A weekend with the Palm Pre (Verdict: Second place is still a win)

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It’s no giant killer, but it doesn’t have to be. The only thing the Palm Pre has to do is be better than the other phones offered by Sprint. No problem there—webOS might be noticeably immature compared to the iPhone’s operating system, but even swaddled in an underpowered chassis that has a lot of cartilage where there should be bone, it’s clear that even the second-best mobile operating system on the planet is going to make a lot of people very happy.

It doesn’t feel like an old Palm smartphone. Even ignoring the recent sales success of older models like the Centro, that’s probably a good thing. WebOS is wholly new; even little touches, like icons or fonts or color that could have served as winks towards Palm’s decade-long legacy of smartphones, have been omitted for an attractive, smoothly anti-aliased selection of fonts and swooping curves. Sometimes the curves are too much—the corners of the screen, which shares the iPhone’s same resolution but packs it into a smaller physically screen size, are occluded by black curves in the corners. (The iPhone pulls a similar trick, but in a way not nearly so pronounced.) Even if it makes the screen attractively symmetrical in form compared to the Pre’s river pebble body, it also makes it feel slightly cramped. Large fonts, while readable, add to the feeling that one is peering through a keyhole at the internet.

Smart zoom and the ability to quickly flip between open applications with just a single swipe of the thumb on the Pre’s off-screen “gesture area” largely mitigates any constraints from the small screen, thank goodness. And the curved body, while slightly pudgy, gives that ineffable feeling of satisfaction in the hand. It will be hard for any phone manufacturer to ever again argue that touchscreens should not be embedded cleanly under large sheets of glass or plastic.

The web browser, based on the popular mobile browser Webkit, is a pleasure to use, rendering pages cleanly and quickly over Sprint’s 3G network. It doesn’t have quite as many niceties as Safari, the version of Webkit that is used by the iPhone, but it’s head and shoulders above most other mobile browsers already. In time, quirks like not zooming in on text fields during text entry will be trimmed, I’m sure.

WebOS often strains the Pre’s slow processor, especially while indexing contact lists imported from Gmail or Facebook accounts. That happens right when you first use the phone—a first impression of stutters and coughs.

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But even under normal circumstances, a Pre user will want to shut down applications that aren’t being used. It might be voodoo, especially since it’s impossible to know if the included GPS application, for instance, slows down the Pre while it sits in memory as much as, say, an open web page; but until there is a more clear way to determine which applications weigh the Pre down the most, it doesn’t hurt to shut down apps when they’re not in use.

Some applications are clearly designed to be left open all the time. The music player, while modest, integrates beautifully into the entire phone experience, inserting a small badge at the bottom of the screen while songs are playing, showing both artist and title information, as well as small reverse/play/forward controls. It even shows a little bit of an album cover.

Here’s a treat: any set of headphones that work with the iPhone work with the Pre—and that includes music playback control and microphones. The Pre has the same TRRS connector inside as the iPhone and shares the same “click twice to skip ahead” and “click to pause” remote-controls. You can even use the microphone.

What many people forget about the iPhone is that it was (and is) the best iPod ever made. That makes shortcomings in the Pre’s music player stand out, especially since you load music on to the Pre by plugging it into iTunes and letting it masquerade as an iPod. Playlists are passed over to the Pre without much issue, but podcasts are treated simply as songs—the Pre won’t remember how much of the Savage Love podcast you’ve already listed to, forcing fast-forward foreplay using somewhat primitive and unresponsive controls.

While we’re on the subject of syncing, let’s give Palm a stern look for putting a cheap plastic door over the Pre’s microUSB slot, necessary for syncing music from a PC to its unexpandable 8GB of memory or using it as a flash drive. Putting a door over a slot that is likely to be used every day makes about as much sense as putting a cork in a headphone jack.

The optional “Touchstone” dock is really nifty—I’m especially enamored of its Micro-Suction surface that sticks to nearly anything–but the price is horribly out of whack at nearly $70. It doesn’t even allow you to sync music and movies. Skip it.

Movie playback, handled through a separate application, seems to work fine, but I’ll cop to barely dabbling with it. I copied over one .mp4 file that I had previously encoded myself with Handbrake for the iPhone and it played back without issue.

The Pre’s vaunted “Synergy” function, which slurps up your contact lists from Gmail and Facebook, sloshes them around in its database and welds duplicates into unified ultra-contacts pretty much works—but it’s just matching email address to email address, which is hardly magic that merits a trademark. And because Gmail treats nearly anyone you’ve ever mailed before as a contact, the Pre’s contact list quickly fills with trash contacts.

