capsule review

Palm Pre

At a Glance
  • Palm, Inc. Palm Pre

    Macworld Rating

In the early to mid ’90s, when Palm was at the top of its game, the name “PalmPilot” was effectively synonymous with an entire class of devices: the Personal Digital Assistant. Into the late part of that decade, Palm even managed to leverage its PalmOS into the early smartphone market with the Treo line, even while the company was repeatedly bought and sold, changing hands more time than the Queen of Spades in a game of Old Maid. But at a certain point, the smartphone market kept moving on and Palm’s innovation went stagnant.

Then, this past January at the Consumer Electronics Show, the company rolled out a brand new smart phone with a brand new operating system. And people went crazy. Dubbed the latest in a long line of "iPhone killers," the Palm Pre and its webOS took some inspiration from the iPhone, but also attempted to make its own mark in the world with features like multitasking and unified contacts. The device launched shortly before Apple's own introduction of the iPhone 3GS, and so it seemed clear that the two were destined to be pitted in mortal battle against each other.

With sagging profits and an uphill slog in front of it, Palm has had to bet the farm on the Pre’s success as well as that of its underlying ground-up technological revamp, the webOS. So can Palm do it? Does the Pre live up to its hype? Let’s take a look at what the device brings to the table.

Slip and slide

The Pre comes with a few accessories that most smartphone owners will recognize: there's an AC charger with flip-out prongs, a USB charging/data cable, and a pair of earbuds. In addition, I got a chance to try out the nifty Touchstone inductive charger—but more on that later.

With its keyboard retracted, the Pre is shorter and slightly narrower than the iPhone, though it is thicker.

In its retracted form, the Pre is a little narrower and shorter than the iPhone, measuring in at 3.9 inches tall, 2.3 inches wide; it is, however, noticeably thicker: 0.67 inches compared to the iPhone’s 0.48 inches. The two are identical in weight however, each weighing about 4.8 ounces (or, if you prefer to roll metric-style, 135 grams). Despite that commonality, though, there’s something about the Pre that just feels light. I attributed that mainly to its construction materials, which rely more heavily on plastic than the iPhone.

The Pre’s screen is a 3.1-inch diagonal, smaller than the iPhone’s 3.5-inch display, but the two share the same resolution: 320 by 480 pixels. The screens have different feels, too: the iPhone’s is made of glass while the Palm’s feels more like hard plastic—in addition, if you catch the Pre’s screen in the right light, you can see a grid of “dots” which I presume is related to the touch sensors. Both screens are touch-capable and, more to the point, both are capable of multitouch, a feature previously unique to the iPhone.

On the top right corner of the Pre, you’ll find the power button and, next to it, a switch that toggles between ring and silent mode. In the center of the Pre’s top side is a standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. The left-hand side of the Pre has the volume up and down buttons; the right-hand side sports a small door behind which hides the Pre’s microUSB port, used for both data and power. Unfortunately, the door is attached with a thin plastic tether that just begs to be torn off by accident.

The front of the Pre is largely featureless, aside from the earphone at the top (which looks suspiciously like a button at first glance—several people to whom I showed the Pre tried to press it) and the translucent Center button right below the screen. The pinhole-sized microphone is also there, just to the left and below of the button. The back of the device has a 3-megapixel camera with LED flash and the Pre’s speaker.

Of course, the Pre is more than meets the eye, though it doesn’t do anything as drastic as transform from a plane into a giant robot. But slide the screen upwards and the Pre’s QWERTY keyboard is revealed. While this isn’t perfectly obvious at first (some people tried to “open” the Pre as you might a book), it’s natural enough once you’ve figured it out.

In general, the Pre feels pretty good in the hand in this retracted mode, though its use is limited, since any text entry requires you to slide out the keyboard. At that point, however, the chintzy build quality and poor hardware design really starts to show.

With the keyboard extended, the Pre becomes much taller than the iPhone, and difficult to work with just one hand.

Not that there aren't other signs of that. For one thing, the power button, which you need to use to wake the device from sleep (pressing the Center button won't do it) is on the back half of the unit. As a result, when you slide the screen upwards, the power button is now obscured by the front half of the phone, so you have to reach around the unit to press it. At that point it’s also flush with the back of the display slider, which makes it somewhat awkward to press. In fact, it’s often easier to slide the unit closed, hit the power button, and then slide it open again.

The headphone jack is also stuck in back of the opened slider, so beware if you have an L-shaped plug—you’ll have to orient it correctly before sliding the unit open, else the slide action might knock the headphone plug loose.

Since the Pre is slightly tapered at both ends, the point at which the display slider and the rear assembly intersect when the unit is in its opened form are not quite even. Unfortunately, this is also where the volume controls reside while the unit’s open, which makes using those controls annoying—and the edges of the opened unit are sharp, too.

That aspect of the Pre's construction is worth commenting on. While I didn’t slice any cheese with it, I did agree with the assessment that the edges around the keyboard feel particularly sharp. You’re not going to cut yourself on them, to be sure, but should you end up with the edges pressed against your skin, it's often uncomfortable. With the exception of the Center button, all of the other physical controls—the power button, volume controls, and ring/silent switch—feel loose and cheap. As a whole, the unit gives the impression of being a kid’s toy. The slide action is all right, but it lacks the pleasing ka-chunk feeling of the T-Mobile G1’s slider.

