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Palm Pre

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The big marquee feature of the webOS is, of course, multitasking. Palm’s been stressing the capability in its advertising since it’s one capability that the iPhone notably lacks. There are different philosophies at work here: Apple argues that allowing background apps slows down the phone, eats up resources, kills battery life, and is an affront to freedom and our way of life. Palm, on the other hand, merely acknowledges that users want to multitask, and lets them have at it, even if the fine print on the side effects is a couple of pages long. Basically, Apple doesn’t want to compromise the user experience while Palm’s willing to give you enough rope to hang yourself.

In the Pre's multitasking system, each card usually represents an application.

For the most part, multitasking works pretty smoothly. The webOS operates on a “card” metaphor. Any time you launch an application, it’s represented as a card. To view your cards, you press the Center button. You can use the touchscreen to flick through them, then tap on one to bring it to the foreground. When an app is in the foreground, it’s the only application you can see (except for the small strip of notifications at the bottom of the screen, but I’ll get to that in a moment). If you’re done with an application, you can go into the card view and just flick it upwards to discard it—that effectively quits the app. You can rearrange cards by tapping and holding on them, then dragging them around.

It’s a nice system, and it feels perfectly natural and intuitive to use. Switching between cards is usually pretty fluid, and I didn’t notice outrageous slowdowns in performance. While you can have pretty much as many applications open as you want, the Pre will warn you if you open so many that the phone begins to get overloaded.

Falling into that trap isn’t difficult. On the iPhone, the enforcement of the one-application limit prevents this. For example, if you click on a link in an e-mail message, it quits Mail, opens Safari, and displays your page. On the Pre, if you click on a link in an e-mail message, it opens the URL in the Pre’s Web browser in a new card. If you get distracted from that link and end up deciding to check the latest sports scores or read the news, you may forget that the original e-mail message is still open. Because users are responsible for clearing out their own cards, it’s pretty easy to get to a point where you suddenly realize you have half a dozen or more cards open.

And that forgetfulness can come at a price. While the Pre usually handles multiple tasks pretty well, if you start loading it up with processor-intensive jobs (media playback, GPS directions, etc.), then the whole system starts to take a hit. More than once I found that using a number of other apps while playing music in the background would cause the music to skip, a problem I’ve encountered only infrequently on the iPhone. Battery life also takes a hit, especially when using features like the GPS, which consume a lot of power. Playing music and using the GPS on a not too long car trip one Saturday saw me running out of battery well before I returned home.

Look at me, look at me

Notifications on the Pre can be hidden as small icons or expanded. Dismissing one is as easy as sliding it off the screen.
The ability to run multiple apps brings with it an issue of how to handle all these multiple channels of information. What if you get an e-mail while having an instant message conversation, or what if you want to pause your music while browsing the Web? Like the iPhone, the Pre allows for notifications of what’s happening in other apps, and I actually found myself liking its implementation better than the iPhone’s.

When a notification comes in, the bottom of the card you’re looking at slides up, and an icon and message appears below it. For example, you might get a notice of an e-mail message you just received: the icon displays an envelope icon badged with the number of unread messages, along with the sender and subject line of the most recent message. If you want to look at the message, tap it and the Pre will take you to the Mail client and clear the notification. If you're playing music, a bar at the bottom tells you the name of the current track and the artist, along with previous track, play/pause, and next track controls.

If you don’t tap the notification, then after a few moments, it shrinks down and just becomes a small icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen; you can tap it to expand the notification. In the expanded view, you can slide notifications off the screen to dismiss them. Overall, it’s simple, efficient, and above all, non-disruptive. Contrast that with the iPhone’s pop-up notifications, which demand your immediate and complete attention.

You’ve got the touch

Touch interfaces are a hit-or-miss affair; the Pre’s is a solid double. Many of the motions the iPhone introduced to the world—pinch to zoom, swipe to delete—are here, at least in some form. Some might cry foul and accuse the Pre of stealing the iPhone’s mojo, but without a legal court case to back that up, I’d argue more that the iPhone’s gestures have become conventional, part of a tactile “language” that the Pre has adopted.

Grasping the touch syntax of the Pre is pretty straightforward because of those shared gestures, but the Pre does extend upon the idea in some odd ways. For example, the black plastic "chin" below the screen is actually a touch-sensitive “gesture area” in its own right. When you first turn on the phone, Palm walks you through making the “back” gesture, a horizontal right to left swipe performed on this section of the phone which is the equivalent of moving hierarchically “up.” It’s a good thing Palm requires you to practice this before using the phone, since this feature is inherently undiscoverable and unintuitive.

Dragging up from the gesture area summons the Pre's Quick Launch bar.

There are a few other gestures that can be performed in this area. For example, touching the gesture area and flicking up opens the Pre’s Launcher (its equivalent to the iPhone's Home screen). On the other hand, if you drag upwards—different from flicking—starting from the gesture area, you’ll summon the Quick Launch bar, a floating ribbon of the apps that reside in the Pre’s “dock” area. That’s kind of neat, but it’s more eye-candy than useful, especially when you can also easily get to the Quick Launch bar by hitting the Center button.

In addition, the Pre’s shortcuts for cut, copy, and paste rely on using the gesture area. In most applications, you can also access these functions by tapping on the application name, which is usually in the top left corner of the screen, and then tapping on Edit. However, I noticed that each of these had a shortcut next to them: a bull's-eye symbol followed by the usual letter for that command (X, C, and V). It took me several experiments—for example, I tried tapping the screen where I wanted to copy followed by that letter—until I resorted to the manual, which explained that you have to select some text, tap and hold in the gesture area and then press the corresponding keyboard key. There’s no way of figuring this out without being told.

