Is the Palm Pre all it’s cracked up to be?

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED DECEMBER 31, 2009

So, a bit over a month ago I got a brand new Palm Pre, and I’ve been playing with it ever since (in fact, it’s for a project I’m knee-deep in, it’s not just a toy, I actually needed it!).  This phone has been out for something like three months or so now, and the press has been overall I think pretty positive, and in general, I’d say for good reason.

The question to ask though is whether it’s truly a viable competitor to Apple’s venerable iPhone?  Is it just another competitor that will eventually be left by the wayside?  Is it really the savior of Palm itself, as some have claimed?

Well, you didn’t think I’d be with an opinion on all of this, did you?

I’ve been compiling a list of things I’ve noted about the device, and perhaps more importantly, its operating system, webOS.  Really, when you get right down to it, they are two separate products, which quite conceivably might have very different fates.

In any case, here are some of my thoughts:

  • Overall, I like the Pre, and I like webOS more.  I don’t love either by any stretch, but I definitely see the potential, particularly of webOS.  I think that Palm has put forth a great concept: the idea of developing web applications using standard web application technologies.  This to me is a far better situation than Windows Mobile or the iPhone or all the phones that use Java ME.  This technology stack means that, potentially, Palm is opening up the platform to a much wider audience of developers.  It’s a gamble to be sure: can you really exploit the full power of a modern smartphone with just web technologies?  Time will tell of course, but I for one am enthusiastic.
  • Seeing the potential is one thing, but the current state of affairs is another, and I think my overall impression is that the Pre, and webOS itself, have a lot of rough edges.  Some people have said it’s a beta effort, and I don’t think I’d go quite that far, I think they are better than that.  But, there’ s definitely rough edges, and even some very legitimate gripes, and that’s what most of the remainder of my bullet points are.
  • The keyboard is actually a bit better than I thought, and frankly, the more I use it the more I like it.  I didn’t have much hope to begin with, it looks extremely small and uncomfortable, and certainly it is small.  Palm has however made some smart choices that makes it tolerable, if not pretty darned good.  First, the keys are raised.  This makes finding your mark easier.  Second, the keys are rubberized, so your fingers aren’t slipping all over the place.  Third, the spacing is a little better than I expected.  All put together, it’s a decent experience.  The one big downside though is a simple mistake I think: the top row of keys is far too close to the screen housing, making them difficult to get.  It’s more of a nuisance than a real problem, but that’s really my only complaint.  That, and that it’s a little awkward to slide open, especially with one hand.
  • Having to use my PC to delete a video, or music file, or anything else, is lame.  The Pre does not come with any sort of file manager, even the most basic one.  In fact, until just a few weeks ago, when the vibrant homebrew community produced one, there was nothing even on the horizon.  What’s worse is there’s not even a way to delete a video in the video player!  I could have lived with the idea of an application can delete the types of files it works with in the absence of a proper file manager, but you don’t even get that.  Lame, and really one of my biggest complaints.  All I can say is thank Jebus for the homebrew scene!
  • The inability to delete, or at least hide, the built-in application is a big annoyance.  I understand there must be a deal with Sprint for things like Nascar and Sprint TV, but in the end it’s *MY* phone and I should be able to get rid of them.  I’m not asking to be able to uninstall them, or reclaim the space they use, I just want to be able to hide the icons (without hacks I mean… there are in fact ways to do this, but it’s not what you’d call end-user accessible).
  • This thing gets hot!  I mean, it’s not exploding like an iPhone, but the bottom back of it gets quite warm just surfing the web.  I think I’m also seeing some slight discoloration on the bottom of the screen as a result of this, but nothing I’m worried about.
  • The sound out of the built-in speaker is, in a word, awful.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting a Bose Wave Radio experience here, but it’s quite bad.
  • Overall the Pre is fairly snappy, although there definitely are occasions when I notice slowdowns.  Launching apps is maybe a little slower than I’d like, but nothing I can’t live with.  Still, a slightly beefier CPU wouldn’t hurt I think, but mostly I think there just needs to be some good software updates.
  • I totally love the wall charger that Palm packages with the Pre.  I especially love the fact that I can use it to charge other USB devices (of which I have fewer now because of the Pre, but still).  I don’t know why I never bought a wall charger like that before… oh wait, yes I do: they run about $50 by themselves!  Kudos to Palm for including one.
  • The Pre by default can’t sync with Outlook on my desktop, and that sucks.  This is one symptom of something many are saying about the Pre that I sort of agree with and that’s that there are some relatively basic (for a smartphone) functions that the Pre, and/or webOS, doesn’t yet include.  Now, it’s one thing to say they will be taken care of with future updates, and I suspect that’s the case.  But it’s another to be missing this functionality on day one.  I personally count Outlook syncing in that category.
