I’ve been waiting for the Palm Pre for nearly a year. Sprint released it last summer, but Verizon waited until January. Why a Palm? I’ve been a loyal Palm PDA user for over a decade, from the original Pilot through the 700P. I’m also a fan of MS Outlook. I love having all 3,000 of my contacts on my phone, as well as my calendar, tasks, and notes. I want a phone that will sync with a local copy of Outlook (as opposed to an Exchange server), without requiring me to store all my data on Google. I’ve also depended on Vindigo, a Palm app that don’t seem to have an equivalent. (Unfortunately, Vindigo is a zombie app and probably on (past) its last legs, but I still love it. Here’s my lament.) I also like Verizon (as long as I’m traveling in the U.S.), so an iPhone is out. The Pre got great reviews and I wanted to try one. Here are my impressions after 1 week:
Look and Feel
I like the shape and size. The multitouch screen is beautiful. Here’s an in-depth review with specs and photos:
The screen is responsive most of the time, but doesn’t always figure out what I want to do (e.g., go back, switch apps, close an app). Clicking on text is much more challenging than with a stylus. It’s hard to highlight text or back up a few characters. (You can click the function key next to the letter Z (I gather it’s orange on Sprint’s model, but not on Verizon’s) to simulate arrow keys, but it’s still hard to move around. It can also be very difficult to click a hyperlink in the browser — I often need to zoom in before I can click properly.
The phone usually responds quickly as long as I’m not relying on wi-fi. I’ve found wi-fi response times to be wildly unpredictable (no surprise). They’ve ranged from instant to SLOOOOW, with many “white screens of death” when web apps freeze up. Even worse, some of the freeze-ups seem to have tossed my login credentials, making me reauthenticate to sites that recognized me moments before. I haven’t done enough testing to compare the web browser response over Verizon’s 3G network vs. wi-fi.
The phone clearly does not want to be turned all the way off. Doing so is a multi-step process, and restarting is very slow. It’s essentially a soft reboot. The equivalent of turning off the Treo is to put the phone in “airplane mode.” That disables phone functions and turns off wi-fi (you can then turn wi-fi back on). Airplane mode seems to be the best route to preserving the battery when you don’t need to make or get calls. Note that alarms will still sound in airplane mode unless you either set the phone to vibrate mode or disable alarm sounds in the calendar app. So if you keep your phone near your bed, think about whether you want the alarms on.
The keypad is full QWERTY but unlike the Treo it doesn’t have a number pad. Although the keypad appears to be the same size as on the Treo, the keys are tiny, closer together, and not as rounded. It’s much harder to type on the Pre. There’s an on-screen keypad for dialing phone numbers, but not for calendar entries, notes, texting, etc.
The Help documentation is stored online. If you’re in airplane mode and not connected to wi-fi you only have access to some quick tips. And if you’re in airplane mode and have a poor wi-fi connection, the Help entries can take forever to load.
It took me a while to figure out how to “back up” within apps and screens that lack a Back button. A right-to-left swipe across the gesture area would often fail to do the job. The trick is to swipe only halfway across the gesture area, starting from or stopping at the Center “button.”
The biggest drawback so far is that there’s no built-in way to search for text in calendar entries. I was trying to figure out the dates of an upcoming conference, but the only way to do that is to look at every day individually. There are weekly and monthly calendar views, but they only show colored bars to indicate events — no text, no way to hover to see what’s there. This is a huge step backward from older Palms and I hope they’ll fix it soon.
The best solution seems to be to sync my calendar with Google (less of a worry than storing my contacts there) and use the free Google Calendar Search app.
Sync with Outlook is a mandatory requirement for me. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as easy or intuitive as on old Palms. This seems like a huge step backwards for Palm. I had to try 3 products to find one that’s acceptable. Chapura’s PocketMirror, which I’ve used for years on older Palm OS products, was a big letdown. It will only sync via wi-fi, which I don’t feel I can rely on. In addition, the first sync took so long that I gave up–I finally killed it after 6 hours. I contacted Chapura tech support and got a quick response saying that subsequent syncs would have been almost instant, but since I don’t want to rely solely on wi-fi I decided it wasn’t worth further testing. Chapura says they have no plans to allow syncing via the USB cable. The Missing Sync is also wi-fi only, so I didn’t pursue that one. I’ve settled on CompanionLink, which is USB-only. I’ve got it working, but found it unintuitive at first, and the documentation wasn’t much help. Tech support took 3 days to respond to my support ticket, and only with questions, not answers. I finally had to call their support line — not a toll free call, BTW. The tech I reached was very helpful and provided good follow-up to some unresolved questions. I learned that syncing is a 2-step process — first you plug in the Pre and run the sync process on the PC. Then you unplug the cable and run the sync process on the Pre. And it seems like when you make a change on the Palm that you want replicated on the PC, you have to remember to first click Sync on the Palm app, then plug in the cable. In addition, notes & tasks sync to the CompanionLink app rather than the built-in Palm tools.
