A lot of things can happen in the best part of a year, so is the long-awaited Palm Pre as sought after now – considering the advances made by Android and the iPhone 3GS – as it was when previewed in January?
In the time taken for the Pre to hit the UK streets, O2 has lost the exclusive distribution of the iPhone in the UK, and the network is saying the Pre could be its new saviour. Some rather questionable research suggests more people are looking forward to the Pre than the original iPhone. I’m not convinced. While Palm grabbed the headlines then, it has loads of increased competition now.
Sitting at the core of the Pre is Palm’s all-new ‘webOS’ operating system. After Palm trundled along with PalmOS for years (the first version released in 1996), it had clearly reached the end of its life, with poor support for the latest technology. It got so bad that Palm began releasing handsets with Windows Mobile to offer 3G!
Thankfully, this is now history and webOS has been designed to support 3G, HSPA, Wi-Fi, high resolution cameras and anything else that the mobile industry throws at it – the Pre being the first of many new devices (the candybar Pixi comes out next year).
The platform has its own application store, support for social networking sites and has the obligatory QWERTY keyboard that has been part of Palm devices for years. The Pre feels good in the hand, rather like holding a pebble (but considerably lighter) although the keyboard buttons feel like the weak link, being both fiddly and feeling quite sticky to the touch. For entering text, there’s no on-screen keyboard so you better get used to it.
Android is rapidly taking off and Microsoft has just launched Windows Mobile 6.5. Symbian is trundling along thanks to Nokia’s continued devotion, while Apple is riding high. Early previews compared the Pre to the iPhone (well, it has a touchscreen) but Android is more likely the real competition.
When you power up for the first time, you’ll be given a tutorial on how to use the phone, asked to log in to services you already use, like Facebook or LinkedIn, and set up a Palm account that allows you to backup (and even remotely wipe) the device over the air.
You can also add your existing email account, and as a user of Google Mail, my contacts and appointments were also pulled down at the same time. Seamless.
Once completed, you’ll be presented with a blank display and five shortcut icons at the bottom of the screen. By default, these are set as phone, contacts, messages, calendar and the menu button. At this point, looking at a wallpaper image without widgets or on-screen text, you begin to notice how webOS is different to other devices.
When you open an application, it takes up the whole screen (like you’d expect), with a reserved area at the top for key information (signal, clock, battery life etc) and an area that can appear at the bottom for status updates – kind of like Android’s notification system.
Beneath the display is a button and hidden gesture pad. The button takes you back to the main screen, while a gesture movement from right to left acts as a ‘back’ command. Two hidden LEDs illuminate to show when the gesture is recognised, negating the need to have an on-screen icon.
The Pre also supports multitouch (e.g. pinch/pull to zoom on the web browser), thanks to the very responsive capacitive touchscreen.
The various applications are quite powerful, taking advantage of what Palm calls ‘Synergy’. This gathers content from multiple sources and combines it, like bringing in and merging contacts from Google and Facebook, automatically recognising the duplicates and even getting the thumbnail images.
The web browser is fast to render pages and the whole operation is quick and very slick, if a little unexciting. Menus are sparse of options and usually limited to not much more than cut and paste.
As a true multitasking OS, you can run as many applications as you want at the same time and instead of switching between windows, you press the button and the window shrinks down and sits alongside other active tasks. Palm call these ‘activity cards’. From here you can scroll left and right with a smooth finger motion and tap on the application you want to view full-screen.
The thumbnail of each application is always live, yet it didn’t slow down even when lots of things were running. The Pre uses the same processor as the iPhone 3GS, which probably explains why it powers along speedily and why the battery will do well to last a full day.
Flick of the wrist
If you do wish to close an app, you can simply flick it off the top of the screen. Data is saved automatically, but it takes some getting used to the fact you can keep everything running at once. I always found myself looking at an empty display out of habit.
Clearly webOS needs a different way of thinking and once it clicks in place, you can begin to enjoy a device that is very quick, with everything literally at your finger tips.
On the rear is a 3-megapixel camera with LED flash. There’s no video recording, so it’s no wonder Palm isn’t selling the Pre on its camera abilities.
8GB of fixed storage ensures you can fit on plenty of music and video (or work files; it reads documents and PDFs) and it even syncs with iTunes, unofficially, which means Apple occasionally throws a spanner in the works.
Firmware updates and backups are done automatically in the background, keeping the device up to date and secure.
Palm offers an optional wireless charging base for £70, but if you need the phone to last on the move, a spare battery is a wiser investment.
Besides the battery issue, Palm’s biggest problem comes from the (beta) App Catalog. There are hardly any apps to choose from, while no paid-for apps yet means little in the way of innovation.
The result is an impressive operating system and a nice looking phone that lacks that ‘something’ that makes an iPhone sexy, or Android seem like an OS that offers a world of opportunities. Palm says its OS will be with us for at least 15 years, and it’s clearly going to take a while yet to fully mature.
The Pre has a clever new operating system that could change the way we do things, running ‘live’ applications like a desktop PC and making widgets obsolete. The bright, responsive touchscreen is as impressive as Palm’s ‘Synergy’ that gathers online content and combines it, but the phone lacks the excitement that was present when it was first announced in early 2009. The lack of applications leaves the Pre looking rather bland and, dare we say it, boring. We’re not writing off webOS just yet, but the Pre isn’t the iPhone/Android/Windows killer Palm hoped for.