THE PALM PRE is one of the most anticipated smartphones of the year, offering a modern, gesture-driven user interface, built-in access to an online application store, and an operating system built around user information and the web.
Available in the UK from 16 October on the O2 network, the Pre is the first handset with Palm's new WebOS platform, which features multi-tasking capabilities, extensive support for messaging, and tight integration between its built-in applications so that users can easily see information such as contact details aggregated from various sources.
In terms of specifications, the Pre is a quad-band GSM phone with 3G/HSDPA support at up to 3.6Mbit/s and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi for internet access. It also has Bluetooth support for wireless headsets. Its display is a 3.1in touch screen with 320x480 resolution. It also has GPS capability for location-based services, such as the built-in Google Maps, and an accelerometer that senses if you rotate the device and changes the display to match.
Comparisons with the Iphone are inevitable, and based on our tests we believe the Pre is easily a match for Apple's device; it weighs the same (135g), its gesture-based user interface is equally easy to use, and it has built-in access to an online application store (the Palm App Catalog).
Where the Pre beats the Iphone is on size; it is smaller in each dimension (59.5mm x 100.5mm) except thickness (16.95mm), where it is a few millimetres larger, and its rounded shape makes the Pre more comfortable to hold. It also has a slide-down Qwerty keypad that makes messaging much easier and more convenient than using an on-screen soft keyboard.
However, like the Iphone, the Pre lacks a memory card slot to expand on its built-in storage, but whereas newer versions of the Iphone have 16GB or 32GB, the Pre has only 8GB as standard.
Key points for consumers are that the Pre can not only link to your Facebook or Gmail account, but can import contacts and calendar events directly from these services.
It also features a combined messaging application, so that users can start a conversation in instant messaging, and reply with a text message, for example.
For business users, the key points are that the Pre can receive push email from Microsoft Exchange email servers, and ships with a PDF reader and Doc View, an application that lets you read attachments in Word, Excel and PowerPoint formats, with Office 2003 and Office 2007 versions both supported.
The latter is actually a version of the Documents To Go technology from DataViz, and this company said that it intends to offer Pre users an upgrade version with full editing capabilities later this year.
The Pre itself is about the size of a bar of soap and, as delivered, came with a tiny mains adapter, a wired headset, USB cable to link to a computer, and a small carrying pouch to protect the phone. There is also a Getting Started guide that gives very basic information on the phone and the gestures used in its interface.
External controls are kept to a minimum on the Pre. It has volume up/down buttons on the left, and a mute switch on the top, next to the on/off button. The right side has a small flap covering the microUSB connector, and a single centre button is located beneath the screen.
Turning on the phone for the first time, a new user needs to set their language and personal profile for Palm Services, through which the data held on the Pre is backed up to a repository operated by Palm and is also how software updates are delivered. A valid email address is required to setup a profile.
We were warned by Palm that users must check the box to agree to the terms and conditions of Palm Services. Declining to do so will result in having to return the phone to the store, we were told. This seems like a perverse feature to us, and seems to be inviting trouble with users who do not always read such screens before hitting the 'next' button.
Palm Services is designed to allow users to transfer data easily to a new WebOS phone, and users will also be able to sign into a web site with their profile and remotely wipe the handset if it's lost or stolen, according to Palm, but this feature was not available at the time of writing.
You can also choose whether location-aware apps such as Google Maps can automatically access your location information. If not, the app must ask you each time you use it.
In use, we were impressed by the Pre's bright and clear 3.1in screen and the WebOS user interface, which in some ways resembles that of a desktop computer rather than a phone.
For example, you can keep many different applications and windows open at the same time (although Palm warns that some apps will drain the battery if left open, such as those using GPS) and simply flick from one to the next with a swipe of the thumb or finger.
The main screen is very clean and spartan, with just a Quick Launch menu bar along the bottom. By default this has icons for phone, contacts, email, calendar and the Launcher, which displays all available applications and features. All except the Launcher can be swapped for a different application, if the user desires.
When an application launches, it typically fills the display. However, a small centre button below the screen shrinks it to what is known as the card view, where you can see the background screen and any other open applications.
From the card view, you can close an application by simply flicking it upwards off the screen, and it disappears with a faint whooshing sound. This is quite satisfying, but still requires more steps to perform than simply hitting a close button, as you would on a platform such as Windows Mobile.
From card view, you can also search for any item on the phone by simply ty ping a word, similar to the search capabilities in Windows Vista.
This is where the Pre's secret weapon is revealed: its flip-down Qwerty keypad. This has small, slightly rubbery keys akin to those on Palm's older Treo Pro, but they have a distinct gap between them that reduces the chances of hitting the wrong key. We found we could thumb type with no difficulty on the Pre, which makes it much more convenient to compose emails and text messages.
