A strong first effort by Palm in full touchscreen smartphones. (June 14th, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: Palm
Price: $199 (two years)
- 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.
webOS and software features
The webOS software that Palm developed to run the Pre is progressive to say the least. The feature that we’ve 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, we’ve also had the e-mail, calendar, contacts, music, and web browser apps all running simultaneously with no issue.
Palm’s profile back up service allows Pre users to have ‘cloud’ 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
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 doesn’t 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 couldn’t 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 isn’t 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 isn’t huge, but it is noticeable and at times detracts from the otherwise excellent user experience.