It seems like every few weeks I open up a paper (I know, so 20th century of me) or browse to a major website where I am greeted by a big, bolded headline that begs the question: Is [insert name of new device here] the iPhone killer? I make no efforts to conceal my dislike of the term “iPhone killer.” In fact, I’ve made every effort to avoid any serious use of the term in the past. Yet, after my time with the Palm Pre, I am willing to make a bold statement.
At long last, there may be the makings of an iPhone killer on the loose. To be sure, the Palm Pre has its fair share of first generation hiccups and disappointments, but with sleek hardware, superior multitasking abilities and a touch driven operating system that undoubtedly rivals (read wins over in many ways) that of the iPhone, Apple will finally have to begin thinking defensively if it is to maintain its dominance in the touch screen market.
Look and Feel
With its exaggerated rounded edges and short stature when closed, the Pre looks like a flattened black stone like you might find in a Zen garden – albeit a lot shinier. In its own special way, the Pre is a thing of beauty, and the Pre team undoubtedly poured their hearts into what I have confidence will put Palm back on the smartphone map in a big way.
If you’ve never gotten your hands on a Pre before, you are likely to be struck by how small the device actually is. At just 2.3 inches wide and 3.9 inches tall when closed, the phone is short and stocky. The Pre is at its thickest in the middle (.67 inches), and gets thinner as the curvature reaches the top and bottom of the device. This compactness extends right down to the slide-down QWERTY keyboard. In fact, a U.S. quarter covers more than a third of the small, yet functional physical keyboard.
The phone is ensconced in a very glossy black plastic (that also happens to be extremely smudge-prone). Despite all that plastic, the device doesn’t feel cheap or flimsy. Far from it. Open or closed, the Pre feels sturdy and great in the hand – with one exception. Perhaps some degree of comfort was sacrificed in favor of sleekness, but the edges of the keyboard are noticeably sharp when the keyboard is exposed. The Pre won’t double as a steak knife, but it’s the sharpest edge on a phone I’ve come across.
The front of the Pre is dominated by a 3.1 inch capacitive touch screen. The bright and vibrant screen is certainly on the smaller side as touch screen devices go, but its size posed no problems for me when navigating the webOS. The screen is responsive and, in most cases, accurate. I did occasionally have trouble with touch accuracy, particularly when aiming at an icon or object closer to one of the edges of the screen. All things considered though, the touch experience on the Pre is a superior if not fun experience (although for the time being, at least, I still think the iPhone reigns supreme in the touch realm).
A button on the front of the Pre that looks very much like a trackball returns you to the home screen or brings up a multitasking interface Palm has termed "cards." There’s also a hidden proximity sensor that, much like the iPhone, dims the screen when the device is up to your ear. Of course, the Pre is also armed with an accelerometer to automatically flip the screen’s orientation from portrait to landscape when the phone is turned.
Atop the Pre is the power button that also locks the device, profile switcher to toggle vibrate mode, and a standard 3.55mm headphone jack (bravo, Palm!). On the left of the Pre sits a volume rocker, and on the right is a proprietary microUSB port for synching and charging that is covered by a rather difficult to remove plastic cover that looks almost like a button. On the back of the device is a 3.2 megapixel camera complete with a tiny flash.
Palm decided to take the road less taken when it came to the physical QWERTY keyboard. Instead of sliding from the side, the Pre’s keyboard is portrait-oriented, sliding out from the bottom of the phone. At first I found this a bit disconcerting and felt encumbered by the small amount of keyboard space allotted because of the portrait orientation. But in a couple days with the Pre, my concerns were behind me and my two thumbs were well on their way to Pre messaging mastery. I decided that, despite its miniaturization, I liked the small, slightly rubbery keys that are amply curved and offer a satisfying click and feel.
The keyboard slides down nicely, locking in place with some give. The Pre takes an elegant banana-like form when the keyboard is exposed, and the screen tilts slightly upward. When open, a mirror is revealed in back that is great for self portraits, or perhaps touching up makeup.
User Interface & Performance
The Pre runs on Palm’s Linux-based webOS operating system, which is also slated to grace many of Palm’s smartphones in the coming year. Despite some kinks that need to be worked out, Palm has already delivered an undeniable superstar to the market’s formidable lineup of smartphone operating systems. Palm’s webOS brings a new meaning to multitasking on a mobile device, and delivers a powerful workhorse in a uniquely elegant package.
