For the past six months, all eyes have been on the Palm Pre. Indeed, there hasn't been so much buzz over a phone since the advent of the iPhone. Introduced at CES 2009, the Pre quickly became the most anticipated phone of the year, not only because of what it means for the struggling Palm but also because of what the device itself promises. The multitasking features, notification system, physical keyboard and multitouch screen combined to make it seem, in many people's opinion, the most legitimate rival to the iPhone yet.
Six months later and the Palm Pre is finally ready for release in the US. We've spent the past few days poring over every detail of the device so that we can answer the all-important question: is it better than the iPhone? Like the T-Mobile G1, there are some hardware and performance issues, and we're concerned about a few missing features, but we walked away impressed with the Palm webOS.
The UK version of the Palm Pre is expected to become available in time for Christmas on O2, with pricing yet to be announced. It will go on sale in the US on 6 June for $200 (£130) with a two-year contract and after a $100 (£65) mail-in rebate.
The Pre's design is unlike that of any smart phone we've seen to date, but, if we had to give a point of comparison, we'd say it resembles the HTC Touch. With its smooth, black, lacquered finish and rounded edges, it looks rather like a pebble. Like Apple with the iPhone, Palm has opted to keep it simple, keeping external controls to a minimum.
The face of the device only has one control: a centre button that takes you back to the 'deck of cards' view. The centre key is slightly deceiving in that it looks similar to a trackball navigator, so there were times when, out of habit, we would try to navigate a page by trying to scroll up and down using the button, but you can only press it like a key.
On top of the unit, there's a power button, a silent ringer switch, and a 3.5mm headphone jack, which we're always happy to see. The left side features a volume rocker, while the micro-USB port is on the right. Finally, on the back, you'll find the camera, flash, speaker and removable battery.
In its closed state, the Pre measures 58 by 99 by 15mm, and weighs 135g. It fits well in the palm of the hand and is certainly more pocket-friendly than the iPhone. Some have worried about the durability of the phone, since it's made of plastic. We didn't throw it off a building to test it, but it feels quite solid. The phone is a smudge and fingerprint magnet, though, and the slider design can feel slightly rickety at times.
The sliding mechanism is smooth, however, and the screen clicks securely into place when pushed up. There's a slight curve to the phone in its open state, and we prefer keeping it that way when talking on the phone, since it feels more comfortable against the cheek.
The Pre's display is one of the main highlights of the phone. It measures 79mm (3.1 inches) diagonally, so it's smaller than the screen of the iPhone and some other touchscreen devices, such as the T-Mobile G1 and the Samsung Omnia. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in quality.
The 24-bit colour HVGA display is vibrant and sharp with its 320x480-pixel resolution. Images, text and Web pages all look amazing. We'd say it's on a par with, if not slightly crisper looking than, the iPhone's screen. Under the preferences menu, there are settings to adjust the screen's brightness and backlight time. You can also customise the phone with preinstalled wallpaper, or use your own images and set them as your background.
The Pre's display has a built-in accelerometer, so the screen orientation will automatically change from portrait to landscape mode when viewing photos, videos and Web pages. The accelerometer is fast and changes pages without any lag. There's also a proximity sensor that will automatically turn off the display when you lift the smart phone to your ear for a phone call.
The capacitive (meaning it responds to the touch of a finger) touchscreen is responsive. There's no haptic feedback, but white rings will appear around an icon or menu item to let you know that the screen has registered your touch. To scroll through lists, you can drag your finger along the screen or give it a quick flick to get through longer lists. The on-screen dial pad is simple, with large buttons, and it includes shortcuts to voicemail and your call log. You can also just use the universal search function and start typing a contact's name to get quicker results.
The Pre's screen is multitouch. The iPhone has long stood in a class of its own as regards this functionality -- but not anymore. Like the iPhone, the Pre allows you to zoom in and out on pages by pinching your fingers apart or close together. Double-tapping the screen will also achieve the same result. In addition, swiping left to right on an item, such as an email or call log number, will give you the option to delete it.