The phone is also clearly not designed for one-handed operation in its opened state. Given the position your hand is likely in when you slide the unit open—with the thumb pressed on the middle of the display in order to push it upwards—the screen display slides away from your hand. This means that your thumb can’t reach the top of the touchscreen any more. That wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that the Pre places several controls in the top right and left corners of the display. In the end, this means that every time you slide the phone open you’ll either have to change your grip so you can reach all parts of the display—which means you’ll have to change it back when you want to type—or you’ll have to use two hands.

And then there’s the keyboard.

Keys to the kingdom

The question of physical versus virtual keyboards is one of the Mac-versus-PC debate of the smartphone niche. To hear Palm tell it, users everywhere are demanding physical keyboards. It’s true that physical keyboards hold some advantages over the virtual keyboard popularized by the iPhone: the tactile feedback of actually pressing a key, for example. However, the more I used it, the more it became clear to me that the thumb keyboard will eventually be considered a kludge, a holdover, a vestigial input method—an evolutionary road not taken.

The Pre's keyboard is cramped and surrounded by sharp edges.

Part of this may be that the Pre’s physical keyboard is particularly bad. The phone's design means that the keyboard is confined to portrait orientation. Thus, the keys are tiny—each one smaller than the tip of your average pencil eraser—and, because of the Pre’s slide mechanism, the top row is jammed up against the bottom of the sliding front panel.

Here's the nub of the issue in the physical versus virtual keyboard debate: they necessitate entirely different styles of typing. On physical keyboards, we’re trained to strike keys precisely and avoid hitting multiple keys at the same time. This works great on a standard laptop-sized keyboard, where the size of the keys is appropriate for fingers.

However, the size of the smartphone physical keyboards confer a couple of particular challenges. For one thing, the orientation and ergonomics of the phone mean that the thumbs—the thickest of your fingers—are the only digits correctly positioned for typing. And since your thumbs are much bigger than the keys, in order to avoid hitting other keys by mistake, you need to minimize the amount of surface area that makes contact with the keys. Most people thus end up typing with the very tips—or even the sides—of their thumbs.

Even then, the chance of making contact with other keys is still high, in part due to the other major challenge of physical keyboards: your finger necessarily obscures the key you’re trying to press, so there’s no way of knowing whether you’ve pressed the correct key until it’s displayed on screen. At which point, it’s already too late to do anything about it other than delete and re-type it.

Then there’s the matter of special characters. Palm has a rather conflicted approach to typing most non-letter characters. Numbers, for example, are arrayed in keypad fashion on several of the QWERTY keys and rendered in orange—that makes sense, as you hit the orange button to switch into number mode (or press it twice to enable num-lock). However, many of the other keys have special symbols displayed on them (#, ?, :, !, $, just to name a few). These symbols are not displayed in orange, so your initial impression might be that you would have to hit the “Sym” key at the keyboard’s bottom right. That’s not correct, though: that instead launches a software-based interface for picking other, less frequently used characters (©, ™, é, etc.).

Give up? Turns out you still have to hit the orange button, even though those characters aren’t marked in orange. I understand the desire to make the numbers pop out, but the unintuitive nature of that decision is kind of emblematic of the problems confronting the physical keyboard.

In general, I found myself far more frustrated with the Pre’s physical keyboard than with the iPhone’s virtual keyboard. To be fair, I have been using the iPhone for two years and the Pre only for around two weeks, but I found typing even short messages—texts, IMs, Twitter updates—a slow and torturous affair.

The iPhone has a very smart auto-correction function that helps make typing a lot easier by correcting common misspellings and offering to complete your words. The Pre has a similar system, but it's far less aggressive than the iPhone's, and there's no visual prompt or feedback to let you know it's working until it actually corrects a word. There's also no auto-completion. I tried in vain to get the Pre to fix my typing, but I discovered that pretty much the only reliable way to see it in action was by typing a common contraction without the apostrophe—a move it would immediately jump to fix. The rest of the time, the Pre leaves you to the vagaries of your own spelling, for better or worse. On the upside, however, fans of typing certain expletives will find that the Pre doesn't immediately insist on censoring them.

Oh what a tangled webOS we weave

Of course, the design of the Pre is merely the appetizer before the entrée that is Palm’s webOS. It’s not really the Pre on which Palm is betting its company, after all, it’s the totally new, built-from-the-ground-up OS. The Pre is merely the first phone to run the software, and rumors are already rampant about the next models to use it. So, how does the webOS stack up?

From my time with it, surprisingly well. While it may not have the attention to detail and design nuances that the iPhone’s operating system does, it’s still a friendly, eminently capable foundation on which to build a smartphone.

The webOS gets its name from the fact that it’s largely built upon technologies commonly used in constructing Web sites: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. That’s not to say there isn’t some secret sauce underlying it all, but the goal on Palm’s part seems to have been to make the Pre very Web- and Internet-friendly.

Unlike with Android, Palm has set out to truly create a touchscreen-focused operating system. That’s a good thing, since it gets away from the identity issues that the G1’s multitude of user-interface options spawned. And Palm’s done surprisingly well at it, thanks to the the very fact that they didn’t spend too much time holding on to the vestiges of the outadated PalmOS on which the company made its name.

He tasks me! He tasks me!

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pros

    • ITunes media syncing
    • Message flagging
    • Multitasking card interface lets you run many programs at once
    • Synergy contact system good when it works
    • Unified e-mail Inbox
    • Excellent notifications system
    • Multitouch gestures

    Cons

    • Synergy contact system doesn't always work as advertised
    • Poor hardware user interface design
    • Cheap-feeling hardware construction
    • Touch screen is not always responsive
    • Physical keyboard is difficult to use
    • Often unintuitive interface
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