Palm's smartphones--and the operating system they run--have legions of fans, but both have been in need of an overhaul for some time now. That overhaul is here in the form of the Palm Pre, a slick new touch-screen smartphone, and the webOS, the new smartphone operating system it runs.
The Pre is pretty to look at and to use, and it has the potential to challenge the iPhone. But it's still a new device, and one that doesn't feel quite finished -- yet.
Price and Availability
The Palm Pre is available from Sprint for $199.99 when you sign a new two-year contract. (And most Sprint stores do have the Pre in stock.) That price is after a $100 mail-in rebate.
Up-front cost is one thing, but the bulk of your smartphone budget is going to be spent on monthly service. To see how the Palm Pre's monthly bills stack up against what you'll pay for an iPhone, see iPhone 3G S vs. Palm Pre: Cost Comparison.
The Pre is an attractive, well-designed phone. It's a slider-style phone, and when it's closed, all you see is the 3.1-inch display. The display slides up to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard, which is small but very usable. The keys are rubbery and easy to press, making it a pleasure to use.
The Pre's sliding mechanism is smooth and the phone is easy to open with one hand. The Pre curves slightly when opened, making the phone more comfortable to hold during calls. It also angles the display ever so slightly towards you, which makes it easier to see.
And that display is gorgeous: It features a resolution of 320 by 480 and it looks crisp and clear. Below the screen, the Pre has one hardware button and a "gesture area"--this is not part of the touch screen, but it’s a touch-sensitive area that you can use to navigate through the phone's many features. To move backwards through applications or menus, for example, you flick your finger backward on this touch sensitive area. It's intuitive, easy, and fun.
If there's one area where the Palm Pre beats the iPhone easily, it's call quality. All of my test calls were loud and clear, and my callers said the same about me. I experienced no static and no annoying echo, the way I sometimes do when making calls on the iPhone 3G S.
Surfing the Web on the Palm Pre is almost as much fun as doing so on the new iPhone. The only drawback to using the Pre is the slightly smaller 3.1-inch screen. The iPhone's screen measures 3.5 inches, and I missed that extra bit of real estate when I was using the Pre.
But much of what I like about Web browsing on the iPhone carriers over to the Pre. You can pinch and spread the multi-touch screen to zoom in and out. You can have multiple Web pages at once. And you get support for both high-speed 3G (in the Pre's case, it's Sprint's EvDO Rev-A network) and Wi -Fi wireless networks for high-speed browsing.
The biggest buzz about the Pre has been the new webOS; this is the complete overhaul that the Palm OS has desperately need for a long time.
Unlike many smartphone platforms, webOS allows full multitasking: That means you can have multiple applications open at once, and can switch between them--just like you do on a computer. WebOS uses a "deck of cards" model, which lets you shuffle between open applications without opening and closing windows. Like many of the Pre's other features, using it is intuitive, easy, and fun.
While the webOS is slick and fun to use, it still feels incomplete. That's mainly because there aren't that many third-party apps available for it. Palm's App Catalog -- its version of the iPhone's App Store -- remains in beta and has just a handful of titles in it. But the App Catalog itself is easy to browse and is nicely laid out. We should see more titles added in the coming weeks and months, which will be a huge boon to Pre users.
The Pre does include a few productivity applications on board, including a document viewer and a PDF viewer. As of this writing, no real office or productivity apps were available in the App Catalog, so you're limited to those included apps for now.
Additional apps include Sprint Navigation, which delivers turn-by-turn driving directions to the Pre, Google Maps, and YouTube.
The multi-tasking ability of the webOS really shines when you're using the Pre as a mobile e-mail device. You'll get notifications of incoming messages, which allow you to view the sender and subject of new e-mails without closing out of other applications. This lets you decide if a message is important enough to warrant reading now, or if it can wait.
The Pre also includes Palm's new Synergy feature, which collects calendar and contact information from various sources and brings it together. If you have contacts in Facebook and Gmail, and a Google Calendar, for example, you can access all of them from within Synergy. And any changes you make to these calendars and contacts will be synced back to your original accounts.
The Pre's camera is a 3-megapixel model that includes a flash but no zoom. Picture quality was so-so; about the same as what I saw from the 3-megapixel camera in the iPhone 3G S. Neither phone will win any awards for photo quality. The Pre also lacks video recording.
Music and More
Like the T-Mobile G1, the Palm Pre includes access to the Amazon Music Store, where you can download songs directly to your handset. What's disappointing, though, is that the Pre lacks any sort of expandable memory: The handset comes with 8GB of storage, but won’t let you add a flash memory card to boost that. That means you can't pop a card out of the phone and into your computer to transfer music files and pictures--you have to connect the Pre to your computer using a USB cable, instead. It also limits how many music files and photos you can store on the phone.
If you love iTunes, you'll appreciate that Apple's software recognizes the Pre as an iPod. That means you can use iTunes to transfer DRM-free songs to and from your Pre, for now anyway: Apple has said it may restrict this feature in the future.
Additional extras include access to Sprint's mobile TV service and a built-in YouTube app.
Overall, the Palm Pre is a winner. It's pretty to look at, easy to use, and has lots of potential. Until the App Catalog fills up, though, the Pre's potential hasn't been met.