairly accurate color. My outdoor shots looked ever better, with excellent color saturation and little image noise or distortion.
Since the camera lacks a dedicated shutter button, you have to press an on-screen button. Not having a physical shutter can create instability in the camera, thus producing blurry pictures. The best way to prevent that is to shoot with the keyboard out–steadying the phone is easier that way. From the camera’s screen, you can access the photo album. Unfortunately, I experienced more sluggishness in the album than I did anywhere else in webOS: Flicking through pictures was slow, and sometimes the screen would freeze between pictures, showing half of one image and half of the next.
The Pre also doesn’t have video recording, a capability that the second-generation iPhone also lacks. But since the OS is open source, a video-recording app could be forthcoming.
Hardware flaws aside, the Palm Pre made a solid impression on me. Its eye-catching design and smooth operation make this smartphone the most exciting device I’ve seen in a while.
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