As well as the screen, there is a touch-sensitive 'gesture area' immediately beneath it. This is used to go back in the web browser or up a level in other applications by swiping from right to left.
The web browser also lets you zoom in in a similar manner to Apple's Iphone, by placing your finger and thumb on the screen and moving them apart to 'stretch' the page, or zoom out by bringing them together.
The browser itself also works very well. We found it displayed web pages such as V3.co.uk and the BBC's news site pretty much as you would see it on a desktop computer, and we could pan and zoom around pages effortlessly by using a fingertip. However, there is currently no Flash support in the browser.
We found the gestures used to operate the Pre quickly became second nature, although those new to touch devices might find them a little confusing at first.
However, the use of gestures is not always consistent. Swiping in the gesture area shrinks to the card view in some applications, rather than going back. Some applications (such as Doc View) also do not change orientation when you rotate the device, while many of the Palm apps do. It is also easy to accidentally trigger some function you did not mean to, a problem we've found with other touch-based smartphones.
Another niggle is performance. While the Pre is generally very responsive, there is a pause of several seconds between tapping an application icon and the app itself opening. We also found that the Pre did not always recognise that we had tapped an icon. The phone itself also takes a very long time to start up; we timed it at over a minute and a half from pressing the power button.
Like many other phones, the Pre has multimedia support for music, pictures and video. Its video app comes with a short sample movie and can play Mpeg-4, H.263 and H.264 formats, and also comes with a separate dedicated app for viewing YouTube content.
The music library app supports several formats, including MP3, AAC and WAV, and is supposed to be able to sync with downloaded music stored in Apple's iTunes app on a computer. However, at the time of writing, there is an ongoing battle between the two companies, with Apple updating iTunes so it does not sync with the Pre, then Palm updating the Pre so synchronisation works again.
However, users can transfer files simply by connecting the Pre to a computer and copying them across. When connected, it asks if you want to do a media sync, just charge the phone, or have it appear to be a USB drive. If you choose the latter, you can simply drag and drop files onto the Pre.
Palm's Pre App Catalog enables users to browse the available applications, and has perhaps about 100 or so titles. This is far fewer than the thousands available on Apple's App Store, and is one area that Palm will need to address soon if it wants the Pre to compete against the iPhone.
We were impressed with the Pre's 3-megapixel camera, which produced lovely clear snaps in our tests, and we would rate it as among the best we have seen on a smartphone.
Another way that the Pre is like a PC or Mac is that it has been designed to be always connected. Depending on the available bandwidth, the Pre automatically backs up data on the phone to a user's Palm Services account, and also pulls down updates to the operating system.
We asked Palm for some information regarding the amount of data traffic that this might produce and how it might impact users, but the company had not responded by the time of publication.
However, Pre users do not have to rely on just their 3G connection. The device will automatically connect to any Wi-Fi hotspot it recognises and make use of the greater bandwidth. In fact, Palm recommends that users leave Wi-Fi turned on, and claimed that communicating this way actually uses less power than HSDPA.
Another point worth noting is that O2 is offering Pre buyers unlimited Wi-Fi access to BT Openzone and The Cloud hotspots as part of its tariffs, so users in urban areas should be able to find a connection fairly easily.
Also worth mentioning is Palm's Touchstone charging dock, which uses induction to recharge the device without having to physically plug it in. The dock is shaped like a small truncated cylinder with a sloping face, and plugs into the Pre's mains adapter. Users also need a matching Touchstone back cover, which replaces the one supplied with the phone. These are available together for £44.11 from O2.
To charge, users are supposed to simply place the Pre on the dock, whereupon it magnetically snaps into place and starts charging. However, this simply did not work with our review unit, despite Palm supplying us with a replacement dock and charging back.
The Pre's battery life is officially rated at up to five hours of talk time and 300 hours on standby, but we had to recharge the device several times during our tests, which lasted less than a week.
In price, the Pre will be free for consumers signing up to a 24-month contract with tariffs of £34.26 or greater, while business customers can get the Pre under current O2 business tariffs as a monthly bolt on, or at no extra cost for tariffs of £30.91 and above on a 24-month or 36-month contract.
Palm's Pre is a very impressive smartphone that ticks all the right boxes. It has a responsive, simple-to-use touch interface and links with social media and messaging services. Add to that the QWERTY keyboard and support for Microsoft Exchange, and the Pre could also prove attractive as a business client. µ
Intuitive gesture-based user interface
No memory card slot
Long boot time.
App store still woefully under populated.