I found the Pre’s touch screen somewhat less sensitive than the iPhone’s—I often had to tap multiple times for an input to register, and the lag time between tapping and getting a response was often slightly longer than I expected, leading to multiple presses. I did kind of like the “ripple” that the Pre shows you after you tap the screen. Some of the motions are slightly different from the iPhone’s, too. For example, when you want to dismiss a notification, the sideways swipe you make is less of a flick and more of a drag.

E pluribus unum

Besides its multitasking capabilities, the other feature that Palm has put up in lights is its Synergy contact management system. The idea behind Synergy is a very good one: we all have multiple lists of contacts floating around right now, via our e-mail accounts, Facebook, work directories, and more. Oftentimes, we even have contact information for one person spread out among a couple different sources. But we don’t care about contact information—we care about people. Synergy’s promise is to unite all that disparate information under the aegis of a single contact.

Synergy is Pre's attempt to unify contact information. When it does work, it's fantastic.

A bold promise and, as it turns out, a somewhat overblown one. Right now Synergy allows you to create just a few types of contact account: Facebook, Google, and Microsoft Exchange. (There’s also a desktop utility to help you do a one-time import from other sources such as your OS X Address Book or Outlook.) As I’m not a heavy Facebook user, that feature didn’t enthrall me—I went ahead and synced my contacts anyway, and it worked fine. I added a Google account, and that too synced appropriately. It even merged the two contacts, as advertised. So far, so good.

The real problem came when I added my instant-messaging accounts to the Pre’s Messages application. I have two separate AIM accounts: one personal, one for work, with some overlap between the two. I also have the vast majority of my contacts’ IM screennames in my OS X Address Book, associated with a person. Despite that—and despite the fact that the IM screennames did transfer to the Pre along with my Google contact list—the Pre dumped my buddy lists into the contacts application as though they were brand new contacts.

For example, say my friend John Smith also goes by the clever pseudonym of “timelord11112492” on AIM. Even though his timelord alias might be listed under the John Smith contact info as a screen name, I still ended up with an entirely separate contact entry for timelord11112492 listing only the screenname. The Pre does allow you to manually link two contacts if it fails to do so automatically, but I have dozens of buddies on my AIM lists, and it’s a tedious process.

Despite its problems, Synergy comes in most useful in the Pre’s Messages application, which combines both SMS and IM, allowing you to seamlessly switch back and forth between the two mediums while maintaining one consistent conversation. You switch communication methods with a drop down menu in the top right, which also lets you choose which instant-message screenname to use if a contact has several. While handy, I found myself occasionally texting someone when I meant to IM them or sending an IM to the wrong screen name.

Sync hole

Competing against the iPod heritage of the iPhone is a tough nut to crack for anybody, but Palm decided to give it a go anyway. The Pre is an able enough media player and it handles most common video and audio formats, like MP3, MPEG-4, AAC, etc. Plug it into your computer with the included USB cable and the Pre will display a menu with three options: Media Sync, USB Drive, and Just Charge. As you might suspect, the last just juices up the Pre’s battery and the middle option lets you treat the Pre like a USB flash drive, along with the ability to import photos into Image Capture or iPhoto. But it’s the first option where the Pre works its magic.

For when you choose Media Sync, the Pre will appear in iTunes's source list, exactly as though it were an iPod. From iTunes, you can choose to sync music, videos and podcasts to the Pre, though of course the device cannot play back encrypted content such as iTunes videos or songs with DRM—that content won’t even show up in the Pre’s media playback programs. Music and audio podcasts will appear in the Pre’s Music app, videos and video podcasts in the Videos app. I had no luck getting it to sync photos, however.

Depending on your point of view, this move is either brilliant or idiotic. Brilliant because it links the Pre with the world’s most popular media playback software and lets users slide the device into their lives as seamlessly as if they’d bought an iPhone. Idiotic because it relies on Apple not changing the way it syncs iTunes and iPods—if that format is altered, then Palm will have to scramble to see if it can update the Pre to work as well, which could turn into a game of cat-and-mouse. So far, though, everything is copacetic.

An ill-favoured thing, but mine own

Of course, you can just plug your Pre into its included USB-to-AC adapter to charge it, but the irritation of getting that little access door open, time-and-time again, is enough to drive almost anybody to madness. If you’re willing to spend the extra $70, the Pre’s Touchstone inductive charger will simplify that process.

The optional Touchstone charger can power up the Pre using induction.

A cylinder cut off at a 45-degree angle, the Touchstone is a little over two inches in diameter and about an inch and a half tall at its highest point. On the back is a small micro-USB port; that's where you connect it to the Pre's AC adapter with the micro-USB to USB cable. The bottom of the Touchstone features an adhesive ring that impressively sticks to almost any surface without leaving a tacky residue. The package also includes a special back plate for the Pre that you’ll need to swap with the device’s default back—it’s got a soft-touch matte finish instead of the normal glossy finish.

The top of the Touchstone has a strong magnet in it, so all you need to do is place the phone on top of the charger and it should stay put and start charging. It’s not perfect, though. You’ll need to make sure you align the Pre and the charger correctly—it won’t charge horizontally, and there’s a specific section of the back that needs to make contact. And, of course, it goes without saying that you probably shouldn't slap a hard drive or your credit cards near the Touchstone, given the magnet.

Those minor complications mean that using the Touchstone is about as difficult as plugging the iPhone into a dock—which is to say, not very hard in either case. But it is pretty cool, nonetheless, so if you don’t mind shelling out extra money to look futuristic, go nuts. For most people, using the included AC adapter or plugging the USB cable into a computer will be sufficient.

At a Glance
  • 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


    • 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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