The Palm Pre Plus is really more of an update of the original Pre on Sprint () than a completely new product. Even so, the subtle hardware tweaks combined with Verizon’s speedy network makes it an overall improvement from its predecessor. Some quirks remain, however, with the keyboard design and the sluggishness of the software.
Because there are so few significant differences between the Pre Plus and the original Pre in both hardware and software, I have focused here mainly on the updates and new features in the Plus. For a closer look at its WebOS and most of its hardware specs, see our in-depth review of the original—the two models are that similar.
Right off the bat, you’ll notice one small difference between the Pre Plus and the first Palm Pre: The single hardware button that was on the latter has been removed. Palm says that this design choice is mostly a matter of aesthetics–getting rid of the button eliminated one more moving part, resulting in a sleeker profile. Like the Pixi and Pixi Plus, the Pre Plus has a capacitive touch area below the screen with a light-up bar. To shrink an app down to card size, you simply tap this area (on the original Pre, you would press the button).
Besides the omitted hardware button, the only other design differences are subtle changes on the slide-out keyboard. According to Palm, the Pre Plus’s keyboard has been enhanced for a better user experience. In my side-by-side comparisons between the Sprint Pre and the Palm Pre Plus, I did notice that the Plus’s keyboard was a bit more responsive. The slider mechanism feels much more secure, as well. The original Pre’s keyboard felt a bit wobbly and insecure; the Pre Plus’s keyboard slides in with a nice snap.
Even with these improvements, some of the problems I experienced with the original Pre remained on the Plus: I had to use my nails to type on the small keys, and I made a few errors in long messages. I wish Palm had rethought the slide-out design, as well. The sharp bezel lip on the sides and bottom sometimes interferes with typing. Furthermore, the top row is a few millimeters too close to the edge of the slider screen, so you have to angle your fingers to press those keys.
Another small change: The option and number keys are now gray (instead of the bright orange on the original Pre’s keyboard). I’m sure the color change had something to do with Verizon’s branding of the device, but I prefer the orange coloring as it makes the keys stand out more.
Perhaps the best update to the hardware is the doubled internal memory: The Pre Plus has 16GB of internal storage versus 8GB on the original Pre. With Palm opening up the WebOS SDK and adding 3D graphics into the mix, we’re sure to see a surge of apps in the WebOS App Catalog, so more storage is necessary. Also, the WebOS music player is terrific, but the potential for the first Pre to be both a portable media player and a smartphone (like the iPhone) was undercut by its limited storage.
The last, but not the least, of the hardware tweaks is the inductive battery cover. You can now use the phone with the Touchstone charger out of the box. The first Palm Pre requires that you first swap out the standard cover for the inductive one.
WebOS: Improvements to come
The Pre Plus comes preloaded with WebOS 1.3, but customers will be able to upgrade to WebOS 1.4 when it becomes available in February. The main updates in WebOS 1.3 are the addition of Yahoo services, like contact and calendar syncing, and Yahoo IM messenger.
You can also forward, copy text, and delete IMs and SMS texts by simply tapping on the message. In addition, YouTube videos played natively on the mobile Web browser when running the dedicated YouTube app, and widescreen videos fill the Pre’s 3.1-inch display rather than getting cropped.
Unfortunately, WebOS 1.3 still feels a bit sluggish. Apps took some time to load, and scrolling through the menus wasn’t as smooth as it should have been. Battery life was also pretty dismal–something we experienced with the original Palm Pre.
In software, I think the best is yet to come, not just with the Pre Plus, but with all four of the current WebOS devices. The 1.4 update will bring not only video capture (which all of the other smartphone OSs currently have), but (hopefully) improvements in WebOS performance and in battery life. Also in February, users will be able to play full Flash videos on their Pre and Pre Plus, a feature that will give Palm’s smartphones an edge over the iPhone.
Solid performance on Verizon
Browsing over Verizon’s 3G network was quite speedy. Multimedia-rich pages, like CNN.com, loaded quickly without any issues. Call quality over the network was also very good. Voices sounded natural with an ample amount of volume. My contacts could hear me perfectly, even during a blustery day in San Francisco.
Exclusive to the Pre Plus (and its little brother the Pixi Plus) is the Verizon Mobile Hotspot application. Basically, this app lets you turn your Pre Plus into a Wi-Fi access point for up to five other devices such as your netbook or portable media player. Setting it up is as simple as downloading the free app and connecting to a Wi-Fi network. There’s one catch, however: You’ll have to pay an additional $40 for the Mobile Hotspot on top of your Verizon voice and data plans for a 5GB allowance with overage of 5 cents per MB.
I was able to connect five devices with no problems. And while connected to the Mobile Hotspot, I could still receive phone calls and texts without interruption. If one of your devices goes idle (like another smartphone, for example), the Mobile Hotspot will disconnect it from the network. Once you activate it, however, it reconnects instantly. The range is pretty decent, too. As long as your devices are in the same room, they’ll stay connected.
Serious gaming potential
At CES, Palm had a slew of announcements for WebOS developers including the availability of the WebOS plug-in development kit for 3D gaming. This announcement was also a treat for current Palm Pre and Pixi owners, as a few games were already available in the catalog, such as EA’s popular Need for Speed Undercover and Sims 3 games.
Need for Speed took a bit of time to load, but once it was up and running, gameplay was excellent. The graphics looked great on the Pre’s 320-by-480-pixel capacitive-touch display, and the game handled quite smoothly–it was very responsive to touch and worked well with the phone’s snappy accelerometer. The games I tried integrate nicely with WebOS, too. For example, if you’re playing a game and get a text message, the message will show up on your notifications dashboard without interruption.
Like almost every Verizon smartphone, the Pre Plus comes loaded with Verizon’s VZ Navigator for turn-by-turn directions, maps, gas prices, and weather updates. The device also comes preloaded with Google Maps, if you prefer it for navigation.
Verizon customers who want a smaller and less expensive alternative to Motorola’s Droid () will be pleased with the Pre Plus. The hardware improvements and future software upgrades should boost its appeal, especially among the latest crop of Android phones. I still believe, however, that Palm should rethink the keyboard. A phone so well-connected to social networks and messaging applications simply deserves better.
[Ginny Mies is an assistant editor for PC World.]
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