It wasn’t too long ago that Palm was hawking smartphones saddled with Microsoft’s lackluster Windows Mobile or an out-of-date and out-of-touch Palm OS. Actually they still are, with the Centro and Treo still out there, presumably selling dozens of units annually. But let’s put the past in the past, and focus on the Pre, Palm’s sorely needed entry in a market that’s very iPhone-centric. The phone launches in Canada exclusively on Bell on August 27, but some people who pre-ordered may be getting the device early. Bells says the smartphone will remain an exclusive until at least until the beginning of 2010.
First impressions count and Palm’s hiring (er, poaching?) of numerous Apple employees certainly paid off when it comes to design. Like Apple, Palm even managed to design a sharp retail box. Sleek curves and black plastic shine make this an attractive handset, but it does not feel as solid in your hands as other smartphones. The keyboard does not slide out smoothly, and seems easily breakable. Just about everyone I handed the phone to remarked on this the moment they had it in their hand.
While the keyboard itself is nicely designed, it’s a letdown for those used to a BlackBerry or the iPhone’s impressive touchscreen. It has a gummy responsiveness that leaves you looking at the screen to confirm your input. As with any physical keyboard, it is severely lacking when you want to type something other than letters or numbers or use a shortcut. Typing things like accented letters or a web suffix is clumsy.
My review unit came with the touchstone (more on that in a bit) black matte backing that enables inductive charging. It’s a shame this backing isn’t standard with the Pre. While the plastic screen loves smudging, it’s shouldn’t scratch too easily as long as you keep it out of pockets holding keys.
webOS and Synergy
When I met with a representative of Palm earlier this month, he placed particular emphasis on efforts to make the Pre an easy to use device with a clear user interface. Unfortunately, there’s just too many ways to do things on the Pre, with gestures, the keyboard, and on screen buttons that keep you reaching for the wrong part of the device too often. While the gesture area is a neat idea, I kept thinking about how much I’d rather have a bigger screen with on-screen cues. You can’t type on the keyboard when you’re in landscape mode, so switching from portrait to landscape and then back as you try to navigate the web and type text become tiresome very quickly. There’s no on-screen keyboard except for symbols, another example of how the Pre can confuse users.
Overall the Pre’s operating system, webOS, is solid. While there might be a few things I’d change, the Pre is a capable smartphone. There are some nice touches to webOS, like flicking apps to close them and the ability to select a Google or Wikipedia search when typing in the web browser. Universal search on webOS’ first try is something that should be commended. The real test for webOS will come when paid third party apps arrive. It’s one thing to multi-task when all you have is a few Palm-made apps running, it’s a whole new story when you’ve got loads of apps with memory leaks trying to run at the same time.
I’m not sold on Synergy, Palm’s attempt at combining all the important accounts in your life, and my feeling is that most consumers won’t be either. Sometimes, you want your Facebook friends separate from those you’d put in your contacts. Sure it was neat to see Facebook profile pics in my contacts, but it certainly sucked to clutter up my contacts with 400 people I didn’t really want there.
There isn’t an App for that
This week we heard some more details about Palm’s upcoming paid App store, and not surprisingly, it’s going to take a lot out of the iPhone playbook. Currently, Palm’s App Catalogue is populated with about a few dozen free applications. People looking for a phone that provides hours of entertainment should look elsewhere for now. The Pre’s ability to deliver apps with great graphics is also a question. Because of this, it’s going to be really hard to convince an iPhone user to give up on a library of already downloaded App Store entries like MLB At Bat, Scrabble, or Runkeeper Pro.
Battery Life and the Touchstone charger
If you want to waste $80, the Touchstone charger provides a terrific opportunity. In my tests, using the touchstone took 30% longer than just plugging it the old-fashioned way to fully charge the Pre. In today’s eco-friendly market it’s completely unacceptable to sell something that wastes so much energy. Stick with the included charger, which looks good and does the job. Speaking of charging, you’ll be doing it a lot. Battery life on the Pre is low even when compared to the iPhone. If you’re a heavy user, you’ll need to recharge every day, perhaps even more often.
Other points in point form
– The speaker phone on the Pre is weak – reminiscent of the original 2007 iPhone.
– Bell’s 3G network was fast in my tests, loading web pages quicker than on a iPhone on Rogers’ 3G network. On WiFi however, the iPhone smokes the Pre. Rogers is a victim of the iPhone’s huge success, and they’ll have to continue to work on supporting the strain so many iPhones put on their network. Bell clearly does not have that issue.
– At the same $199 price point, the Pre (8 GB) offers half the memory of the iPhone 3GS (16 GB). Weak sauce.
– Those wondering about the BlackBerry vs. Pre keyboard fight: The BlackBerry wins.
– There is no Visual Voicemail on the Pre. If you have an iPhone, you know how awesome it is, and how lame it is to go back to punching in passwords and listening to prompts.
– Synching the Pre with iTunes is just as easy as an iPod, although as we’ve seen, that functionality can’t be guaranteed.
The Pre is a tribute to the work put in by Palm employees over the last two years. The company has gone from light years behind the competition to a solid contender in a very short amount of time. In the process, they’ve also highlighted just how inept and incompetent Microsoft is, who stumbles along in the smartphone game as if the iPhone doesn’t exist.
Unfortunately for Palm however, the Pre is nothing more than a good start; it’ll take double the work to close the gap. They simply can’t try to match the current iPhone, they need to top next year’s iPhone. The Pre reminds me very much of the first iPhone from 2007, lacking apps, video recording, and a polished OS. Putting it up against the current iPhone 3GS, with it’s speed, voice control, compass, video recording and double the hard drive, it is hard to justify spending the same $199. Palm needs to lower the price sooner than later, and I suspect it will once early-adopters stuck with Bell have made their purchase.
Palm’s biggest burden is Bell: They chose Canada’s worst customer service team, and that does not bode well for product launches. Signing a three-year contract with a company that so clearly shows disdain for its customers is a sign of mental instability, and consumers should think about purchasing the phone outright for $549 if they really want the Pre. Not being under contract with Bell may just be worth it. As well, despite Bell’s claims that their pricing plans are “aggressively” priced, upon actual review, a 200-minute plan with 500 MB of data, caller ID, unlimited texting, message centre, fees and taxes will set you back over $80.
Next week, I’ll share my thoughts on what Palm should do – and do quickly – with their next WebOS smartphone.