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Palm is under a lot of pressure. Once the innovative leader of the smartphone world, it has fallen by the wayside in recent years as newcomers such as Apple and Google have bested it with fresher mobile operating systems. Palm has sunk a lot of time and money into developing the Pre and webOS, its brand new smartphone platform. As Boeing once bet its future on the 747, and Ford on the Taurus, so is Palm taking a huge leap of faith in this new mobile operating system and smartphone. Will Palm be able to follow in Boeing and Ford's footsteps?
The competition is not going to make it easy on Palm. Apple's iPhone OS 3.0, and new iPhone 3G S have been well received. Sales are hot. The original iPhone and iPhone 3G have combined sold more than 13 million units.
Then there's Android to think about. It may not be the smash hit that the iPhone has been so far, but only one handset has hit the market. The HTC G1 recently passed the million-units-sold mark in the U.S., and has sold even more worldwide. The next few months should see the number of Android devices blossom.
Both RIM and Microsoft are putting forth their best efforts, too. RIM is prepared to launch a second version of the touchscreen Storm, and Windows Mobile 6.5 devices should be hitting store shelves sometime later this year. Where will Palm and webOS fit in?
The Pre smartphone itself is a solid effort, but fails in some respects. As other reviewers have noted, the materials and build quality feel somewhat cheap and "plasticky." It's true. It really does. That's not to say Palm didn't give the design some thought. The Pre, rounded and smooth, is fashioned after a river rock. It's attractive and feels great to hold in your hand. It's also small and lightweight. Those who prefer to stuff their phones into their front pockets -- or any other pocket, for that matter -- will be pleased with the small footprint.
The display is absolutely gorgeous. It may not be the biggest display on the planet, but it looks superb. Web sites look fantastic, pictures look great, and text and graphics are very readable -- including outside in sunlight.
About that keyboard. Some are going to like it, some are going to hate it. It's not the best QWERTY keyboard I've used, and it isn't the worst. The buttons are tiny and covered in a rubbery substance. My fingers didn't slip around on the keyboard when typing, though I did manage to fat-finger multiple keys at once. The keys don't offer a lot of travel and feedback, but I found there was enough to let me know that I had pushed each button.
There is no microSD slot for extra storage, but the Pre has 8GB built into the device. It can be used with most regular 3.5mm stereo headphones, and the microUSB port is used to both charge the phone and transfer data (such as pictures and music) to a PC.
For the vain users in the crowd, the Pre has a mirror built into the back of the sliding mechanism and is usable when the Pre is open. Alternately, all the MacGyvers out there can use it to signal rescue aircraft.
What bugs me is that this device is an important issue for Palm: Why would it go cheap on the materials and build quality? It doesn't make sense. Pricing concerns aside, I've seen devices at similar (and even lower) price points beat the pants off of the Pre with respect to build quality. I can only shake my head in dismay.
As a phone, the Pre gets the job done. Phone calls sound loud and clear. In fact, the Pre sounds better than most other Sprint phones I've tested. Very little noise, static or other cellular nonsense.
Battery life is somewhat lacking. The average is two days, depending on how some of the network-intensive applications such as email and instant messaging are configured. Even with some massaging of these apps, the best I was able to get was 2.5 days of battery life. Palm says this is "normal" for a device such as the Pre.
Palm sold millions of devices running the old Palm OS, which was -- at the time of its release -- easy to use, finger-friendly, and good at organizing personal information. Its webOS is far superior.
webOS completely rids itself of the shackles employed by Palm in previous mobile operating systems and starts from the ground up. In order to use the Pre, the first thing each user has to do is create a Palm profile. The profile is defined by an email account and other online identities via instant messaging clients, social networking sites, and so on. Once that's taken care of, the Pre assembles all the components under the hood.
The user interface of webOS is not quite as intuitive as several other touch-based systems currently on the market, but it can be learned rapidly. When navigating the menus, access to the phone, contacts, email, and calendar is almost always present via a semi-permanent set of software buttons that run along the bottom of the screen.
These go away once an application is opened. It's fun to flick through the menu pages and interact with the "cards", which Palm uses to contain each application. The cards can be minimized and stored in the background for fast access to other applications. There does not appear to be a limit to the number of cards that can be open at any given time.