Gmail in the Pre’s email client is a bit strange, too, if only because it treats Gmail like a normal email account. That’s not a failure, per se (the iPhone’s mail application does that, too), but compared to the special version of Gmail that shows up when accessed by the iPhone’s web browser, the interface is very retrograde. Simple touches, like displaying the first unread email in a thread in the little system alert badge for mail, instead of the last, would go quite a ways towards making the alerts more useful.

Someone could fix that with a dedicated Gmail application—as soon as anyone starts making third-party applications. The Pre’s “App Catalog” is bare. There just aren’t many applications available for download; it’s unlikely that webOS will ever see as many applications are available for iPhone. (Tens of thousands of those iPhone applications are dreck, though, so maybe that’s not such a loss.)

But still, the Pre needs applications—and fast. Pop open the App Catalog today and sort by “Top Rated” and you’ll find applications with just two-and-a-half stars (out of five). There just aren’t enough applications yet to show a whole page full of five star applications.

Here’s the thing, though: Apple’s going to show off the new iPhones this morning, and they’re probably going to be really nice. If you’re already an AT&T customer like me, you’ll probably consider upgrading.

If you’re a Sprint customer and can’t or won’t switch to another carrier just for a phone, the Pre is a fantastic choice. Unless Palm’s employees stopped working on webOS the moment the Pre shipped—not likely, considering the tenor of excitement that the company exudes—most of my issues with the Pre will be addressed very soon. Further optimizations might even make the Pre faster (but it’s quite usable today). And until Apple makes an iPhone that works on Sprint, there are millions of customers who will be very happy with a Pre. And by the time the Pre or other webOS-powered phones make it to Verizon, I wouldn’t be surprised to see webOS going toe-to-toe with Apple’s champion.

Oh, I almost forgot: the keyboard. It’s fine. It is slightly cramped, but comfortable. I can’t say that I type much faster on it than I do on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard, especially without such a robust auto-correction dictionary, but for those that must have physical keyboards, it’s hard to imagine you’ll be too disappointed.

And as for criticisms of the bottom edge of the keyboard being too sharp? It may have a sharper edge than is prudent, but unless you spend a lot of time jamming your phone perpendicularly into your cheek, any implication that it is dangerous is, well, cheesy.

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21 Responses to A weekend with the Palm Pre (Verdict: Second place is still a win)

  1. asaf says:

    Guys, I’ve been to Sprint store today and tested the Palm Pre for 0.5 hour, after a very long anticipation.
    I was very disappointed to see the following:
    * Slowness – the Pre is very slow.
    * Keyboard – it’s ok, nothing more.
    * Touch screen is skewed. It simply isn’t good.

    I ran over to to the iPhone store to compare and simply saw that the iPhone wins over those points.
    I was really sad to see that, since I had so many hopes on the Pre as a very loyal Palm user.
    Maybe a couple of generations from now they will improve.

  2. The Lizardman says:

    Wondering if you tried ‘filtering’ or otherwise limiting the synergy process – for me it is looking to be the major drawback, I don’t want it to dump and sort my info, I would prefer to only put what I want on the phone. Of course, most of that problem would be solved if gmail had a better system for contacts.

  3. anonymous says:

    “You can thank the iPhone for forcing competition down everyone’s throat.”

    Huh? Competition has been around for ages before the iPhone: Nokia N-series, SE W-series, HTC touch-series, LG Viewty series, the list goes on. Note the HTC original touch, OpenMoko Freerunner, Tmo Side Kicks, and remember Pantech (dual sliders FTW)?

    If the iPhone wasn’t around, we’d all have N97-type phones on 3.5G right now for $99!

    Apple only gets credit for all the marketing hype they created on smartphones using EDGE and that’s it.

    If there’s any phone model to be grateful for, it’s the Handspring Visor Pro from ***2001*** (thinner than the iPhone, full aluminum body, bigger screen, and more functionality than an iPhone!) but that had only 2.0 GPRS and a b/w screen. BUT then again that was offered in 2001!!!

  4. zuzu says:

    WebOS often strains the Pre’s slow processor, especially while indexing contact lists imported from Gmail or Facebook accounts.

    I thought one of the most exciting aspects of the Pre was supposed to be that its processor was super-duper beefy? As in, just shy of “we crammed an Atom in your phone; it’s practically a computer”. But the reality is opposite of that.

    iPhone made a similar promise: of “running OSX” such that it would practically be a computerphone, not just a smartphone.

    Disappointing.

    The Pre’s vaunted “Synergy” function, which slurps up your contact lists from Gmail and Facebook, sloshes them around in its database and welds duplicates into unified ultra-contacts pretty much works

    Is that supposed to be a novel feature? My BlackBerry Bold has been doing that since 2008.

