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Palm Pre

June 14th, 2009
A strong first effort by Palm in full touchscreen smartphones.

Weíve spent the last few days playing with the newly released Palm Pre and canít seem to put it down. It's one of the first phones outside of Apple to offer true multi-touch, and perhaps the only phone to make Internet data the centerpiece. In a word, we would say we are impressed; but the Pre as a first-edition model is certainly not without its faults both in hardware and, to a lesser extent, software. Whether these faults are enough to dissuade customers from considering the device over an iPhone -- or simply to opt for it in place of a BlackBerry or Windows Mobile phone -- is our ultimate question.

what's in the box and initial setup

Ever since Apple made high quality packaging cool, virtually every other competitor producing a designer phone has been trying to improve the quality of its own out-of-box experience. The Pre is no exception, and this is especially fitting as the Pre is clearly gunning for a cut of the market share that the iPhone currently commands.

In the box youíll find user manuals, a set of basic earbud headphones, a soft case, a micro USB cord, and an AC power adapter. The "Getting Started" manual was useful and provides a decent overview of the Pre's basic functions. We found the gesture guide especially useful as the Pre software only teaches you one gesture during its first time initialization; an odd choice given the new metaphors involved in controlling the device. Itís no surprise that the included earbuds have less than stellar sound quality, but they get the job done and can be replaced with others. At first the headphone jack contact produced a bit of static when touched but the static seemed to fade with use. We do like the suede case a lot; it fits the Pre like a glove. We were pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to get the Pre in and out of the case as itís not too tight or too loose. The Pre can be powered via an USB connection, so itís good Palm included the AC adapter as itís helpful, but not required.

Initial setup of the Pre takes less than ten minutes. The Pre will teach you the basic Ďbackí gesture, setup a Palm Profile account for you, and show you a preloaded video while the unit finalizes setup. Once this was done, all we had to do was setup a Gmail account by typing in the username and password. With this completed the Pre proceeded to sync all of the contacts from Google, our Gmail folders and inbox, and our Google calendar. We found the Google integration, at least, to be seamless.

hardware features, ports and design

The entire body of the Pre is slightly curved which makes it easy to hold in your hand. This curvature is especially noticeable when the keyboard is slid out. Somewhat disconcerting, however, are the somewhat sharp edges the Pre has when the keyboard is slid open. Our other major concern about the physical design is the somewhat loose feeling the unit has when the keyboard is slid shut. The two half units have too much wiggle from side to side and this gives a feeling of cheap craftsmanship.

The keyboard on the Pre is certainly small, but not so small as to be unusable. The keyboard uses a standard QWERTY layout and has some basic functions such as shift, delete, return, and a function button to unlock secondary characters on the keys. The keys are backlit and easy to see. Our biggest complaint about the keyboard is the closeness of the left and right halves (unlike a real QWERTY keyboard, this one is symmetrical). The T and Y, G and H, and V and B keys are very close together. We find bumping the Y key when trying to type a T happens all too often. Those with large hands or who simply don't fare well with small keyboards may, ironically, prefer the iPhone's keyboard simply for the room it gives.

The body of the Pre is a shiny black plastic except for the back of the screen, which becomes exposed when the keyboard is slid down; this section of casing is a shiny metal that is a primarily a smudge magnet but also doubles as a makeshift mirror for taking self portraits. On the back of the Pre youíll find a 3-megapixel camera that sports an LED flash. We found the picture quality acceptable and think the flash is a nice touch that Apple likely won't include on its own devices. It's certainly not high powered but does the job for subjects within three or four feet.

On top of the Pre is a headphone jack, a hard-to-find power button, and a switch to activate the phone's vibrate ringer. The vibrate switch seems cheaply made and a bit out of place on an otherwise sleek device. Volume controls are located on the left of the Pre, while the right side contains the micro USB port connection. We found the USB connection cover hard to remove and quite stiff, though this may well be an acceptable tradeoff as we wouldnít want the connection popping open during normal use. We did find it easiest to open when the keyboard was exposed. On the front, the home button could be confusing to newcomers: it would seem intuitive to make this double as a power toggle, but it simply functions to open the main desktop and program launcher. This section of the handset also contains the touch sensors that operate the Ďbackí gesture, which we see as unusual but cleverly hidden.

