One last effort. A slow, but firm, shove of the chips. All in. Palm’s only hope to save a company once synonymous with smart handheld devices: the Pre. Their eyebrow raised, daring you to call. They flip. Full house. Respectable. Decent. Impressive even. But not the highest hand.
That’s not to say that the phone isn’t good, because it is. The software has quite a few interesting innovations that push the concepts of what people can do with smartphones, like Google Android when it debuted—only better. The market needs this. The industry needs this. We need this. But the hardware? Cheap. Flimsy. Dangerous even.
I’ve used the Pre as my main device for a week, forwarding my number through Google Voice so I could see what it was like living with it. I was able to pull my contacts from Facebook and Google into the phone quite easily, despite the Pre not supporting syncing to OS X Address Book, so it was a near-seamless transition. Sprint reception is unfortunately bad enough at my house to give me horrible voice quality, but not bad enough to drop calls. The device felt great in my pocket and in my hands, and the text and email notifications are informative without being intrusive. Other than trying to be discreet when I went to my usual exotic locales—the supermarket, Costco, restaurants and San Francisco—there wasn’t anything incredible to note. In short, it’s definitely a capable smartphone, one that I would have no problem using full time.
It’s the best multitouch screen we’ve seen yet. Pre’s screen is smaller than both the iPhone and the G2’s, but has the same 320×480 resolution that equals both, which means the pixels are just more compact. Watching the Dark Knight on both phones showed that the Pre was just slightly crisper, and just slightly nicer than on the iPhone. Though, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell unless you had each side by side. It’s like the difference between a $2,500 TV and a $2,000 TV. Unless you had both in your living room or looked at them one after the other, you couldn’t see a difference.
The black bezel also provides a great contrast to the screen, bordering it with an eye-soothing darkness that makes images pop that much more. At maximum brightness, it doesn’t seem as bright as the iPhone, but is bright enough to be just fine under the sun. The glossy finish makes it slightly harder to see if you’re worried about glare, however. In everyday indoor use, the screen is a tiny bit bluer in colour temperature than the iPhone’s—either not something you’d notice or a matter of preference.
But the multitouch! I can’t tell if it’s because there’s a better CPU backing it up, or a better digitizer, or if it’s just better software, but the touch is more accurate, more responsive and just plain better than the iPhone’s. The invention of a ripple effect where you press the screen is genius, and goes partway to solving the chronic problem of passive feedback—whether or not the OS knows you’ve pressed the screen. I say partway, since the phone occasionally still doesn’t register your clicks, even when the ripple appears.
Multitouch is glorious
Screen is bright, bezel provides great contrast and overall holds up nicely to the iPhone
Body and Build
The first thing you’ll notice as you slide open the Pre is the absurdly sharp ridge digging against your palm. Nowhere—not on the iPhone, the G1, the G2 or any of HTC’s other smartphones—has a phone been so threatening to the integrity of my skin. If you’re pushing up screen from the bottom of the phone, as you’d instinctively want to do, prepare to get sliced. It’s just that irresponsibly sharp.
To be fair, Palm instructs you to open the phone by placing your thumb on the screen itself and pushing up. Fantastic plan, except for the fact that it’s a touchscreen and by placing your thumb on the screen you’re actually moving stuff around. It’s a kluge; a solution thought of after the fact to salvage a horrible hardware design decision. Even if you do things Palm’s way, the top manages to catch occasionally while sliding open, especially if you’re pushing slightly above or below the middle of the phone.
Maybe I’m being a perfectionist here, but this is the one biggest flaw in the hardware; one that’s not a dealbreaker, but really detracts from the overall experience.
The rest of the body, thankfully, is not nearly as bad. But it’s also not spectacular. The two halves of the device come together fairly tightly, but not tightly enough to prevent you from being able to twist the top and bottom like a plastic Oreo cookie. It’s one of those small things that are inconsequential, but extremely annoying to people who own the phone—like the back battery cover requiring you to pry off three different points in order to get it off. Or the microUSB connector cover that takes fingernails and a blatant disregard for having a permanent hole in the side of your phone in order to remove it.
Despite these issues, while closed, the phone feels just right in your hand. It’s thicker than the iPhone, but rounded like a polished stone and shorter than you’d expect. If Palm had just been able to make the Pre feel and look less plasticky, the closed-state exterior would be almost perfect.
Build quality is only so-so, and feels plasticky
Bottom edge of the phone is way too sharp
It’s not good enough for a smartphone. Each of my thumbs take up the width of four keys, ensuring that only a fingernail approach would get me anywhere near accurate typing. It’s a very Centro-like key layout, and each individual key feels slightly too rubbery and sticky to be pleasant. Each key offers lots of resistance and doesn’t depress quite enough to get a good tactile feel while typing quickly.