To copy, cut and paste, just tap on the screen to place the cursor at the start of what you want to copy or cut, press the orange key on the keyboard, and drag your finger across the desired text. You can do this anywhere on the screen -- it doesn't have to be right over the words. Once you've selected everything, tap the upper-left corner of the screen to bring up the drop-down menu with your copy, cut and paste options.
Below the screen, there's a gesture area where you can perform a number of tasks, which we outline in the section below. Two small LEDs and the centre button will illuminate in white to indicate that it has registered your command.
User interface and navigation
The Pre isn't the most intuitive device to use, at least at first. When you fire up the smart phone for the first time, there's a brief animated tutorial to familiarise you with the various gestures, such as swiping right to left in the gesture area to return to the previous page. The gestures are also illustrated in the quick-start guide, but, even so, it takes some time to learn all the various commands.
The homescreen looks easy enough to understand, with a simple tray along the bottom that includes shortcuts to the on-screen dialler, contacts, email, calendar and the main menu (or 'launcher'). Pressing the launcher icon will bring you to all your applications and settings. It consists of three panels that you can swipe from left to right (and vice versa), and each panel is dedicated to a more general category.
For example, the first panel includes all the core functions, such as messaging, Web, multimedia, Google Maps, a task list and so forth. The second panel is focused on applications, and the third panel features the phone's various settings and options. The user interface, in general, is very sleek and fresh, and provides smooth transitions. It's also more inviting and engaging than Google Android.
To launch a program, you simply tap an icon, and, once you're in an application, you can tap the upper-left corner of the screen to open any relevant menus for that particular app. The beauty of the Pre is its multitasking capabilities -- you can simply launch another program without having to exit the one you're currently in. To do this, drag your finger from the gesture area up to the screen and you'll see the homescreen tray appear in a cool little wave. From there, you can move your finger to one of the dedicated shortcuts or open the launcher for a full list.
If you want to return to any running apps, a press of the centre button will bring you to your deck of cards view, where you can simply select the card you want. If you're wondering why the feature is called 'deck of cards', it's because each application is presented in a card window and you can shuffle through the open cards. You can drag and drop cards (or rearrange the order of apps in the launcher) by pressing and holding the item until you see a halo around it. Then you're free to move it, but it's not like with the G1, where you can drag and drop icons onto the main homescreen. When you're done, you can flick the card upwards and that will close the program.
Although there's much to learn, we felt more comfortable and familiar with the gestures after a couple of hours. Naturally, with more use, these commands will become even easier, and soon you won't even have to think about it. Nevertheless, when comparing the out-of-the-box experience of the Pre with that of the iPhone, the iPhone definitely wins in terms of ease of use.
That said, we have to give credit to Palm for its connection manager. By simply touching the upper-right-hand corner of the screen, you get instant access to the Pre's connection settings -- Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and aeroplane mode -- instead of having to go through several menus, as on the iPhone.
The lack of a physical keyboard deterred some people from buying the iPhone, and many rejoiced when the Pre was announced at CES 2009 with its full Qwerty keyboard. But, with the device in hand, we have to say that we're slightly disappointed. As is the case with the Palm Centro and Palm Treo Pro, the jelly-like buttons are quite small and there's very little spacing between them. In addition, the top row of keys runs right up against the edge of the open cover, so it's easy to bump into it when typing.
We were able to type faster using the Pre's keyboard than the iPhone's, but people with larger thumbs may have problems and, unfortunately, there's no on-screen keyboard option at this point. We took a quick poll of some co-workers and all agreed that the keyboard is small. While most said they could get used to it after a while, several called it a deal-breaker.
Before making any snap judgements, we'd recommend that you give the keyboard a try. While clearly not as easy to use as a BlackBerry or some of Samsung's and Nokia's Qwerty devices, the Pre's keyboard is not completely unusable. Just as with the iPhone's virtual keyboard, with time, you make adjustments, find your groove and ultimately can learn to type quickly. Symbols and numbers share space with the letter keys, and the latter are highlighted in orange. There are no shortcut buttons on the keyboard.
