A couple Friday’s ago Radio Shack re-branded themselves as “The Shack”. Part of the celebration was a huge sale on a lot of their electronics, namely the new Palm Pre, for $149.99. I’ve been very interested in this phone since it debuted on June 6th. I usually never buy a first generation product so that I don’t end up like a first gen iPhone owner when the 3G comes out. Beta products and planned obsolescence are two things that I dislike very much. Anyway, the phone has been on sale at Amazon, Sprint and Best Buy for $199, (except for Best Buy’s one weekend $99 accidental sale). I watched and waited for a price drop. I am was on Verizon so a $90 Early Termination Fee applied. That was pretty tough for me to swallow. When I saw that the phone was on sale for $150 I flew over to Radio Shack and picked up this sweet little supposed “iPhone Killer”. Then proceeded to drive home and test out my new toy.
*UPDATE* I returned the Pre back in August after sub-par experiences with the Sprint network. However, I decided to give it another go in October, and purchased it through Amazon for $99 with a new two year contract with Sprint.
So here we go…
Build Quality 8/10
I first played with a couple of non-functional Pres at Best Buy and I have to say that I was not thoroughly impressed with the build materials. It felt cheap and plasticky in my hand. The slider was very loose. However, to be fair, most of the demo models are usually beat up anyway.
The Pre that I own feels really good in the palm of my hand (pun intended). While I’m not a huge fan of the plastic casing, it feels like it could take a drop to the floor like a champ. I haven’t tested that yet and hopefully never will. This is my first smartphone, so of course everything amazes me. The Pre is a banana slider phone. Sliding the keyboard up reveals a full QWERTY keyboard underneath. The sliding action/mechanism is pretty good in my opinion. A satisfying “click” can be heard when opening and closing the keyboard. I have some minor wobble from side to side (see Palm Pre ‘Oreo’ effect), but nothing major yet.
Overall the Pre feels like a solid smart phone. The smooth black shell and curves make it a really good phone to look at. I’ve heard people compare the Palm Pre to a “nugget” or “river stone”. I have to say it’s on par with those comments. I love the way it looks, not too curvy, not too square like a certain fruit phone. There are few buttons on the outside of the phone. On the left side there is a volume rocker. On the top of the phone you’ll find a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and also a nifty switch to set the phone to vibrate/sounds on mode. I especially found this useful, because on my old Verizon phone, I had to open it up and do this manually through the software. There is also a single circular button on the front of the Pre located near the bottom. Similar to the iPhone, pressing this button will take you to the home screen, or bring up a deck of “cards” or applications that you currently have running.
The Pre is a touch screen phone with a full QWERTY keyboard. Not many other smart phones have been able to pull this off. Usually you have to sacrifice screen real estate to accomplish this, but Palm hit it right on the head. To access the keyboard, you simply slide the phone up and it locks into place quite nicely. Some users with large fingers complain that the keyboard is difficult for them to use. Also some comment that using the top row of keys is especially difficult, mainly the top row of keys as it is close to the bottom piece of plastic, but I find it relatively easy to type with. There is an orange function key to get to the numbers and some of the #@!^&() characters. However, there is also a dedicated symbol key on the keyboard to bring up a whole bunch of other characters. Initially, I would have preferred a landscape sliding keyboard, but the more and more I use the Pre, I’m getting used to the portrait keyboard. I hear through the grape vine that an onscreen keyboard is being worked on. I might have a use for it when web browsing in landscape mode, but we’ll wait and see how it goes.
Touch Screen 9/10
As an iPod touch user, the Pre had some serious shoes to fill when it comes to this category. For the most part, Palm got it right. The screen is pretty intuitive. You can see where you’re touching the screen as a little white circle lights up where you’re pressing. This is pretty neat, as it trains you to be an accurate touch screen user. The touch screen is really responsive, and I can definitely see more phones going this route in the future as it’s really easy to navigate between applications. All this is done with a flick of a finger. What is really cool is the area beneath the visible screen. It’s called the gesture area. Say you’re on Google and you type in Palm Pre and hit go. But you want to go back to the homepage. Simply swipe your finger from right to left and the browser navigates to the previous page. You can also swipe left to right to navigate to the next page. These back/forward gestures work in every application on the phone. It has proven to be very useful.
Another great thing about the Pre is its ability to multitask very well. You can use the gesture area to manage all of your running applications. These applications show up as a deck of cards. To display them swipe, up on the gesture area once. (You can also press the home button on the gesture area.) Once you bring up the card deck, you can flick through them and touch the one you want on the main screen to maximize it. Closing applications is easy too. While the card deck is visible, flick through to the application you want to close, then swipe your finger over it to the top of the screen and it disappears!
This is where the Pre really shines. There is one more thing that really gets on my nerves besides planned obsolescence and beta products, and that is a modal popup notification. Seriously, the last thing I want when browsing a web page is a text message popup from a friend that takes up the whole screen. It drives me nuts. Instead on the Pre, notifications appear nicely at the bottom of the screen, right above the gesture area. If you get a text message, or maybe you have a low battery, this notification appears in a subtle way. If you want to bring up your text message to reply or delete, you simply tap on the chat icon on the bottom of the screen.
Unobtrusive notifications aren’t the only thing that the Pre has going for it, the way it handles simultaneous applications at once is pretty neat. Here’s an example of this that literally JUST took place. I’m typing up this review as I’m listening to Pandora and someone calls. On my old phone the music app would close and I would answer my phone frustrated, then I would have to go back in and restart the media player. Not the case with Pre. As the phone rings, Pandora pauses. I take my call, talk for a few minutes, and hang up. Then the magic happens. Pandora actually resumes the song from where it left off. This is fantastic! It’s also true when using the Pre’s built in media player. The music will also pause/resume as you’re using Sprint Navigation. The music will politely fade out as the GPS gives you your next direction, then fade back in without skipping a beat. If I had to pick a single thing that I like about the phone, that’s it right there.
