Palm Pre Hands-On Review

I have been using Palm Pre for the last two months. Here is my hands-on review of the phone which made headlines during the CES show 2009, and was voted as the “best product” during that annual fair last year.

User Interface
Palm Pre did not win the “best product” award at CES 2009 without reason. And when you power up the phone, you immediately see the reason. The webOS user interface appears to be very modern, elegant, artistic and functional. You immediately feels your Blackberry OS is a thing from the past. It may only be bested by iPhone OS, or Android, in term of appearance.
The best feature of this webOS is it’s multi-tasking ability, something that iPhone is not capable of doing.  When you run an application, it appears as one “card” in your webOS desktop, and while it’s still running, you can easily run another application (which open up another card besides your current card). One of the best experiences I had with this was when I look for a restaurant in Jakarta. Once I opened Google Maps application, and while I waited for the map and routes to be downloaded, I opened the Internet browser app to find more information about the restaurant. Have found the information, I switched back to the Google Map and it had provided me with the routing to the restaurant. Cool!
All other UI for the pre-installed application is nothing sort of first class. It oozes elegance and function. However having experienced iPhone OS through the iPod touch, the Palm Pre multi-touch interface is not as  snappy as iPhone.

The QWERTZ keyboard takes sometime to get used to

Hardware
The Palm Pre “hand soap” design comes in an elegant and simple package. I look at it as “zen-esque” design, trying to be minimalist, but sadly, lack of emotional pull to entice one who looks at it to pick one and grab for good.
The sliding keyboard is a bit “creaky” when you open it up. Sometimes you find it hard to open it smoothly. If it’s the first thing you do when you hold this phone, I won’t blame you to think this phone is “cheap quality”.
The keyboard is a mixed bag. Have been used to Blackberry excellent keyboards (especially the older Blackberry version), I find Palm Pre keyboard to be a bit small and I would have liked if it gives more “click” response when we hit the buttons. However, compared to iPhone or Android on-screen keyboard, this is much better. I love the fact that Palm leaves ’comma’, ‘@’ and ‘dot’ buttons as the first preference keys (unlike in Blackberry when we needs to press ‘shift’ along with it), it makes typing faster and less hassle. My Palm Pre comes with QWERTZ configuration, as I bought a German model, but within a few days of frequent use, I don’t find it much a problem.
Applications

Personal Information Management (PIM)
Unfortunately, my Palm Pre is not my business phone (has Blackberry 9700 for that purpose, as it’s office-endorsed), so I can’t really have first-hand experience in using in daily basis. However looking at the standard applications pre-installed with the Pre, the basic PIM applications (Contact, Calendar and Tasks) are very good. I particularly like the “Synergy” concept of webOS to synchronize your contacts in Outlook and Facebook or Gmail. Luckily, I’ve been maintaining my contact diligently since I adopted Palm IIIc 10 years ago, so having it sync with my Facebook contacts is a very easy process (i.e. I keep my contact full name in my phone, so when you have your contacts put their full name in Facebook, it will be automatically linked). Of course every so often, you have your contact writing their nick name instead in Facebook, but luckily I’m a grown adult men, and most of my contacts are using their full names instead of somekind of “cool nick names”.

The Synergy Contact links your contact profile, whether they are in your desktop or in the "cloud"

The calendar on the Pre has ability to cram down many information you have during the day into one small screen. Again, I can only compliment the design of Palm Pre UI on doing this. I find it very intuitive and functional. Unlucky me, I have to use the archaic Blackberry OS for maintaining my calendar. But anyway, for you who want to use Palm Pre as your business phone, you’re in good hand in this department.

Now come the Tasks, and this is where Palm Pre let me down. I’ve been syncing my personal monthly payment obligations and other to-do list using Outlook. But coming out-of-the-box I can’t sync my Outlook tasks with the Task and Notes application in Pre. I have to purchase Chapura Pocket Mirror to be able to do this. It’s quite expensive (USD 30), but I find it as my “must-have” application, so I bought it. I’m now happily using Chapura Pocket Mirror application and leave the Palm Pre Task application untouched.

 

Smartphone Must-have Apps
Just like other today’s smartphones, the must-have apps are all here: YouTube, Navigation app (Google Map), Camera and Video Camera. It all works nicely. Nothing spectacular, but it fits the purpose. Palm also developed Facebook application, which has nice interface, but has numerous bugs and limitations (notifications can’t open the photo, for example).

The Palm Mobile Hotspot is one of the most useful application on Palm Pre

But Palm also developed one excellent application here named as “Mobile Hotspot”. As the name suggested, this application allows your Pre to become your Wifi Router. So all Wi-Fi connected device can use your Pre’s data line to access internet, or receive emails. It is a very useful application, which I use quite often to enable my iPod Touch to access the internet where no Wi-Fi hotspot is available.
 
Application Store
Palm is working hard on this, and tries to entice many new developers to build the app for the Pre. I find the App store is pretty decent. Many good applications are available, and I’m actually plan to buy some of them, (for example Golf Caddie, an excellent golf scorer and GPS range finder), but it’s only because Palm Pre has not officially came to Indonesia, so I can’t purchase it using Indonesian credit card.

The WebOS Palm Pre App Store is a good start, but is miles away from the superb Apple App Store

However if you compare this to Apple application store, of course the difference is night and day. Apple iPhone economy has grown so much, so all corporations are racing putting their applications to the App Store, and many of them are excellent freebies! Palm has not yet reached this stage yet (and not sure if it ever will), but looking at the state right now, the situation is actually quite promising for Palm to expand their offerings. Except that only applies for customers in the countries where Palm Pre had been officially launched.

 

Performance and Battery Life
Palm Pre overall performance is ok. It renders desktop-standard web pages quite fast (although not as fast as iPhone, in my personal observation), it runs application smoothly, it rarely crash. However, the battery drains quite too much for my liking, especially if you ask your Palm Pre to continuously check your mailbox (“push email” mode). If I fully charge it in the morning, I will be left with 10% of battery by 2 or 3 pm. Not good. But if I change the option to only check the email, say 1 or 2 times per day, the Palm Pre battery performance become much more acceptable. It’s normally a day of normal use.
Having said that, the Palm Pre does have issue in its power management related to its GPRS/3G access. You can feel the Palm Pre’s back is heated when you access the internet using 3G connection for more than 5 minutes. It drains your battery fast if you keep on using the 3G connection. Again, a significant letdown if you want to optimize the use of connectivity in your smartphone.

Bottomline
So is Palm Pre the best smartphone? Honestly, I said no. I still think iPhone is the best all-round smartphone, in term of the usability of the smartphone to various range of functions (multimedia, lifestyle, entertainment, internet, etc).  And that is because of the powerful iPhone OS platform and the massive Apple application store contents.

But Palm Pre is coming close. If you love iPhone-esque touch interface and style, but can’t live with tactile QWERTY keyboard, then put Palm Pre on your shopping list. You wont be disappointed, but you will be kept wondering how your life will be if you have iPhone instead.

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