Getting started and data transfer
The first time you boot up the Pre (which takes quite a while), you'll have to set up what's called a Palm Profile. It takes a few moments, but it's worth the wait, since it gives you access to several key services, including backup and restore settings, remote erase in case of a lost or stolen phone, and over-the-air updates. The latter will become important as Palm pushes out firmware updates that include new features and bug fixes for the device.
You'll also get an opportunity to transfer data from any desktop clients or your old smart phone to the Pre. This will be easiest if you're already using Google, Facebook or Microsoft Exchange, since the Synergy software can pull in all your data as soon as you enter your account information.
For those content with using their current desktop app, including iCal and Address Book on a Mac, Palm Desktop or Outlook, there's more work involved. First, you'll be required to set up a Google account. Then you'll need to get a third-party application, such as Google Sync or CompanionLink, to sync your data with the newly created account and then with the Pre. A third-party app (Chapura PocketMirror for Outlook) is also necessary if you want to sync the Pre over a Wi-Fi network to your PC.
Finally, for people coming from a Treo or any other Palm phone, Palm offers something called the Data Transfer Assistant, which performs a one-time transfer of data from your desktop, including Palm Desktop, iCal or Exchange, to your phone. Data Transfer Assistant is available as a free download from Palm.
Phone features and contacts
The Pre offers a speakerphone, speed dial, conference calling, aeroplane mode and silent ringer switch. Unfortunately, the initial version of webOS doesn't support voice dialling, and there's no support for visual voicemail at this time.
The contacts list is only limited by the amount of available memory (about 7GB) and includes fields for multiple numbers, email and IM addresses, street addresses, birthdays and more. With Palm's Synergy feature, the Pre can pull a contact's information from various sources -- Facebook, Outlook, Gmail and so forth -- and automatically fill all the fields in a single contact sheet, so you don't have to go through the hassle of manually entering all the data.
In addition to numbers and email addresses, Synergy will also attach any photos that are associated with that person's Facebook or email account. If you don't want all your information merged together, there's a way to unlink contact profiles so you can keep social and business contacts separate. Be aware that, if you have a large contact list, it can take a while for the Pre to sync all the information, but you can still work in other applications during this process.
Messaging and calendar
The Pre supports multiple email accounts, including POP/IMAP and Microsoft Exchange. We synced several email accounts to the Pre, including Gmail, Yahoo and Exchange. The set-up for all three was a breeze. With Gmail and Yahoo, we simply entered our login ID and password, and the Pre retrieved all our account information and messages, including any folders. Outlook synchronisation was also seamless. We simply selected the Exchange option, entered our email address, mail server, user name and password, and we were set up in seconds.
All accounts are housed under the email card, from where you can access your various inboxes. Synergy also allows you to view messages from all accounts under one view, although we think most people would prefer to keep personal and work email separate. Email delivery was almost instant -- you can also set different retrieval intervals -- and actions such as deleting a message or moving an email to a folder are reflected on both sides, whether you do it from the Pre or your computer. We were able to download and view attachments as well as send them.
There's a separate messaging app that houses all your instant, text and multimedia messages. In this folder, you'll be able to see all conversations with a contact in a single, threaded view in chronological order, regardless of message type. The Pre ships with two instant-messaging clients: Google Talk and AOL Instant Messenger. Once you're signed in, you'll also be able to see whether any of your friends are online thanks to a green dot that appears next to their name on the contacts page.
With the email set up, all relevant calendars will also be synced to the Pre and brought into one calendar view via Synergy. Appointments are colour-coded to help you differentiate between different accounts. Alternatively, there's a drop-down menu via which you can view each calendar separately. Like email, the synchronisation of our Outlook and Google calendars was seamless. We also created new events from the device, which automatically synced back to our Outlook and Google calendars.
With all the data that the Pre can handle, searching for items could be a cumbersome and tedious task, but universal search takes care of that problem. From anywhere on the phone, you can start entering a search term and the Pre will look through your contacts, applications, the Web, Google Maps and Twitter. The feature worked well when we searched for contacts, businesses and more general terms, but it's not quite as robust as the iPhone's search in that it doesn't search email headers, the calendar, notes or the music library.
