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.
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.