How many so-called iPhone killers have we sifted through by now? It seems like every other month, another company rolls out another smartphone groomed to dethrone the now-ubiquitous Apple superphone. From the T-Mobile G1 to Sony’s Xperia X1, many have tried. And so far, they’ve all fallen pretty flat.
Palm can’t afford to join the crowd of failures. The 17-year-old company that helped usher in the era of the smartphone is scrambling for the last handhold on a financial cliff, and its life or death now rides almost entirely on the Pre, a groundbreaking phone it first awed audiences with at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in January.
It’s slick. It’s powerful. And it has an impressive bloodline. Will it pull it off? We picked up the pearly new $200 Pre from Sprint to find out.
At first blush, it’s easy to see the comparisons between the Pre and its obvious target, the iPhone. Both feature ample multi-touch screens, 3G internet connectivity, 3.2-megapixel cameras, Wi-Fi, app stores, just a handful of exterior buttons, and months of months of gloss layered on their finely honed operating systems. Beyond that, the Pre departs dramatically from Apple’s formula.
Most obviously, Palm has sanded the iPhone’s tablet-like form factor down to a smaller, rounded-edge design that’s supposed to be reminiscent of a river stone. And while the 3.1-inch screen comes up a bit short on the ruler as a result, there’s a surprise hiding underneath: a full QWERTY keyboard that slides out on a slope for quicker text entry.
The Apple iPhone and Palm Pre
Turning the phone on, things get even more unique. Unlike the iPhone, the Pre’s unique 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.
If that weren’t enough, Palm’s additional $70 Touchstone charger for the Pre tops off the battery wirelessly. It looks like a pedestal. Pop the phone on top, and it’s charging.
Build Quality and Form Factor
Not surprisingly, Palm has taken a few cues from other leaders in the mobile space by packaging the Pre into a rock-hard paperboard box that’s built like it should house diamonds. In fact, it could probably break through a window in the right hands. Inside, you’ll find the phone itself, a microUSB cable for charging (along with the requisite plug to covert a standard outlet into a USB port), a pair of rubbery black earbuds, and a suede pouch.
Palm’s dramatic claims about the Pre’s “river stone” design weren’t hyperbole. We might believe this thing spent some time at the bottom of a babbling brook if it weren’t plastic. The corners have been totally knocked off, the front and back blend smoothly into the side with rounded edges, and the whole phone bows out gently in the middle. This is a nice phone to hold, and it’s equally at home in the pocket, where it seems to melt right in.
Unfortunately, some aspects of the build quality irked us. The sliding motion – which you’ll be doing a lot of – just doesn’t feel as solid or smooth as many other phones we’ve dealt with over the years. It takes a good amount of force to get it started, and unlike many phones that use plenty of spring tension to make the screen literally “snap” to the open position affirmatively, the Pre can easily get bogged down and snag in the middle. We attribute this to the very slight bow shape it takes on when it slides out. While it does to fit more naturally around the head and give a better screen angle when texting, it also seems to induce some rubbing during the slide that just causes the jerky motion. The same shoddy mechanism allows both halves of the phone to wiggle far more than they should when the phone is closed.
Because the Pre’s screen sits below its glossy plastic topcoat, it seems to meld into the rest of the body when viewed directly from the front, erasing the boundary between the LCD and the rest of the phone. The only things marring the otherwise glassy surface are a speaker above the screen, a discreet microphone hole below, and a silvery center button, which almost looks like a trackball at first glance. But there’s also a feature you can’t see: a gesture area. Finger swipes performed on the black area directly below the LCD still control the phone, as we’ll talk about in the software section. Around to the right, a microUSB slot hides under a tight-fitting black door, while the left side hides the obligatory volume rockers. Up top, there’s a standard headphone jack, ringer silence slider, and power button.
As far as smartphones go, the Pre is fully loaded. If we had to pick a better arsenal to bring to the fight with Apple, it’s hard to imagine what else we would throw in the back, short of perhaps an FM radio like the one mentioned in our Nokia N97 review.
Included accessories consist of a power cord, svelt cover and ear buds
Many iPhone rivals fail right out of the gate because they use cheap resistive touch screens, rather than the pricier capacitive technology, which gives the iPhone its extreme sensitivity and accuracy. Even manufacturers that spring for capacitive tech, as HTC did for the T-Mobile G1 – have left out the corresponding multi-touch features, presumably for fear of legal threats from Apple.
Palm hasn’t caved on either front. The touch screen on the Pre 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.
For business users who spend all day tapping out quick replies to colleagues and clients, there is no more important smartphone feature than a solid, reliable QWERTY keyboard. And Palm delivers. 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. We didn’t expect such a slim key to deliver much feedback, but they tape 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 keyboard is small, but functional
WebOS & Software
WebOS may be one of the most finely tuned and polished operating systems we’ve yet laid eyes on. While the iPhone redefined intuitive with its own icon-based OS, sacrificing some flexibility and power in the process, WebOS restores much of what was lost without moving away from a concentration on ease of use.
