(Author’s note: I wrote the bulk of this review two months after I picked up a Palm Pre, and then forgot it in my drafts folder. Now, days after Palm’s announcement of the Pre2 on Verizon and the Pre3 and TouchPad coming out in “summer” (probably six months out), I have rediscovered it. My opinions and feelings about the Pre, particularly as it compares with the iPhone, remain remarkably unchanged after all this time, so I have updated the review to be a bit more current with regards to the new HP/Palm ecosystem. I hope you enjoy.)
About ten months ago (or April 2010 for those who don’t like to cross-reference dates) and in the midst of the highest level of pessimism about Palm’s survival that had occurred to date, I went out and bought a Palm Pre Plus from Verizon to replace my iPhone.
“Wow,” some of you are thinking. “Why on earth would you do that? Were you taking stupid pills?”
No, the pills that I was taking were more commonly known as the “fed up with AT&T and uncomfortable with Apple’s increasingly closed environment” pills. A free dose came packaged with my vitamin supplements.
And it didn’t hurt that Verizon had too good a deal to pass up (free web tethering for the life of the device was something I couldn’t easily ignore, and the fact that a device with the same specs as the iPhone 3GS cost me a measly $50 was pretty awesome, too).
(Author’s note: as of this writing, the Palm Pre 2 is currently available on Verizon with the same free-tethering deal. I was tempted, but I’m holding out for the Pre3 which has far better promised hardware. However, for anyone who wants WebOS 2.0 right now, oh my god I can’t wait, that’s a surprisingly excellent deal.)
For those of you who enjoy digging into multi-thousand word product reviews, I’m about to make you very happy. If, however, you just want the quick and dirty version, well here it is:
The Palm Pre is physically smaller than the iPhone, and despite similar specs feels slower thanks to WebOS’s resource-intensive nature (likely exacerbated by the iPhone 4’s even better hardware, but I haven’t used one of those much in person). It is also a dream to use, has changed my entire conception of the ease of use of Apple devices, and continues to delight me on a day-to-day basis almost a year after I purchased it. Even with the iPhone recently released on the Verizon network and my dissatisfaction with HP’s handling of the future, I wouldn’t switch back.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Apple.
What makes a smartphone?
The smartphone market has been indelibly changed thanks to the iPhone, and I’m very glad that I used one for a while (although I was by no means an early adopter; I bought a used original iPhone when the 3G was announced). It’s not often that a product completely redefines a market in such a short time, and in the iPhone Apple definitely made good its reputation for creating visionary products.
Thanks to Apple’s influence, there are now four things that make up a quality smartphone:
- Hardware; the phone itself
- Operating system; the core software
- Bundled software; what the phone can do out of the box
- Apps; third party software for extending the phone’s functionality
(Used to be the only thing that mattered was hardware, and the software was always shit-tastic or crazy complex. Thank goodness we’re past that.)
A fifth item, the wireless network, is also usually a factor, but since we do not yet know what networks will support the Palm Veer or Pre3, I can’t really comment on it.
An overview of the Pre
It is safe to say that without the iPhone, the Palm Pre and WebOS would never have existed. It only takes a couple of minutes with the device to realize that it has been heavily inspired and influenced by the iPhone, both in the areas where Palm has imitated Apple and those where they have departed.
The Palm Pre Plus has roughly the same specs as an iPhone 3GS, but with a smaller screen and a WiFi mobile hot spot. If you care about that sort of thing, I encourage you to check out other Palm Pre reviews.
However, the form factor is quite different. The Pre is quite a lot smaller than an iPhone (both physically and in the size of the screen), but also thicker thanks to its slideout hardware keyboard.
The WebOS operating system also follows some very similar lines to iPhone OS, particularly where it comes to user interactions. You tap things to interact with them, flick the screen to scroll, pinch to zoom, and slide across items in lists to delete them. The biggest difference is the gesture bar below the screen where you have a small number of universal gestures that you can use to control the phone.
The word I’ve seen used most often for the Palm Pre’s hardware recently is “aging”. When I originally wrote this review that was accurate; now it’s more euphemistic. The Pre 2 seems like a step in the right direction, but does not offer the amount of improvement that I was hoping for. The Pre3 seems like a much larger step in the right direction, but of course won’t be available for six months or so.