  5. musicalwoods says:

    Huh, I was pretty sure the TI 3430 was supposed to be quite a bit more powerful than the Samsung processor in the current iPhone 3G. Of course, WebOS might not be quite as optimized for the processor as iPhone’s OS is.

  6. dculberson says:

    When you say “that happens right when you first use the phone,” do you mean just once at the initial usage or every time you go to use it? To clarify: does it “index contact lists” once for each time the list is changed or once for each time it’s accessed?

  7. calbear77 says:

    This review is TOTALLY skewed in that “Fox News reviewing Obama” sense. I, too, have a Pre and have been using it all weekend.

    From reading this review, you’d think the iPhone is the better piece of hardware. It isn’t. And the truth is that it isn’t even close. My girlfriend has been parading her iPhone in front of me for months, so I have a side-by-side comparison. And even she loves the Pre. She still likes her iPhone, too, I will concede.

    For starters, the Pre is more compact (that’s a good thing!), the screen is way nicer, and push gmail and IM make a huge difference. Imagine picking up your phone and seeing you have two missed calls, 2 texts, 3 e-mails and 4 IM’s. Ok, I’m not that popular, so I never had THAT much on my phone, but it *could* happen with the Pre.

    The webOS gesture system is also really nice, and incorporates the best of the iPhone with new gestures that take advantage of the fact that webOS actually allows you to have multiple apps open at once. It also makes a bigger difference than you would think.

    Also, there isn’t a noticeable difference between the iPhone performance and the Pre’s, and if there is, the Pre is faster, not the iPhone.

    But as the review points out, on the Pre, “There isn’t an app for that,” just yet. We’ll see how that goes. If you’re a web/e-mail/IM guy like me, who likes Sprint Navigation (free with plan, most probably unlike iPhone’s mythical future Tom-Tom app) and thinks the few apps they have so far are pretty good, you’ll barely notice. Ok, there isn’t a fart app, but nothing’s perfect, right?

    Lastly, the review is correct that this really isn’t an Apples to Apples comparison for most people. If you’re stuck on a contract, you don’t really have a choice if you want to upgrade. If you’ve got an iPhone, the Pre probably isn’t worth breaking the contract to switch to. If you’re on Sprint and like it, the Pre is great. And if you’re in the market for a new Smartphone and aren’t tied to a contract (like I was), the Pre is a fantastic choice, and you won’t regret getting this in lieu of the $99 iPhone or coming 3GS. Right now, the Pre is the best smartphone. It’s that simple.

    The real question is what will happen in a year when the iPhone 3G contracts start to expire. Upgrading to the 3GS now seems like a non-starter since all you get is a compass. But you can expect that Palm will have webOS phones at many price points on multiple carriers, and that Blackberry and Android will have players as well. Apple’s domination will last one more year before they really have to come up with something good again to keep their place at the top. Of course, the winner will be all of us consumers who have been getting the shaft for years and are finally getting the benefits of real competition.

  8. Anonymous says:

    You can thank the iPhone for forcing competition down everyone’s throat.

  9. therevengor says:

    Oh snap! Someone just called you “Fox News”. Ouch.

  10. BankOfTooBig2FAIL says:

    @ Calbear77. You get more than a compass as hardware when upgrading to a 3GS from 3G

    Better Camera
    Video Recording/Editing
    Built-In Nike+
    Voice Recording/Control
    7.2Mbps 3G
    Faster CPU
    Longer Battery Life
    Larger Storage Capacity
    Energy Star 5.0 certified
    No PVC, Bromine or Mercury

    I think 7.2Mbps 3G and longer battery life alone is enough of a compelling reason to stay with iPhone.

    Palm’s best strategy is to keep sales up and work on the next one to really compete with iPhone as a handheld computer with cell phone. Web OS is nice, but hardware is limited without SW. Palm has a long way to go to catch up.

    Fart apps may be a plenty. It’s on other mobile platforms too. What’s truly critical for these new handheld platforms are growth in SW development. You must really not be paying attention to the good apps being released. There are a lot of practical tools being developed in SW for iPhone – like the various medical apps and database clients. Note that these are generating profits for developers – a major incentive that Pre has not yet demonstrated. Being open itself is not enough. Besides, being based on webkit, how hard do you think it would be to port it for use within iPhone or Android. Given how markets are driven, Palm needs to distinguish itself much more in the area of SW development. This is going to be key to their platform’s success. Being able to run multiple apps alone isn’t going to be useful if there are not a lot of useful apps to run at the same time.

    By the time they release on Verizon, if SW development on Pre does not pick up, they may have a problem establishing themselves as a viable competitor in this new space. It should be interesting to see how they are doing by that time.

