Reviews

The Palm Pre (first gen) review


Y'know, it's impossible to talk about the Palm Pre without mentioning the iPhone. Everyone except the designer bespectacled man-bag clad Apple fanboi's know that the iPhone isn't perfect and any company who can beat Apple at their own game is hoping to steal a lead.

Now Apple's own game isn't the mobile phone market, but it is in designing beautiful looking operating systems and input mechanisms that allow us to interact with technology as seamlessly as possible. Sure, they didn't invent the GUI, that's an idea they got from Xerox, but Apple know how to refine and implement it into their products. Whether it's a computer, a music player or a phone, Apple have a track record of producing a good looking, intuitive way for us lowly humans to play with complicated technology.

My problem with Apple? Crap hardware, jealous control and product crippling - in my opinion.

Starting with the first point, sure the hardware looks good but I've had to repair too many Apple devices in my time often as a result of what appear to be design flaws (poke around this site for some examples). On the second point, when you buy an Apple product, you're subscribing to the Apple 'experience' whether you like it or not which means you'll use the thing how they want you to. The iPhone is a perfect example and at today's prices I can blow up to £450 on one using our Vodafone Enterprise account however despite this high handset cost I'm restricted to using the tariff Apple have agreed with Vodafone which gives me 1.5GB of data per month for the same price as 5GB on any other smartphone. If I try and use a 5GB SIM in the iPhone they disable the tethering function. As for product crippling, again the iPhone is a perfect example. Apple were new to the smartphone market however they knew their religious fanbase would buy anything with their fruity logo slapped on so they sold the first generation iPhone without HSDPA capability. A year later they released the second generation with HSDPA knowing that same fanbase would snap it up, effectively selling the product to the same people twice.

The third generation iPhone has been out for a while however there are still some inherent problems and if a competitor can produce a similar device which solves them, they may have a winner on their hands....

...but is the Palm Pre everything the iPhone should be? Well, in my opinion, pretty much, yes.

Pre1
The Pre, closed and here running a Twitter app while playing an MP3 file.



Let's start with the hardware specs. I'm looking at a first generation 8GB Pre at 100.5 x 59.5mm with a thickness of 16.9mm. This makes it rather smaller than the iPhone albeit at about the same weight yet it still packs the same resolution screen at 320x480 pixels however the pixels are spaced closer together giving a beautiful crisp clear display. Like the iPhone and unlike my N97 it sports a capacitive rather than resistive touchscreen suiting it more to the skin of the human finger than the point of a stylus.

Palm & iPhone
Side by side, the Pre and the iPhone



When closed it's design has been likened to a smooth pebble with it's rounded back end edges and it's certainly comfortable to hold in your hand or slip in and out of your trouser or shirt pocket. The top surface can slide upwards exposing a physical keyboard underneath in much the same style as my old XDA IIs used to. Unfortunately this is where things go a little wrong. The sliding action isn't smooth and can be downright fiddly. Also, the lower edge of the keyboard is really rather sharp and on one occasion while trying to slide the casing single handed I actually hurt my thumb. While no real injury was sustained, I don't expect using a mobile phone to be a physically painful experience! The keyboard is tiny and rather recessed by the rising edges of it's surrounding casing and that makes it awkward to use. A lack of cursor keys also makes cursor placement tricky when trying to correct errors in a body of text although a recent firmware update allows for improved accuracy with cursor placement. Digging in to the keys with your nails is more accurate than trying to thumb-type but despite all this I still prefer the tactile feel of a physical keyboard to the iPhone's virtual offering. Data transfer and charging is via a MicroUSB port hidden behind a flimsy flap which can be difficult to open and will probably break off fairly quickly. One optional accessory which should perhaps have been included as standard is a wonderful inductive charger which sits solidly on your desk and charges your Pre whenever it is placed upon it. Magnets hold the Pre in place and the battery is magically charged by means of induction through the plastic of an upgraded rear casing. This saves having to mess with any cables or flaps and every phone should have one! Speaking of the battery, mine seems to be putting in more distance than the decidedly unimpressive iPhone 3GS I was playing with a few weeks ago. That said, I'm still charging every 1 - 1.5 days as I leave Bluetooth and WiFi enabled all the time.

Overall the casing doesn't seem as solid as the iPhone and has a lighter 'plastic' feel. There are horror stories on the net of the screen being easily cracked and the top half of the casing being rotated from the lower half. I can't comment on that unless I start mistreating my evaluation model but it may be worth putting some research into before you reach for your wallet. I suspect if one were to perform some drop tests on both the Pre and the iPhone, the Pre would be the first to show some cracks.


