The Palm Pre Revealed: The Technologizer Review

It's not perfect--but it's the iPhone's most formidable rival. And maybe the most important PalmPilot since the PalmPilot.

By  |  Thursday, June 4, 2009 at 5:00 am

Pre Software

Certain aspects of WebOS are decidedly iPhone-esque. Some of the multi-touch manuevers, like pinching and stretching photos and Web pages, are identical. If you slide around a Web page faster than the Pre can keep up, it displays the same checkboard placeholder that the iPhone does. The slots reserved at the bottom of the home screen for key applications like e-mail are similar. It’s the first iPhone OS competitor that’s comparable in terms of overall visual polish.

But WebOS is very much its own OS. Most strikingly, it makes multitasking of applications–something the iPhone doesn’t offer, except in limited instances with Apple’s own programs–into a core feature. You can run as many applications as the phone’s RAM will hold simultaneously as you please, leaping between them by shuffling around “cards”–small views of each app that sit on the desktop. (They remind me of the interface that the iPhone’s Safari browser uses to let you bop between multiple Web pages.)

Palm Pre Card Interface

You can reorder cards by dragging them around. And the method you use to close an app–whisking its card off the top of the screen with your fingertip–is the single most entertaining gesture I’ve seen in a touch interface.

Because the Pre does true multitasking, programs continue to run when they’re in card form, and cheerfully continue running even when you’re in another program. Once you’ve tried the Pre version of Pandora, which can play in the background while you’re surfing the Web or burrowing through e-mail, it’s awfully hard to go back to the iPhone’s single-tasking Pandora. And once an app is in card form, you can return to it instantly–which is a good thing, since loading a program that’s not currently in RAM is surprisingly slow.

Apps that run in the background can continue to talk to you via notifications that pop up at the bottom of the screen–for instance, you’ll see instant messages and e-mails as they arrive, even if you happen to be listening to music at the time. This is mostly a boon, but if you’ve got a bunch of apps open the notifications can start to stack up on you in a distracting way; the OS could use some fine-grained options for specifying when programs can and can’t bug you.

The downside of being able to load up a bunch of apps at once is that filling the Pre’s RAM to capacity is a cakewalk; it’s best to close apps when you’re done with them if you don’t think you’ll need them again soon. If the RAM is full, the Pre will tell you to close some cards without helping you figure out how many need to go, which can leave you discarding them like a solitaire player on a tear. I also saw evidence that the Pre’s memory management is less than flawless–at one point, it made me close all open cards before it would let me open another one.

Beyond multitasking, webOS’s other signature feature is Synergy, which is Palm’s name for its integration of various sources of contact information and modes of communication. If you’ve got information on folks in a Gmail contact database, on Facebook, and in Microsoft Exchange, webOS will sync it all and combine it where possible, so that a single contact record might have an e-mail address from Gmail and a birthday from Facebook, for instance. In my tests, this worked well, although I think some folks might wish for the ability to sync subgroups of their Facebook friends–as it stands, this syncing is all-or-nothing.

Palm Pre Synergy

Synergy also melds multiple forms of communication: You can start a conversation on AIM and then segue into text messages, for instance, or hop from an e-mail into AIM. All of this is strikingly different from the iPhone (which doesn’t come with an IM client as standard equipment at all) and well done.

WebOS comes with a full complement of standard applications. Besides messaging, e-mail, and contacts, you get a calendar; a task manager; a Web browser; a memo pad; YouTube; Google Maps; a music player and video player; a turn-by-turn GPS navigation service provided by Sprint (which has no counterpart on the iPhone), and more. Clever touches include the way the calendar uses an accordion effect to squinch up unused time on your calendar and thereby show you more appointments on one screen:

Palm Pre Calendar

And the Web browser is a close rival for the iPhone’s Safari, although the Pre’s small screen may leave you squinting:

Palm Pre Web

The iPhone’s massive success has prompted much of the Web to optimize itself for iPhone-friendliness–when you load Gmail on an iPhone, for instance, you get a wildly ambitious version that replicates most of the goodness of the desktop edition. As an untested newcomer, the Pre doesn’t benefit from this effect, at least yet. You get the desktop version of Gmail, which is useful on the iPhone only in a pinch:

Palm Pre Gmail

As for the Pre’s zippiness (or lack thereof) as a Web-browsing machine, I didn’t try it in enough locations to form meaningful opinions about its speed or the quality of the Sprint network. In my limited tests, browsing was quick enough, but the browser had a somewhat alarming tendency to display a plain white screen for a few seconds before it started rendering the page.

I didn’t expect the Pre to compete seriously with the iPhone when it came to multimedia panache. It does lack some of Apple’s sophisticated features, such as the ability to buy and download TV and movie shows. But it’s a surprisingly capable music machine, with a capable MP3 player and on-device access to Amazon’s music store. And its Media Sync integration with iTunes is weird, ungainly…and extremely useful: Plug a Pre into a Windows PC or Mac equipped with iTunes, and iTunes will think it’s an iPod and sync unprotected music and video, as well as photos. It’s less than elegant (iTunes shows an iPod graphic to represent the Pre and meaninglessly tells you your “iPod’s” software is up to date, and my copy of iTunes preferred to sync when I connected the cable rather than when I pressed the Sync button). But for the sake of Pre buyers, I hope Apple does nothing to foil this feature.

The iTunes sync and the ability to treat the phone as a USB drive provide two of the only incentives to attach the Pre to a computer. Mostly, it’s an autonomous device that talks directly to the Internet over its EVDO or Wi-Fi connection. It even does automatic backups of your data each day to the cloud–pretty handy if you have reason to do a full wipe of your device and need to restore everything.

WebOS has only one feature I’d rate as a major disappointment: The poorly-named Universal Search which finds contacts and applications by name, but doesn’t pull up e-mails, appointments, or documents. It does search Google, Wikipedia, and Twitter, but I’m not sure what Palm was doing when it integrated a random feature such as Twitter search while leaving core Pre apps unsearchable. The upcoming iPhone 3.0 upgrade packs a universal search feature that looks like it’ll be a lot closer to true universality; Palm is surely working on one for a WebOS update. Right?

Palm Pre Search

The OS could also use more support for landscape-mode viewing when the keyboard is closed–I noticed it in only a few places, such as the browser and photo viewer. (Palm’s publicity materials mention it working in the music player, too, but that app remained steadfastly portrait-oriented in my tests.)

Oh, and I ran into at least one apparent WebOS bug: When I downloaded a BMP image that was attached to an e-mail, the Pre offered to save it to my photo library. But it never showed up there.

Nitpicking webOS is actually a compliment. There are so many things that are fundamentally right about this OS that you want it to be perfect. It’s not. But it’s well ahead of where the iPhone OS was when the first-generation model shipped, and leaves venerable contenders like Windows Mobile in the dust.



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5 Comments For This Post

  1. Duker Says:

    Great Review. I am rooting for Palm to get back into the game..

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