  11. dculberson says:

    I just got my Pre today. It is pretty. I haven’t had time to do much beyond activating it, but I notice already that the “so sharp it’s dangerous” thing was ridiculous hyperbole. You could no more cut yourself with this thing than you could the edge of a laptop.

  12. calbear77 says:

    @ BankOfTooBigToFail

    Good comments, I agree with much of what you said.

    If you’ll notice, though, with most of the features you list, Palm can either put those in later through software, or, Pre owners can replace their battery with a better one (since you can do that on the Pre). The extra memory space is nice, for sure.

    And like I said, with the new 3GS, it’s a nice competition. If Palm gets app dev going (not a guarantee, I agree), it will be a viable option, especially since the Sprint Plan with Nav and unlimited data for a lot less money is very attractive.

    And of course, 21M iPhone users would have to pay $400 to upgrade. Quite frankly, I don’t see it happening in the next year for all but the most hardcore fanboys. If even the BoingBoing guy is complaining, how are the casual iPhone users going to react?

    I am not a Palm fanboy (do those even exist?) My plan is to go with this phone for a year or so and then see what else is out there, on whatever network it’s on. I actually think Android has the most long term potential, but let’s agree that it’s a non-starter at this point since the hardware and T-Mobile network are a joke.

  13. Permanent4 says:

    Since it appears Sling isn’t going to release a SlingPlayer for the Pre any time soon, can anyone confirm whether or not SlingPlayer for Palm OS works in the Pre’s Palm OS emulator?

    Because while Italy and Brazil will probably stomp the US national team in the FIFA Confederations Cup next week, I still want to be able to watch those games during my workday.

  14. teezecrost says:

    Very nice review. This seems like a very honest, unbiased opinion. Even the parts where the nod goes to apple; and I’m not an apple fan.
    I’ll be picking up a pre as soon as it hits Canada.

  15. romulusnr says:

    Considering Palm literally founded the smartphone paradigm that is now ubiquitous, it has no excuse to come in even second place after so many years. What’s their excuse? Gross mismanagement? Boneheaded creativity-killing business process? Too busy selling off divisions for quick bucks to pay attention to making great products?
    In one fell swoop, Palm has underwhelmed its critics while giving it’s potentially loyal userbase a big fat obsolescence finger. One wonders how they managed to invent the smartphone in the first place.

  16. Anonymous says:

    So, there’s not a lot of 3rd party apps available for the Pre right now. Big deal. How many were available when the 1st gen iPhone launched? None. If you look around at some of the Pre oriented sites, there have been several product announcements, many Palm development shops are busy porting their apps, and in the mean time, you can probably run a lot of what’s needed via the Classic PalmOS emulator. If you have a Safari account, you can get a peek at how to develop for it for most things: http://my.safaribooksonline.com/9780596802097/

    Apparently, the biggest complaint from existing Palm device users is that the Pre doesn’t sync directly to the desktop with their Palm Desktop data. There have been a couple products announced to bridge that gap, but if you’re a Linux user, your kinda screwed at the moment.

  17. Maurice says:

    great review, I just got 2 Pre phones today. Hate to admit it but I expected lots more. I should have done more research, I just read a few fan reviews and figured it was a hit.

    Besides not being able to synch till downloading 3rd part apps, the fact that id doesn’t have support for a micro SD kills it for me. Why would they do that, I just don’t get it… 8 Gbs is not enough, especially since I care video on my cards.

    Even more lousy is that there are no apps available for the device. 58 apps is just not enough in my opinion, probably because one of my favorite things about palm was how many different apps there were.

    So, I hate to say… I am returning both phones… hope the 2nd version of the Pre does a better job, for now I’ll stick with my 755p.

  18. allen says:

    I almost never leave comments, but this had to be said:

    Thank you for giving a _normal_ review. The stuff I was reading about CUTTING CHEESE (!?) and TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE! was obviously whiny horseshit–even those blogs’ audiences called them on it.

    I don’t really understand why people can’t just live with the idea that there are multiple capable handsets. But I guess most professional blogs purposefully roll the dice on every post on the off chance that it’ll light up across the sphere.

    Assholes: stop abusing your readers.

    (And thank you, Joel.)

  19. wastrel says:

    Great review! The keyhole thing is how I feel on my G1, but not on my wife’s iTouch. I think the absolute size of the display is an issue for me.

  20. CGI_Joe says:

    Good review Joel. I didn’t read about the headphone stuff in anyone else’s reviews, good to know.

    I am, of course, sticking with my iPhone, but I really do like other competition in the market. Apple tends to get stingy with features when they don’t have any pressure from competitors.

  21. Linda says:

    It is great to see Palm back in the running and with this new phone I am sure this will just be the beginning.

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