Despite the lackluster hardware compared to recent smartphones, however, I’ve still been very happy with my Pre Plus. At this point in its lifespan, the Pre isn’t going to make your jaw drop, but the form factor and hardware options have proven well capable of providing me with a good experience.
I don’t have the expertise to intelligently discuss things like the camera (which is the best camera in a phone I’ve used, but that’s not saying much), and I have no interest in quantitative testing of the other hardware specs. What I can say, however, is that the Palm Pre’s form factor is a refreshing departure from the blocky designs that have been running rampant in the iPhone and Android camps. At first I wasn’t sure if I’d like the smaller screen, but I’ve found that it’s worth it for the smaller form factor (which is a lot easier to carry around and manipulate with one hand than my iPhone ever was). I can see why Palm has stuck with the basic Pre design through three iterations of hardware with little deviation. The form factor is easy to scoff at if you’re used to a brick-shaped iPhone or Android, but the more you use it the more you’ll appreciate it.
I’m ambivalent to the Pre’s hardware keyboard. I like that the keyboard doesn’t take up screen real estate, but it also requires two hands to type anything. Additionally, Palm seems to have assumed that because they have a hardware keyboard they didn’t need to take as much care with their autocorrection system as Apple, which is a shame. In particular WebOS doesn’t have nearly as many corrections for mis-typing that occurs when you hit an adjacent letter instead of the one you’re going for, which is just as much a problem on the Pre as it is on the iPhone thanks to the tiny key size. I fortunately have pretty dexterous, slim fingers. Someone with large fingers would not be happy with this keyboard. Additionally, ten months into the life of the device some keys are starting to be unresponsive when I click them. This is a major issue, and annoys me almost every time I need to use the keyboard recently.
Although several of the Palm Pre reviews that I’ve read have mentioned build quality as one of the downsides to the phone, I personally have never experienced any problems (aside from the keyboard key issue I just mentioned). The keyboard slides out nicely and locks into place, the keypad is a pleasure to type on (when the keys function), and nothing is cracking or sliding out of alignment. Your mileage may vary, of course. Certainly you’ll have more risk of physical problems with the Pre than with a brick like the iPhone that practically doesn’t have moving parts.
Most of the Pre’s hardware may be losing its pizazz compared to the competition, but there are two areas where the Pre is flat-out fantastic even today.
First, the built-in mobile hotspot. It’s ridiculous how easy it is to turn your Pre into a wireless hotspot and use your 3G connection with whatever WiFi device you happen to have nearby. The mobile hotspot functionality is a fantastic confluence of hardware and software; it just works right out of the box. With AT&T still floundering about trying to figure out its data plan and tethering support options, the mobile hotspot functionality of the Pre is a great reason to buy the phone all on its own.
Second, the Touchstone wireless induction charging station. It may have cost as much as the phone, but this has literally changed my life.
You may not realize it, but if you are currently using an Apple iDevice you are shackled to your desk. In order to charge and sync an iPhone you have to plug it in, wait for iTunes to start up, sit through the synchronization process (which can take a while, given the need to back things up), and then wait for the thing to charge. This seems like a small thing if you aren’t used to anything better, but it’s not. This is a huge amount of headache for a device that doesn’t need wires to function at all.
With induction charging, I set my Palm Pre down and it starts to charge. When I need it, I simply pick it up. It synchronizes contacts, calendars, and so forth wirelessly over the 3G connection (or wireless, if available), and backs the phone up the same way (this is through the “cloud”, folks; no need to have my computer on, be on the same network, or any of that rigamarole). The only time I have to physically plug the thing into my computer is when I want to transfer music onto the phone or video off the phone.
This is the way things should be (actually, it should wirelessly sync music through my local WiFi network, too, but whatever). When I finally caved and bought an iPad, it felt like a huge leap backwards to boot it up for the first time and see an iTunes logo with a USB cord image staring me in the face. The Palm Pre is the first wireless device that I’ve owned that is truly wireless with all the headache relief that entails.
