I’ve been using my original iPhone since early 2008 and use it every single day. But the iPhone isn’t necessarily the right phone for everyone: The pricy contracts, issues with carrier coverage, a preference for physical keyboards or an objection to Apple’s App Store policies are all reasons some users are looking to alternatives.
Take Germany for example. The iPhone is only available with a 2-year T-Mobile contract. The contracts T-Mobile Germany offers are significantly more expensive than comparable contracts from other providers, so alternatives such as the Palm Pre have received a fair amount of interest. In the US, the situation is similar, but it is primarily AT&T’s poor network performance that has customers looking at alternatives.
So the Pre might be less expensive and on a carrier with better coverage than the iPhone – but can Palm match the great overall user experience Apple offers?
Disclaimer: I received a 10-day loan of a Palm Pre review unit with Touchstone charger from O2 Germany to review, which was returned at the end of the review period. I received no other compensation and the opinions stated reflect my honest impressions. Having said that, if you like this review you can save a few bucks, support the site and buy your Palm Pre at Amazon.
There’s a lot to like about the Pre: Multitasking, the quick-launch bar, the messaging application and background notifications are just some features that I would welcome on the iPhone. Occasional slowdowns, poor build quality, a tiny keyboard and the smaller number and somewhat simpler nature of 3rd party apps means the Pre is just shy of being a true iPhone alternative. Here are my top pros and cons for both devices:
Your initial experience of opening a product can set the tone for your overall impression. Apple’s attention to detail really shows in this area and Palm’s legion of ex-Apple employees seem to have brought this thinking with them to Palm: The Pre comes in a sleek white box that is very clean and uncluttered. This packaging is somewhat marred though by the plastic wrapper with specs that O2 insists on wrapping it in. When you first turn on the device, you’re forced to create a Palm Profile before you can start using the device. The Pre then launches an interactive tutorial, that shows you how to navigate around its interface and explains some of the gestures. This is important, as WebOS requires the user to use gestures to navigate back through menus.
A nice mood-video completes the initial setup and does a good job of leaving the user with a good first impression of the device.
The device itself looks very attractive: the screen is flush with the body and the glossy black plastic enclosure is quite fetching. The back same glossy plastic is used on the default battery cover, which feels slightly slippery in your hand. Luckily, this can be swapped for the Touchstone-enabled back, which has a rubberized matte finish, that looks and feels much nicer. You can’t see where the screen ends and the housing begins when the screen is switched off, which gives the front a very smooth look. When closed, the Pre is a very nice size and fits nicely into your hand and most pockets.
The single button on the front of the device has a nice “clickiness” to it, but the other the physical buttons on the device are all very mushy and feel extremely cheap (the power button is particularly nasty). For a phone with this price tag, these buttons feel almost unacceptably junky. Luckily you won’t need them very often though.
The Pre’s slide-out keyboard is hidden by a sliding hinge mechanism, which is easy to open in one hand. When the keyboard is hidden though, the screen can be wobbled slightly – quite the contrast to the iPhone’s sturdy fit and finish.
The Pre’s USB connector is hidden behind a small plastic cover on the side of the device. The cover is flush with the rest of the casing, but this does make it a bit fiddly to open. Since you’ll need to open the cover quite a bit to charge the device (more on battery life later), I’d definitely recommend investing in the Touchstone wireless charger instead, to save yourself the hassle.
The device uses one of the various micro-USB connectors that you see on consumer electronics instead of a regular mini-USB jack. This means your existing USB cables probably won’t fit. If you plan on transferring media to the device on a regular basis, I’d recommend buying a second USB cable, as you’ll also need one to charge your Pre.
The standard 3.5mm headphone jack is nice. The Pre also comes with a wired headset, complete with a clicker for accepting calls and pausing or skipping music. The earbuds have little magnets on the side, so you can stick them together when not in use, which should help prevent the cord from tangling. The sound quality doesn’t quite match Apple’s earbuds though and the headset feels fairly cheap overall. Still, it’s nice to have and I hope we’ll see third party accessory makers offering compatible headsets in future.
