Palm’s Pre, Plussed: The Technologizer Review

The second pass on the Pre isn't a whole new phone--but it's still one of the best smartphones to date.

By Harry McCracken | Posted at 1:28 pm on Monday, March 1, 2010

From time to time, I’ve called Palm’s Pre the Most Interesting Smartphone That Isn’t the iPhone. It’s now been almost nine months since the Pre debuted on Sprint, and a bunch of other formidable handsets have since appeared, such as the Verizon Droid and Google Nexus One. But thanks to its exceptionally inventive WebOS software and distinctive form factor, the Pre still holds its own.

Now the Sprint Pre has been joined by the Pre Plus, which runs on Verizon Wireless and began shipping in January. After I recently said I was flirting with abandoning my AT&T iPhone, Palm offered to loan me a Plus for review. Here’s my take, following up on the story I did on the original Sprint Pre back in June. Executive summary: the Pre Plus isn’t a radically different phone from its predecessor, but it’s still a really good one–and while the WebOS third-party application situation pales in comparison to the iPhone, it’s better than I expected judged on the number of available apps alone.

(Note: Over the weekend, Palm pushed out WebOS 1.4, an OS upgrade that enables video capture and which supports Adobe’s Flash Player. However, it’s n0t yet available for Verizon’s WebOS phones, the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus, and I haven’t tried it.)

The Hardware
Most next-generation smartphones are decidedly iPhone-esque–they look like the iPhone with a slide-out keyboard, or like the iPhone with a trackball. Or they just look like the iPhone, period. Physically, the Pre Plus is a near-twin of the Pre, and it continues to offer a choice, not an echo. At 2.3″ by 3.9″ by .67″, it’s strikingly smaller and more phonelike than the slablike iPhone. It fits well in the hand–it’s a great one-handed phone which you can navigate entirely with your thumb if you choose–and slips easily into pockets.

A smaller phone means a smaller screen: The Pre Plus retains the Pre’s 3.1″ display, vs. the iPhone’s much more expansive 3.5″ one. But at 320 by 480, the more petite screen has the same resolution as the iPhone, giving it the same pixel density as the higher-resolution Verizon Droid. Photos and type look gorgeous.

In general, both the built-in Palm apps and third-party ones do a good job of scaling their interfaces to the Pre’s undersized display; it rarely feels cramped. The only time I pined for something larger was when I was read blogs, news stories, and other wordy Web pages. For those, I opted for the Plus’s landscape mode. And I don’t think I’d want to use the phone for truly heavy-duty consumption of text, such as reading e-books–which is one reason why I’m not grief-stricken that there’s no Kindle app for WebOS.

The Plus’s physical changes compared to the first Pre are all minor: The home button on the phone’s front has been replaced by a glowing virtual slit, the keyboard has been tweaked (with a firmer feel and new monochrome look), and the sliding mechanism, which some criticized as flimsy, is more solid. The phone also comes with a back that’s compatible with Palm’s nifty Touchstone charging station as standard equipment; with the original Pre, it was an extra-cost option.

Its keyboard is…okay. Using it still feels a bit like jabbing at Jelly Bellies, and the phone’s narrow width makes two-thumbed typing slower going than with a BlackBerry. I’m not going to argue that it’s inherently superior to the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard. But I like it much better than the Verizon Droid’s wider, flatter keyboard. And I still think that one unappreciated virtue of physical keyboards is the way they free up all of a phone’s pixels for other stuff. When you compose an e-mail on an iPhone, the on-screen keyboard leaves a tiny window for your text; on the Pre Plus, the whole display is available.

Inside the phone, Palm has doubled the RAM (to 512MB) and the storage memory (to 16GB). I found that the Plus’s performance felt similar to that of the first Pre: pretty zippy overall except when loading a program into memory, which is surprisingly slow at several seconds per app. The increased RAM should help the Plus multitask more apps without bogging down; the more generous storage is a plus if you plan to load the phone up with music, movies, and/or podcasts.

I didn’t attempt to measure the Pre Plus’s battery life, but I did notice that I had to use it somewhat cautiously to get through a full day on one charge. Palm quotes the talk time as up to 5.5 hours and standby as 350 minutes (both the original Pre and the iPhone 3GS claim up to 5 hours of talk time and 300 minutes of standby).

The Software
Palm’s operating system, WebOS, is still pretty much the same one that the company unveiled in January of 2009. Which is a compliment, not a criticism: In terms of ingenuity, elegance, and efficiency, it remains the only mobile operating system that truly rivals Apple’s iPhone OS.

Actually, in multiple ways WebOS feels like a hybrid of the most appealing aspects of iPhone OS and Google’s Android, without their downsides. Like the iPhone, it looks beautiful, offers full multi-touch support, and lets you navigate around mostly through intuitive gestures. (Most Android devices still don’t do multi-touch, and the OS is burdened with too many buttons, menus, and inconsistent ways of accomplishing tasks.) Like Android, it multitasks–but with the ingenious Card interface that makes it a snap to bop between apps:

WebOS’s Synergy feature, which melds contact and calendar information from Outlook, Google, Facebook, and other sources, isn’t quite as unique as it once was–Android 2.0 has cribbed some aspects of it, such as integration of Facebook friends into its contact database. But it’s still the richest expression of the idea. (For instance, Android’s version lacks Synergy’s LinkedIn integration.) And it helps to make the Pre Plus especially appealing if you’re buying a phone primarily as a tool to help you whip through busy workdays as efficiently as possible. So does WebOS’s to-do list–for some reason, iPhone OS and Android still don’t come with task management as a standard feature.