The nerve center of webOS is Synergy, Palm's new contact and personal information management system. Synergy takes all the contact information from users' separate online identities and merges them into one list. For example, if Bob Smith is part of a user's Exchange-based contacts and Bob also happens to be a friend on Facebook, the separate data from these two accounts is pasted together, giving the end user access to all of Bob's contact information in one spot. Each contact can hold reams of data, which is automatically synced back and forth between whatever accounts they originated from so the information is always up to date.
To be quite frank, I love it. Every email system, social networking system, and smartphone needs to be able to work this well to manage end user contact data. Kudos to Palm.
With the exception of audio and video messages, the Palm Pre handles pretty much any messaging needs a user might have. The e=mail application is robust. Multiple accounts can be set up, each with separate inboxes, folders, and filters. Punching out e-mails is intuitive enough, and the Pre handles HTML emails -- complete with attachments -- with ease. The Pre comes loaded with a PDF viewer and Word/Excel viewer, so those expense reports and memos can be looked at, though not edited.
Text and picture messages are threaded into conversations based on each contact. This means every message received from a single sender is lumped into an on-going stream. Having both text and picture messages together is something that all smartphones should do.
Instant messaging accounts are paired in the same application as text messages. The Pre plays nicely with GChat, AIM, Yahoo Messenger, and other popular IM clients.
All of the messaging services are connected to the end user's contacts data via Syngery.
Don't get fooled into thinking the Pre is all about social networking and inter-connectedness. It can play pretty hard, too.
The Pre carries a 3-megapixel camera. It doesn't have autofocus, but it does have a flash. The camera takes pictures extremely fast. It shoots them nearly as fast as the shutter release button can be pressed. This means end users aren't likely to miss those must-have shots of their kids scoring the game-winning goal. Even when the flash is being used, the camera works lickety-split.
The camera does lack a number of features, though. All users can do is take pictures. There are no user-configurable controls for altering the way the Pre captures images. This means the photographers in the crowd might run into some frustration in that they won't be able to fine-tune the camera. For most users, this probably isn't going to be an issue. Pictures taken with the Pre are pretty good. Focus, exposure, white balance and color were captured accurately by the Pre.
The Pre doesn't shoot video -- at least, not yet. Why a device of this caliber is unable to capture video is beyond me. It stands out as a head-scratcher.
For those who need to have their tunes with them at all times, the Pre serves quite well as a music playback device. It syncs seamlessly with both iTunes and Windows Media Player. It has a graphically rich user interface that displays album art and lets users do cool things such as search for YouTube videos and Amazon MP3s based on the artist being played. I missed any sort of equalizers to control how music sounds, but many probably won't care about that.
The Pre also comes with a YouTube application. It can be used to search for and playback videos. It works well enough, though the YouTube application doesn't allow for sharing or otherwise linking to videos. This seems an odd omission to me.
There is an Amazon MP3 store built in, as well. Similar to the one found in Google's Android operating system, it can be used to search for, purchase and download MP3s directly over the air to the Pre.
The Pre's browser is highly capable, and makes for a good mobile Web experience. Bookmarks are stored as cards, each containing a preview of that particular Web site. Since the Pre uses Sprint's EVDO Rev. A network, browsing is speedy. Full HTML sites load in 5 to 15 seconds, depending on the site. Pinching or tapping gestures can be used to zoom in and out, and sliding your finger around the screen lets you pan around Web sites with ease.
The Pre is loaded with a beta version of Palm's forthcoming application catalog. It works in very similar fashion to the stores we've seen from Apple, Google, and Research In Motion. A lot of the apps available include those from Pandora, the AP, AccuWeather, Fandango, New York Times, and others. Each application has a star rating (1 to 5) as well as user reviews.
Applications download and install in mere seconds and are automatically added to the main menu. The beta version of the site has not been populated with too many applications, but more are on the way.
Odds and Ends
Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth are all included. Each works as well as you'd expect them to. The Wi-Fi was speedy for browsing, the GPS worked great with both Sprint Navigation and Google Maps for mapping out directions, and the Bluetooth works well with both mono and stereo headsets.
The Pre from Palm gets most things right. The hardware itself isn't great, but it isn't terrible either. The design is pretty, but could have been executed slightly better. The display is excellent, though the QWERTY keyboard my frustrate some. As for managing user contact data, it gets everything right. Synergy is excellent, a model for the industry. Messaging needs are well in hand. Multimedia capabilities are taken care of in good order, with only the lack of video capture standing out.
The Pre itself may leave some disappointed, but webOS has a future. I'm already looking forward to the next smartphone from Palm to run webOS.
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