Palm Pre Review

Palm Pre Review

The most eagerly-awaited phone of the year is finally here: Sprint is releasing the Palm Pre.

This device marks the debut of the webOS, which many are expecting to become a major force in the smartphone market. At this point it's too early to say how this is going to play out, but I can say that so far it's looking very good for Palm and Sprint.

The general look and feel of the Pre is outstanding. It sits very comfortably in my palms, and slips easily into my pocket. It's so smooth and rounded, I find myself flipping it over and over in my hand when I'm not using it.

Palm went for a minimalist design on the outside, with few buttons or ports showing. There's a power button on top, along with the headset port and a mute button, while the micro-USB slot on the right side is hidden behind a small door.

Pushing up on the screen exposes the QWERTY keyboard, and if the device's screen is off it will activate when you do this.

The 3.1-inch display is beautiful -- it does a fine job of displaying both text and movies. That said, I wish it was higher resolution. At HVGA (480x320 pixels) it's the minimum I consider acceptable on a smartphone.

This is a capacitive touchscreen, which means it senses your finger tapping on it, and won't work with a stylus or even your fingernail. The touch sensitivity seems about right so I have no problems selecting items on the screen -- which is important, considering this is how you do almost everything on this device.

So far, I am not warming up to the Palm Pre's sliding keyboard; it's just too small and cramped. I still prefer it to an on-screen one, but I would be much happier if this phone had been designed with a landscape-oriented keyboard, which would allow it to have larger keys with more distance between them.

Still, the fact that the keys are slightly sticky is a nice touch, as this helps prevent your fingertip from sliding off to bump a wrong key.

Status Lights?
I like the Pre's minimalist design, but it's possible Palm took it a bit too far. Notably absent are any external LEDs, which other phones use to indicate status. If the screen is off, there's no way to tell if you have a message waiting, or if the device is charging. The only way to find out is turn on the screen.

I don't often bring up accessories when I do reviews, but the Pre's are so exceptional I have to make an exception. The cylindrical power "brick" with flip-up electrical prongs is one of the coolest I've ever seen.

A cloth slipcase to help you keep the phones screen scratch-free is also included. This is nice, but I wish Palm wasn't quite so enamored with orange.

The Palm Pre's performance is completely wrapped up in its new operating system, the webOS. This does good job of dealing with an extremely difficult task: letting a phone do everything a PC can.

This is a multi-taking OS, with each application appearing on its own card. Think of cards like the windows on your desktop, but the card metaphor is a more appropriate one in this case -- you switch back and forth between cards with a sweep of your finger, or close them with a flick, just like you were discarding the two of clubs.

Switching between cards is easy and very fast. It's generally intuitive enough that you can learn how to do it in just a few minutes, or faster if you have someone run you through the basics.

And much of the user interface is already familiar. There's an application launcher with icons, just like on virtually every computer on the planet. These are big enough to be easy to use, and you can easily re-arrange them just by sliding them around.

Stability is a critical feature in a new operating system, and I can say the webOS seems rock solid. I haven't had a crash or a glitch yet.

The webOS has been created to meet the needs of both consumers and business users, and I think it does a surprisingly good job of it.

The needs of these two groups overlap a great deal: both want to be able to make phone calls, play music, access websites, and that sort of thing. But they diverge in some areas. Consumers want to get their email from site like Google or Yahoo, but many businesspeople need access to Microsoft Exchange. The webOS can do both with equal facility.

Palm calls its technology for pulling information from various online sources "synergy," and it's one of the greatest strengths of the webOS.

The address book displays all the information for each of your contacts from multiple sources. A single person's entry could have, for instance, phone numbers from an Exchange Server, a street address from Google, and a picture from Facebook. All of this is displayed together, without regard to where it came from.

I was concerned that the combination process would be a hash, and I'd end up with multiple entries for all my contacts, but it really works very well. My Exchange contacts and my Google contacts have a large amount of overlap, and these entries are combined into individual ones just like they ought to.

The calendar works the same way. The webOS can pull event information from a variety of sources and display it all on a single page, with entries color-coded by their source (as shown here).

You can hide all the entries from each calendar if, for example, you just want to see your work events. And you can set the colors for each calendar, including separate colors for your different Google calendars.

For many people their smartphone is their mobile entertainment system. I'm on this list, and I'm relatively pleased with the Palm Pre's multimedia support.