One feature many smartphone users would like to see on the iPhone is a physical keyboard. I’ve only ever used T9 text input on a regular phone keypad, so the iPhone keyboard was actually a welcome step up for me and I had high hopes for the Pre.
The keyboard is fairly tiny, so it actually offers less typing space than the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard whilst the width of the keys is about the same. The only way I was able to accurately hit a key reliably, was by using the very tip of my thumb, which slows you down a bit. On the iPhone, I can just type away and worry less about hitting each key exactly. I also feel that typing special characters, such as an apostrophe, comma or period slows things down as well: the iPhone usually autocompletes these, or has a shortcut. On the Pre, you have to hunt for the modifier key first. With some autocomplete intelligence built-in, the keyboard would be far better.
To give you an idea of how fast I was able to type, here’s a short comparison video – but bear in mind that I have much more practise typing on the iPhone:
When Palm announced the Pre, the OS is what had everyone most excited. Palm had been floundering for years with several failed new OS projects, none of which were ever released. Palm OS was long overdue for an overhaul, but few people believed Palm would be able to produce anything to match the iPhone in the near future. Palm responded with WebOS – an entire mobile operating system built on web technologies and designed for a multi-touch interface.
WebOS feels quite snappy, but opening apps can be a little bit sluggish at times. This video demonstrates opening the phone app on both phones:
However, in contrast to Apple’s iPhone OS, WebOS is designed to enable application multitasking via it’s “card” metaphor. Open one application and it will take up your entire screen, just like iPhone apps do. But press the home button and the app will zoom out and you can launch another app beside it. You can then switch between two or more apps at any time with a simple press of the home button. Swiping up across a card closes the application.
Here’s multitasking in action:
Swipe and pinch are supported on the Pre just as you would expect from a multitouch device and it even has a few more tricks up its sleeve: Slide your finger up from the area around the home button (the “gesture area”) and you can bring up the Dock-like launch bar, for instant access to your 4 favorite apps. Swiping from right to left across the gesture area will take you back in menus and dialog screens. The back gesture could be a bit sluggish to respond at times and I don’t really a huge advantage over a soft, on-screen back button.
Unlike in the iPhone OS, taps are visualized by a small dot pointer and wave animation, that indicates exactly where you tapped (like a mouse pointer). Certain menu items, such as the wifi options in the menu bar require quite a bit of accuracy to hit, as the targets a quite a bit smaller than a finger. This is compensated somewhat by the visualization of your taps, but Apple’s approach of making every UI element in the iPhone OS finger-friendly is definitely a better solution. I sometimes found tapping UI elements in WebOS a bit challenging.
WebOS is also not quite as responsive as the iPhone OS. Scrolling in lists in just one example of the slight sluggishness you sometimes feel on the device. Overall though the responsiveness is still fairly impressive and the ability to open multiple apps makes up for the occasional slowdown.
My favorite feature in WebOS might be the global search feature. Unlike Spotlight on the iPhone, that requires you to go to the Spotlight home screen, global search doesn’t need any additional steps to get to: just open the keyboard and start typing to search within your applications and contacts. If no results are found on your phone, WebOS will offer to search Google, Google Maps, Wikipedia and Twitter.
The phone application is fine and the on-screen number pad for dialing without the physical keyboard is very useable. You can easily access your contacts and voicemail as well. Speaking of contacts, one of Palm’s heavily touted features is “Synergy” – the ability to sync and merge contacts from multiple sources. If you sign into your Google and Facebook accounts, those contacts will be displayed in a single unified list. Depending on how tidy you keep your Facebook contact list, this feature may vary in its usefulness.
This is a bit of a mixed bag. Similar to the “Synergy” feature for your contacts, the Pre displays SMS text messages and IM messages in a single application. This makes a lot of sense, but can be confusing at first. Overall AIM and text messaging worked pretty well though and it definitely beats the iPhone, which doesn’t offer IM support at all out of the box.
The mail application is fairly basic. It has a nice “favorite” feature, that allows you to create shortcuts to your most frequently used mail folders. But it lacks batch move and delete commands you’ll find on the iPhone. It does have more advanced attachment capabilities though, so you can grab documents, videos, audio files or pictures and attach them to any mail message. On the iPhone, you’ll need to go to the respective application and either copy & paste your attachment, or select the email option in the app.