Pre2
Opened up exposing the keyboard.



An accelerometer switches between portrait and landscape mode and with the keyboard exposed the display is locked to portrait mode as you might expect (ever tried using a keyboard sideways on?!) The touchscreen works well and a nice 'ripple' effect provides feedback of where your input has been registered. Trying to tap small outlying menus at the edge of the screen can be a bit hit and miss but generally the touch input is accurate and works well. The touch sensitive area extends beyond the screen and into the surround where a suitably placed swipe will allow you to step 'back' within a running application or to flick through applications when advanced gestures are enabled. White LEDs track such swipe movements albeit rather pointlessly. A single button is raised in the lower centre of the device allowing you to return at any time to the root screen.

Pre3
Landscape mode.



The standard 3.5mm headphone jack is always welcome and is an indication that the Pre can take over from your iPod. Indeed, Palm have apparently made it iTunes compatible although I hear Apple keep going out of their way to lock the device out with iTunes updates. To get around this Palm have apparently 'spoofed' the vendor ID offered via the USB connection making a host computer 'think' an iPod is connected which is something that has raised complaints from Apple and earned Palm a telling off. Whether your Pre will work out of the box with iTunes will depend on what Apple do with iTunes, what Palm do with the Pre firmware and whose lawyers come out on top in a punch-up. My model didn't seem to work with the updated dummy iTunes installation on my laptop however there are always third party solutions such as Salling Media Sync which is also the application I'm using to keep my N97 synchronised with iTunes. Sound output through the headphone jack is of a high quality and a neatly placed control on the side of the casing allows for volume adjustment. The music will keep on pumping out when you switch to another application and the currently playing song appears at the bottom of the screen along with some basic playback controls so you can quickly stop or change the music without losing focus of the currently running app. A mono speaker on the rear does a reasonable job of playback without headphones.

The 3.5 MegaPixel camera with white LED flash is fairly competent and background image processing allows you to take successive shots more quickly than some mobile snappers. The LED flash is powerful for it's size however moving objects seem to blur easily. At the time of writing it supports still shots only and not video. Maybe a firmware update will introduce such functionality but that remains to be seen [see footnote]. Unfortunately there is no digital zoom and the quality of the picture is way below that of the 5MP Carl Zeiss camera on the N97.

Of course, it's also a phone and that works as it should.  A proximity sensor detects when it is up against your ear to avoid any accidental touch screen operation when you're on a call and you can search through your contacts from the phone screen. In fact, from the root screen you can perform a search on anything. Just start typing and the Pre will narrow down results to localised hits such as applications and contacts before expanding out to Google, Google Maps, Wikipedia and Twitter.

The Pre is WiFi equipped but has no memory card slot and does not support obex Bluetooth file transfers so you can't expand the internal storage and data transfer is left to the MicroUSB port and a cable which feels rather old-skool for 2010. You can use Bluetooth to pair a headset and it does allow you to tether the device as a modem so you can get your laptop onto the 'net when on the move so long as your data plan allows this.

Nice though the hardware is overall, it's the operating system where the Pre really comes into its own. The Linux based WebOS is lovely and the major advantage the Pre has over the iPhone is that is can multitask allowing you to open several applications at once and switch between them at the flick of a finger. Each application appears as a 'card' on the root screen and you can flick between the cards to select any open app or close it by swiping the card upwards off the screen. The cards work really well, the only downside being the time it takes for an application to initially load. It can be several seconds from tapping an icon on the screen to it appearing as a fully open application however the idea is that you open your apps at the start of the day and just keep them running, flicking between them as necessary [see footnote]. Opening too many at once will have an impact on the processing speed and power consumption however I've not noticed any problems keeping open the handful of apps I require.

Pre4
Open App Cards on the root screen.

 

Pre5
Simply flick from one open card to another with a finger swipe.



A 'quick launch' menu at the bottom of the screen holds four customisable icons for fast access to common applications and the launcher which holds all apps and control panels. By default the basic PDA/Smartphone applications are supplied so you have access to messaging, the Internet, Office document viewers, calculator, media player and a clock. There is also a YouTube app, Google Maps and the App Catalogue which is Palm's own App Store offering downloadable extra goodies. While this may not be as big as the Apple App Store or Nokia's Ovi offering, it's certain to grow over time if WebOS gains popularity.

Pre6
Dragging up the Quick Launch menu allows you to select another application to open without having to return to the Home screen from an open app.



Configurable control panels are few and far between and one criticism I have is that it seems to be over simplified as there are few options to change the look, feel or operation of the Pre and it's apps. The N97 running Symbian is far more customisable than the Pre allowing me to set it up to operate how I want it to far more easily.