The operating system: WebOS
Quite simply, WebOS is why you should be using a Palm phone. Their hardware is adequate but mostly subpar compared to the competition (with the exceptions I noted above), but WebOS is fantastic. I have no regrets abandoning iOS for WebOS.
Additionally, the use of the gesture bar below the touchscreen has its bad points. For one thing, there isn’t a whole lot of feedback when you successfully perform a gesture. Sure, the lights in the middle are supposed to flicker, but sometimes I’ll perform a gesture, the lights will flicker, and nothing will happen. This can be frustrating, since without visual feedback the whole gesture idea crumbles a bit.
The second downside of the gesture area is that it makes it more difficult to use the phone initially. On the iPhone, any idiot can use the thing because everything you want to do is staring you in the face. Want to go back to the previous screen? Tap the Back button. Want to close the app? Click the home button. It takes maybe thirty seconds to a minute of playing with an iPhone to figure all that out through straight trial and error.
Picking up the Palm Pre, however, takes a little more learning because there is never a back button: instead you have to know that swiping from right to left on the gesture area will perform the universal “back” gesture. Granted, there’s only two gestures that you need to know to get up and running, but this still provides a steeper learning curve than the iPhone, and it’s highly unlikely you’ll discover the gestures on your own without prior knowledge.
Of course, the plus side is that once you’ve learned the gestures, life improves drastically. Having a universal back gesture means that apps never have to complicate their interfaces with back buttons leaving you with less visual clutter in your apps.
The last major downside of WebOS is the text editing. I’ve already mentioned the less-robust autocompletion engine in WebOS compared to iOS, but cursor placement and text selection is equally frustrating. Like on the iPhone, you tap to place the cursor. However, if you then want to move the cursor (because your relatively huge, inaccurate finger placed it a character or two away from where you wanted) you have to hold down the symbol key and drag anywhere on screen except on top of the cursor. This is fantastically frustrating for several reasons:
- First, you’ll never discover this on your own. I noticed when I pressed the symbol key that the cursor turned into an arrow, but had to go digging through the documentation to figure out what this even meant.
- Second, this interaction removes all of the immediacy of touch. I may as well be using arrow keys on a keyboard (in fact, I’d prefer that, because then at least it would be accurate). On the iPhone I tap and hold to get a magnifying glass that shows me exactly where the cursor is under my finger. This is far more efficacious than dragging around on an unrelated part of the screen and watching a little compass rose jump around.
Similarly, if you want to select text you have to hold down the shift key and drag on screen somewhere away from the cursor. I inevitably find myself overshooting, unable to get the selection to encompass the right characters or lines. And heaven help you if you try to drag the actual cursor. You won’t be able to see what you’re doing, and half the time it doesn’t do anything, anyway.
On a different note, one of the best parts of WebOS is the card-based multi-tasking metaphor. iOS pseudo-multitasking (which I’ve been using on the iPad for several months) doesn’t hold a candle to WebOS. Palm’s multitasking is immediately obvious, elegantly easy to manipulate, and places more power and choice in the user’s hands. After using my Pre for about a week, I booted up my old iPhone to do something, and found myself trying futilely to perform the upward swipe to get to the card view.
Additionally, although the “swipe upwards” gesture to access the Launcher (where your app icons are stored) is hard to discover, I love the launcher itself. Yes, it would be nice to have more than three pages of apps, but I have found that practically I only use about as many apps as fit comfortably into three visible pages, anyway, and scrolling to the others isn’t a big deal. What’s great about the launcher is that it doesn’t clutter up your phone with icons. iOS devices now feel incredibly busy to me, with every screen having apps screaming “use me, use me!”. On WebOS, apps are there when I need them, but by default I get a beautiful (and clean) desktop image.
As a former iOS user, WebOS’s notifications system was another breath of fresh air. Notifications slide quietly up from the bottom of the phone and wait there until you wish to deal with them, allowing applications in the background to inform you of whatever without interrupting your current task. Thanks to WebOS’s true multitasking, some apps do not even need to be running as a card to post notifications (the email and SMS clients are great examples of this) or are capable of running solely in the notifications area. This is worlds away better than iOS’s modal dialogs and icon badges, and I would be hard-pressed to go back.