The music software is generally OK, and it has all the basic features, like support for playlists and album art. Its support for playing podcasts is weak though, as there's no way to skip around in a track. That's not important for a 3 minute song, but some of my podcasts are 45 minutes to an hour, and I want to be able to skip around in them.

The Pre's support for iTunes is a nice bonus. You can hook this device up to a PC with Apple's music software installed on it and the phone will act like an iPod, automatically syncing your music and podcasts. I think this one of the better features in this device, as it makes transferring non-DRM content a snap. You don't have to use iTunes to transfer music and video, as this phone supports mass storage mode, so it can appear as an external hard drive on your PC.

Your multimedia files are stored on the 8 GB of internal storage. This isn't one of the Pre's brighter spots. I'm not thrilled that there's no removable memory card, but I could accept built-in memory if I thought there was enough. The approx. 7.5 GB isn't enough. This device really should have debuted with 32 GB. Memory is cheap, and 8 GB feels chintzy.

I'm also not pleased with the video player. It's picky about formats, and some of my MP4 files that play quite well on my Windows Mobile or Blackberry device don't perform correctly.

On a happier note, there's a YouTube player installed on this device that makes going to the regular site unnecessary. You can see the most popular videos or search for your favorites.

I think a good web browser is an absolute requirement for a smartphone, and I'm happy to say Palm agrees with me. The one that comes with the Pre is absolutely one of the best I've used, downloading and rending pages almost astoundingly fast, downloading most pages in 5 seconds or less, and harder ones were generally on screen in 10 seconds.

It's also one of the few apps on the Pre with landscape support (the video player is another) and even goes into full-screen mode in this arrangement. This brings up a small point: there's no way to enter text in landscape mode, as you have to use the physical keyboard, which puts the device back into portrait mode.

Most businesspeople get Microsoft Word and Excel filers mailed to them all the time, and so this phone comes with a version of DataViz's DocumentsToGo. Like the versions of this software for other mobile platforms -- including the Palm OS -- this performs exceptionally well. I tested it with a document that is formatted in all kinds of odd ways, and it handled nearly everything. It could take a lot, including the footnote, but it couldn't display text in the different fonts. Keep in mind that this is just viewer, though. DataViz is going to sell a version that will let you edit files.

The Pre is equipped with a GPS receiver, and Google Maps. The receiver is amazing, getting my location almost instantly the first time I used it. And Google Maps is integrated into the webOS, so you can quickly get directions to an address book entry's address. This is a decent app for free, but there's going to be a market for more full-featured ones from third-party developers.

Voice and Wireless
This phone's voice quality when on a call is quite good. I can hear the other person quite clearly, and the same was true in reverse. The phone didn't pick up quiet to medium ambient noise around me, but louder noises did come through. That's fairly par for the course.

This device has Wi-Fi, but I barely use it because it also offers Sprint's mobile broadband service EV-DO Rev. A. This offers data transfers so quick that Wi-Fi hasn't seemed necessary, especially when browsing the Web.

Naturally the Pre has Bluetooth, too. This includes support for stereo headsets, and I paired it with my set without a hitch.

The camera takes surprisingly good pictures for a phone, and built-in the flash is a welcome addition. Here's a shot I took in medium to low light, and I think it looks fairly good:

Sample Image
The Pre's camera is missing a major feature though: video support. It can only take still images.

App Catalog
Something that's going to greatly affect the success or failure of the webOS is developer support. To improve its chances, Palm has put a software store on the Pre.

This is still in beta form, and at the time of this writing there are only about a hundred applications in it, but it works very well. It offers everything you'd want -- including user-submitted reviews of the software -- and a simple push of a button installs each app.


The Palm Pre has been tasked with an almost impossible job: it's the device that's supposed to put both Palm and Sprint back on course after months in the doldrums. Amazingly, it just might do it.

Palm has created an operating system and a suite of software that's easy to use but powerful, and has the features both consumers and business people are looking for in a smartphone.

No device is perfect, and the Pre has its blemishes. But most of these can be fixed with software patches, and Palm seems serious about releasing a number of these in the coming months.


New user interface is simple but powerful
Meets the needs of consumers and businesspeople
Syncs with iTunes

Only 8 GB of storage -- no memory card slot
Cramped keyboard
No LED notification light