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.
Sliding the phone open isn't quite as silky a process as we'd like, and we often hit an icon on the screen by accident. Also, the open Pre has a rather sharp plastic edge. It didn't injure us, but neither did it give us the warm, fuzzy feeling that the rest of the device did.
One advantage of the Pre's slider design is that, unlike many touchscreen handsets, it feels like an actual phone when you hold it up to your face. It has a slight curve and it's comfortable, unlike the iPhone, which feels like you're holding a fridge door against your cheek.
Once open, the Pre reveals its teeny, tiny keyboard. Although we didn't have any accuracy problems when using our fingernails, the jelly-like keys aren't easy to press. We'd suggest giving the keyboard a try before taking the Pre home, especially if you have big fingers or you bite your nails.
Another issue is the lack of any on-screen keyboard. If you're surfing in landscape orientation and want to type in some text quickly, you've no choice but to slide the keyboard open and turn the phone around, or learn to type sideways.
Synergy's not just a buzzword
The Pre uses Palm's Synergy application, which means that it will pull in contact info from Facebook and Gmail, and appointments from Google Calendar and Outlook, and stick them all together so that you can view your whole messy online life in a neat blob. We tried Synergy out, and it had no trouble merging the info from the different sources. We found it painless to manually link the contacts it didn't recognise.
Unfortunately, Synergy doesn't yet support Twitter, MySpace or any of the host of other social-networking efforts, although Palm has promised us an imminent update that will include LinkedIn. There's also an instant-messaging client that should help you chat as well as text, but it only supports Google Talk and AOL Instant Messenger.
You'll need to sign up for a Palm Profile account to use Synergy. Palm promises that, at launch, you'll be able to log into your profile online to manage your phone and erase it remotely if it gets lost or stolen. We weren't able to test these features because the site wasn't up and running at the time of this review.
Synergy isn't the bleeding-edge innovation that it was a few months ago, when the Pre was first announced. Now the HTC Hero, Motorola Dext and Samsung H1 with Vodafone 360 have popped up, shamelessly waving their social-networking features around like horny lobsters. But it's well-implemented on the Pre, and it's a feature that we're really starting to get addicted to.
The rest of the built-in software is similarly well-designed, including a music player so slick you could slide off it. Web browsing is fast and accurate thanks to Wi-Fi, HSDPA and a good on-board browser, and Google Maps works as smoothly as usual.
Applications can be slightly slow to start up at times, and the phone itself takes an eternity to boot up, but it's nothing serious. Maybe the recent firmware upgrade can take the credit for the fact that the Pre is one of the most responsive touchscreen phones we've tested, although the iPhone 3GS' super-snappy UI still has the edge.
Catalog of errors
Unfortunately, when you decide it's time to go off-piste and hit the App Catalog, things come crashing to a brutal and sudden halt. There are a few decent apps on there, but mostly there's just the sound of rolling tumbleweeds, especially when you compare it to the monstrously packed Apple App Store or the burgeoning Android Market. A Facebook app is missing, and some of the flagship apps that you may have read about, like the Pandora streaming radio app, are only available in the US.
It's not even good news that all the apps are free. It may be because they're free that there aren't more apps on the store, since developers will lack an incentive to get creative until Palm gets its payment scheme sorted out.
Palm's app store is also missing many of the features that we've come to love on the Apple App Store, like the ability to browse apps online. Palm tells us that the App Catalog will be beefing up soon, with new features including support for paid-for apps, but, in the meantime, the Pre is dragging a broken leg behind it.
Touch my stone
Of course, all this smart-phone power means that the Pre drains its battery like nobody's business. Palm admits that you'll need to be careful with battery life and charge the Pre every day. The company suggests that we all rush to the shops to pick up the Touchstone charger, which is a little wireless charging platform that juices up your Pre while it's sitting on your desk. The Touchstone looks cool, but we don't think we'd bother spending roughly £40 on it and the special back cover you also have to buy for the phone.
We found that, if we didn't put the Pre on the Touchstone in just the right place, it wouldn't charge, and you can't charge with it over USB, or sync the phone via the Touchstone. Since we can do all that with a standard micro-USB cable, we'd rather save a few bob and take the time to pry open the Pre's fiddly USB socket cover.
The Palm Pre is a lovely, intuitive and fast phone that's a pleasure to poke. Its touchscreen user interface is exemplary. Thanks to Palm's intelligent use of gesture and multi-touch functionality, the smooth, pebble-like case needs hardly any buttons. Typing on the extra-small physical keyboard may be problematic for some, though.
Synergy smoothly brings your online accounts together, although it only supports a handful of services, and the excellent Web browser is just one example of a well-rounded suite of on-board applications. But the App Catalog is still a tiny sprout, rather than a full-blown garden of delights like the Apple App Store and Android Market.
Edited by Charles Kloet