  • The overall build quality of the Pre feels so-so.  To be sure, it’s not poor, doesn’t feel like a toy, nothing like that.  It generally feels pretty solid.  There is one nagging problem though: there is a TON of play between the upper half (the screen) and the lower half (the keyboard).  It’s pretty disconcerting, and some people have experienced what’s been dubbed “the Oreo effect”, which is where a Pre owner can literally twist the top half something like 90 degrees from the lower half, but somehow without breaking it!  I haven’t had this happen, but it certainly feels like I could do it without much force.  I’d say that’s the only build “issue” I’ve seen with mine, but it really needs to be rectified (oh yeah, and that USB cover… pretty crappy… fortunately, that’s not a big deal).
  • By default, the web browser (which is otherwise extremely good) doesn’t let you download files.  Umm… WHAT?!?  You mean I can’t download a PDF to read later?  Oh, and by the way, it doesn’t even recognize that it IS a PDF and so won’t open it with the included PDF viewer.  That is just outright broken in my mind on both counts.  Problem association of file types (and let me modify them please!) is a must, and so too is downloading of files.  Thankfully, the homebrew scene is here to help with the downloading part at least.
  • Battery life.  In a word: it’s practically got none!  I can get from about 9am to around 6pm before I start seeing low battery warnings, and that’s with what I consider average use (no GPS, an hour or two of wi-fi, not using it as a music player, some web browsing).  It’s poor by any measure.  I have an extended battery on the way that, from what I read, will alleviate this, but out of the box it’s quite poor.  Just because there is the cool Touchstone charger available doesn’t justify an obviously underpowered battery.  Credit for making the battery easily swappable at least, that’s definitely a good thing.
  • I’ve found multiple UI usability problems throughout webOS.  Just one example: the Palm apps like to have little circle icons along the bottom that there’s no way to know what they’ll do until you try them.  Really, why can’t I tap-and-hold and get a tooltip?  It’s a pretty basic usability tenant: icons without text are a bad idea in general, but they need to be 100000000% obvious to EVERYONE if you’re going to go that route.  I’m no idiot, and there were some icons I couldn’t figure out.
  • The gesture-based UI is very nice and I find it intuitive and easy to use.  One caveat here is that they kind of broke that paradigm by including the center button right in the middle of the gesture area.  I see no real point in that button at all, and certainly not where it is.  I’m not entirely sold on the gesture area in general frankly, but it would be a lot better without that button in the middle.  Especially when there’s a simple gesture (swipe up from the gesture area) available all the time that does exactly what that button does, I think it’s a completely superfluous piece of hardware.  Get rid of it and drop the price by a quarter!
  • There is no way to delete all, or even multiple, eMails at one time.  Oh, now THAT is annoying!  This again is one of those basic functions that you can’t believe is missing.  There is already homebrew solutions for this, and I fully expect a future update will include this, but there’s ZERO reason it wasn’t there day one.  In fact, the whole “”swipe to delete”” idea works fine when you’re only deleting one or two items, but when you have more than that it VERY quickly becomes a big hassle.  This applies to all apps it seems, unless they specifically go out of their way to do things differently than the Palm-supplied apps do.
  • The Synergy concept, that is, combining all your contacts and other PIM information from multiple accounts into one view, is neat.  However, there’s some hiccups here and there.  For example, in the calendar, events are not color-coded in the month view based on the account it came from.
  • Universal search is anything but.  It doesn’t search calendar entries, so right of the bat it’s usefulness is greatly decreased.  Still, it’s a nice idea, and being able to jump out to the web to do a search instantly is definitely nice.
  • Not having a simple detail list in the memos app is something I miss from my previous Windows Mobile device.  Sure, the corkboard and sticky note interface looks hella-cool (one of the neatest things about the Pre out of the box IMO), but its usefulness is diminished by not being able to switch to a simple view.
  • I’ve heard many complain about the lack of apps in the App Catalog, and while it’s true that the number isn’t too high, the quality so far has been pretty good.  I can live with that.  Especially when there’s a very vibrant homebrew community out there, it’s not so bad.  I don’t think apps are a problem, so long as they keep coming, even if only at a trickle.

So, again, overall I have a relatively positive impression of the Pre, and more so of webOS.  I think Palm is on the right track.  Whether they are more successful, or just as successful, as Apple, I don’t know.  I think they have a horse in the race though for sure.  But, there are without question some rough edges, and some are a lot rougher than others.  So long as updates come fast and furious and incremental improvement is made then you can count me a happy Pre customer.  There’s definitely a lot to like here!

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