Palm Pre (US) review

In the early to mid ’90s, when Palm was at the top of its game, the name “PalmPilot” was effectively synonymous with an entire class of devices: the Personal Digital Assistant. Into the late part of that decade, Palm even managed to leverage its PalmOS into the early smartphone market with the Treo line, even while the company was repeatedly bought and sold, changing hands more time than the Queen of Spades in a game of Old Maid. But at a certain point, the smartphone market kept moving on and Palm’s innovation went stagnant.

Then, this past January at the Consumer Electronics Show, the company rolled out a brand new smart phone with a brand new operating system. And people went crazy. Dubbed the latest in a long line of "iPhone killers," the Palm Pre and its webOS took some inspiration from the iPhone, but also attempted to make its own mark in the world with features like multitasking and unified contacts.

The device launched shortly before Apple's own introduction of the iPhone 3GS, and so it seemed clear that the two were destined to be pitted in mortal battle against each other.

With sagging profits and an uphill slog in front of it, Palm has had to bet the farm on the Pre’s success as well as that of its underlying ground-up technological revamp, the webOS. So can Palm do it? Does the Pre live up to its hype? Let’s take a look at what the device brings to the table.

Slip and slide

The Pre comes with a few accessories that most smartphone owners will recognize: there's an AC charger with flip-out prongs, a USB charging/data cable, and a pair of earbuds. In addition, I got a chance to try out the nifty Touchstone inductive charger—but more on that later.

In its retracted form, the Pre is a little narrower and shorter than the iPhone, measuring in at 3.9 inches tall, 2.3 inches wide; it is, however, noticeably thicker: 0.67 inches compared to the iPhone’s 0.48 inches. The two are identical in weight however, each weighing about 4.8 ounces (or, if you prefer to roll metric-style, 135 grams). Despite that commonality, though, there’s something about the Pre that just feels light. I attributed that mainly to its construction materials, which rely more heavily on plastic than the iPhone.

The Pre’s screen is a 3.1-inch diagonal, smaller than the iPhone’s 3.5-inch display, but the two share the same resolution: 320 by 480 pixels. The screens have different feels, too: the iPhone’s is made of glass while the Palm’s feels more like hard plastic—in addition, if you catch the Pre’s screen in the right light, you can see a grid of “dots” which I presume is related to the touch sensors. Both screens are touch-capable and, more to the point, both are capable of multitouch, a feature previously unique to the iPhone.

On the top right corner of the Pre, you’ll find the power button and, next to it, a switch that toggles between ring and silent mode. In the center of the Pre’s top side is a standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. The left-hand side of the Pre has the volume up and down buttons; the right-hand side sports a small door behind which hides the Pre’s microUSB port, used for both data and power. Unfortunately, the door is attached with a thin plastic tether that just begs to be torn off by accident.

The front of the Pre is largely featureless, aside from the earphone at the top (which looks suspiciously like a button at first glance—several people to whom I showed the Pre tried to press it) and the translucent Center button right below the screen. The pinhole-sized microphone is also there, just to the left and below of the button. The back of the device has a 3-megapixel camera with LED flash and the Pre’s speaker.

Of course, the Pre is more than meets the eye, though it doesn’t do anything as drastic as transform from a plane into a giant robot. But slide the screen upwards and the Pre’s QWERTY keyboard is revealed. While this isn’t perfectly obvious at first (some people tried to “open” the Pre as you might a book), it’s natural enough once you’ve figured it out.

In general, the Pre feels pretty good in the hand in this retracted mode, though its use is limited, since any text entry requires you to slide out the keyboard. At that point, however, the chintzy build quality and poor hardware design really starts to show.

NEXT: Palm Pre power button


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