I also like how the WebOS treats all running applications like a deck of cards. Each one runs in the background and can be brought up at any time. I can usually have about 5 different applications running before I notice any real decrease in performance.
I don’t care nearly as much about the cool “extras” of this phone as I do about the phone app. At the end of the day I need a phone, not a multitasking multimedia device. Thankfully this time around the Pre/Sprint passed my test with flying colors. The phone app is great. It’s simple and easy to use. Open up the keyboard and start typing a contact’s name. Then click on them when they show up in the autocomplete drop down to initiate a call with them. On the Sprint network calls come in crystal clear. I should note that I’m on my second Pre. I tried out the Pre in July/August and returned it because of dropped calls in my house and poor call quality/volume. At the time I was running Web OS 1.1 and Sprint version 1.7. Now I’m on Sprint for good with the Pre on Web OS 1.2.1 and Sprint 1.9. I don’t know if it was the major Web OS update and the minor Sprint update or what, but my reception everywhere is excellent . Best of all, when I don’t have a signal on a Sprint tower, I can roam onto Verizon’s network for free! The same goes for data roaming (no 3G, just 1x which is fine by me). I had reservations about switching from Verizon’s network, but with the Sprint/Verizon roaming agreement, it’s a no-brainer.
During my first attempt I was looking at purchasing an Airave to boost signal quality in my house. I’ve heard that if you call retentions, Sprint will send you this $100 device for free and even waive the monthly ~$5 charge. Now that’s keeping your customers happy- and most of all, keeping them as your customers. For right now I’m content with the service in my area. I get 3-5 bars for voice and 3G as well. I don’t care so much about 3G at home though because I have WiFi and it puts less strain on the battery.
3G (EVDO)/Bluetooth/GPS/WIFI 10/10
This thing is absolutely packed with wireless technology. The Pre uses EVDO Rev. A for it’s high speed data connection. The Pre also comes with Bluetooth, something that I have yet to try out. I don’t really like walking around with a headset in my ear. Too goofy. There is also a dedicated GPS radio for assisted GPS using Sprint’s Telnav software (free with the $69.99 Everything Data plan). I used the GPS on a trip up to the sticks in Vermont and the Pre guided me the entire way. I love how it announces street names so I don’t even have to look at the phone while I’m driving. My Magellan Roadmate 2000 doesn’t even do that! (Consequently it will be listed for sale on eBay relatively soon). There were some areas where I lost service, but the GPS never hesitated and kept on routing me to my destination. I was thoroughly impressed.
I’m a techie, and a road warrior. This means WiFi is necessary for my survival. The Pre comes with a WiFi radio as well. This is just icing on the cake for me. The 3G is fast enough for web browsing, but when I’m in range of a WiFi hotspot, I switch off data usage and let the wireless b/g card do its magic. And boy is it fast. Now that I think of it though, the only place I use WiFi is at home, and even there I have amazing 3G coverage. A lot of people have been taking shots at the Pixi, the Pre’s little brother, because it lacks WiFi. However, I think the folks on the Sprint 3G network will hardly notice the difference in speed when in a decent coverage area.
Battery Life 8/10
Battery life is much better now since the June launch, but there’s always room for improvement, without buying a high capacity battery. The Pre battery’s worst enemy is its ability to multitask. That and it’s so focused on data. Data eats up battery life very quickly. There are plenty of tips for Pre owners to boost battery life. Some examples include turning data usage off when in range of a WiFi hotspot. Also the tip that worked best for me was in the email settings. The default setting causes the app to check for email as it arrives. BAD! First thing I did was set it to manual. Only look for email when I tell you to! There’s also a cool app called Battery Monitor to analyze battery drainage. Every bit helps! At first I was tempted to buy an extended battery, but now that I’ve weened the Pre off some data-intensive services, I see no need for it.
App Catalog 7/10
Currently, apps are severely lacking. And that’s putting it lightly. It’s been almost 5 months and the App Catalog only has around 150 applications. Just recently they introduced paid applications to the App Catalog with the latest WebOS update. What’s nice is that some homebrew titles are “graduating” to the App Catalog. Basically Palm says “This is great! We want to add it to the official App repository!” Hopefully Palm gets going on their store before the holidays, because 150 titles in 4 months is just pitiful. Apple’s App Store might have 85,000 apps, but they launched it after the iPhone has been out for a full year. Palm is dealing with a simultaneous hardware/software launch, so I’ll cut them some slack for now. But in the immediate future: I WANT MORE APPS PALM!
Homebrew Community 10/10
Thankfully for the hacking-inclined, there is awesome homebrew support for the Pre. With a few simple tools you can run your own apps (or apps created by others) on your phone. The best part is that most homebrew apps are free!
Overall Satisfaction 90/100
After tallying up all my categories, I came up with a score of 90/100. Overall, I am very pleased with the phone. However, there are a few noticeable features missing from the Pre. Here’s my list of things I’d like to see come in a future WebOS update:
- Flash (Adobe confirmed for the end of the year)
- Video Recording
- Message Forwarding
- Ability to change notification sounds for incoming text messages, emails, etc
- Syncing with iTunes without the drama (and without me clinging to iTunes 8.2.1)
I can’t complain too much, because the Palm Pre is great for a first generation device. It’s a cross between a Blackberry and an iPhone. Great for balancing work and play. Combine this with the cheap plans that Sprint has to offer and you’ve got yourself a hit. I was going to wait until January when Verizon gets the Pre, but something tells me that big red will cripple it worse than tiny Tim when it arrives on their network. This time I’m not worried; I’m on the NOW network!
Here’s the full gallery of pics: