Along with almost everyone else who attended this year’s CES down in Las Vegas, I was surprised by Palm’s debut of a new smartphone – one which not only seemed poised to take on the iPhone, but was also a complete departure from the company’s previous mobile phone offerings.
As the first looks started to filter in, followed later by the reviews coming out of the U.S. from folks like Walt Mossberg, David Pogue and CNET, my interest intensified and I found myself lobbying the gang over at Bell Mobility to get my hands on one as soon as possible.
Of course, that put me in the same boat as every other Canadian tech journalist who had yet to spend some hands-on time with the device.
My turn finally came in the week following the phone’s August 27th launch here in Canada.
The biggest question I had before using the Palm was this: Could I see myself swapping my trusty BlackBerry Curve for the Pre… would it enable me to do all of the tasks that I have become so used to being able to do while on the road? This was my primary yardstick as I put the Pre through its paces.
My review unit came with the phone itself, as well as Palm’s innovative Touchstone desktop charger – a tiny USB-powered black pedestal that recharges the Pre without wires. Simply place the Pre on the Touchstone’s angled surface and it magnetically secures itself in place and begins charging. Very slick. Not that I mind plugging my BlackBerry in at night, but there’s a distinct cool factor to the Touchstone.
My only critique of the Touchstone is that it doesn’t go far enough… now that I have had a taste of cable-less charging, I want it to sync with my PC too! Perhaps in the next version?
The Pre itself is a very attractive gadget. Its glossy black surface and rounded shape make it look more like a case for an exotic watch or pair of sunglasses than a phone. It feels fantastic in your hand; its size and shape makes touching it oddly irresistible.
This may be the most controversial feature on the Pre: its slide-out QWERTY keyboard. For seasoned BlackBerry users, this – pardon the pun – is a key area of comparison.
I’ll reiterate here what so many others have already observed: The edges of the keyboard are sharp. Though you get used to it, you can’t help but wonder if there was any way the designers could have come up with a different solution, perhaps a rubberized edge made from the same material as the phone’s back plate?
Compared to the Blackberry Curve’s raised plastic ‘keys’, the Pre’s keyboard feels more like a blister-coated film. Typing on it often required the use of the tips of the thumbs as opposed to the pads. The pleasant surprise was how much tactile feedback these tiny bumps were able to convey when pressed. I was expecting a hollow, thin feel as though I was forcing the curve of the blister to invert and then pop-back, but instead was greeted with a positive and solid click. While the keys themselves are small and tightly spaced – if you can get used to them – you should be able to type almost as quickly as on a BlackBerry.
What you will notice – at least I certainly did – was that my thumbs kept bumping into the lowest portion of the main body of the phone. It wasn’t a deal breaker, but it did get annoying at times.
Also, if you ever find yourself trying to type while reclined or lying down, you’ll soon give up: It’s nearly impossible to counter the phone’s top-heavy balance when in this position, and it has a tendency to fall towards you. Not recommended.
If you have gotten into the habit of writing lengthy emails on your BlackBerry, the Pre – well let’s just say you’ll start favouring brevity over bombast.
Integration with Outlook/Exchange
For as long as I’ve used a BlackBerry, I have found its seamless integration with Outlook simply outstanding. And once full wireless syncing for all Outlook folders became available, I was hooked. For me, working in an enterprise setting with the full BlackBerry Enterprise service at my disposal, it has been mobile nirvana. The only tasks I ever feel compelled to do on my laptop is composing long emails that require attachments, or doing folder management whereby I move items from the server to my local machine. Everything else is possible from the BlackBerry, and best of all, it’s automatically reflected in my Outlook when I shift back to my PC. It’s this experience that I think turns people into crackberry addicts, and I was skeptical of the Pre’s ability to emulate it.
The good news for prospective platform-jumpers is that, with a few exceptions, the Pre delivers.
Palm makes use of Microsoft’s Exchange Active Sync (EAS) protocol, which enables mobile devices and other non-Outlook apps to swap data with an Exchange server. If you work for a company that uses Exchange, check first with your IT department to make sure they both support and can enable EAS on your Exchange account. Without this, you’ll be stuck with basic POP email support.
Fortunately I was able to get EAS activated and within minutes my Pre had sync’d my Contacts, Inbox, Calendar and Tasks, all without connecting a single cable. This was a great relief since my last experience syncing a Palm device to Outlook was almost 8 years ago using a Palm Pilot V. It wasn’t pretty.
I was delighted to discover that the ability to search our company’s Global Address List (something I have come to depend on) is available on the Pre, as is the ability to email all the attendees of a calendar event.
Skimming through your inbox is effortless on the Pre; a simple upward or downward finger swipe on the list of emails scrolls the items as quickly as you wish. The Pre displays time, sender and subject lines by default and also gives you a 1-line preview of the body. One area where the Pre excels is in text display and no feature shows this off better than reading an email. Not only does the Pre render full HTML messages they way they were meant to be seen, but just as in the web browser app, you can pinch and um, unpinch to zoom in and out of the content. Fonts are rendered beautifully. If you find it difficult to read an email in the standard portrait orientation, just flip the Pre on its side and it automatically shifts to landscape mode.
One thing I did notice when it comes to email – and indeed most of the Pre’s features – when compared to the BlackBerry, actions feel slightly sluggish. For instance, when you open an email on the Blackberry, clicking on the item immediately switches the screen to the full text of the message. Because the Pre is a multi-tasking device by design, opening items is the same as opening a new window – there is a brief pause while the screen opens the email in order to display it. Considering the flexibility of being able to have multiple windows open at once, and being able to render full HTML, it’s worth the slight lag. But if you’re coming from a BlackBerry, it does take a little getting used to.
Although I didn’t get to fully take advantage of this feature, the Pre can pull contact data from Gmail, Facebook and other sources to create a merged view of your entire social sphere.
Whether this is something you’ll want to do really depends on how separate you like to keep your work and social lives.
Whenever possible, the Pre pulls down image information associated with a contact which give the address book a much friendlier, personal feeling than the BlackBerry’s all-business ‘rolodex ‘ style of contact management.
Surfing the web is one of the areas where the Pre truly shines. The browser renders full web pages the way they would be seen on your computer, and lets you zoom in and out with ease. If you’ve ever seen the iPhone’s web browser and wished you could have that on your phone, the Pre is without question the device for you. But more relevantly for this article, if you are a BlackBerry user and have found yourself wondering why it is that RIM can’t seem to deliver a decent mobile browsing experience, you may not be able to go back to your old BlackBerry once you get your hands on the Pre.
Of course, no product is perfect and the Pre is no exception. Notwithstanding its amazing range of features, there are some things the Pre lacks.
Search: Though using the Pre’s Universal Search feature is good, it only comes with the ability to search the phone itself, Google, and Wikipedia from the search interface. Oddly, there is no way to add additional search providers.
Profiles (or lack thereof): One of the BlackBerry’s strengths is the ability to manage all of the various types of alerts for emails, calls, IMs, text messages, etc. You can set the behaviour for each one and specify that it do something different depending on whether it is in or out of its holster. The Pre on the other hand, lets you set the ringtone, and choose between silent and regular notifications. That’s it.
Out of Office Message: I love being able to set my Out of Office notification message from my BlackBerry, but the Pre doesn’t support this. Still unsure if this is a problem with the Pre itself or a lack of integration on the EAS side.
Notes: The BlackBerry treats its Notes section as an extension of Outlook – any notes you take on the BlackBerry are synced to Outlook and vice versa. The Pre’s notes function is divorced from the sync operation and doesn’t talk to Outlook at all. We’re not sure why this is.
Calendar Invites: This was a big surprise – you can schedule events in your calendar on the Pre, but you can’t invite anyone in your contacts to attend. It’s an especially puzzling omission given that it gives you the option to email all the attendees of a meeting to which you have been invited. Hopefully this is a bug that can be corrected on future releases of the Web OS.
Battery Life: It’s been mentioned by many reviewers already so I won’t belabour the point, but if you’re used to the BlackBerry’s incredible battery life, you will need to get used to recharging the Pre religiously every day. For some people, especially heavy mobile users, this is going to be an issue. One way to deal with it is to carry a spare battery with you (it can be swapped easily by remove the back cover). The other thing you can do is turn off any unnecessary connections e.g. Bluetooth, which could eat away at your battery. It’s also possible that Palm will be able to improve battery life with a combination of Web OS tweaks and perhaps a longer life battery.
Despite its drawbacks, the Pre is an amazing smartphone. Fun to use and even addictive after a while, it brings a sexy look to a category long-known for its function-over-form tendencies. For BlackBerry owners who can live with the compromises the Pre requires, it is an attractive option – especially given its new lower price of $150 on a 3 year contract. However die-hard BlackBerry fans who don’t want to give up any of its superbly integrated Exchange server features – or its legendary battery life – will find the trade-offs just too much to deal with.