My Palm Real Reviewer stint, which lasts for about 6 months, started a couple weeks ago. The device they currently have me using is the Palm Pre, the first smartphone running Palm's all-new webOS handheld operating system.
As a long-time (since early 1996) veteran of Palm OS devices -- really, I can honestly say that I can count on two hands the number of days since May of 1996 that I've gone without relying on a Palm OS device for something -- adapting to an entirely new platform had me a bit apprehensive. But, as Palm OS is going the way of OS/2 and CP/M, I'm forced to move to something, and the Pre is pretty enticing. So, this is my first attempt at summarizing some of the highs and lows of the Palm Pre and webOS, especially as it compares to my previous phone, the Palm Centro.
1. Man, the Palm Pre is teensy! Coming from Treos weighing down my pants over the past several years, I thought the Centro was rather petite, but the Pre makes the Centro look downright beefy. Shorter, narrower, thinner, and lighter, the Pre is very compact and feels nice in the hand.
2. The slider is a bit of a hassle. Having been on Treos and a Centro since the Treo 300 first came out in late 2002, I've gotten used to having a physical QWERTY keyboard on my phone. In fact, that's reason #1 why I didn't consider getting an iPhone. Having used one (my sister's) a fair amount, plus hands-on time in the Apple store, I just didn't feel comfortable with the virtual keyboard. When it comes to typing speed and tactile feedback, there's no substitute for physical buttons. However, when closed, the Pre has only one button (which brings up the cards view) visible. To access the keyboard, it has to be slid out from underneath the display. Yes, that's reasonably easy to do and I'm getting increasingly used to doing it, but it's still not as convenient as having the keys accessible all the time. The trade-off, of course, is the extra height of the display that might have to be given up. Those extra 160 pixels are very handy, so I'm not sure this isn't a great trade-off. More time is needed for me to make up my mind on this aspect. I do like the keyboard, however...very easy and comfortable to type on, in my opinion.
3. Multitasking FTW! Seriously...I had no idea how much I'd come to love multitasking on the Palm Pre. The card view in webOS makes it incredibly easy to switch between tasks, something my old Palm OS devices never did. Opening a new app closed the previous one, sometimes losing state information, which made it less than convenient. For example, if I wanted to add a phone number for someone to a calendar entry, I'd have to stop editing the calendar item, open the addressbook, find the person, copy the phone number, open the calendar back up, navigate back to the day and event I was editing, open it for editing again, and paste the number in. With the Pre, when I use Universal Search to find the contact, I can open that entry and copy the phone number while keeping the calendar event open for editing. This is so much more efficient and convenient than non-multitasking Palm OS was. And, as I have used Windows Mobile devices off and on over the years, even though WinMo does multitask, it doesn't let the user switch among running tasks nearly as fluidly as webOS does.
4. Comparing the Pre to the Centro is interesting. There are loads of really cool things the Pre can do that the Centro cannot (e.g., GPS, multitasking, widescreen video, Synergy-based PIM syncing, etc.). However, there are several little things the Centro can do that the Pre cannot...yet. For example, here's a short list of functions that come to mind as missing on the Pre (although I'm entirely optimistic that all these minor issues will be resolved in due time, either by Palm or by a developer):
Can't copy text or images from websites and emails (the browser and email app don't permit that).
Controlling the email client with keyboard shortcuts (I was a dedicated Snappermail user, which has very powerful keyboard commands to facilitate rapid processing of one's Inbox...the Pre is missing all that and relies entirely on gestures and on-screen button presses, which are slower).
Heavy customization via 3rd party apps/hacks (For example, one app I always used on my Treos and Centro was KeyCaps600, which let you capitalize a letter when typing by using a long key press and get the symbol for a key by hitting it twice quickly. That's an incredibly convenient function and one I still miss dearly on the Pre).
Video recording. Why is that not enabled on the Pre? It has a much better camera and loads more storage space than my Centro...so why no video recording?
Miscellaneous settings (e.g., font size) in most apps
Emoticons in chat (my wife and I both thought the ones on Palm OS were cute...why'd they go away?)
Universal search into email messages, calendar events, tasks, and memos (this seems like a pretty obvious "to be added" item on Palm's engineering checklist)
5. The camera is WONDERFUL. I use the camera on my phone a lot...over a thousand photos in my personal collection show up as having been taken on a Pre or Centro. The 3-megapixel camera (with LED flash, even) on the Pre is terrific. Here's a shot I took out my front door just now as an example:
6. So far, I miss my expansion storage slot much less than I thought I would. I always used the SD card in my Treos very heavily, such as for capturing photos and video, storing off-board apps, and keeping some media handy. One use case where I missed it so far was when I wanted to copy a bunch of photos I took with the Pre's camera to my PC. I had to break out the USB cable, which I don't always have with me. Before, I could just pop out the SD or MicroSD card and insert that into my PC's card reader. Maybe they're equally convenient, but my laptop has an SD card reader built in, yet I'd have to carry a microUSB cable with me to connect the Pre. One offsetting feature the Pre has is the ability to upload to photo-sharing websites, such as Photobucket and Facebook, directly from the photo viewer. My Centro could kinda-sorta do that with Facebook, but not as simply and elegantly as the Pre does.
7. It's a really FUN device to use. The UI is gorgeous and nearly everything is quite intuitive, so it's no problem getting the hang of operating the phone. I can hand it to people and most can do whatever they like with minimal intervention/instruction from me. Getting it back from them is usually the hardest part. :-)
8. Unified IM/SMS is quite nice. Being able to easily switch back and forth between IM (e.g., Google Talk or AIM) and texting/SMS is nifty, especially since it shows each of your contacts as a threaded "conversation" regardless of how each message was sent or received.
9. Battery life could be better. I've found some settings (e.g., set email polling to "as messages arrive" to rely on push rather than an "every 15 minutes" type pull) that give better performance for me and am now able to get through a full day with room to spare on the battery meter. I can't go 2 days like I did with the Centro, but I tend to charge nightly anyway. Given all the tech the Pre has that the Centro doesn't (e.g., Wi-Fi, 8GB of RAM, GPS, an HVGA screen, etc.), yet they use the same 1150mAh battery, it's not surprising that the Pre's battery life is a bit worse. But that just gives me an excuse to get one of those nifty Touchstone wireless chargers. And, hey, at least I can swap in a new battery in a pinch.
10. Included out-of-the-box is a pretty nice variety of apps. One I was especially surprised and pleased by is Sprint Navigation, which basically is all the best features of a GPS unit (e.g., real-time 3-D and 2-D mapping with street name pronunciation and multiple route calculation modes). But, there's so much potential here that I cannot WAIT for the flood of apps to hit once the webOS SDK is officially launched and Palm's App Catalog is opened to the public. Based on talking with some devs I know who have access to the SDK, it's really easy to get an app fleshed out and working, so I expect we'll see a small tidal wave of stuff come out in the latter parts of 2009. And that's about when Palm and Adobe should be bringing Flash support to the Pre, which will make some really interesting apps (especially games) possible.
Overall, based on about 2 weeks of having a Palm Pre in my pocket every day, I think it is a very, very promising piece of gear and webOS is poised to be a major platform for years to come. If you have specific questions about the user experience you'd like me to address in future posts, please leave a comment. And, if you're a Twitter user, you can catch some of my shorter comments about the Pre by following CRA1G. Thanks!