This month, Palm at long last and amid much hype released the Pre--the first smartphone based on the company's brand-new WebOS mobile operating system. Viewed by many as the last gasp for the once-influential mobile computing company, the Pre and WebOS put a good foot forward with exceptional design, aesthetics and usability. However, there are enough quirks in the device that the wary should remain on alert.
Available at this time for use only with the Sprint network, the Palm Pre can be purchased for $199 with a two-year contract for voice and data service.
Enterprise IT administrators won't need to consider adopting the Pre en masse any time soon. With only one device available on one network, pretty much everyone--from application developers to mobile device management vendors-is waiting to gauge Pre adoption before investing time and manpower into developing for yet another mobile platform.
In the meantime, with the Pre's support for Exchange ActiveSync and Wi-Fi--not to mention its slick look and feel--administrators should expect to see requests from some users to hook the device into the corporate network and services.
Without a doubt, the Pre is beautiful to look at and almost as good to use. With its small size and shiny black veneer, the Pre is completely comfortable for the many uses that can be accomplished via one-handed operation, although some will be not so comfortable when the second hand is needed for data entry.
The Pre comes with a slide-out keyboard--not the usual side keyboard for use with the device in landscape mode, like the one on T-Mobile's G1 with Google--but a full QWERTY keyboard that extends from the bottom of the device. With this orientation, the keyboard is certainly cramped, but I found I could use it fairly well thanks to the soft gummy keys that are similar to those found on Palm's Treo Pro.
With the keyboard closed, the front of the device is dominated by the beautiful 3.1-inch touch-screen. Supporting 320 by 480 resolution and 24-bit color, the screen is sharp and vibrant in both dark and light room conditions.
Other than the screen, the only visible feature on the front of the Pre is the lone Center button, which is used to switch viewing modes.
Camouflaged between the bottom of the touch screen and the Center button, however, is the Gesture area--a little strip of no-man's land where users can control some of the Pre's functions. Specifically, users can swipe right to left within the Gesture area to go back--back to a previous page of an application, back to a previous Website or back to Card mode. A left-to-right wipe allows users to go forward.
Unlike the Apple iPhone, WebOS supports background applications, and Palm has made it much more intuitive to switch among running processes than it is with other mobile platforms that support background applications (such as Windows Mobile).
When using an application on the Pre, I hit the Center button to enter Card View, essentially shrinking the foreground process to a smaller box on the display. By scrolling to the side within Card View, I could find the open background application that I wanted, and could bring it to the foreground simply by tapping on its Card or pressing Center again. To close a running application, I simply swiped its card (called a "throw") toward the top of the screen.
Applications can be launched from two different locations.
At the bottom of the home screen is the Quick Launch bar, which by default provides quick access to the Phone Dialer, Contacts, E-mail and Calendar applications, in addition to a link to the Launcher. All other applications can be found in the Launcher--a series of three side-scrollable overlay screens that appear over the wallpaper, with Quick Launch still available at the bottom.
Each screen of the Launcher appears to hold only nine applications, but the user can scroll downward using the touch-screen to find more. Both the Quick Launch bar and the Launcher are customizable, allowing users to group applications in a different order or prioritize more important applications into the Quick Launch bar.
The Quick Launch bar can also be viewed within a maximized application by dragging a finger upward from the gesture area into the plane of the touch-screen, allowing the user to select one of the applications in the bar.
These design elements--plus other touch-screen gestures that allow users to zoom in and out or select text for cut and paste--make the Pre quite easy and fun to navigate.
Unfortunately, when using the device, I sometimes felt the hardware couldn't keep up with the software's underlying complexity. When launching applications or switching between applications, the device sometimes took longer than expected to complete the actions. Certainly boot times on the Pre take a lot longer than I would expect (commonly more than 90 seconds), and the device frequently ran much hotter than I felt comfortable with during tests.
Available only on the Sprint network at this time, the Palm Pre supports Sprint's EVDO Rev A. 3G network and is backward compatible with Sprint's 1xRTT network in both the 850 and 1,900MHz bands.
Anecdotally, I found 3G coverage in places I usually struggle to get 2G coverage (on AT&T's network) in both my home and office, and experienced few dropdowns to 1xRTT when driving on the highways of the greater Bay Area. As always, your coverage mileage will vary.
The Pre makes it simple for the user to configure radios. Simply touching the indicators found in the top-right corner of the screen pulls up configuration controls for both the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios. Airplane mode is available on the Pre via the same easily accessible interface as the radio controls or simply by depressing the power button for a couple of seconds.
The Pre comes with an 802.11b/g Wi-Fi radio for operation in the 2.4GHz band, and the device offers a fairly robust set of wireless security options. The Pre supports both the PSK (pre-shared key) iterations of WPA and WPA2, as well as 802.1x-based security.
The Pre supports Bluetooth 2.1 and A2DP for stereo sound in those applications that support it. I found that the Pre paired easily with a MotoROKR S9 Bluetooth stereo headset, and drove stereo sound to the headset for add-on applications such as the Pandora music service.