Email integration is where the Pre beats the Nokia hands down. It's on a par with the iPhone and Exchange integration works wonderfully well. Minor niggles are down to the rigid view options as I'd prefer smaller fonts and some detail of the upcoming calendar appointments. Messages are nicely rendered whether plain text or HTML and standard Office/PDF attachments only a couple of taps away from being viewable. Setting up mail accounts is easy and the Pre is ready to go with several services. Even my aging POP mail accounts managed to self configure with me simply entering my mail address and password. The Pre expects you to have some kind of online hosted mail service and data plan as there is no desktop synchronisation software such as the Hotsync of old.

New messages, current audio tracks or system events such as low battery appear as notifications at the bottom of the screen regardless of what app card is running and they can be tapped into or swiped away. When charging the screen stays powered showing the time along with any new notifications although the option to also show the date would have been handy.

Touchstone
The inductive 'Touchstone' charger, an optional accessory for the first generation Pre but will be supplied as standard with the upcoming Pre Plus.
Charging
When magnetically attached to the Touchstone charger a clock and keyguard become active. The screen continues to display notifications such as incoming messages and, in this case, battery charging notification.



Document viewing and web browsing both work as they should and so long as the keyboard is closed the display can be rotated to switch between portrait and landscape modes. Like the iPhone you can zoom in and out using finger gestures on the screen to optimise the display size. The web browser gets the thumbs-up as it acts like a desktop browser whereas on my N97 I get the annoying 'mobile' browser that gives me cut down web pages with half the information I want.

Spending company money on the Enterprise account is one thing but the question is, would I spend my own money on the Pre over the iPhone?

The answer is yes. The smaller size, better battery life, physical keyboard and multitasking operating system are strong advantages over the iPhone and outweigh any of the niggling negative points I've mentioned. Would I kick my N97 out of bed for a Pre? Well, that I'm not so sure about. Clunky though Symbian feels in comparision to WebOS, the N97 seems to have more 'heavyweight' options for a technoFool like me. Also the Pre, like the original iPhone, is currently locked to O2 in the UK with whatever tariff options and prices they choose to place upon it. Indeed, an operator lock-in seems to be a strange move considering Palm doesn't have Apple's high profile or clout and it may have been more sensible to have offered the Pre across networks to get the numbers out and form a larger user base for WebOS so development can start snowballing.

In my opinion the Pre beats the iPhone however the one big thing that will always be missing from the Pre is the 'trendy' Apple badge so it may struggle to make it's voice heard in a smartphone market dominated by Apple + everyone else. Palm have announced the Pre Plus will soon be with us with double the memory (512MB), double the storage (16GB) a more aesthetic touch sensitive area to replace the raised nipple button and the inductive Touchstone charger as standard (yay). Whether it will offer faster application loading remains to be seen but when my trusty N97 runs out of steam I will seriously consider the Pre as its successor.

Update, 04/03/03.
WebOS 1.4 was launched at the end of February and introduces a whole slew of features. The big one to shout about is that the camera does now support video and a new Video Roll application allows you to view those captured moving moments. Other improvements may be relatively minor but are nonetheless welcome such as the 'nipple' button now providing a visual notification of new messages, faster response and loading times and a bunch of bug fixes and enhancements. One of the touted benefits to upgrading was improved battery life, partly perhaps through the Pre now disabling WiFi when the screen is off. Unfortunately in my case the battery seemed to be borked by the update. Indeed, I found it dropping 4% per hour with WiFi and Bluetooth disabled, the screen off and no apps running! If I did use the device, I could pretty well watch the charge level disappear by a percentage point per minute or two!

Fortunately I *think* I found the problem. I had two POP mail accounts set to show messages as they arrive. Even when the Messaging application isn't running on the screen, the background processes are, in the same way as you don't need the phone app to be active for the device to ring on an incoming call. By dropping the POP mail checks to every hour, the battery drain seemed to stabilise and went to a more healthy 4% discharge every 90 minutes rather than every 30.

I say I think I found the problem, unfortunately the time was up on my O2 Pre trial today and the humourless jobsworths at O2 pulled the plug on me before I could continue testing. My plea for more time fell on deaf ears which is a crying shame as I was a whisker away from abandoning Nokia and Symbian to join the wonderful world of WebOS. As it stands though, I can't sink my money into this now without knowing for sure if the battery problem is resolved.

The Pre remains a viable option but I'll have to arrange another close up look before I part with any Sterling.