After using the Pre for a week, I’m able to get a respectable word-per-minute rate on the keys, but the fact that there’s no word prediction—the kind that saves your arse on the iPhone or Android G2—negates some speed you may have gained from using a hardware keyboard. The fact that each physical key is 30% or so smaller than a virtual key on the iPhone should illustrate to how difficult it is to hit the buttons accurately, and how much better typing on the Pre would have been if there were better auto-correction. What the Pre does do is make very very minor changes, like “teh” to “the” or “isnt” to “isn’t”, but that’s only this side of nothing.
On most days, with heavier than usual usage, I was able to make the Pre last just about the entire day. Going from 8AM to 9PM with at least 20% battery left should be no problem. The only time I ran the battery down to zero prematurely was the one day where I was doing heavy testing and had AIM on, which currently has a buggy implementation that sucks more power than is necessary. It’s at the very least on par with the iPhone 3G and G2 battery life, and is way better than the G1’s.
It’s a 3-megapixel camera, but when it comes to actually taking pictures, it isn’t any better than the G2 or the iPhone. Like most cheap-o cameras, photos are fine with ample sunlight, but in low-light conditions pictures become grainy—even when using the “flash” on the back, it’s only barely tolerable.
Camera doesn’t suck
Here, if I may extend my card metaphor, is where Palm laid down four aces. The OS is really where the Pre shines, and manages to create a coherent internet-based platform that’s even more “connected” than Google Android.
On the whole, the OS is quite pleasant looking—with slick icons, a 5-app launch bar and a three-screen menu system that houses all your applications. The bit of the phone under the screen is a gesture area, which you can use to go back a screen (swipe left) or launch apps from the launch tray (swipe up to the screen). The rest of the gestures are the same as the iPhone’s, except the concept of swiping an app up, off the phone, to close it.
It’s too bad the home screen is so much wasted space. There’s just nothing there except for the five apps on the bottom. Palm’s main idea is to keep that area free; free so you can swipe through the app “cards” of the things you have open, free so you can pull up a Universal Search just by typing, and free so you can open the phone by putting your fat thumb on the screen. But this just means you can only quick-launch five apps from the home screen, forcing you to either go into the launcher (+1 click) or start typing the name of the app you want and hope Universal Search brings it up (+ a bunch of clicks).
There are a few particularly commendable features. The little notification bars on the bottom of the phone for new emails, texts, system actions and song changes are wonderful, and can be dismissed with a swipe. The swipe is also slightly different than on the iPhone, allowing you to just delete list items without having to confirm them. The font they used for emails also seems fat and generous without being overly large, and allows the same five emails to be visible at once as on the iPhone.
A lot of time and care and great ideas were put into this OS
Dialing is somewhere where Palm’s reliance on Universal Search becomes an over reliance on Universal Search. To dial a contact, you either have to pull up the contacts app and manually scroll down to the person you want (there’s no alphabet shortcut) or start typing. So, when you have hundreds of contacts, your only reasonable choice is to use the search. There isn’t even a “favorites” screen of any kind; Palm just gives you a retro speed dial feature where you can map numbers to particular keys on the keyboard—a clumsy solution for speed dialing.
Speaking of Universal Search, it does actually work quite well. It’s the same concept as on iPhone 3.0, searching your contacts, apps, Google, Google Maps, Wikipedia and Twitter for whatever you type. Searching is actually faster than the iPhone’s search, but only because it doesn’t also search emails, or calendar entries or your music. So that “Universal” in Universal Search isn’t quite so Universal.
Universal Search for contacts works well
Dated speed dial implementation
Syncing to Facebook and Google Contacts via Synergy works flawlessly, and merges contacts from both services together so you don’t have duplicates of contacts floating around. A manual merge or a manual split can solve any quirks from this function quite easily. Synergy also combines your SMS and IM conversations into one window, so you can seamlessly text someone and then switch over to IM when he reaches his desk. Synergy’s basically just an easy way to make sure services like Google have your data (Contacts and Calendar) pulled down into your phone automatically.
Facebook and Google sync keeps you connected, but may populate your phones with a bunch of people you don’t actually know
A lot of fuss has been made of the Pre’s ability to multitask, and for good reason. It works. Launching a new app is just a matter of hitting the Centre button (the grey button on the front), and opening something from the launcher or the tray. The new app pops up as a new card, pushing your currently running programs to the side. Pressing the Centre button again pops up all your cards, which you can then flip through to find the app you want. Sliding the card up, off the screen, closes it.