The touchscreen is truly a pleasure to use and is arguably the saving grace of the device from a hardware standpoint. Weíre not sure if the responsiveness is just well tuned (it's a capacitive display like the iPhone's) or if itís the little impact circles the screen displays as you touch it, but we really like this touchscreen. It's very bright and is easy to view in most conditions. The Pre contains the same 480x320 screen resolution as an iPhone screen but crams the pixels into just 3.1 inches instead of 3.5, making for an even more razor sharp viewing area.

webOS and software features

The webOS software that Palm developed to run the Pre is progressive to say the least. The feature that weíve found most useful, and the one the company lords over Apple, is the support for true multitasking. Palm calls each application a card and lets users switch by tapping those cards; they can also sort those cards if there's a preferred order. That said, there are limits. The Pre can run several cards at once but ran into some low memory errors when running two or more high-strain apps. We were running the e-mail client, Facebook in the web browser (not the Facebook app), and the digital camera when the Pre slowed to a crawl and asked us to close one of the cards. On the other hand, weíve also had the e-mail, calendar, contacts, music, and web browser apps all running simultaneously with no issue.

Palmís profile back up service allows Pre users to have Ďcloudí backup and restoration of contacts and phone numbers. Because of this service new owners will need to create a user account with Palm, but it enables the Pre to operate entirely independent of a computer and rarely if ever requires tethering; it's not just convenient but can be a lifesaver if the phone is replaced or wiped. The Pre can sync data to and from the Palm Profile service, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft Exchange, though some reports exist that a handful of Exchange networks aren't working correctly as of this writing and may require a patch. Also, the utility of the Facebook sync is debatable for some. Many of us have Facebook friends we rarely if ever speak to, and adding them carries the risk of cluttering the contact list.

real life usability: phoning, messaging, maps, sync

At times it's been easy to forget that the Pre is a cellphone and not just a computer. Itís easy to get caught up in all of the technology the phone has to offer, and we often find ourselves browsing the web and checking e-mail more than speaking through. The loss is ours. In practice, the Pre has excellent call quality on Sprint's network, and the dialing software is very easy to use. Its dialing system is reminiscent of the iPhone's both graphically and in terms of use. However, it has a slight edge in supporting stock MP3 music files as ringtones. Apple's hardware can support user-made ringtones but requires a separate audio editor and, in some circumstances, file conversion or renaming to accommodate the M4R format Apple prefers.

The e-mail application works like a champ. Basic e-mail functions of reading mail, opening links, and composing mail all work as smoothly as you'd hope for. We did find that Gmail accounts sync quickly, but not instantly. We would love to see tighter integration of Gmail. There is no simple way to archive or tag e-mails in the e-mail app as there are while using Gmail in a traditional web browser. Also, there's no way to batch delete e-mail messages as there is on an iPhone. They have to be removed one at a time, which can be a nuisance for frequent users.

The messaging platform is unique. It combines both SMS text messaging and instant messaging in one application. All messages are kept in conversation format, and several conversations can be tracked at once. We did find starting a new conversation via SMS cumbersome as you must first find the contact, then open the contact, then select SMS. Once conversations are running they can actively switch between SMS and instant messaging -- a unique touch no one else has. Pictures can be easily inserted into messages and seem to send quickly across Sprint's 3G network.

Contact management and calendaring on the Pre are both straightforward. Our biggest gripe with the system is viewing your calendar in the week view. When you do this you can see your scheduled and available times, but the Pre doesnít show any text details in those times without selecting the single day view. The calendar does allow full control over multiple calendars and even loaded Google Calendar's daily weather. The contact software loaded all of our Google contacts with ease and displayed a given contact's Google chat icon. Facebook profile photos are also an option.

When plugging the Pre into a computer, you're given the option to simply charge the Pre or to load content onto the device as mass storage. When the Pre is docked, though, the phone functionality is disabled and no calls or SMS messages can be made or received; it's an unfortunate setback compared to the iPhone. When linked, the Pre can function as a simple USB drive or -- in a non-Apple smartphone first -- can interface directly with iTunes for media transfer. Photos, music, and videos can be shuffled on and off the Pre with ease, which is rarely the case for most of these devices without using "gateway" software the way Nokia and Research in Motion require. The Pre also has built in support for paid music downloads (over Wi-Fi) through Amazon MP3. We found this software to be straightforward and very easy to use.