For the most part, it’s all in the cards. Literally. WebOS treats every new item you open, be it an application, Web page or even system menu, as a card in a deck, allowing you to switch between them, rearrange them, and kill them without any hassle. Pressing the center button from any point will show you an overview of the cards active. You can thumb through them, rearrange their order by dragging, click on them to open them, and slide them off the top of the screen to close them. The entire interface works seamlessly with next to zero delay, making it incredibly easy to pick up and quick to use.
The phone’s desktop, then, largely fills in as a placeholder without much purpose. You get an uncluttered background and five quick-launch shortcuts at the bottom of the screen, and all the usual status icons (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, battery and signal strength icons) in a narrow bar up top. The launcher icon – which can’t be removed from your quick launcher – brings up scrollable pages of icons similar to what you might find on Android or the iPhone.
The Palm Pre desktop
Since users will seldom spend any time staring at the pretty-but-pointless desktop, Palm has made the quick-launcher instantly available from anywhere using the gesture pad below the screen. Holding a finger there, then gradually dragging it up onto the screen will pull up a wavy version of the launcher that moves around with your finger. Release it on an icon, and it opens. Clever. But the shortcuts don’t end there. You can also swipe from right to left in the same space to go back in any app, which could mean going to the last-visited page in the browser, or the previous menu when adjusting settings.
WebOS is loaded with these subtle but extremely well-engineered niceties. For instance, by entering your Google and Facebook passwords, the phone will import both sets of contacts, combine the overlaps into a single “contact card,” and even yank pictures to put faces with names. Calendars work similarly, allowing you to pull in external calendars from multiple sources, then layer them on top of each other to access everything without cobbling them together into one big mess.
The included email application
Admittedly, some of the extra capabilities steepen the learning curve for the phone above the dead-simple iPhone. And we would sooner pick up one of them for Gram and Gramps. But the extra capabilities you’ll find here – especially multitasking – make it well worth the initial extra learning for business users, and other power users whose entire lives will flow through the phone.
Palm’s App Catalog is easy to access and navigate, but as you might expect, the options still look pretty sparse at this point. A handful of big names – like Pandora – have already pushed Pre software out the door, but you won’t find anywhere near the selection of Apple or even Google’s app store. We look forward to future development, though.
Despite – or perhaps because of – all the extra features in WebOS, speed and responsiveness aren’t necessarily highlights for this phone. While the card interface excels in that regard, apps do take longer to initially open than we expected. Google Maps, for instance, took six to seven seconds on the Pre, compared to only three seconds on an iPhone 3G. Keep in mind that you won’t need to open and close apps as frequently, though.
The 3.2-megapixel camera hiding in the back of the Pre 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.
The Palm Pre camera and optional Touchstone cover
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.
Touchstone Inductive Charger
Plugging in a phone to charge it never bothered us. But having toyed with the Touchstone charger, it’s tough to go back to cables. The brilliant little pedestal allows the Pre to charge inductively just by sitting on top of it, with no electrical contact between phone and charger needed. Though we initially imagined using it bedside to lay the phone down to charge at night, it’s really handier in situations where you’ll be using it on and off all day from the same spot, like at a desk. After a full day’s use this way, it’s refreshing to pick up the phone and see it fully charged without any effort. While the stand itself does a great job clinging to flat surfaces with some sort of unnaturally tackiness, the magnetic connection holding the phone on could be a little stronger. As convenient as it is, also keep in mind that it’s a $70 accessory, not an included one.
The Touchstone Charger (the Pre can charge while closed as well)
Palm has put together perhaps the best assault on iPhone supremacy we’ve seen yet. A series of unique additions make the phone stand out from and even trump the iPhone in some ways. A hard QWERTY keyboard and the ability to run multiple apps simultaneously stand out as the most potent arrows piercing Apple’s armor. But don’t consider the iPhone slayed just yet. A handful of quirks like a sticky slider, smaller screen and sometimes sluggish OS still prevent the Pre from mowing over the iPhone without a fight, especially when you consider that Apple has already redressed some of Palm’s upper hands (like a better camera) with the iPhone 3G S. We recommend the Pre for business holdouts – BlackBerry folks, essentially – who have avoided the entertainment-focused iPhone because it simply couldn’t get the job done for them. But for entertainment-focused types, the iPhone may still be the go-to device. Whichever the case, take note: Smartphones just took a huge leap forward.
• Full QWERTY keyboard
• Sharp-looking capacitive touch screen
• Multiple apps run simultaneously
• Slick, well-polished interface
• Speedy 3G connectivity
• Quick-shooting cam produces decent images
• Optional Touchstone charger
• Slightly sloppy sliding mechanism
• App store still growing
• Some lag in WebOS
• Slightly less intuitive than iPhone