The Palm Pre may have rocked up in the UK a few months after its US release, but it's definitely been worth the wait. With a round, caressable case and a gorgeous, smooth user interface, the Pre is a pleasure to use, as long as you can handle its teeny, tiny, slide-out keyboard. Its ability to multi-task gives it a leg up on the iPhone, but it does have one enormous flaw: the Palm App Catalog app store is taking longer to be born than a baby elephant.
The Pre is available exclusively on O2, from free on a £34.26-per-month, 24-month contract.
Pick a card, any card
The Pre shows that Palm understands what a touchscreen should be: a touchable, smooth user interface that you can really get your fingers into. WebOS and its flickable 'deck of cards' UI is a pleasure to use, with each tap of your finger triggering a tiny ripple animation on the screen.
The deck-of-cards feature sounds fancy, but it's simply a way of showing what applications you have open at one time, by displaying each as a rounded window that takes up the home screen. To open a running app, you tap a card, and you flick it away to the top of the screen to close it. It's an elegant way of helping you manage the Pre's ability to multi-task, but it didn't quite live up to our hopes. Each card just shows the app in suspended animation, so you can't use the cards as home-screen widgets, like you might see on the HTC Hero, displaying a live ticker of tweets or status updates, for example.
There are a couple of exceptions to this frozen state. For example, the messaging app shows your latest texts, the music player shows the current song, and the clock always stays accurate. But you won't be able to load Web pages in the background or see your latest tweets -- you'll have to open the app to see your latest tweets and post your own.
The deck-of-cards feature means that you can't add shortcuts or icons to your home screen, and you don't see alerts there. Instead, notifications pop up at the bottom of the screen. It's a good, unobtrusive way of letting you know that you have a new email or text, and you can also control the music player down there. When you're sick of an alert, you can flick it away and the notification area slides discreetly out of view, in another example of the Pre's finger-friendly design.
The Pre also has multi-touch support, which means you can zoom into a map, photo or Web page with a pinch of your fingers. We've seen multi-touch capability on other phones, but it's jerky and annoying on LG phones and it's not available in some places on the Hero. The Pre's multi-touch functionality is wonderfully smooth. It's in the same league as that of the multi-touch pioneer, the iPhone.
Smooth like a pebble
All this swiping and wiping takes place on a beautiful, responsive touchscreen, and there's also a touch-sensitive area underneath the screen. Aside from a home button, which looks oddly like a trackball but isn't, the Pre does away with the mess of buttons that we've seen on recent Android phones. This gives the phone a smooth, rounded appearance when the slider is closed, although it's impossible to keep the shiny finish fingerprint-free.