Paul Lavelle (virtualoak) wrote,
Paul Lavelle

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A Geek's Review of the Palm Pre

Wow - sorry I haven't posted much more than Twitter updates recently. Trying to keep up with multiple social networking sites can be a bit of a challenge!

I promised some time ago that I'd put up a review of my experiences with my Palm Pre. The Pre has been out the better part of 6 months now, and I've had an opportunity to put it through its paces for everyday use.

The Pre is nicely boxed - a good bit of forethought went into the packaging. The box is an attractive 2-piece arrangement with a plastic slip cover holding the box together. Inside, the phone was well protected in the packaging in a plastic tray surrounded by corrugated packaging.

After a quick charge, the initial startup routine includes a tutorial walking the user through how the Pre works. It also sets up an online account with Palm that allows you to backup your applications and data to the Internet "cloud" on a regular basis. A nice touch, especially for those who have lost, damaged or destroyed their phone.

The LCD display is very bright and crisp, similar to the iPhone in quality but somewhat smaller in size. Like many similar devices, a bright backlight setting chews through the battery like nobody's business. Setting it to 15-20% with the backlight timer set to a minute goes a long way to preserving battery life.

The phone is a sliding clamshell design. Opening it exposes a small keyboard similar to a Treo or a Blackberry, except that it is a membrane type instead of actual physical keys. The keyboard had a decent feel to it, even with my big hands. Took a little while to get used to it, but for me the adjustment wasn't too painful.

Speaking of the clamshell design... one of the major downsides to the Pre is that, when closed, the clamshell tends to twist a millimeter or two when closed, very much like an Oreo cookie. It appears to be a common problem - a Google search of "Pre oreo effect" yields quite a bit of discussion on the issue. The problem appears to be mostly cosmetic, although over time it can worsen and actually cause the clamshell to bind a little when sliding it open. This caused a problem for me after about 6 months, where the edge of the phone's case began to crack near the micro-USB port. I suspect it was due to the stress of the phone's clamshell slider binding when being opened. Fortunately, Sprint was quick to resolve my problem and had a warranty exchange phone ready in a couple of days at no cost. So far the replacement is holding up ok with the exception of a recurrence of the "Oreo effect" on the new phone as well. No slider binding as yet though... *crosses fingers*

Another weak design point of the Pre, IMHO, is the construction of the phone's case. It's plastic. Cheap, glossy black plastic. You can press the plastic of the case and feel somewhat of a "give" to it. And, of course, since it's glossy black it picks up every bloody fingerprint imaginable when handled. That may not bother most people, but as I tend to be a little anal about my consumer electronics, it's a bit of an annoyance. If you opt for the optional Touchstone charger you get a replacement phone back that's more of a matte rubberized material. I kind of wished that they made the whole thing out of that stuff, similar to what HTC did with the Sprint Touch. If it really bothers you, then an investment in a rubberized case or skin goes a long way to help. I chose the Seidio Innocase, which worked well for me.

Speaking of the Touchstone charger, I highly recommend it! Yes, it costs $40ish more, but simply dropping the phone onto a magnetized base and having it charge inductively is a damn sight easier than fiddling with the included micro-USB charger. The little plastic cover on the micro-USB port is a pain in the ass to deal with, and I fear the day when it breaks off. The phone can also be charged by removing the USB cable from the AC plug that comes with it and plugging into a PC or Mac, but that'll take longer for the phone to charge.

Signal strength for the Pre is comparable to other phones I've used on the Sprint network, namely the Blackberries I deal with at work daily. This is a phone designed for the Sprint network, using CDMA technology, so if you're traveling overseas you may want to look at other choices that support GSM. Otherwise, for me at least, Sprint has been a joy to work with. I've had difficulties with just about every wireless carrier in my area, but Sprint seems to want to go the extra mile to resolve issues that pop up.

