Review: Palm Pre

By Gerry Blackwell

September 29, 2009

Wi-Fi is under-utilized in this new and powerful smartphone from Palm.

Palm Pre

Price: about $150 (with cellular plan)
Pros: Cool dual-interface form factor, powerful processor, good Wi-Fi performance
Cons: No Outlook desktop synchronization, Wi-Fi under-utilized

The Palm Pre, Palm’s “revolutionary” response to the Apple iPhone, has much to recommend it, including reasonably good Wi-Fi functionality. But the Pre requires a paradigm shift that some users might find irksome.

And Palm, like other smartphone makers, misses the boat on exploiting the product’s Wi-Fi capabilities to the full.

The Pre, which works on Dual-band CDMA2000 and 3G EvDO Rev A networks, claims revolutionary status mainly based on its in-the-cloud operating system, but the best-of-both-worlds physical form factor—iPhone-like touch screen interface plus slide-out QWERTY keyboard—is also pretty cool.

Pre is available from Sprint for as little as $150 with a two-year contract (after a $100 mail-in rebate) and from Bell in Canada for $200 CDN with a $45-per-month (or higher) three-year contract. We reviewed Pre on the Bell network.

Radical new OS

Palm’s webOS operating system is predicated on the notion that users live in the cloud and will want to synchronize calendar and contact information not with their desktops but with network-based services, such as Google and Microsoft Exchange. Pre will not sync with a desktop out of the box.

For users who are already living in the cloud, the webOS paradigm shift makes sense. Pre automatically syncs with your data (contacts, calendar, to-dos, files) anywhere, wirelessly—either over the cellular network or a Wi-Fi network when you’re in range.

If a secretary or supervisor back at the office makes changes to your calendar or to-dos, or if documents in your sync folder change, you get the updates almost immediately, wherever you are.

However, if you’re still desktop-bound, the webOS paradigm shift will take a little effort, with arguably a smaller return.

If you don’t work for a company with a Microsoft Exchange server and mainly use Outlook on a desktop for mail, tasks, contacts, and calendar, you have three choices. [Editor's note: Palm today released WebOS 1.2.]

Sync solutions

You can abandon Outlook and switch to Google. Pre can sync with Google in the cloud out of the box. Google would love that. But it seems an unlikely choice for most long-time Outlook users.

You can choose not to make the paradigm shift and purchase a piece of third-party software, PocketLink ($30) from Chapura Inc., that lets you sync the Pre with your Outlook desktop the old-fashioned way. (We did not test this solution.)

Or you can continue using Outlook on your PC, but open a Google account and sync everything from Outlook to Google Calendar and Gmail using another third-party program, such as CompanionLink for Google ($40) from CompanionLink Software Inc. CompanionLink also manages the process of syncing in the cloud from Google to your phone.

This compromise hybrid approach is what we tried during testing. It worked nicely after some initial CompanionLink set-up headaches. Automatic synchronization on the phone was fairly transparent. The software does flash a notice that it’s syncing, but it appears not to greatly impact performance when this is happening.

One other vaunted feature of the operating system is its Synergy amalgamated messaging feature. Synergy lets you see presence information from a variety of instant messaging services—Facebook, Google Talk, AIM (note: no Windows Live Messenger)—from within the Contacts applet.

It also groups communications with a contact in one place, even when the conversation extends over multiple media—if you start with an e-mail and continue in IM, for example.

Third-party apps

At the risk of annoying anti-Apple or pro-Palm zealots, it needs to be pointed out that, like Google’s Android smartphone operating system, Palm’s webOS is a relatively new kid on the block. You won’t find as many third-party applications available for it as you can for either the iPhone or BlackBerry.

That said, Palm does, of course, have its own e-tail outlet for third-party applications, similar to Apple’s App Store. The Palm App Catalog, accessible from the phone, bears a sticker indicating it’s a Beta effort. This shows. The main menu—automatically generated with user-supplied tags, we’re guessing—repeats some categories and includes others that clearly overlap, such as Games and Entertainment.

For this reason, it’s difficult to get an accurate count of available apps, but the number at the time of writing (in late September 2009) appeared to be fewer than 100. This will presumably increase over time.

As a piece of hardware, the Pre is impressive. On the outside, it appears to be a fairly conventional (read: iPhone-like) smartphone with a touch screen interface. But pushing up on the top surface reveals a small QWERTY keyboard. This is easy to do one-handed.

