Review by Sunetra Chakravati,
12/12/2011 3:56:24 PM
Over-the-air syncing of social network and email accounts, powerful multitasking ability, fresh user interface and excellent touch-screen
Limited customisation of home screen possible and sparse App Catalog.
Here's the quick answer - the Pre lives up to Palm's hype. It's an incredible multitasker, its sync software Synergy is awesome, and its 'revolutionary' new operating system actually is. iPhone killer, we hear you mutter? Well, not quite - but it has followed in its steps and set a new benchmark for what a phone can do. We want.
In the handThe Pre has an almost perfect touch-screen. Capacitive like the iPhone's, it registers light swipes, drags, taps and multi-touches, and is incredibly responsive and accurate. The screen itself is a comfortable 3.1 inches with a 320x480 pixel resolution, above a 'gesture area' where you swipe to launch, kill and switch apps, one of the neat little features that make the phone so eminently usable. Smaller than the iPhone, the Pre's exaggerated round shape feels good in the hand when closed, but the glossy body is abnormally smudge-friendly. A single push with your thumb slides up the screen to reveal a QWERTY keyboard (and a slightly clacky slider mechanism), while rounded lines give way to sharp, plastic edges. In fact, the screen and keyboard could belong to two different phones, with two rather different price tags. The keyboard is on the small side and pressing keys require more pressure than we would have liked. The back is lightly curved and houses the on-board speaker, 3.15-megapixel lens and a tiny LED flash.
User interfaceLike a lot of smartphones, dialing isn't the most obvious feature of the phone, but the Pre doesn't make it too difficult - fire up the dialer and type a name in. You can also type a name from the cards home screen and contacts will pop up with email as well as phone details. There's no favourite contacts bit, but you can set a speed dial on every character key, or, for two extra clicks, add an often-contacted friend to main menu or shortcut bar.The real meat of the Pre is Palm's new webOS operating system, based on a system of 'cards' on the home screen, and it is everything Palm promised. Each open app shows as a playing card; scroll through them by flicking your finger across the screen. Flicking is pretty integral to using the Palm - right to left across the gesture area to go back a step, or out into the home screen. To kill an app, just flick it upwards and out of the carousel of apps. It works really well, and we have to say, we got some seriously cool flick combos going. Below the cards is a customisable quick launch bar with five apps that you can launch in a great looking wave motion - drag upwards from any screen and the bar will appear in a wave that you slide your finger along to choose the app. The main program, Launcher, is three screens of programs that you can rearrange and add new apps to, and these two are the only customisable areas of the home screen. The Pre also has a Universal Search feature so that when you type anything, anywhere, it'll search your phonebooks, then Google, Maps, Wikipedia and Twitter for your query. However, it doesn't search emails, calendar or music, so barring a software update, it's basically a contact finder bundled with online search tools - still useful, just not universal. We really rate the logical structure of the OS - menu options are in the top right corner for all apps, notifications for events show up in bottom right, and simply tapping the notification takes you directly to the event. Meanwhile, missed calls pop up with the option to call back or dismiss, and you can delete all notifications simply by flicking across them. A lot of thought went into minimising clicks in the user interface (UI) and it makes the Pre a pleasure to use.Our only issue is that because the cards and shortcut bar take up the whole home screen, there's no space to add widgets (even when there aren't any cards open, the space isn't usable), and you can only have a max of five one-click shortcuts in the Quick Launch bar (more in the Launcher menu of course, but those would be a minimum of two clicks away). On phones like the HTC Hero and iPhone in all its incarnations, we really loved the freedom to customise everything from a Facebook updater to a 'live' Sticky Note widget and any number of app shortcuts.
Multitasking and SynergyOne of the best features of the Pre is its multitasking capability. It can have up to 12 apps open at a time, and while it slows down (though not to annoying levels) when more apps are running, particularly with RAM-intensive apps like Google Maps and browser, it's an incredibly useful, well executed feature. For example, we were writing an email, then opened the browser, searched for a link, copied the link and flicked back into the email to paste the link - just like we would on a desktop. We were also pretty blown away by Synergy, Palm's over-the-air syncing software that links your Google, Facebook and Microsoft Exchange contacts, emails and calendars and streams them all onto the phone. Whenever you update either your Pre or email accounts, it'll show up on both. You can also sync instant messaging programs AIM and Gtalk, and instant messages are stored in the same app as SMSes and MMSes. A neat extra is that if you're chatting with a friend and he goes offline, you can just send your IM as a text instead. The calendar function is equally well integrated - you can see events and appointments from Outlook, Facebook and Google, as well as UK Holidays, with the option to pick all, some or one calendar to view. Again, it syncs over the air and automatically, and when we input an event into Google Calendar on the desktop, it popped up in the Pre just minutes later. It goes back to the way Palm has streamlined the UI - information automatically comes together the way you'd intuitively expect it to, and it makes the phone's capabilities much more accessible. Take this example, when we were emailing a friend on his work account, he was represented by his Facebook profile pic, and we could also see his online status in Gtalk.
