Last year, Palm turned CES upside down with the Palm Pre – one of the few new smartphones to make the iPhone look dated. After a slow-but-auspicious launch over the summer, Palm returned to CES this year with a much less earth-shattering pair of refreshes: the Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus. Besides migrating to Verizon, the Pre Plus brings a handful of modest updates, including a handful of exterior tweaks, more memory, and doubling storage from 8GB to 16GB. Verizon charges a reasonable $150 for the fresh model, but the original flavor can still be had on Sprint for $80 through Amazon. Do a few megahertz here and a few MB of RAM there really warrant the upgrade, or even a switch to Verizon? We sat down with the Plus to find out.
Put the original Pre side by side with the Pre Plus, and it would take a trained eye to detect the differences.
Perhaps the most obvious is that the pearly trackball-look-alike from the Pre has disappeared on this model completely in favor of a white LED strip below the surface, which only lights up to indicate when you’ve made a swipe or tap in the gesture area. The lettering for secondary symbols on the keyboard (numbers, % signs and the like) has also changed from red to grey, which makes it look a little less cluttered and intimidating to our eyes. Perhaps most importantly, the grabby keyboard sliding that we complained about the first time around has been smoothed out, and the whole mechanism tightened up significantly. Where twisting the two halves of the phone used to exhibit some considerable separation, we can now detect just the slightest budge, and no visual crack between the two at all. We consider this a massive improvement, and our hats go off to Palm for actually addressing a major build quality problem that many owners complained about the first time around. The matte black Touchstone battery cover (which enables inductive charging) also comes standard on the Pre Plus. Besides looking and feeling much better than the glossy black one, you’ll save $20 when you go to buy the inductive charger, since you can buy the $50 model with no cover included, rather than the $70 model that comes packaged with one.
On the software side, the Pre Plus ships with WebOS 126.96.36.199, the same software you could expect to find on an up-to-date Pre. It includes improved app store download capabilities (they continue you when leave the page), removed limits on how many apps can run at once, and a handful of other minor fixes.
Standard Pre Features
Many features remain largely unchanged from generation to generation. The Pre Plus features an ample 3.1-inch multi-touch screen, full QWERTY keyboard, 3G internet connectivity, 3.2-megapixel camera, Wi-Fi, app store, and months and months of gloss layered on their finely honed WebOS operating system.
What makes WebOS special? Unlike the iPhoneOS, WebOS can run multiple apps simultaneously, allowing users to seamlessly switch between any two, three or twelve tasks with a flick of the finger, or perform tasks like playing music from Pandora while browsing the Web. It also includes a powerful calendar and contact solution that syncs from multiple online sources (like Google and Facebook), as well as an App Catalog full of free and paid software for the phone that users can download and install in seconds.
As we found with the original Pre, the touch screen on the Pre Plus rivals the iPhone’s both in accuracy and multi-touch capability, even if it does measure a 0.4 inches smaller diagonally. You’re dragging a finger around on plastic rather than real glass, though, which diminishes the smooth feel a bit, and side-by-side, the iPhone still pops more at full brightness, so we still have to declare it the victor at the end of the day.
Palm claims to have improved the keyboard on the Pre Plus, but short of the aforementioned switch from red to grey lettering, we really couldn’t tell the difference. That’s a good thing. The slide-out keyboard on the Pre is nearly identical, in size, to that on the well-liked BlackBerry Curve 8900. Unlike the hard plastic keys on that keyboard, these have a sort of tacky gel-coat to them. They tap nicely, without the audible clatter that can be a nuisance at times. The lack of bulge on the Pre keys does make them a little tougher to press than curvaceous BlackBerry keys, so thick-fingered typists will probably end up using fingernails to plop down letters with much precision.
The 3.2-megapixel camera hiding in the back of the Pre Plus can’t be called a jewel, but neither does it lag behind the pack as far as modern smartphones are concerned. Opening the camera app produces one of the most fluid live views we’ve seen, and it snaps rapid-fire photos machinegun fast. But ultimately, it lacks the control that would push it into the territory where you might seriously consider replacing a point-and-shoot camera. Fixed focus means no macro shots, and even software features like user-adjustable white balance are missing. Unlike the iPhone 3G S, you do get a surprisingly potent flash, though. Overall, shots did look good, if not quite up to par with those from the amazing Nokia N97.
As we found out with the N97, even well-tuned smartphones can sometimes fall apart when it comes time to make calls, making it seem like the developers totally fell asleep at the wheel on one of the most critical functions. The Pre suffers no such afterthought syndrome. Dialing and contact management mesh together rather well, and we had no issues performing routine functions like going back to scan recent calls, or adding fresh numbers to existing contacts. Voice quality was respectable – and plenty loud – but we noticed a bit of an unwelcome warble in incoming voices at times. Nothing overly irritating, though.