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.
We’ve spent the last few days playing with the newly released Palm Pre and can’t 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 you’ll 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. It’s 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 it’s not too tight or too loose. The Pre can be powered via an USB connection, so it’s good Palm included the AC adapter as it’s helpful, but not required.
Initial setup of the Pre takes less than ten minutes. The Pre will teach you the basic ‘back’ 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 you’ll 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 wouldn’t 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 ‘back’ 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. We’re not sure if the responsiveness is just well tuned (it's a capacitive display like the iPhone's) or if it’s 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.