Opening multiple apps at once really does slow down the phone enough to be noticeable. In fact, if you’re doing something particularly intensive, you’ll actually notice your music stutter, which we’ve never experienced once on the iPhone. Ever. The problem with giving you the ability to open a lot of apps at once means you need to police yourself and close them when they’re not in use. But it’s damn well worth it. Being able to view a PDF, then flipping over to Messaging answer a text, then over to Music to change a song, then over to email to tap out a quickie—that’s computing.
It’s interesting that launching apps takes one extra click as you fire up the Launcher, and that the Launcher itself only has three pages of apps to use. It’s better than the one long page that Android has, but not quite as generous as the iPhone’s 9 pages. That one extra tap doesn’t seem like much, but over the course of the two years that you own your phone, that’s many seconds lost with extra taps.
Palm makes one of the first mistakes of UI design by not having text under the icons in the Quick Launch bar, making you guess at what each app is. The good news is that you can swap apps in and out from the launcher, so you probably know what those apps are, since you put them there.
Also, the actual act of launching the app is a little frustrating: When you tap an icon, the launcher disappears and all you see is the home screen, as if you did something wrong. You don’t know whether or not your app has opened successfully until it has. Seeing a totally blank screen or some kind of splash screen come up first before the app is running (like the iPhone, once again) would be a better solution.
Music and videos, on the other hand, are handled well. The extra man-hours of getting the Pre to pretend that it’s an iPod for iTunes to sync was well worth it. All the proper files, with their metadata, make it over just fine; playlists too. Videos appear in the Videos app, and your song files can be searched and sorted from inside the Music app. What doesn’t seem to be supported are the ratings or play counts in iTunes. And although you can check the box in iTunes to initiate Calendar/Contact sync with the Pre, they don’t actually make it over to the phone.
So it’s not a perfect implementation. DRM tracks from iTunes aren’t syncable, of course, and you have to leave the Music app open at all times, in the background, for your music to play. That concept seems more than obvious on your PC, but becomes somewhat of an oddity on your phone. You’ll find yourself accidentally closing your Music app more than once.
As for video, it’s essentially what you’d imagine a barebones video player to be, supporting MPEG4, H.263, H.264, MP4, M4V, 3GP, 3GPP, 3G2, and 3GP2—more video codecs than the iPhone (surprise, surprise), but not more than other phones in this class. It does the job, there’s seeking and aspect ratio fitting, but it’s nothing special.
• Google Maps is actually better on the Pre than it is on the iPhone, loading blocks and scrolling around being much smoother than we’re used to
• Sprint Navigator (by TeleNav) is an excellent port of the same program you see in other phones—the GPS works smoothly, like in the Google Maps
• Doc View and PDF view are capable enough PDF and Word viewers
• There’s an alarm clock, but no stopwatch or world clock; you can download a Weather app from the App Catalog
• The photo viewer works the same as the iPhone’s, with swiping gestures, and can upload directly to your Facebook account
• The browser works off the latest WebKit build, and is fast and snappy; it should be about as good as iPhone 3.0’s browser, since they both use WebKit
• Backup works much like Microsoft’s My Phone, storing your contacts, calendar and tasks, as well as app and system settings on your Palm profile; it comes with the phone, and is useful if you ever have to wipe or replace a lost phone
• YouTube quality is just as good as any other phone, even if it does seem to take slightly longer to bring up videos on the Pre
The App Catalog is pretty bare at launch, with Pandora, Sudoku, Accuweather, AP/NYT, the Classic Palm OS emulator, Connect 4, Spaz (Twitter client), Tweed (another Twitter client), a Stocks app and some various other utilities. Their respective download screens have ample information, including links to the developer’s home page and support pages, as well as ratings and reviews. Once downloaded, the apps behave like any other native apps on the Pre, and can be multitasked just fine.
The App Catalog has a handful of decent apps already, but the fact that Palm is singling out only trusted developers to write software for the Pre isn’t a great sign
Now for the miscellaneous complaints. The lack of a D-Pad on the phone forces you to always tap where you want, even when the list item is just one notch lower than the one currently selected. Copying and pasting only works in text fields where you can write, not when reading emails or SMS or web pages.
Think of it like this. The software is agile, smart and capable. The hardware, on the other hand, is a liability. If Palm can get someone else to design and build their hardware—someone who has hands and can feel what a phone is like when physically used, that phone might just be one of the best phones on the market.
I’m bored of the iPhone. The core functionality and design have remained the same for the last two years, and since 3.0 is just more of the same, and—barring some kind of June surprise—that’s another year of the same old icons and swiping and pinching. It’s time for something different. The Pre may have hardware that’s worse than the G1/G2, but the whole package—the software and the hardware—isn’t bad. It’s good. It’s different. That’s something we can get behind. I can’t wait to see what Palm gets dealt in their next hand.
Further viewing: our Palm Pre definitive guide and FAQ