Palm Pre, webOS: Software outshines device

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The keyboard itself is far too small from my liking, as well. My thumb literally covers up to four keys at a time, which, you can imagine, makes it rather difficult to type with any degree of precision. The keys are very tiny, but honestly, it's not even the size that frustrates me the most, it's the design of the buttons. The Pre's keys are small and flat, which makes pressing the desired button even more difficult. The keys are similar to both the Palm Centro and Treo Pro keys, though they're slightly larger than the former, but smaller than the latter.

The Pre also lacks an on-screen keyboard, which could've provided some relief from the device's tiny physical keyboard. The fact that no on-screen keyboard is available also means that there's no way to type text into a URL field or text block while surfing the Web in landscape mode or while holding the device horizontally.

Another significant gripe relates to the proximity sensor in the Pre's capacitive touch screen. I found myself repeatedly tapping the same spot on the Pre's screen trying to get it to register my commands. Usually, it only took two or three taps for the device to register my "clicks," but that's one or two too many. I'm an iPhone user, too, and this was particularly annoying for me because the iPhone does not have any similar issues, which made the problem all the more noticeable.

Despite the Pre's snappy new processor, the ARM Cortex A8-based OMAP 3, there's a noticeable lag between when you launch applications and when they actually open. For example, it would often take as long as three seconds for an application to open up after I clicked the corresponding icon. I'm used to the BlackBerry Bold, which sports a 624Mhz processor and doesn't often experience such lags, and the small delays were frustrating because they were consistent.

Though I'm a big fan of webOS, I'm not very fond of the Pre's "Return Gesture" or the role it plays in webOS. Right now, the Pre is the only device to run the new webOS, and as such, the software is very much built for the Pre. So the only way to return to previous screens within an app or on a Web page is by swiping a digit from the far right side of the Pre Gesture Area halfway across the device to the Center button.

However, I had issues with the device registering this command. I'm not sure if the problems came about due to my large hands, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get the Pre to respond to every Return Gesture I made. I frequently had to slowly run my finger over the appropriate gesture area, because it didn't work the first few times I tried.

The Pre is clearly aimed at consumers, and as such, its messaging app wasn't exactly Palm's focus; it needs work. It's relatively simple to setup common e-mail accounts like Gmail or Live.com mail, as well as corporate Microsoft Outlook mail. However, managing and responding to that mail is difficult because the Pre creators were clearly going for form over function.

For example, Pre mail is easy to navigate. You simply pick an inbox or account and scroll up or down through messages. But reading and responding to mail is more difficult because half of the display is taken up by related message information like Sender's Name, Subject, etc. whenever a message is open. And a bar with additional mail options takes up another half an inch or so along the bottom of the display.

The 3.0 megapixel camera on the Pre is horrible. I consistently get comparable pictures from both my BlackBerry Bold and iPhone 3G, which have just 2.0 megapixel cameras. I'm not sure why the Pre's camera proves so weak, but I was honestly shocked at its poor quality. My BlackBerry Curve 8900's 3.2 megapixel camera absolutely blows the Pre's camera out of the water when it comes to image quality, which suggests to me that the Pre ships with a very low quality camera lens.

The Pre has a removable battery, which is certainly a good thing, especially since its battery life is so poor. But removing the Pre's battery cover is a task, and every time I did manage to get it off, I was sure I'd broken some piece of the cover pulling and yanking it free. It would've been nice if Palm made the battery cover easier to remove, since Pre users are probably going to be swapping batteries more frequently than they'd like.

The Pre's built-in speaker can be used for speakerphone calls or to listen to music without headphones. However, it's near useless: it sounds so "tinny" and hollow to me. And its placement is less-than-ideal, since your hand covers the speaker any time you hold the Pre with the display facing forward.

You can't expand the Pre's internal memory. The device ships with 8GBs of storage--only seven of which is available to users, according to Palm--and that's the total capacity, since there's no way to increase storage space via microSD or other media cards. The new iPhone 3G S is available with 32GB of storage, and current BlackBerry devices support microSD cards up to 32GB, so both Apple and RIM have a leg up on the Pre when it comes to memory capacity.

Though I connected the Pre to a variety of Bluetooth headsets and even a stereo Bluetooth FM transmitter without issue, I couldn't find any way to transfer files between the Pre and my computer or between the Pre and other handhelds. I frequently use my BlackBerrys and my iPhone to send files via Bluetooth. I'm unsure if such transfers are possible via Pre, but if so, I couldn't figure out how after an exhaustive search.

Finally, the device doesn't ship with any games at all, which seems strange to me. Also, the Pre's finish is extremely prone to fingerprints and other smudges, yet it doesn't come with any cleaning cloth, and its case just doesn't work that well.

Conclusion: To Pre or Not to Pre...

The Palm Pre is a sexy-looking device, and it's sure to grab the eyes of a few would-be iPhone or BlackBerry buyers. Whether or not the Pre will ultimately convince those same customers to open their wallets seems less certain.

Palm loyalists and beginner smartphone users are probably the ideal Pre owners, but even the most experienced power users will appreciate some of the unique and original features built into webOS.

The Pre's Achilles heel is the hardware. While webOS is new, exciting and potentially game-changing, the Pre itself feels poorly made, flimsy and ultimately forgettable. If Palm fails to wow users this time around, it will be because of the Pre hardware not the mobile OS.

I keep coming back to the following statement when thinking about the Pre: Put webOS on a decent piece of hardware and you've got a real WINNER. As is, the Pre's cool, but I won't miss it much after sending it back to Sprint. And to me, that's the real sign of a great device: whether or not it's painful for me to return it after an evaluation.

Palm Pre

Palm Inc.

Price:

$199.99 with new two-year Sprint service agreement and $100-mail-in rebate

Pros:

Exciting new software; touch screen and full QWERTY physical keyboard; sexy design; impressive browser; quality multimedia features and iTunes integration; good call quality; reasonably priced.

Cons:

Extremely poor battery life; shoddy build quality; tiny, awkward keyboard; touch-screen proximity-sensor issues; consistent processor lag; weak camera quality; very poor speaker; no expandable memory.

Bottom line:

The Pre represents a win for Palm, but only in that it demonstrates clear potential for the company's new mobile OS, webOS. The device itself could make a suitable option for new or beginner smartphone users, but advanced power users will want to avoid Palm products until webOS matures and finds its way to more functional device hardware.

This story, "Palm Pre, webOS: Software outshines device" was originally published by CIO.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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