Update, 26/04/10.
Funnily enough I couldn't get the Pre out of my head after it was returned to O2. The N97 felt so clunky after I'd used WebOS and as I've said before, touch input in Symbian feels like it's been bolted on as opposed to WebOS where it's been fully integrated since the beginning. Despite my concerns over the Pre's battery life and some of the missing features, my N97 has been playing up a lot lately so I bit the bullet and asked Vodafone for a PAC code so I could port my number to O2 and plump for the Pre.

So I've been Pre-based for a couple of weeks now and it's very impressive. Firmware updates have addressed a lot of the problems I had with my evaluation unit. While the camera isn't as good as the N97 and I miss Bluetooth file transfers, my everyday apps work so much better. eMail is a joy on the Pre compared to Nokia's clunky Mail for Exchange. Calendar and contacts also function more effectively. The Music player works better (it used to drive me nuts on the N97). TweetMe is a better Twitter client than Gravity on the N97. The web browser is streets ahead of the N97 browser or indeed the Opera Mobile client I had installed on my Nokia. Charging is neater thanks to the Touchstone. SMS messaging is nicer as it is grouped by contact and displayed like an IM client allowing you to keep track of conversations.

The App Catalogue is still woefully bare however but hopefully with Apple playing the slow-catch up by holding out on features the likes of Pre already have while at the same time annoying developers by locking them out, more people may be attracted to alternative platforms such as the Pre.

Update, 14/07/10.
I'm still using the Pre but I'm getting more frustrated by the missing features. Beautiful though WebOS is, it feels like Palm have given up and are leaving a small but dedicated group of homebrew programmers to come up with features and fixes that Palm themselves should be responsible for. My blog rant goes into more detail. I'm also a little concerned by my unit suffering what is an apparently common fault where the headphone jack cuts off the earpiece speaker. I fixed it, but not without using the screwdrivers. If WebOS can't get more exposure soon, it'll die an undeserved death leaving the market open for Apple, Android and Blackberry who are all worthy rivals, but lack the WebOS greatness.

 


Recommended apps & patches
A few goodies that no Pre owner should be without!

Angry Birds
*The* most addictive game! Available in the App Catalogue.

Preware
A management utility for installing patches and apps often written by homebrewers. Fiddly to get on there and requires a host PC for installation but opens the door to piles of goodies.

Twee / TweetMe
Two excellent Twitter clients. Both have the same full Twitter functionality except Twee allows you to search for user names while TweetMe can save draft tweets. Both available in the App Catalogue.

Agenda
Your upcoming appointments nicely presented. Available through Preware.

Mahjong Solitaire Lite
A good implementation of the classic game, available from the App Catalogue.

Net2Streams Lite
Streaming radio available from the App Catalogue.

Photo Effects
Allows manipulation of images via a third party server. Available from the App Catalogue.

Prejeweled
A free game based on Bejeweled. Available from the App Catalogue.

Fantastic Wallpaper
Lots of images and photos for prettier backdrops. Available from the App Catalogue.

GPS Fix
For testing GPS functionality and to keep a problematic receiver alive by pinging it. Available from the App Catalogue.

Govnah and UberKernel
The Pre has a 600MHz CPU underclocked to 500MHz. These two apps available via Preware will allow you to alter the CPU speed overclocking it p to 1GHz (if you want to take that risk). Personally I find running it at 500MHz with the screen off and 800MHz when on gives it a noticable speed boost without sucking too much out of the battery.

BFG Maps
Better Faster Google Maps - it's Google Maps, but better. And faster. Several overlays including Foursquare and traffic updates plus Street View gives it the edge over the Google app supplied with the Pre. Available from the App Catalogue.



Useful patches (available via Preware):

15px Font
Shrinks the font size in the Messaging app to fit more onto the screen.

Add Date dd-MMM-yy
Various date formats available but this will place the date at the top of the screen next to the clock.

Advanced Configuration for App Launcher
Configuration options for the Launcher such as editable font and icon sizes and seperate application pages.

All-Day Events in Month View
By default the Pre calendar won't show an All Day Event when viewing by month which makes it look like you have more free time than you do if you're anything like me. This patch will see to that!

Default to Month View
As the name says, open the calendar and be greeted by month view (my preference)

Enable Hidden Clock
Enables a theme in the Clock app which, for some bizarre reason, is otherwise hidden!

Enable Vibration
Haptic feedback when using the calculator

Ringer Switch Icon
Shows a mute icon on the top of the screen to remind you when mute is on - invaluable!

Temperature With Battery in Device Menu
Shows the handset temperature so you can keep an eye on whether it's running too hot!