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.
WebOS does the best job of any smartphone platform I’ve tested to date at helping users juggle personal information from multiple data sources. Called Palm Synergy, the operating system feature coalesces data into integrated views that span disparate sources while clearly delineating where the data came from. In tests I could configure multiple sources for e-mail, calendar and contacts, and I could merge personal and work data into manageable constructs.
For e-mail, the Pre supports Exchange ActiveSync, IMAP and POP3 protocols. I set up my device to receive e-mail from the Ziff Davis Enterprise Exchange servers and from Gmail via IMAP. The e-mail client presents a unified inbox, merging incoming mail from both accounts into a single interface while allowing users to comb through a single inbox if they want. Configured subfolders for each e-mail service are also available (although not merged into the unified view). Replies go out via their respective accounts, while new e-mails are sent via the default account.
Each e-mail account can be configured with its own synchronization interval, allowing users to save a little battery power by setting relatively dormant accounts to get checked less frequently.
Attachment handling worked as advertised on the Pre. I could easily download and view pictures and documents in tests (DOC, DOCX and PDF). One tap on an attachment downloads the file, and a second tap opens it, read-only, in the appropriate application. The Pre comes with separate applications to view Word documents, PDFs and pictures. Document editing on the Pre is not currently possible.
Unlike the iPhone, which lets me tap above a message to get back to the top of a long e-mail I’ve already scrolled through, the Pre offers no touch commands or keyboard commands to quickly move to the top or bottom of a message (or a Web page, for that matter).
The Pre collates calendar entries from Exchange, Google and Facebook– allowing the user to see all scheduled activities together or to view individual layers on their own. Users can even isolate the individual layers they created within the Google Calendar to further specify the origin of a planned activity.
The Pre offers daily, weekly and monthly views of the calendar. I particularly liked the presentation of the daily view, which visually compresses free space to help present a better representation of the entire day’s activities without the need to scroll up and down the screen.
Contacts are also pulled down from Exchange, Google or Facebook, although I found the integration a little messier than with either e-mail or the calendar.
When first setting up the device, the Pre requires that users create a Palm Profile. This account serves as a repository for a configured Pre’s settings (such as configured Wi-Fi networks), applications and accounts (e-mail, calendar and contacts). This information is automatically replicated up to Palm’s servers, allowing users to quickly restore a device if it was wiped for some reason. Also, users can log into their profile via the Web to remotely erase a device that has been lost or stolen.
The Pre’s Web browser is also quite usable for a mobile device. Opening the browser pulls the user into the bookmarks, which are presented not as a list but a grid of six icons. Users can add their own bookmarks (which are not replicated to the Palm Profile), and they will be added to what could easily turn into a very long panel.
At the top of the browser is the address bar. Typing in the box reveals the option to search (via Google or Wikipedia) or to type out a complete address. Full pages are rendered, so they can look very small at first. But, as with the iPhone, users can zoom in or out with spread and pinch gestures.
Users can open multiple browser instances by clicking on the Web pulldown menu located at the top-left of the screen and then selecting New Card. These new browser instances will appear in Card View along with other open applications running in the background.
Perhaps my favorite feature of the Pre is the way it removes the distinction between searching the device and searching the Web. From the home screen, I could start typing a search term, and WebOS immediately started combing through my local contact database. Once it became apparent that my search term could not be found in Contacts, the Pre switched to a separate view for a Web search and asked whether Google or Wikipedia was the preferred vector.
The Pre comes loaded with a host of other applications, as well: base applications such as the Messaging client (for SMS and Instant Messaging), Clock, Memos, and Tasks; media applications for music (a player and Amazon’s MP3 store), videos and photos; Google apps such as YouTube and Google Maps; and Sprint services such as Sprint TV and Sprint Navigation. The App Catalog is also present to help find and install third-party applications for WebOS, but selection in the marketplace is sparse at this time.
Battery life could easily become a problem with the Pre, as the relatively small 1,150 MAhr battery (the same as found in Palm’s tiny Centro smartphone) needs to power the screen and those radios that want to be consumed by bandwidth-hungry background applications.
Palm optimistically rates the Pre for 5 hours of talk time on the EVDO network.
I wanted to test how the Pre performed as a phone and as a multipurpose smartphone. Therefore, I ran the Pre through a few different talk-time battery scenarios to gauge the highs and lows of the device’s power potential. I saw some wildly divergent results.
With a freshly restored phone, free from any running applications in the background and not checking any e-mail accounts, I was able to squeeze 5 hours and 41 minutes of talk time out of the device–well above expectations. But with a slightly used device, checking two e-mail accounts (one IMAP and one Exchange Active Sync) at default intervals, the numbers were strikingly bad–only 2 hours and 54 minutes.
Palm sent over a list of steps users could take to conserve battery usage. Among the tips listed, Palm recommended keeping the device out of direct sunlight (it does run uncomfortably warm under ordinary circumstances), changing default e-mail receive periods, lowering default screen brightness and avoiding excessive use of IM services. (Indeed, the Pre seems to have particular problems with battery life when using AIM at this time, due to a known issue.)
During the battery testing process, I encountered a couple bugs of note.
First, when performing a full reset of the device to delete all settings, accounts and applications, the restore process sometimes hung midway through–showing only a background photo of a cloudy day. Only after rebooting the device by holding down the power button and sliding the ringer mute lever back and forth three times would the process continue, only to enter an infinite loop when trying to enter existing Palm Profile credentials.
Second, I discovered that in some cases, the low battery warning encompassed the entire screen and locked in place, keeping me from using the device even after the battery had fully recharged. The only way I found to clear the error was to remove the battery from the device–an action that will likely send shivers down the spine of longtime PalmOS users.
Palm officials told me that both conditions are known bugs that will be addressed via updates delivered over-the-air via the Pre’s integrated Update application.
Senior Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at [email protected]