Multitasking card interface lets you run many programs at once
Synergy contact system good when it works
Unified e-mail Inbox
Excellent notifications system
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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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