By default, five icons sit in the Quick Launcher menu – phone, email, contacts, calendar and Launcher. The first four icons can be interchanged with any other applications, while the Launcher icon remains static, providing access to any applications not in the Quick Launcher. The Launcher is a series of flickable screens of icons reminiscent of the iPhone that can be ordered in any way you please by holding down an icon and dragging it to the desired location.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Palm’s webOS is a very well executed multitasking utility the company has termed cards. Cards effectively takes a snapshot of open applications, and allows you to see what applications you have open by flipping through them – well, like flipping through a deck of cards. You can navigate through open cards by swiping across the screen, and then tap on a card to resume working in that application. To close open applications, just flick the card up. Doing so is admittedly quite a good time. You can also change the order of open cards by holding down and dragging them to a new position.
According to Palm, twelve cards is the maximum that should be opened up at any one time – which should be plenty in most cases. I stopped short of pushing the Pre to the absolute limit, but at one point I had 20 cards open, including multiple web pages, my calendar, email, contacts, messaging and numerous other apps – all while streaming from Pandora. While functionality in some apps was noticeably somewhat slower, the Pre didn’t crumple under the strain.
Gestures & Multitouch
The area below the screen is also touch sensitive, responding to a number of gestures that play an integral role in navigating the webOS. While in any application, slowly moving your finger upwards from below the screen brings up a wavy version of the Quick Launcher menu for fast access to your most frequently used applications. Quickly swiping your finger upwards, on the other hand, will will reveal open cards. If cards are already open, the same gesture will open the Launcher menu.
You can also swipe left to move to the previous screen in a menu or application, and also swipe left or right to move back or forward a page in the Pre’s web browser. When performing any gesture, the silver button on the front of the Pre will glow white and one of two white LEDs set below the plastic will also illuminate. Gestures certainly take some getting used to, but quickly become second nature and a great way to quickly get things done.
Just like its iPhone foe, the Pre responds to multitouch. You can pinch to zoom in and out, and double tap a specific area to quickly zoom in on it. Double tap again to zoom back out.
Palm hit another home run when it comes to itsnovel approach toward notifications. Instead of potentially interruptive popups that must be dismissed before you can continue what you were doing, notifications of new emails, text messages, and IMs as well as missed calls appear in an enlargeable notifications area in the bottom of the screen.
The first line of a new text message, for example, will appear in the bottom of the screen accompanied by the selected audible notification, and the screen’s content will be resized to accommodate the notification. You can then swipe away the notification to dismiss it, or continue working and the notification will disappear and be replaced by a small icon in the bottom right of the screen indicating the specific event. You can then tap in the bottom of the screen to bring up the notification when you are ready to tackle it.
Applications can also employ the notifications area, making for an easy and elegant method of quickly changing a song in the Pre’s built-in media player or rating a song thumbs up or thumbs down in Pandora’s internet radio application – all without having to return to the application.
Typing anything on the Pre’s keyboard while in card view or at the home screen will launch the device’s Universal Search feature. The Pre will search through contacts and applications for your query, and if that fails, offer to search Google, Google Maps, Wikipedia or Twitter for the term. The search does not extend to the content of an email or document, for example – an omission that I imagine will be added in future versions of webOS.
Another hallmark of webOS is what Palm is calling Synergy – effectively the fusion of all of your various accounts, contacts, and online identities into one fully integrated mobile device. The concept is great, but could use some work when it comes to execution. I added my Exchange, Gmail (and Google Talk), Facebook, and AIM accounts to the Pre. Calendaring was great. I could choose to display all my various calendars at once in the same view, or pick a single calendar to display.
The real problems emerged when it came to contacts. I primarily use Exchange to manage my contacts, but also of course have contacts in Google, AIM, and Facebook. It’s nice to have my Google Talk contacts show up in my contacts list, along with a green dot indicating if they are online, but I found it strange to also find the name and/or email of someone who I had a one-time Gmail exchange with at some point in the distant past. I also took issue with the fact that my contacts list had to stop and load as I flicked through it.
Similarly, after adding Facebook, my contact list was populated with all my friends “friends,” including those that I hadn’t talked to since the third grade. There’s no way to pick and choose. In future versions of webOS, I expect the ability to, for example, choose to only include Google Talk contacts or only select groups of Facebook contacts (Facebook already allows you to create contact groups).
WebOS is good-looking, powerful, efficient and even fun to use. Its beautifully styled menus and icons are a pleasure to look at, and animations and transitions make everything jive together ever so nicely. The Pre’s handling of notifications and multitasking abilities are superior to any Smartphone on the market. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies, however. I did run into a few bugs in my time with the Pre, including momentary freezes (particularly when an email or message was incoming), some messages that seemed to lag on the screen or refused to disappear, and a crash that required me to restart the device. Despite these few grievances, my experience with the Pre and webOS was extremely positive. Apple take note.
In Part II: Phone, Email & Messaging, Media, Applications, & Camera
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