When Gordon first saw the Palm Pre, it’s safe to say he was rather surprised. Here was a company that appeared to be on its last legs suddenly releasing a device that had the potential to be one of the smartphones of the year. It combined the glamour of the iPhone, the social networking integration of the INQ1 and the openness of Android, and, for those that like such things, it even had a proper physical keyboard. Sadly it’s taken an age for the device to reach the shores of the UK but now that it has, let’s see if it can live up to all the hype.
First impressions, at least on my part, are very positive as this is one seriously cute device. Its small form factor (just 100 x 58 x 16mm) and rounded corners combine to make it feel really comfortable and secure in the hand with the full expanse of the screen falling within easy reach. We also love the way the screen is seamlessly integrated into the front. However the whole device is made of plastic and glossy plastic at that. This not only makes it feel less solid than premium competitors but it will also make it hellish to keep free of scratches.
At least a neat carry pouch is included in the box, though if we’re being really picky we would’ve preferred this to be smooth leather on the outside so it’s easier to get in and out of a pocket. The other bundled accessories are good quality though. The USB data cable is thick and strong and has an inbuilt cable tidy while the charger is modular to make transport as easy as possible.
Things take a turn for the worse, though, when we slide open the Pre’s keyboard. For a start, there’s a distinct wobble to the slide mechanism – not so much that it makes us think it might fall apart but just enough that it further mars the feeling of quality. That said, the slide mechanism does work really well and is easy to use one handed, unlike the Nokia N97 for instance.
However, further bad marks come from the strangely sharp edge that surrounds the keyboard. Personally I don’t find it a problem but others in the office find it distinctly uncomfortable while typing.
The actual act of typing is likewise something that will divide opinion greatly. Though I maintain one can type faster on an onscreen keyboard, I found this keyboard perfectly nice to use. The layout is logical (though our review sample has the ‘y’ and ‘z’ characters swapped around – presumably to identify it as a review sample) and the keys are made of a soft yet tough clear rubber that provides good purchase. However, many people, including the majority of the office, will find the keyboard cramped and to accurately tap each key requires you to type with your thumbnails. These problems could possibly have been alleviated by predictive text but sadly this feature isn’t included; just the basics like adding apostrophes where appropriate and capitalising letters at the beginning of a sentence are accounted for.
Opening the phone up also makes it impossible to use the device one handed as you can’t reach all of the touch screen so you must either bring a second hand into play or constantly open and close the keyboard as you flit between navigating and typing.
Getting things back on track for the Pre is the presence of a proper 3.5mm headphone jack on the top. Sound quality from it is very good, though the jumps between volume levels can be too high, making music either too loud or too quiet. The included headset isn’t up to much when it comes to music listening but passes muster when it comes to handsfree calling.
Next to the headphone socket is the sliding hold-switch and right on the corner is the power button. Meanwhile on the right side is the MicroUSB data and charging socket (hidden under a rubber flap) and on the left is the volume rocker. The back is then home to the camera and a strangely large speaker, which doesn’t actually get as loud as its size suggests (we found it to be almost exactly as loud as an iPhone 3G).
Being only 3-megapixels and lacking autofocus, the camera isn’t exactly setting new standards for picture quality but the presence of an LED flash beats many smartphone competitors and will make indoor shooting that little bit more practical. Largely due to that lack of focus, overall performance is good and you can snap away at just under a frame every second. We also think the full size self portrait mirror that appears on the back of the slide up section is a very clever idea.
Possibly the coolest thing about this phone, apart from its software, though, is the back plate. This can be removed and replaced with a matt black one that not only looks significantly nicer than the gloss version but also has a neat trick up its sleeve; place the phone on the matching touchstone dock and it wirelessly charges. Sadly the Touchstone back plate and charger are an added extra and will set you back £44.11 (to be precise).
The screen is a conventional LCD measuring 3.1in with a resolution of 320 x 480. That’s the same resolution as the iPhone but in a noticeably smaller package and the result is a much sharper looking picture. It also has very good viewing angles and displays bright, vivid colours. Most importantly, though, it uses capacitive touch sensing technology. This means the slightest touch will register on the screen, making it highly responsive.
There’s 8GB of onboard memory, which is plenty enough for loads of photos, hours of music, and the odd video. However, it’s nothing compared to the top-end iPhone 3GS’ 32GB and there’s no memory slot to add to this storage.
So overall the hardware’s a bit of a mixed bag and ultimately we feel a similar sized device without a physical keyboard would be preferable, while the addition of a memory slot would also be welcome. That said, a large part of what so excited us about the Palm Pre when it was first shown was the software and that’s still the case now.
Palm’s new WebOS operating system is for the most part utterly sublime. For a start, we really like the rounded corners on the display as it reflects the rounded shape of the device itself. You could argue it’s a waste of space but we didn’t ever feel like we were missing out because of it.
We also really like the way Palm has consciously used up a portion of the screen to house notification areas at the top and bottom. The bottom area gives you quick access to new messages, upcoming appointments, and other application notifications while the top area shows network, time, Wi-Fi, signal strength, and battery level. Tapping the top area then brings up a menu with settings for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and aeroplane mode as well as detailed battery level and date information. When no applications have any notifications, the bottom area then disappears and the desktop expands into the space. If you then open an application that ideally wants as much screen real estate as possible (like the camera, video player, and picture viewer) the top notification area disappears as well so no screen space is wasted.