The iPhone 2G only has EDGE (which is fairly slow), so I mostly stick to RSS readers and dedicated apps for mobile data access on the iPhone. Apps such as Netnewswire, Facebook or Tweetie have little overhead and load data fairly quickly – even on an EDGE connection. But browsing the web is usually too slow on EDGE to be of much use, so I was interested to see how much fast browsing over 3G on the Pre is. Truth be told I was slightly disapointed: webpages still took quite a long time to load and the browser is slightly more sluggish than the iPhone, so it wasn’t the leap forward I had hoped it would be.
The browser itself is webkit-based (as is WebOS itself) and is quite snappy. Scrolling isn’t quite as smooth as on the iPhone, but overall it’s a very capable mobile webbrowser.
I was asked by several iPhone 3G and 3GS users if the Pre’s battery life is any better than the notoriously power-hungry iPhone with 3G enabled. Whilst I don’t have exact measurements, I’d have to say probably not. My original iPhone can go about 2 days without a charge, but the Pre was usually nearing empty at the end of the day (and was probably being used less than I use my iPhone during that time). You could argue the Pre has an advantage due to its user-replaceable battery, but honestly for day-to-day use you don’t really want to have to rely on battery swaps. It is nice to know that when the battery reaches the end of its useable life, you can easily pop in a new one though.
Palm includes a handful of common apps with the Pre, but you can also download & install additional apps via the Palm App Catalog. The Catalog currently only has about 1000 apps, but you’ll already find apps for a lot of popular sites and services. I downloaded apps for Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, weather, music services etc. and found them all to be quite useable. Strangely enough, the App catalog has a lot of subcategories, despite some of them being empty. I understand this may be due to regional restrictions, but it does seem as though the subcategories are far too detailed considering most general categories often only had a handful of apps.
The apps that were available all felt slightly less sophisticated than comparable iPhone applications – Facebook can only display and post to your news feed for example, as opposed to the near-complete experience its iPhone counterpart offers. The twitter applications I tried were similarly limited. Most of the time, they offered the main functionality I was looking for though, so they serve their purpose. The WebOS SDK is also less mature than Apple’s iPhone SDK (don’t forget, it is already in its third iteration), so I’d expect to see the apps improve in future. But by design, WebOS will only ever offer an experience comparable to a web app (but as webapps become increasingly sophisticated, this limitation will become less significant).
Since 3rd party applications can run in the background on WebOS, it doesn’t need the klutzy push notification system you’ll find on the iPhone to send you messages or updates that you receive whilst using another app. Notifications appear along the bottom edge of the screen and tapping a notification will open the corresponding app. Occasionally I also received notifications for applications that I had closed, but I guess that feature is limited to Palm’s own Mail and Messaging applications.
This is one area that Palm doesn’t really compete in at all. While the Pre launched with iTunes compatibility, a few iTunes updates soon put a stop to that practice, so the Pre now only shows up as a regular mass-storage device. You can easily drag music, videos and images to the corresponding folders on the device, but that still leaves you with no way to manage applications, podcasts, purchases etc. I know some users prefer the ability to manually manage content on a device, but I think nowadays most users will prefer the iPod-like syncing offered on the iPhone.
The Pre is a great phone. But is it better than the iPhone? I’d have to say no. Launching apps and most UI interactions feel quite a bit more sluggish on the Pre than on the iPhone (and remember – I’m comparing it to my original iPhone, which is considerably slower than the new 3GS). Whilst this isn’t a huge deal breaker, it does emphasize that most other smartphones can’t match the overall quality of presentation the iPhone OS offers. Web OS is very pretty and there’s plenty of love and polish on display – but it’s just not quite as polished as iPhone OS.
The apps are also just slightly less sophisticated, which seems at odds with the slightly more advanced gestures and multitasking support in WebOS. It’s a geekier, sleeker smartphone, but the apps seem better suited to less demanding casual users.
If the iPhone isn’t an option for you, the Pre is a great device. It has a lot of the features that make the iPhone special and is almost definitely a step up from your current phone. But if I had to choose, the iPhone is still an easy pick.
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