Multitasking and notifications
If there's one area where the Pre has an edge over the current iPhone, G1 and other smart phones, it's in its multitasking and notification capabilities. The much-talked-about deck of cards feature works well, allowing you to keep multiple applications open and running in the background while you're working in another. Like on a computer, you can minimise and maximise tasks by using the centre button and swiping through the various cards. In addition, the aforementioned quick-launch bar makes menu access and launching new apps a snap.
The notifications bar also seamlessly alerts you to incoming or missed calls, new messages, appointments and so forth. The notifications are unobtrusive. Email subject headers and a single-line preview of text messages and IMs will appear in the bar. If a call comes in while you're working in an app, you get an alert along the lower third of the screen and you can accept or ignore the call without having the incoming-call screen overtake the app. You can also immediately open messages or, in some cases, you can interact with the app right from the notifications bar -- for example, fast-forwarding or pausing music tracks in the music player. It's really a well-thought-out system and one of our favourite things about the Pre.
The limit on the number of cards you can have open will depend on which applications you are using. The more memory-intensive ones, such as complicated Web sites, will take up more memory and consequently reduce the number of apps you can have open. A notification will appear if you've reached the limit and recommend you close other applications to open up memory. We received this alert twice during our testing period, and it was while we had several Web sites and three or four other apps open, so you can still perform a good amount of multitasking. We even got up to 12 active cards at once.
With so many apps going at once, you're probably wondering how it affects performance, and we have to say that the Pre impressed us. There was some slight lag when launching applications, but the smart phone was still very responsive.
The Palm Pre is outfitted with all the wireless options you could need. As well as 3G connectivity, you can get online using the Pre's integrated Wi-Fi (802.11b/g). Bluetooth 2.1 is also on-board and supports a number of profiles, including stereo Bluetooth, hands-free kits, personal area networking, phone book access, and audio/video remote control.
The Pre comes with an integrated GPS receiver for positioning and navigation capabilities. Google Maps is loaded on the smart phone, providing maps with satellite view, real-time positioning and text-based directions, business searches and traffic data. We were quite impressed with the Pre's GPS capabilities. It got a read on our location within a minute and its positioning was almost spot on.
The Pre's browser is good. Based on WebKit, it renders sites on-screen as you would see them on your desktop, and pretty quickly at that. As we mentioned before, thanks to the multitouch screen, you easily zoom in or out on pages with a double tap or by pinching your fingers together or apart (as with the iPhone). You can also pan pages by touching a point on the screen and dragging your finger in any direction.
To enter a Web address, simply start typing the URL and an address bar will appear. You can bookmark sites, which will then show up as a card when you first launch the browser. For even quicker access to your favourite sites, there's an option to add a dedicated shortcut to the launcher page. If you'd like to open a new window, just select the 'new card' option under the drop-down menu on the left.
Overall, we were happy with the Pre's browser in terms of navigation and functionality, but there are a couple of issues. One is the lack of an on-screen keyboard. Without it, you can't type URLs or enter any text into relevant fields when you're viewing sites in landscape mode, so you'll need to switch back to portrait mode, which is annoying. Also, there's no Flash support at this time, so you can't view Flash videos within the browser. Palm, however, announced its commitment to Adobe's Open Screen Project back in February and promised to bring the Flash Player 10 to its webOS devices by the end of the year.
The Pre has a solid set of multimedia features. The built-in media player supports a number of formats: MP3, AAC, AAC+, WAV and AMR music files, and the MPEG-4, H.263 and H.264 video formats. The music player offers basic functions: play/pause, track forward/back, and shuffle and repeat modes. In addition to the standard forward/back buttons, you can swipe the album covers to proceed through songs. It's not quite as slick as the iPhone's Cover Flow feature, but it works.
There are several methods for getting media onto the smart phone. Firstly, the Pre has the capability to act as a storage device, so you can load music and video by connecting the Pre to your computer via a USB cable and selecting the 'USB drive' option. Then you'll be able to drag and drop files.