Five icons run along the bottom of the desktop, giving access to the dialler, contacts, email, calendar, and the app launcher. These can also be accessed at any time by swiping your finger up from the bottom of the screen.
This gesture highlights another key feature of this OS and that’s multi-tasking. To make this as easy as possible Palm has also implemented what it calls Activity Cards for quickly and easily flipping between applications. Applications are arranged in a horizontal row and can be slid left and right or reordered. Tapping an application then brings it to the fore while a swipe upwards closes it. It’s a seriously slick system.
Unlike many rival devices, the Pre doesn’t have muiltiple desktops full of apps but instead has a seperate app launcher program. This isn’t a big deal but it does mean there’s generally an extra step to getting to your favourite applications. We presume this has been done to avoid confusion over whether you’re swiping between desktops or applications.
Another major feature in the Pre is its online information integration or Synergy as Palm calls it. This seamlessly marries contact, calendar, email and messaging information from Facebook, conventional and Exchange email accounts, IM, and SMS. So in one folder you can view all your messages no matter where they’re from and one calendar view will take into account all your personal and business appointments. Further to this, all messages exchanged with a contact are brought together in one conversation stream.
As for the core applications, well the web browser is as good as any other we’ve seen, rendering pages quickly and accurately and there’s support for the all important pinch zooming. Flash support is claimed but we found little flash content that actually worked.
The music player is a particular highlight including, as it does, support for my two favourite features. The first is a shuffle all button right there on the first page – I hate having to go to ‘play all’ then selecting a shuffle playback mode just to listen to some random tunes. The second is that the music pauses when you unplug your headphones. Both are really simple additions but along with a slick interface, full support for ID3 tags and album art, and the ease of dragging and dropping music onto the device, it makes for a really nice music player.
Googlemaps and youtube are both catered for with in-built apps and they work particularly well, with the former taking advantage of the inbuilt GPS. The Palm application store, called the App Catalog, also gives you easy access to thousands of useful apps and games.
Another neat feature is Universal Search. You simply open the phone and start typing and you’ll instantly see results for any contacts or apps that match your search. If, as you carry on typing, there are no more local matches the phone then offers to search Google, Googlemaps, Wikipedia, or Twitter.
However, there are a couple of issues with the Pre’s interface.
While it is certainly slick, it can sometimes leave you quite confused. For instance, there’s no overall settings menu so you have to navigate a multitude of, what are essentially, apps to set everything up (somewhat like the way Windows Control Panel is an absolute mess in Classic View). The reliance on gestures and resulting lack of visual feedback can also leave you pondering, i.e. a right to left swipe along the bottom of the screen takes you back a page but because there’s no ‘back’ button onscreen, you never know whether there is anything to go back to. It can quite often feel a bit sluggish as well, even when doing basic tasks. We’d say it’s a little faster than the iPhone 3G and most Windows Mobile phones but falls way behind the iPhone 3GS and most BlackBerrys in overall responsiveness. And, of course, the complete lack of an onscreen keyboard is also a bit of a pain.
We found battery life to be passable with, again the iPhone 3G being a good comparison device. When used intensively with Wi-Fi and 3G, the battery drains very quickly, which is as we’d expect. However, even when the phone’s relatively idle it still seems to drain surprisingly quickly. Palm quotes figures of 5 hours talk time, which seems reasonable but the 300 hours of standby seems like a pipe dream. Essentially, in our experience this is the kind of device that you’ll need to be plugging in every night.
Probably the biggest problem for the Palm Pre, though, is pricing. O2 has matched the tariff and handset prices of the Pre to that of the iPhone 3G 8GB (£30 contract, £99 up front, 75 minutes, 75 texts, free data) which does make sense given they have the same capacity, same lack of video recording, and similar performance. However, the iPhone 3G just feels like a much higher quality handset and those things the Pre can claim as exclusives – the clever Synergy online information integration, multi-tasking – don’t feel like enough to make up the difference. Were O2 to sweeten the deal by including the Touchstone charger and back plate then that could swing it but as it stands, the build quality, physical keyboard, and speed issues are enough to dull some of the Pre’s lustre.
The Palm Pre is a very nice smartphone that leaves little to be desired in terms of features and its WebOS is one of the best operating systems on the market. So, if you really don’t want to use iTunes and aren’t tempted by a BlackBerry or Windows Mobile device then the Pre sits in an attractive middle ground. However, much as when Android first launched on the T-Mobile G1, we feel the handset doesn’t quite do the operating system justice; the keyboard is only okay and the build quality lags a little behind the competition.
”’Addendum – 12/03/2010”’
O2 has recently changed the pricing of the Palm Pre making it free on all the contracts on which it’s available. So for £30 a month you get the phone for free, unlimited data and texts, and 100 minutes of calls. At this price level this phone easily becomes a highly recommended device.
Score in detail
|Operating System||Palm OS|
|Screen Size (inches) (Inch)||3.1in|
|Talk Time (Minute)||300m|
|Standby Time (Hour)||300hr|
|Internal Storage (Gigabyte)||8GB|
|Camera (Megapixel)||3.15 Megapixel|
|Front Facing Camera (Megapixel)||No Megapixel|
|3.5mm Headphone Jack||Yes|
Processor and Internal Specs
|CPU||600MHz ARM Cortex A8|
|App Store||App Catalog|