The easiest — and cheapest — way to sync is through Google. I gather that Google can sync notes and tasks, even though they don’t exist in Gmail or Google’s calendar. But I have confidential data in Outlook that I don’t want to store in the Cloud so I haven’t gone that route. (As noted above, I am going to try it with my calendar to address the search issue.)
Ideally, I’d like to be able to sync using either USB or wi-fi, depending on the situation. But no one seems to offer that.
NB: plugging in the USB cable requires opening a small port cover. The cover seems like something that’s sure to break off with repeated use. It’s easiest to open if you slide the keyboard out. I find that it’s difficult to plug the cable into the micro USB port — you have to find just the right angle.
The browser is tiny and hard to read. You can zoom but that puts a lot of screen real estate off-screen. I haven’t found an equivalent to CTRL+ (or the sadly departed Readibility) to increase font size without reducing screen size. Apparently some apps allow you to select the font size, but the built-in browser does not. Switching to landscape mode seems to be the best approach. But the physical keypad is only available in portrait mode, so I’ve found myself swapping back and forth.
WebOS apps or mobile versions solve many of these problems. I’m using apps or mobile pages for Facebook, YouTube, OpenTable, Google Maps, Twitter, and Yelp. But some seem crippled in comparison to their normal functionality. For instance, there’s no Share option for Facebook entries.
Setting up a Gmail account was incredibly simple – I just had to enter my login info and the Pre knew how to configure the account. Setting up my business POP account was only a bit harder: I had to supply the usual login and port info, and tell the phone what to do with messages I delete on the handheld. The Pre also gave me the choice of downloading email on a schedule or manually.
Texting and Chat
The text message app is straightforward, with the added bonus of being able to integrate with Google Talk and AIM. There isn’t an app for Facebook chat, but apparently you can just use your browser.
The Pre has 16GB of storage, but, unlike the Treo, you can’t add a storage card if you run out. The Pre also doesn’t include true media sync capability. In order to get my music onto the Pre I had to drag and drop it into the proper folder (and the Help files didn’t give a clue about which folder that should be — I had to search online to find that it’s the DCIM folder). It appears that changes to my music on my PC will not be picked up automatically — looks like you have to selectively copy the files, or overwrite the entire collection. In addition, the Pre stored most of my podcasts as albums, unlike my Zune which recognizes them as podcasts. I’ve read that there are 3rd party tools that will sync music with the Palm, but I haven’t had time to experiment.
The Palm media player itself is only average. You can select albums, artists, genres, songs, or playlists — so far so good. But when you choose an artist with multiple albums your only choice is either a single album or Shuffle All, which plays all the tracks in random order. Playing multiple albums by an artist in track order can be done, but is such a pain that it’s not worth the trouble. And I haven’t found a 3rd party media player that runs on the Pre.
The Pre doesn’t include voice memos or any other tool for recording audio through the mic. I used Audacity Audio to record meetings on my Treo, but it won’t work with the Pre. Apparently, Precorder, which is currently in Alpha release, will provide this feature.
The app catalog is hard to navigate. Searches return strange results. For instance, I searched for Google Voice (with and without quotes) and Google Voice wasn’t in the top 5 results. In fact, the word “Google” isn’t in the names of the top 5 results. The first result was BuildaSearch. Results also included “English-French Dictionary,” “Diet Control,” and “Chicago Football Fans.” Huh?
- Shape and size
- Screen quality
- Nice integration with Google and Google apps
- Multitouch screen with “gesture area”
- Works with Verizon
- Syncs with local installation of Outlook, including calendar, contacts, notes, and tasks (as long as you either sync them to Google or buy sync software)
- Syncs with POP and IMAP email
- Good text and IM integration
- GPS, accelerometer
- True multitasking
- Lots of apps
- Runs old Palm apps (requires buying the Palm Classic emulator
- Charges from USB cable or USB to A/C adapter
- Replaceable battery. Extended batteries available
- No built-in calendar search — have to use Google calendar & search app
- Built-in “Universal search” only performs limited searches
- Can be slow to load apps. Have experienced many frozen screens and apps.
- Syncing isn’t nearly as easy as on older Palms
- Web browser can be hard to read. No choice of font size.
- No removable storage (e.g., SD cards)
- Battery life. Not as terrible as I’d feared, but I’ll definitely be buying an extended battery.
Overall, I’m giving the Pre a “B”, but a few changes (like better search and a better media player and sync) could move it to an “A.”