The one major new feature in the Pre Plus that really is a new feature rather than a tweak or hardware upgrade is Mobile Hotspot. It’s a twist on tethering that turns the Pre Plus into a pocketable Wi-Fi router, much like Novatel’s MiFi. The feature costs an extra $40 a month for 5GB of data–twenty bucks less than you’d pay for access via a MiFi or USB modem–and is a cakewalk to use. Once you’ve set a password, you just turn Mobile Hotspot on, then connect to it from your laptop as you would to any Wi-Fi hotspot. (It supports connections from up to five simultaneous devices.)

Mobile Hotspot isn’t going to replace a separate EVDO modem for everybody. In my tests, it was slower than a USB-stick Verizon modem, giving me a connection that ran at slightly under 400-kbps vs. 500-kbps for the stick. Verizon’s CDMA network won’t let you use the hotspot and talk on the phone at the same time: If you take a call, the Internet connection cuts out until you’re done. And the feature guzzles battery power (a Palm representative suggested to me that it makes sense to keep the Pre Plus connected to a laptop via USB cable during hotspot sessions).

If AT&T ever gets its act together and lets iPhone owners simultaneous talk and tether their laptops, Mobile Hotspot may seem limited by comparison. For now, though, it’s a reason for iPhone types to be (mildly) jealous of Pre Plus owners.

One area where no iPhone user will envy Pre Plus owners is entertainment features. WebOS still offers a basic music player and video player, plus on-device access to Amazon’s MP3 store. But this is still a phone that focuses on productivity with a dash of fun, not a media-centric device like the iPhone. And now that Palm’s quixotic attempt to make WebOS devices sync directly with iTunes seems to be over, the OS could also use a media-syncing app for Windows and OS X. (I used the free DoubleTwist to transfer music, video, and podcasts; it worked just fine.)

Oh, and for what it’s worth: The Pre Plus performed well as a phone in my tests. Voice quality was consistently very good, and I didn’t experience any dropped calls.

The Apps
WebOS may be an outstanding platform, but any OS is only as good as the applications that run on it. Palm’s OS has gotten off to a sluggish start in terms of sheer number of third-party software: The Pre Plus’s App Catalog store currently offers a little over 1500 programs. That’s approximately one percent as many as are in Apple’s iPhone App Store and five percent as are available for Android.

I judged the apps available for the Pre Plus mostly by searching for them and downloading them as my needs and desires demanded. WebOS has Facebook (albeit a much more basic version than is available on the iPhone). It’s got Foursquare and Evernote. Slacker, my favorite Internet radio service, hit WebOS last month. Twee doesn’t rival the iPhone Twitter-client masterwork Tweetie, but it’s at least as good as any Twitter client I’ve found for Android. Google’s Web-based Google Voice client only sort of worked–I couldn’t play back voicemail–but then I discovered that I like a third-party Google Voice client called gDial Pro better than Google’s own program for Android. A bunch of 3D games have recently become available for the Pre and Pre Plus; I tried EA’s Monopoly and found it identical to the iPhone version. (Except for the price: It’s $6.99 on Palm’s phones and $4.99 on the iPhone.)

In short, the App Catalog doesn’t remotely rival the bountiful supply of outstanding apps available for the iPhone, but it’s not an unmitigated disaster, either. And it feels closer to Android in terms of availability of good stuff than the raw numbers suggest. The biggest gaps are in arcane-but-useful areas. With the iPhone, for instance, you can choose from multiple apps designed to help you ride your way through Disneyland and Disney World without waiting too long in line. WebOS, doesn’t even have one such program.

One usability quibble: I don’t understand why the App Catalog returns search results sorted by rating rather than name–which frequently leaves the app you searched for somewhere other than at the top of the list:

The Future

Finally, there’s the question of Palm itself. It’s a smallish outfit competing against giants like Apple and Google, and its faces its share of challenges. Should phone shoppers ponder the state of the company as they consider buying a Pre Plus?

Sure, because the Web OS platform needs a critical mass of handset sales to thrive: The more phones that Palm sells, the more incentive developers have to get excited. The arrival of WebOS devices on Verizon is good news in this regard. So will be their arrival on AT&T later this year. More WebOS phones would help, too–I don’t want Palm to dump the Pre and Pixi models for a more iPhone-like design, but a full-touch keyboardless model with a higher-resolution screen would be a nice addition to the lineup.

Among tech pundits, predicting doom and gloom for Palm is a national pastime of long standing. (Here’s one typical story declaring it to be toast. It dates from early 2003, before the company made phones at all.) I’m not going to make any predictions here about the fate of the company and its products, but I do know this: I very much want WebOS and WebOS phones to do well in the marketplace. Palm has one of the best mobile operating systems on the planet, and it’s making some nice phones.

The Pre Plus isn’t perfect, but there’s an awful lot of fresh thinking packed inside its diminutive case. It’s one of the handful of phones I’d suggest as a contender to almost anyone who’s in the market for a new smartphone.