We took the opportunity to take a one hour, literal test drive with the included Google Maps/GPS feature. We found the GPS to be accurate and load quickly. It will also seem very familiar to iPhone owners as it has many of the same core features. Even when loading the satellite image view, we found the 3G network was able to keep up at an adequate pace.

The Pre does support cut, copy, and paste functions, but not in all instances and not to the same extent as Apple's iPhone OS 3.0 software. We tried e-mailing ourselves an address to copy and paste into Google Maps and couldnít find a way to copy the text in the e-mail software. The same goes for web content: there was no copy function. The copy function works in composition windows for e-mail and messaging as well as in the tasks and memo applications. The memo application is simple and easy to use, but the tasks app isnít as intuitive as we would like.

We found the webOS browser to function very similarly to mobile Safari, which isn't surprising as they both have multi-touch input and WebKit as their underlying rendering engines. Pages optimized for mobile viewing worked great, and non-optimized pages loaded accurately as well, making it a far cry from the crude browsers used in previous PalmOS and Windows Mobile Treos. Browsing through non-mobile pages involves pinch and double-tap gestures just like on the iPhone to center on a particular image or piece of text, and before long the experience is natural. Palm's clearest advantage here is its use of the accelerometer, or tilt sensor: where the regular iPhone 3G has a short delay and only rotates the browser view one direction, the Pre's rotation is near-instantaneous and works in virtually any cardinal direction.

Overall the user experience is good and could well be startling for those that assumed only Apple could understand easy-to-use interfaces. The only major, consistent gripe we have is a small delay in opening and closing apps. The delay isnít huge, but it is noticeable and at times detracts from the otherwise excellent user experience.

pricing, service, and wrapping up

The Pre retails for $199 with a two-year plan. As little as a week ago (as of this writing) we would have called this a competitive price, but with the iPhone now starting at only $99, Apple seems to have established a new smartphone price point. For half as much as what Sprint asks, buyers can get a similar screen, 3G, 8GB of storage, GPS and Wi-Fi. It's not an entirely clear-cut proposition, however. The Pre has faster components and, of course, can run multiple apps where Apple's software is, even with background notifications, limited to running one app at a time. For some this difference may be worth the price.

There is the question of third-party apps, however. Palm's decision to limit the webOS SDK to a small group of developers early on has left it with just 18 third-party (albeit useful) programs on the App Catalog in the few days since launch. Apple's iPhone App Store, by comparison, has 40,000. No doubt webOS will expand significantly over coming weeks and months, but if having a specific app is absolutely necessary before an upgrade, the Pre may simply not be an option. Thankfully, Palm is at least starting off with third-party support and apps available.

Network stability may well be a selling point for some. While Sprint isnít as big a carrier as AT&T or Verizon we didnít have any service issues and feel that Palm's phone could well be the better choice in certain regions. Many New Yorkers and San Franciscans can attest to AT&T's 3G network being all but unusable in these areas with an iPhone as the networks don't have the capacity to handle the very data-intensive devices. We think that Verizon adding the phone soon would be smart move for both Palm and Verizon. Verizon needs the Pre as a further weapon against AT&T beyond the BlackBerry Storm, and Palm needs several carriers offering the Pre to boost its flagging smartphone market. Reliable rumors have suggested this will happen as soon as January 2010, so those who like Verizon's network won't have too much longer to wait.

A succinct way to describe the Pre is as a software success and a (mild) hardware failure. The sharp edges, flimsy feel, and smudged keys in the middle of the keyboard can just be too much for some users. The software is very well done, however, and we canít wait to see what improvements Palm has coming down the pike. Better Exchange support and true 3D gaming are some of what we've heard are likely Would we buy a Pre to use as a main phone? Yes, we would. The Pre is a compelling alternative to both the iPhone and the BlackBerry Storm even with its flaws as the first webOS handset. The winning combination of a real QWERTY keyboard, excellent touch screen, Google integration, multitasking, and multimedia support is enough to win most over despite misgivings with the hardware it's attached to.

- True, easy multitasking in a touchscreen phone.

- webOS an excellent first effort; intuitive and Internet-savvy.

- Hardware QWERTY keyboard many people want.

- Great multi-touch display.

- Native iTunes sync and Amazon MP3 purchasing.

- Palm Profile for online backups of important data; less need for a PC.

- Somewhat flimsy build quality; sharp edges.

- Keyboard too small, especially near the center.

- Small third-party app library on launch.

- More expensive than (slower) iPhone at press time.

- Delay when launching apps for the first time.