Palm Pre review

News Andrew Williams 13:51, 30 Sep 2009

We review the Palm Pre, one of the most hyped 'iPhone killers' ever - but how potent are its weapons?

The race to beat the iPhone has been one of the big stories in mobile phones over the past eighteen months, but the many stalwart supporters of the device still claim that it’s yet to be bettered, especially with the lightning-fast 3GS now on the scene.

For a long time now, the Palm Pre has been the hot contender for the touchscreen throne, but now that it has actually arrived on the UK’s shelves, how does it shape up?

Contrary to the trend of either including a full side-sliding Qwerty or leaving all navigation to the touchscreen, the Palm Pre opts for a tiny Qwerty that occupies the space traditionally left for the numerical keypad. Although there’s still a touchscreen, the only way to currently get a virtual on-screen keyboard up and running is to hack your Pre’s firmware.

It’s something of a pity because although the Qwerty copes well considering its size, thanks to the individually raised keys - each of which is carefully separated to allow for touch typing – the darn thing is so small that getting to a decent level of proficiency with it will take some time.

Sure, those with a borderline neurotic aversion to touchscreen keyboards will definitely prefer the Pre’s keys, but we didn’t find our typing speed accelerating off beyond what we normally achieve with a virtual keyboard.

A rather delicate device compared with some of the heavy duty sliding handsets we’ve thumbed recently, the Qwerty’s outward movement ends with a somewhat more abrupt clunk than we’d like, but it’s the sort of thing you need to get your hands on to tell whether the Pre feels too fragile for your fingers. At any rate, it certainly feels at least as likely to survive a fall as an iPhone.

Of course, we shouldn’t make too many lazy comparisons to the iDevice, especially after Palm goes to some lengths to differentiate the Pre from its most obvious competitor. For one thing, the Pre is the first phone to use WebOS, Palm’s own smartphone operating system.

It’s actually a relatively simple piece of software. Next to Android, the WebOS environment doesn’t seem massively customisable at this point. It’s based on two main sections, the home screen and the apps/functions menu. Partly thanks to its conservatively sized 3.1-inch screen and the 3x4 grid of icons in the menu system, as was generally favoured in phones before the touchscreen revolution hit handsets, the menu feels fairly traditional.

Whenever you download an app from the App Catalog app store, it’ll drop itself onto a page of the menu automatically. These pages are vertically scrollable, and can be thumbed through fairly easily using the touchscreen. You can move the app icons around too with a longer press and drag motion, but the overall sense is of function rather than flash.

You can drop your favourite apps down into the shortcut bar that sits at the bottom of the screen when whether you’re within the menu or home screen. There are only four slots on this bar though, since the button that moves you between the menu and home screen always occupies the fifth space.

If anything, the home screen is even simpler. Aside from the background, which you can select from your Pre gallery, the home screen will spend a lot of its time predominantly blank. You see, it’s not a place for Twitter feeds or clocks - as the Android’s home screens are – it’s really a task manager.

The Pre lets you have lots of apps open at once and skip between them more-or-less at will. We’ll leave exactly how this works to the CPU gods, but even when we had twenty different apps open the Pre seemed to function just fine.

Press the Pre’s one real front button while in an app and you’ll be taken back out to the home screen, where you’ll see a reduced snapshot of the app as you left it, waiting to be returned to. Being able to flick between apps will undoubtedly give you the rope to hang yourself with, letting you get yourself in an app-happy mess, but it’s a great feature nevertheless.

Actually doing the navigating within and between apps caused a separate share of problems though. Although the front of the Pre may look like it houses little more than a single button and a touchscreen, the whole black area surrounding the main button is actually a touch panel. Nothing clicks or moves, but swiping across this area offers a variety of functions, depending on context.

It’s this panel that left us confused for the first few hours of using the Pre – using it just isn’t all that intuitive. A horizontal swipe will generally take you backwards, but then the button often takes on a similar role.

There are lights underneath both the button and the areas to the left and right of it that flash up upon swiping to let you know that the Pre has registered a motion, but they come on in a short of lumbering, slow way that’s probably meant to be classy and meditative, but only makes this area seem like an even more confusing and a less direct navigation method.

Yes, you’ll undoubtedly get used to this Pre quirk, but we found it a lot less easy to get to grips with than any of the recent Android phones we’ve used, even if they do use a more complicated and flexible OS.

The Pre is not without a raft of positives though. The screen looks great, for one. Viewing angles aren’t perfect but colours appear and vivid and bright, and the image appears to be very close to the surface, an effect we’d only normally expect from AMOLED-screened device. Although the screen is smaller than that of most high-end touchscreen devices, we’d be more than happy to while away a few hours watching videos on the Pre.

The Palm Pre is kind to your tunes too. The built-in music player arranges your tunes capably, displaying album artwork too. Considering the Pre can sync with some versions of iTunes, it’s no surprise that this part of the device is particularly iPhone-like. However, when we tried to sync a few tunes and podcasts over to the phone, the going was incredibly slow, much slower than with a legitimate iDevice.

We wouldn’t count on using the latest version of iTunes if you want to use it to sync your Pre either – the 8.2.1 update blocked the Pre from synchronising.

Whenever you attach your Pre to the computer, it’ll ask whether you want to Sync, just charge or connect as a mass storage device. From there, you’ll be able to put music on the device directly or grab off any photos, but it’s a pity the seamless iTunes sync isn’t quite as seamless as we’d like.

Cables are a must too, unless you’re planning on uploading anything you want to the web, since Bluetooth transfer simply doesn’t work. When we tried to send some files over to the device, the Pre told us that the prerequisite services were not available with a little error message. The last time we stumbled across this problem was when we were reviewing the Sony Ericsson W205, a phone that costs about the tenth the price of the Palm Pre.

While these feature holes may not worry some users, they’re disappointing in such a high-end device. Similarly weak is the camera. It’s got 3.2 megapixels to its name, but as it’s a fixed-focus snapper, you’re never going to get anything particularly impressive out of it. It’s got a light for photography in darker areas, but it’s no replacement for a proper Xenon flash.

At this point, the Palm App Catalog isn’t quite good enough to mitigate for these gaps with apps. While we expect it’ll improve as the Pre matures and new WebOS devices pop up, it has more the feel of the BlackBerry App World than the more impressive Android Market or Apple App Store – it’s a little malnourished and underdeveloped at this point.

Palm was clearly heading for the bullseye with the Palm Pre. It’s a device that doesn’t hang off the conventions of its rivals, and that’s admirable. However, it doesn’t manage to eclipse the Android or iPhone and comes with its own learning curve. Yes, WebOS is good enough to stand next to the other smartphone platforms, but both it and the Pre could do with some iterative updates.

In fact we’re surprised that some of them haven’t already happened, considering the Pre’s been available in the US for some time.

Palm Pre Info

Typical price: £480 SIM free

Latest Palm Pre Prices

Pros:
Capacitive touchscreen
A breath of fresh air compared to its rivals
Great display
3.5mm earphone jack
Can sync with iTunes if you're crafty

Cons:
Confusing touchpanel
No Bluetooth file transfer
Rubbish camera

Verdict: The Palm Pre isn't quite the supreme smartphone we hoped it would be, but it's a strong and perfectly respectable alternative to an Android handset or the iPhone

Rating:

More info: Palm Pre website

Recycle your phone: Sell Palm Pre

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