The keyboard is even reasonably well designed with dedicated period and @ keys to make entering Web and e-mail addresses easier. There is no / key, but it’s at least visible. You can enter it by pressing and holding the orange Alt key and hitting Q. The keys have a nice stickiness and squishiness that makes for positive contact.

Cool touch screen

The 3.1-inch LCD (24-bit color, 320x480 pixels) enables a touch screen interface similar to the iPhone and recent Android products—with a few nice wrinkles.

For example, Pre uses an activity card system to visually manage open applications. They appear as windows that can be resized, cycled through (you can easily change their order) and closed down, all using finger gestures. Touching an un-maximized card and swiping up towards the top of the screen “throws it away” – shuts down the application.

There is also a cool Quick Launch feature. From within any activity, if you drag up slowly from the touch-sensitive panel below the screen, Pre displays the Quick Launch menu with icons for the most frequently used programs overlaid on the already open window.

Powerful processorpalm pre.open_sm.jpg

Palm has not officially published the identity of the microprocessor used, but it is fairly reliably reported to be an ARM Cortex A8-based chip, a generation beyond the ARM-11 series processors used in current iPhones and other high-end multimedia smart phones.

The ARM Cortex A8 chips reportedly operate at double the speed of ARM-11 predecessors with the same battery draw. We were not able to do side-by-side comparisons with ARM-11-based products, but the Pre does appear nimbler and more responsive than most smartphones we have tried recently.

Storage is a potential problem. Pre comes with 8GB of memory, 7GB available to users. This can’t be upgraded, and the unit lacks a flash memory card drive.

The biggest potential problem: media storage. Luckily the operating system includes a slick Media Synch application that makes swapping music and video files in and out over USB or Bluetooth—or over the Internet—simple enough that you can do it daily to constantly refresh your selection.

In fact, media functionality is generally impressive. Music sounds good, probably not quite as good as an iPhone, but close. (We were not able to do side-by-side tests comparing iPhone and Pre.) YouTube video also looks sharp, with realistic color.

All the bells and whistles

The product has built-in GPS, as well. It works out of the box with Google Maps to generate turn-by-turn directions.

The 3-megapixel camera with LED flash is a bit of a disappointment. Despite the superior specs, it works about as well as other smartphone cameras—which is to say not very. It’s the usual problem: poor quality, fixed focus, fixed focal length (wide angle) lens.

Connectivity includes a 3.5mm headphone jack, USB port (microUSB jack), built-in Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR with A2DP stereo Bluetooth support, and Wi-Fi 802.11b/g —note: no 11n—with support for all the security protocols.

Wi-Fi: good and bad

As of this writing, Wi-Fi can mainly be used to access the Internet, with the Pre automatically switching to Wi-Fi for this when it’s in range. You cannot use it to move documents to and from a local PC. This is unfortunate because it would simplify file transfers. It also limits the testing that can be done of the Wi-Fi function. You can, however, sync with a desktop using the Chapura product.

Palm tech support told us there might be third-party applications that enable wireless local network connection, but we could find none.

We tested Wi-Fi performance the best way we could, by measuring Internet connection speeds on the Pre over our wireless LAN connected to a Rogers high-speed cable modem. We used the speed test tools at Mobilespeedtest.com, and compared results against performance using Bell’s EVDO 3G cellular network—and a PC on the same Rogers connection.

When testing in the room where our access point is located, the Pre recorded quite respectable download speeds of between 2.83 and 6.8 megabits per second (Mbps) using Wi-Fi. Results on a PC hard-wired to the router: in the 7.5-Mbps range.

When we switched to the Bell 3G network (three to four bars of connectivity), reported speeds dropped to between 128 kilobits per second (Kbps) and 1.18 Mbps.

Results in both cases varied by the size of download file used in the test (the site lets you choose). Since this should not be a factor, it suggests the test procedure may be flawed.

Somewhat surprisingly, Wi-Fi results were similar in a room 20 feet away where reception is usually relatively poor and in another location 35 feet away and one level down through floors and ceilings. This suggests that the Wi-Fi radio is reasonably powerful.

Bottom line

The Pre has a ways to go before it earns its spurs in the highly competitive smartphone derby, but it’s definitely off to the races. The dual interface—touch and QWERTY—is a big benefit. The touch screen interface manages to improve slightly on iPhone. The product has lots of horsepower for running apps. Multimedia features work well.

Wi-Fi performance—to the extent it’s possible to test it—is good. The current inability to use Wi-Fi for anything but Internet access is unfortunate, but we can hope that Palm or some third-party developer will deliver an app in the future that adds that capability.

Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology journalist and a frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. Read more of his reviews here.



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