The Pre also works with iTunes, so you can sync any non-DRM tracks (no videos) to the smart phone. There's some question about whether Apple will eventually put the kibosh on this, but, for now, we're happy to report the iTunes synchronisation worked and it was as easy as pie. We got it to work with the most recent iTunes 8.2.
We synced the Pre with both Mac and PC iTunes versions by simply connecting the Pre to our laptop via a USB cable and selecting the 'media sync' option on the Pre, which then automatically launched iTunes on our computer. The Pre is essentially identified as an iPod. Once it's been identified, you can automatically synchronise your music library or manually drag and drop tunes.
The 8GB memory cap really became an issue when we were transferring our music library. People with large libraries are probably going to have to cull their selections. As with the iPhone, a microSD expansion slot could have alleviated the problem, but Palm said it didn't fit with the design they were going for. The company has not, however, ruled out such a slot for future devices.
While you can't purchase tracks from iTunes, the Pre works with the Amazon MP3 Store, from which you can download songs over the air using your Amazon account. The iPhone 3G allows you download songs wirelessly over Wi-Fi and 3G, but you can only download songs with the US version of the Pre via Wi-Fi. We bought a couple of tracks off the Amazon MP3 Store from the Pre and each song was downloaded within a couple of seconds over Wi-Fi. Once connected to our PC, we selected the USB drive option and found our downloaded tracks in the 'Amazon MP3' folder.
The Pre's music sound quality is good. We're happy that Palm included a standard headphone jack, although it might have been better placed on the bottom of the device. We tested the phone with a pair of Radius Atomic Bass earphones and Bose On-Ear headphones, and, while there are no audio settings or EQ presets, songs sounded rich and there's a good amount of bass. Music is muted for any incoming calls.
MPEG-4 and YouTube clips, via the dedicated YouTube app, play back smoothly. We were impressed by the clarity of YouTube videos.
The Pre comes equipped with a 3-megapixel camera and an LED flash. The camera functions are about as basic as you can get. Flash options include on, off or auto. To take a photo, you can either press the green on-screen button or use the space bar. There are no effects, or options to choose from various image sizes or resolutions. Also, there's no video recording at launch, but Palm has alluded to adding this feature in the future, which can be done via an over-the-air update. With the integrated GPS, however, the Pre can geotag photos.
To review your pictures, you can head over to your photo roll. From there, you'll also be able to share images with friends via email, multimedia message or by uploading them to photo or social-networking sites like Facebook. A picture can also be used as your background image or for photo caller ID.
Picture quality is impressive, although we thought otherwise at first. It takes a few seconds for pictures to render on-screen, so, immediately after taking pictures, photos look extremely blurry. In reality, they're extremely sharp and colours are vibrant and rich, without any weird orange or greyish tones. Also, there's barely any lag from the time you press the capture button to the moment the photo is taken.
Due to the success of the iPhone and Apple's App Store, applications are quickly becoming just as important as the hardware and operating system when choosing a smart phone. Google, RIM, Nokia and Microsoft have followed suit by launching their own app storefronts, and now so has Palm.
The Palm App Catalog is still in beta and will only have about a dozen titles at launch, including apps such as LinkedIn and Connect 4. We were able to download these programs quickly and without any problems.
We're disappointed by the sparse selection of apps. Palm released its Mojo SDK to a limited number of developers back in April 2009. Developers can apply for admission to the program now through Palm's developer site, but the company has not announced a public release yet. Palm has said it will reveal full details of the submission and approval process at a later date, but did say that, once apps are submitted, the company will review them and give final approval for inclusion in the App Catalog.
For old Palm users, there's support for legacy apps through a third-party application from MotionApps called Classic. It is said to run a majority of the Palm OS apps, and MotionApps said it will publish a full list of compatible programs closer to launch. Classic will be available shortly after the Pre's release, but the company has not revealed a specific date or pricing, although a free, seven-day trial will be offered with download.