Another standout feature of WebOS is Synergy. Synergy on a WebOS phone means that you can log into several web services (like Gmail and Facebook) and have your contacts downloaded, synched, and intelligently merged together. So if your Gmail account has your friend’s email, and your Facebook has your friend’s phone number, Synergy knows to combine them into a single person with all of that info available. That info can then be extended by third party apps, or used within third party apps (with your permission, of course).
There are lots of other great little touches in WebOS compared to iOS, as well (dropdown menus that don’t necessitate jumping onto a new screen, a universal menu with battery info and a shortcut to turn on airplane mode, app menus so that common things like preferences don’t have to take up screen real estate all the time, and more). Suffice it to say that WebOS is hands down the best reason to consider migrating from an iOS device to a Pre.
Not much to say here, really. The email, calendar, and contact apps are excellent (particularly with their synergistic sharing of Google logins, for instance). Apps like Tasks or Memos are visually appealing, but almost completely useless. The music playing app words great, except that you cannot create playlists, and other apps like the browser, videos, and Google Maps apps are competent but nothing to write home about.
As I mentioned above, the wifi hotspot app is shockingly easy to use, and a good example of an app that Palm got exactly right. My only quibble with it is that it does not give any indicator for how much bandwidth I am consuming (but then again, neither does Verizon; wouldn’t want me to know if I’m likely to be charged for exceeding my limit, would we?).
The third party question: apps
I have mixed feelings when it comes to the apps on WebOS. On the one hand, I am now able to code apps to meet my own needs, something that I never felt capable of doing on iOS. On the other, the app catalog has relatively few standout third party applications, and finding the good ones amidst the dross of sound effect apps, one-off ebooks, wallpapers, and ringtones is challenging at best.
Fortunately, with the help of third party apps I am able to do everything I needed to do regularly on iOS (like check bus schedules, access visual voicemail, use Twitter, and so forth). However, a number of the third party alternatives are not as appealing as their iOS equivalents, or just flat-out don’t work as well. A good example is the visual voicemail client, which cannot play audio through anything but headphones or the speakerphone thanks to limitations in the OS, and is generally a lot less aesthetically pleasing than anything Apple has produced. Another thing I miss: although wholly functional, none of the RSS readers are remotely as awesome as Reeder or numerous other iOS RSS alternatives.
When you come down to it, I cannot recommend WebOS based on its existing third party apps. I think this is likely to change (and if you are a developer and willing to roll your own solutions, it’s a great development environment), but right now the app scene is nowhere near as exciting, vibrant, and interesting as the iOS app store. If you are trying to figure out if switching from iOS to WebOS is viable for you, definitely take a long hard think about exactly what apps (or features of apps) you would find a hard time living without and check to see if an equivalent exists before you jump ship.
The final verdict: is it worth it?
I must admit that—despite my incredibly positive experiences with the Palm Pre Plus—at this point in time it is likely not worth buying a Palm Pre. If you absolutely must have a new smartphone, and don’t mind missing out on the promised awesomeness of the Pre3, then a Pre 2 might be an excellent investment (particularly with Verizon’s free tethering deal) as long as knowing that next-generation hardware is just around the corner does not rub you too raw.
On the other hand, if you are going to be in the market for a new smartphone within six months or so, then a Pre (or its little sibling, the Veer) will be well worth your attention. Announcing their hardware so far in advance was a pretty dumb move on the part of HP in many ways, but the positive side of it is that we know that their upcoming phones at least have some exciting features (how they stack up with their competition when they are finally released I leave to you to discover, although I suspect given the historical rate of change, at least WebOS and iOS will remain similarly matched).
The bottom line for me is that I have loved—and still love—my Pre Plus on Verizon. As a developer, I am not very happy with HP’s handling of upcoming changes to WebOS and their devices, but as a user and iOS-switcher I am far more optimistic. We will see if HP delivers on the promise of their recently announced hardware and software changes, but in the interim I am more than happy to continue using my Pre Plus.