The operating system, called WebOS, is a joy to use. It's very intuitive. From what little I've played with an iPhone, the touchscreen mechanics of the OS are similar. An iPhone user would have no problems figuring out the Pre. The Pre uses a metaphor of "cards" rather than windows. Each application can be minimized to a card on the screen and switched between each with a flick of the finger. Closing an app is a simple upward flick of the app's card on the touchscreen. Palm also provides fairly frequent updates that they push out over the air to add features and squash bugs in the code.

WebOS offers tight integration with Google apps like Gmail, Calendar, Talk (instant messaging) and Contacts. Other apps integrated into the phone include a task list, memos (which appear as sticky notes) a calculator, a music and video player, a navigation app, music clients for Amazon and Pandora and video clients for YouTube as well as NASCAR and NFL programming. I wish the tasks app would integrate with Google Tasks, but the Google app is still in beta and has no way to interface with outside devices as yet. I'll need to be patient and wait for Google to provide that. More recent WebOS updates provide integration with Facebook, with inclusion into the contacts app, as well as a web-based client to access Facebook itself, ala the iPhone Facebook client. In addition, integration to Yahoo! mail, IM, calendar and contact list products is available as of the most recent update.

As for ringtones, well, I can only say that the stock ringtones *suck* at best and are an outright annoyance at worst. Fortunately, adding custom ringtones is as easy as plugging the phone into your PC or Mac and copying MP3 files into the ringtones folder. I wish more phone manufacturers would do this instead of bowing before the cellular carriers and forcing customers to spend ungodly sums of money for 20-second sound files. :-P 

Music and videos can also be copied onto the phone and you can use the Pre as a "poor-man's" iPod. In fact, the Pre advertised compatibility with iTunes - the idea was that you could plug the Pre into your PC or Mac and iTunes would recognize it as an iPod. This has lead to a bit of an arms race between Apple and Palm where Apple would block the Pre in an iTunes update, then Palm would push a WebOS update out to counter the iTunes patch. My recommendation: don't worry about iTunes unless you just happen to have a large existing library. Windows Media Player, WinAmp or other third party players do just as well, or you can simply drag and drop your music and videos to the appropriate folders on the Pre.

The Pre has a decent 3 megapixel camera with a *very* bright LED flash. Picture quality is quite acceptable for a phone, with decent results in low lighting conditions. No video recording capabilities are available yet, although they are rumored to be coming out in a future WebOS release. Pictures can be copied to a Mac or PC via cable, sent via e-mail or in an MMS text message to another phone.

The Pre includes 8 GB of internal storage... and here's another design flaw IMO - *no* removable storage. No microSD card, no *nothing*. Palm's philosophy is that on a smartphone that is connected full-time to the Internet, anything large in terms of data (photos, etc) can be sent elsewhere. Gmail is your friend here! After a few weeks of using it, the lack of removable storage was less of a roadblock than I had anticipated. That may change when video recording becomes available, however.

The included WebOS browser is nice - it can render a full webpage intended for a larger desktop or laptop and allow the user to look at it closer by panning and zooming around the page with touchscreen gestures. Once you get used to it, it's very intuitive. Not a perfect solution, but one that works well enough with such a small screen. The browser is also orientation aware. Turn the phone sideways to switch between portrait and landscape display modes.

As with many smartphones, battery life a challenge. Everything, GPS, wi-fi, display backlighting, background apps, will eat up the battery. After breaking it in, though, it seems to perform better. One caveat - using it in a fringe signal area like a basement office causes the battery to exhaust much faster than you would normally see in daily use.

The Pre app store is decent, with a mix of free and paid apps, many of them ports of iPhone apps. The Palm app store was a little slow taking off, but has made up a lot of ground in recent months.

*Phew* - thanks for sticking with me this long. :-) In summary, the Pre is *no* iPhone. Design-wise, it has a ways to go to be a serious contender to Apple. But if you're not an Apple fan, or if you don't like to be beholden to AT&T's notoriously horrendous customer service, then the Pre will do what you want, with a minimum of grief. I'm very happy with it myself, at least until my next upgrade cycle... maybe then the iPhone will show up on Sprint's lineup, or perhaps I'll take a closer look at an Android phone... :-D
Tags: cellphone technology smartphone palm pre

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