Apps that come preloaded on the smart phone include Google Maps, DataViz's DocView for viewing Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, a PDF viewer, a YouTube app, a memo pad, a task list, a calculator and a clock.
Call quality is good. On our end, the audio was clear, with very little background noise. Voices sounded rich, and not tinny or digitised as on some phones. Our friends also reported good results and, more than once, said they were impressed with the audio quality. We didn't experience any dropped calls during our review period, and we had no problem checking on a flight's status using an airline's voice-automated system.
When we used the speakerphone, it didn't surprise us that call quality diminished. Voices sounded slightly distant, and, in louder environments, you'll definitely need to have the volume set at the highest level. The problem then is that audio can sound blown-out.
That said, we were still able to hold a conversation, and our callers didn't even notice we had turned on the speakerphone during the call. We successfully paired the Pre with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.
General performance and battery life
Armed with a dual-band Qualcomm MSM6801A processor and a Texas Instruments OMAP 3430 processor, the Pre's general performance is something of a mixed bag. Navigating through the menus and deck of cards is always swift, but, at times, there would be a brief lag when launching applications. We wouldn't say it's any worse than a Windows Mobile smart phone, but it's something you'll notice. That said, the webOS was stable throughout our testing period. We didn't experience any crashes or freezes, and, again, we can't say enough good things about the multitasking and notifications system.
Battery life is an issue and probably one of our biggest concerns. The Pre comes with a user-removable 1,150mAh lithium-ion battery with a rated talk time of 5 hours and up to 12 days of standby time. We managed to get in one talk-time test and the Pre met the claimed 5 hours. In general use, we noticed during our review period that, by the end of the day, we were often in the yellow or red battery zones (usually around 12 per cent or lower, starting from 100 per cent). Compared with the average user, we might have been putting more demand on the device, since we were trying to test out all the features.
As with any smart phone, there are ways to conserve battery life, such as turning off any wireless radios when not in use and adjusting the backlight brightness. Palm seems to be aware of the battery issue, since it sent out a battery-optimisation tip sheet later on in our review period. We followed these steps and it definitely helped to reduce the battery drain, but, for road warriors and on-the-go types who don't always necessarily have a Wi-Fi network, battery life is still a problem.
Palm also acknowledged a problem in which the AIM client is drawing power, especially for users with many buddies, and said it will issue a bug fix. We're glad a fix is coming, but this isn't exactly how you want to kick-start your product launch.
The Pre's sales package contents are similar to those of the Treo Pro. The smart phone ships with an AC adaptor, a micro-USB cable, a wired-stereo headset, a soft-protective pouch, a recycling envelope and reference material.
There are, of course, additional accessories you can purchase for the Pre, including the Touchstone Charging Kit. The kit costs $70 (£45) and includes the Touchstone dock and Touchstone back cover (you can also purchase them separately for $50 (£30) and $20 (£12) respectively).
A vehicle charger is also available for $30 (£20), and two types of leather carrying cases can also be had, although pricing was not finalised at press time.
The tiny Qwerty keyboard isn't going to draw any praise, nor is the lack of an expansion slot. We're also disappointed that the Pre lacks some basic functions, such as video recording and voice dialling, although Palm has said these features can be added later through an over-the-air update. Battery life is also a concern, as the smart phone only lasted about a day on a single charge. In all fairness, though, that's about the same as the iPhone.
All that said, the Pre's deck of cards multitasking functionality and notification system are what make it special, and they're the areas where the Pre beats the iPhone or, for that matter, any smart phone currently on the market. In addition, personal-information management has been completely and positively changed by the Synergy software.
Early adopters, gadget lovers and consumers who need or crave more functionality from their phone will be well served by the Pre, although there's a learning curve to using the device. Also, because of the battery life and some slight sluggishness, we'd don't think it's the best device for business users or road warriors.
Starting from the ground up, Palm has really made a solid and smart platform. It doesn't just match the capabilities of its competitors but offers something more, thanks to its multitasking and personal-information-management capabilities. With the Pre, Palm has put itself back in the game and we look forward to more webOS devices in the future.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet