Palm Pre: Premature Perfection

In this photo taken on May 28, 2009, the Palm Pre is shown at Palm headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif. AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

On Saturday, you'll be able to buy the eagerly-awaited Palm Pre smartphone on the Sprint network. The Pre is, depending on how you look at it, just another phone, or the savior of Palm, the company that practically invented the PDA (personal digital assistant) with the Pilot and later smartphone category with the Treo.

But you don't buy a particular phone because of its history. You buy it for what it can do for you better than other devices. The Pre is, in some ways, a better device than competitors from Apple, RIM (Blackberry), Nokia, and Google. It's a good product, in other words. It's not yet great, though. If you have a competing device and are reasonably happy with it, you won't gain much by moving. But I expect that in short order many of its flaws will be fixed, making it even more competitive.

Let's look at a few key factors to understand why.

Design:

The Pre is a really pretty phone. It's smaller than the iPhone in every dimension but thickness, but it's still very pocketable. Closed up, it feels great. Its all slick surfaces and curves, with no clunky, old-school buttons screaming at you. And unlike the iPhone, the Pre has a real, physical keyboard that slides out from behind the screen. The keys are small and indented into a little cave in the slide-out section, but I found it very easy to type on the device.

What I didn't like was the questionable connection between the screen and the keyboard halves of the device. The Pre, at least the one we got to test, was wobbly. It took away from the experience. The iPhone, with no slide-out components, feels better.

I also think the iPhone is small enough, and that the Pre's screen, while sharp and gorgeous, makes apps feel claustrophobic compared to the iPhone.

The Pre has a gesture-based user interface that employs a special area at the bottom of the screen for some control functions. It's easy to use once you learn the tricks. One of the coolest features is a quick-launch menu that comes up when you drag your finger up from the Pre's sole front-panel control button. The customizable menu hovers under your finger and makes very short work of launching your preferred five apps.

Multitasking:

The Pre is a multitasker, just like you. To a too-busy person, it's the Pre's killer feature. When you're running an app on the phone, like the Web browser, and you then want to find a name in the contact manager or look at a photo in the gallery, you don't have to close the browser, launch the other app, and then close that app and re-open the browser when you're done. New apps run alongside each other, just like they do on Windows and the Mac. Switching between apps is easy, with a little swipe of your finger. So you can pop between apps all you want. You can even copy and paste text between apps.

I love the idea of a multi-tasking smartphone. Unfortunately, the Pre is not a snappy device. It drags, sometimes, when moving between apps or even inside apps. The iPhone can drag too, but in its new (or recently restored) state, the iPhone is more responsive.

I believe Palm will be addressing some of the performance issues of the Pre and will push those changes out to users as they become available. So the Pre should get better over time. I'd wait a while until it is.


All Your Contacts In One Place:

Another great feature on the Pre - in theory - is "Synergy," the Pre's native capability to read in your address books from your Outlook e-mail system, Gmail, and Facebook, and to meld them all together in your Pre's address book. So if you have entries for Joe Shmoe in Outlook at Gmail, Synergy will make it so your Pre's contact list has just one entry for Mr. Shmoe, with his coordinates on both Outlook and Gmail in the entry.

Sadly, it doesn't work. In my tests, some contacts that should have been merged were not. That was easy to fix. What I had more trouble with was the Pre merging contacts together that should not have been. Under the entry for my brother in law, for example, the Pre stuck my father's phone number, as well as contact info from 27 other contacts. And I couldn't figure out how to split the records up, either.

But I like the concept and look forward to the time when it's working right.

In addition to merging address books, the Pre will also merge calendars from different systems, and it will let you continue a conversation you're having with someone on SMS in its AOL Instant Messenger client.

The way the Pre melds your different systems together in you handset is really useful, but the implementation of the Synergy contact manager is rough.

Speaking of synergy with other systems, you can load up your Pre with music by using Apple's iTunes, which recognizes the Pre when you connect it to your computer. This is a very unusual feature in a non-Apple product. We hope Apple doesn't shut it off.

More Apps:

If you want to expand your Pre's capabilities, you can download new apps from its App store. It's easy to use, but of course the Pre catalog isn't nearly as robust as Apple's iTunes store. It will be a long time, if ever, before it's competitive. If having the broadest selection of apps for your phone is important to you, don't get a Pre yet.

Snags:

I did enjoy using the Pre, but I might have loved it to death. In my first twelve hours of carrying the phone around (which included using it for only about two), the battery ran down to nothing, twice. I had asked the system to synchronize two large personal accounts (Outlook and Gmail), and I did connect my AIM account to it, but there's no excuse for power management that lets a phone kill itself so quickly. Almost all new smartphones have power management issues when they're first launched. I hope Palm fixes this issue soon. It's enough to warn me off the product for the time being.

Also, despite the phone's good user interface and gorgeous screen, there's no visual voicemail, as there is on the iPhone or on another Sprint phone, the Instinct.

Advice:

If you're on Sprint, the Palm Pre is a great phone for you. You'll pay a price for getting one early, but over time, most of its software snags should be fixed, and more apps for it should come out. And it really is gorgeous.

If you're using another smartphone, especially an iPhone, I'd recommend standing pat. There may be things you hate about your current phone, but moving to the Pre at this point is trading one set of problems for another. This will be a great mobile platform, and probably soon, but it's not quite there yet.
By Rafe Needleman

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