Web and emailYes, we have multi-touch zoom - the Pre is the only non-iPhone to perfect it, and in combination with the superb physics of the touch-screen, web browsing is desktop-like. Designed to be viewed in landscape orientation, the browser auto-fits even non-mobile optimised sites to screen and its WebKit engine renders pages quickly and prettily. Even though the screen is on the small side compared with you know what, it's very accurate, and our stubby digits never missed a link. The harder you flick the window, the faster it scrolls, and you can tap to stop it; double taps bring the screen back to 100% view. We particularly loved the copy and paste function - simply press shift on the keyboard and drag to highlight the needed text. You can't open new tabs, but you can fire up a new card from the menu options in the top left. There's also the option to share page links with anyone in your contacts book via email, which we found especially useful. The email interface is great to use, with large, readable fonts and icons. You can get push-email on Gmail and Microsoft Exchange and sync other web-based accounts too. All mail can be streamed into a single inbox, or kept separately. Rich HTML means you can adjust text colour and choose to bold, italic and underline. However, the autocorrect is pretty rudimentary and only adds in missing apostrophes or capitals, which is nothing compared with intelligent word suggestion systems like those of the iPhone or HTC Hero. As the keyboard is not as easy to type on as the excellent BlackBerry Bold, we'd like to see a better system in a software upgrade.
Music, movies and appsMedia transfer is the only time you really need your USB cable. Simply drag and drop, or run Media Sync when the phone will find all music and video files on your PC. The Pre's on-board 8GB is enough storage for the average listener, though serious media hounds are out of luck, as the Pre - shock, gasp - actually does not have an expandable memory slot. At the time of our review, the Pre wasn't syncing to iTunes - it's been an ongoing tussle between Apple and Palm, as Palm repeatedly releases updates so the Pre 'pretends' it's an iPod, while Apple repeatedly counters with updates to prevent it. The video player is pretty basic it supports popular file extensions like MPEG4 but not Xvid or DivX, the common way to compress high-quality web video files. YouTube looks good though and streams evenly. It automatically fixes aspect ratios, while the plain black chassis is great frame for the display. Excellent sound through headphones, with full bass, even on YouTube, but the on-board speakers are tinny and echoey. If you've been following the Pre hype, you'll know the App Catalog is sparsely stocked to say the least. It's no gaming phone, with just 31 games as of press time, and far too many two and three star apps for our liking. At press time, there wasn't even a Facebook app - rather surprising considering the Pre's ability to sync Facebook contacts. Sat nav is one of the surprise highlights of the Pre - its GPS is incredibly fast and accurate, and had our precise location as soon as we loaded up Google Maps. As we walked, the dot representing us moved with perfect accuracy, though unfortunately, there's no digital compass, so no handy arrow showing the direction we're going in. The preloaded Google Maps is standard issue, with walking, driving and public transport directions, traffic and satellite view, no Street View.
Camera Palm's gone the iPhone way and added a pretty basic 3.15-megapixel camera with no auto-focus. You can only adjust flash, with no settings for night time, action and so on. We got good clarity in daylight, but colours were a little dull. The snapper was surprisingly decent at capturing moving objects - taking a photo of a passing motorbike (albeit probably going all of 30mph), only the license plate was slightly blurred. The flash isn't too overbearing and helps get truer colours indoors. Once you take it lowlight though, the camera really falters. With flash, there's still some noise when you zoom in, especially in the background, and colours contain a little too much red. Portrait shots turned out with more clarity than landscape shots, but lowlight snaps without flash was impossible - noisy, blurry and extremely dark. Oh, and there's no video recording, though we don't see this as much of a problem - the things this phone can do, you'd kind of be missing the point if you wanted to record moving pictures with it instead.
The verdictWe've compared the Pre to the iPhone a lot in this review and to some extent, the HTC Hero. It may not trounce these gold-standard smartphones on every count, but it's definitely invented a couple of new ones. WebOS is an incredibly powerful operating system that makes so many things so easy and immediate - emails, calendars, web and managing several accounts' worth of contacts - it's not hard to overlook slightly flimsy hardware and an as-yet unpopulated app store. Forget being the iPhone killer, the Pre nails it on its own terms.