Palm Pre review

20 10 2009

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What: Palm Pre

How much: Available exclusively through O2 in the UK (also Germany, Ireland and Telefonica in Spain). UK prices start at £96.90 on an 18-month/£29 contract, or free on a 24-month/£34 tariff.

The good: Slim and sleek like a river stone; neat “deck of cards” user interface; excellent email client; Synergy contacts management/aggregation.

The bad: Lack of decent applications; weak battery life; keyboard is cramped; 8GB of memory is a bit stingy without an expansion slot. It just feels a bit bland compared to its competition.

Buy it if: You want a smartphone but don’t want to carry a brick.

Don’t buy it if: You want to play games or download stacks of third-party applications. The Pre isn’t yet a “fun” phone, and it hasn’t proven that it can attract enough application developers to change this.

Summary: The Pre generated an unbelievable amount of hype before its launch in the US in June 2009, and the European launch finally gives us a chance to compare it to some of the heavy hitters available in GSM markets. Unfortunately for Palm, much of the Pre’s thunder has been stolen by competitors with better hardware, equally innovative software and stronger applications. While I found the Pre to be mostly pleasant enough to use, it’s a phone that seems to be waiting for something.  I also found the constant hand-holding of the UI too often led to frustrating usability failures which undermine the experience. It’s not a bad phone, but it’s just not that exciting to use, and I often found myself holding it and desperately trying to think of something interesting to do with it.

Software

The Pre is the first handset to run Palm’s new generation webOS, which is exciting for a couple of reasons, not least because it means Palm can stop producing boring Windows Mobile handsets and start making interesting products. The Pre is certainly interesting, with its applications all written in standard Web technologies (CSS, JavaScript and HTML) which is intended to make it easy for Web developers to design webOS apps without too much difficulty.

In use, webOS is simple and fairly intuitive. There are very few on-screen distractions, and the use of swiping gestures is clever. One of the coolest features is multitasking: you can have heaps of applications open at once and by pressing the single button at the bottom of the screen they all slide into the middle of the screen presented as a series of cards. You can swipe between them, re-order them and flick them off the screen to close the application. Closing applications has never been this fun!

Syncing my contacts and email with my Google accounts and Facebook was fairly painless, but not quite as easy as on Android. The Pre made a valiant attempt at reconciling my Google and Facebook contacts to avoid duplicate entries, but there was still a significant amount of manual tidying to do. Palm calls this ‘Synergy’, and when it was announced at CES it was a new idea, but using it now it just doesn’t go as far in integrating web services with your contacts as I would like. HTC and INQ have both managed to do more impressive things with contacts and web services: to be honest Synergy is a bit of a letdown. It also occasionally stuffs up: while trying to call a colleague the Pre refused to dial his number (he has it entered in Facebook as ’44…’ rather than ‘+44…’, which confused the network) and I simply couldn’t work out how to dial the number stored in my Google contacts entry for him.

The Pre’s email client is almost great. It handled my two Gmail accounts easily, displaying mail in full HTML with images and wrapping the text to make it easy to read. My only gripe – and it’s not a minor one – is that it doesn’t group messages into discussion threads. This feature is especially important on a mobile client as you really don’t want to be going back and forth to follow a conversation, and even the generic Gmail Java app can do this, so it’s a frustrating omission from the Pre.

The Webkit-based browser is good, and has the multitouch pinch-to-zoom gestures that people seem to love. It reflows text to fit the screen width, which makes it easier to read without having to scroll horizontally (as does the excellent Opera Mini 5). The browser doesn’t support Flash, which means web video is out, but the Pre does have a built-in YouTube app which works beautifully over a WiFi connection. Overall, the Pre’s browser is on par with its main smartphone competitors.

The built-in Google Maps application is – as with most features of the Pre – good but nothing we haven’t seen on other platforms.

The Pre does have a preloaded app store client, but to be honest it needs to grow incredibly quickly, because at the moment there are very few interesting apps. This is a major weakness of the Pre, as it is well below par (if we consider the Android Market, BlackBerry App World or Nokia Ovi Store as roughly scoring par). Compared to the all-you-can-eat buffet that is the iPhone App Store (perhaps unfairly, but this is what consumers are choosing from) the Pre’s selection of apps is like a bread queue in Soviet Russia. Hopefully Palm can conscript a few legions of web developers to improve things, and quickly.

Hardware

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As soon as you pick up the Pre, you notice it is significantly smaller than an iPhone, Magic or BlackBerry Bold. It’s sleek and black and shiny. It has a very nice and responsive capacitive touchscreen, a sliding qwerty keyboard and all the standard features that you expect from a handset at this price point. The specs aren’t amazing, but they are good enough to compete with the likes of HTC’s Android line-up and Apple, for the most part.

The Pre has GPS, WiFi, 8GB of built-in storage (but no slot for an expansion card). It has a 3MP camera with LED Flash. It charges and syncs via micro-USB. All thoroughly standard. It has a 600MHz ARM Cortex A8 processor, which is one of the fastest currently on the market.

I don’t like the Pre’s qwerty keyboard. The keys are tiny, and difficult to press accurately. Coming from a BlackBerry to the Pre is a significant backward step in typing usability. The keyboard also has an uncomfortably sharp ridge around its rim, which was pointed out in very early US reviews, but Palm hasn’t resolved in the GSM version of the hardware.

Conclusion

What else is there to say? The Pre meets expectations? It provides a decent browser, a good email experience and some neat UI tricks? It’s worth a look if you’re in the market for a new smartphone? This is all true, but if it sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, you’re understanding my feelings about the Pre. It’s inoffensive but unexciting, and when it’s competing at the same price point as much more exciting phones like the iPhone 3GS and a fleet of handsets from HTC, Samsung, Acer, RIM and others, unfortunately it’s difficult to see it rocking too many European or Asian customers’ worlds.

Disclosure: Palm loaned my team a Pre for a limited-time trial duration.

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