capsule review

Palm Pre

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The good, the bad, the ugly

I could run down every single feature the Pre has, but as several other venues have taken the time to do that, let me focus on a few specific things that the device does well and a few it does poorly. For the most part, the feature list of the Pre is pretty close to the iPhone and the G1. But there are some places where I found the Pre to offer functions that the iPhone did not, and vice versa.

The Pre's mail client features an option for unified inbox and support for flagging messages.

The Pre’s mail client is pretty similar to the iPhone’s, but it adds in a couple of features I’ve been longing for on the iPhone. For one thing, if you have multiple e-mail accounts, you can choose to display a unified inbox that collects the new mail for all of those accounts into one. You still have the individual inboxes for each account as well, but if you just want to skim all the mail you've recently received, it’s easy to do so. The mail client also allows you to flag messages you might want to go back later and it provides a single mailbox that lets you easily view flagged messages in all your accounts. Even better, the flag-state syncs to your other clients, so when I looked later, the same messages were flagged in Mail on my MacBook.

I did run into one major problem with the mail program, however: despite much playing with configurations, I could not get it to talk to my work e-mail account, which uses an IMAP server based on Notes. I added several other accounts, including Gmail, MobileMe, and a personal IMAP account, all with no problems.

I also like the Pre’s integrated search feature. Start typing when you’re in the card view and it’ll bring up search results from your contacts and applications. If it doesn’t match there, it’ll pop up buttons to let you search Google, Google Maps, Wikipedia, and Twitter. It would be nice if this was a little more extensible—I’m always looking up things on IMDb, for example—but it’s handy.

The Pre’s got a nifty reminder feature, where you can add a reminder onto a person’s contact information. Sure, the iPhone lets you do that with notes, but the Pre actually pops up that reminder the next time you call or message that contact (or get a call or message from them), so you can remember to ask about, say, that recipe you wanted.

Got some free time? The Pre compresses time periods where you have no events scheduled.

The calendar program has a neat feature where it compresses unused time accordion-style so you can see more of your appointments; I also appreciated that the Pre lets you easily use any song in your media library as a ringtone, a feature it seems like the iPhone should have had from day one.

After having used the iPhone’s Visual Voicemail system, conventional voicemail seems like the dark ages. The Pre will nicely pop up a notification to let you know you have a voicemail, and you can tap it to automatically dial in, but it turns out that server-side voicemail is just as awful as it was in the pre-iPhone dark ages.

Scrolling through lists on the Pre is sluggish at best, and while you can usually search a list (say your music or contacts) by starting to type the term you’re looking for, it requires that you slide out the keyboard. I found myself missing the iPhone's “jump to top” shortcut and its index list of letters on the side of the screen.

Text-selection and cursor-movement are also a pain. While you can tap on the screen to move the insertion point to a designated spot, the imprecision of most people’s fingers make this only slightly more accurate than a good game of hit the piñata. Instead, you can select text by holding down the shift-button on the keyboard and dragging on the screen; that has its own idiosyncrasies. You can move the cursor by holding down the orange button and dragging your finger around—yes, that dratted orange button again.

And as long as we're talking about the orange button, it turns out that if you want to remove an installed application from the Pre’s launcher, you have to hold down the orange button and tap the icon before you’re presented with the option to delete. Yet one of the many features I actually had to consult the Pre’s manual for.

Macworld’s buying advice

All things considered, the Pre is actually a pretty good phone. Despite my mostly minor gripes, it’s got a pretty slick operating system, a boatload of features, and it’s very usable. Not all the pieces are in place yet, but like all of the other smart phones, it’s a work in progress. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly a worthy device, and most people coming from a non-smart phone will rightfully see it as a huge upgrade.

The real star of the production, of course, is webOS. From a hardware perspective, the Pre is little better than many of the sub-par smart phones that have come before. The webOS has a real chance to be a serious competitor to the iPhone. Apple’s philosophy is to ship no software before it’s up to snuff—Palm seems to have gone the other direction and thrown in many features, not all of which are ready for prime time.

The choice of networks plays a big part in whether you’re going to pick the Pre or the iPhone; right now Palm has an exclusive deal with Sprint, which is slated to run through 2009, though there are already rumblings about the device appearing on the Verizon network next year.

Of course, the Pre’s not the only webOS phone we can expect to see, just as there are more Android models to come in the future. The big question right now is whether the Pre can do well enough to keep Palm afloat in the meantime.

More to the point, though, let's address the question of whether the Pre can "beat" or "kill" the iPhone. The problem here is that the question itself is based on a false premise. Just as in the interminable argument over Macs versus PCs, the smartphone market is not a zero-sum game: Apple doesn't have to lose for Palm to win. More important, by having two robust, competitive platforms, we, the consumers, are far better served than if one company were to dominate the market place all by itself. In that sense, by creating a product that's even comparable to the iPhone, Palm has succeeded, even if the Pre isn't holy grail of smartphones. It doesn't have to kill the iPhone—it just has to put up a good fight.

[Dan Moren is an associate editor for Macworld.]

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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

    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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