Palm Pre review
We review the eagerly anticipated Palm Pre and see if it measures up to the maket-leading iPhone
Verdict: It's a top-notch smartphone with a genuinely fun UI but it feels like Palm still has a few tweaks to make before it can really take on the iPhone.
Price: Free with contract or £480 SIM-free
Pros: Multi-touch capacitive touch screen, Synergy, WiFi, GPS, HSDPA 3G, GPS, 3.5mm audio jack plug
Cons: QWERTY keyboard isn't as good as it should be, poor camera, no video recording, no onscreen keyboard, no memory expansion
Design: Sleek, shiny black pebble
Operating System: Palm webOS
More Info: Palm website
In the world of touchscreen smartphones the Apple iPhone has been top dog since it first appeared, but it's increasingly under threat from Windows Mobile, BlackBerry and Android devices which are steadily chipping away at its dominance. Now there's another serious player in the game with the much-hyped return of former smartphone star Palm to the fray.
Available exclusively from 02, the Pre marks Palm's return from the wilderness with a brand new operating system, a distinctive look and a raft of eye-catching features including a multi-touch screen, slide-out QWERTY keyboard, advanced data management, HSDPA 3G, WiFi, three-megapixel camera and GPS.
The Palm Pre certainly cuts a distinctive dash with its glossy black minimalist looks. It's compact at 101mm x 60mm x 17mm and 135g and the front is nearly all screen with just a gun-metal grey button below it (surrounded by a small, touch-sensitive 'gesture area') and a loudspeaker above. Around the sides is a matt black rubberised strip that holds a volume rocker, cover for the micro USB charge/sync slot, power button, screen lock switch and 3.5mm headphone jack – all of which are pretty hard to spot without looking closely. On the back is a large loudspeaker and the lens for the three-megapixel camera with LED flash and an embossed Palm logo.
The slider opens with a slight curve to reveal the four-line QWERTY keyboard beneath. Everything is crammed into 35 keys over four lines but though it's a little on the tight side, it's generally easy to use in practise, though its keys made of a slightly sticky-feel plastic are just a little too small and tightly packed to be easy to distinguish under the thumb.
The 3.1in touch screen offers 320 x 480 pixels and has the iPhone's multi-touch capability, allowing you to pinch and zoom when you're browsing the web or viewing pics – still all too rare a feature. It's sharp and clear, and every bit as sensitive as the iPhone's, making navigation a breeze.
Palm has clearly thought long and hard about creating a user interface that is genuinely different from its competitors. The kind of scrolling menus and lists that we've become familiar with are kept very much to a minimum, replaced by single pages which you brush between, either using the screen, or the 'gesture area' immediately below it.
That single button on the front shrinks the application you're in on the screen to reveal a menu bar at the bottom, giving you quick access to messages, phone, contacts, calendar and the apps menu. Open apps appear as pages that you can brush to left or right to browse through. When you want to close one you just flick it off the top of the screen. We were able to keep half a dozen apps running at once without any mishap, a tribute to the Pre's speedy OMAP3430 processor.
Another of Palm's big ideas is the 'Synergy' system which aims to make setting up your Pre's networking capabilities as painless as possible. One of the first things you're presented with when you start it up is options to subscribe to Google, Facebook or Microsoft Exchange. When you log into your account your contacts and calendar are immediately transferred to your phone. It's pretty clever about how it does it too – if you have the same contact in your Facebook and Google accounts it will roll their details into one entry rather than duplicate them.
The Palm Pre comes with HSDPA 3G for fast on-the-move Internet connection and WiFi for even faster broadband access. The onboard accelerometer flips the screen into landscape mode when you turn it on its side, pinch and zoom makes browsing easy and the sensitive touch screen had no difficulty distinguishing between our brushes and pushes. There's no Flash video support, but there is a YouTube app for viewing the site.
Palm's App Catalogue is no match for Apple's App Store (it's still in beta mode) but it's got a healthy, if not particularly profuse range, and given Palm's previous dominance of the apps market, there's plenty of potential for growth.
The camera has three megapixels with an LED flash but no zoom option. Surprisingly, there's no video recording capability either, which puts it firmly behind almost any other camphone you might care to name. It's actually one of the most basic cameras we've seen with no settings besides switching the zoom on or off and came as something of a shock after all the other hi-tech jiggery pokery.
Watching video on the Palm Pre's bright, sharp screen is a joy, though the format count is limited to MPEG-4, H.263 and H.264. The music player is functional but easy to use and the inclusion of a 3.5mm headphone jack is always a plus, as is A2DP Bluetooth for wireless headphones. It supports MP3, AAC, AAC+, AMR, QCELP and WAV audio files.
There's a generous 8GB of memory on board (though you only actually use 7GB for additional material) but unfortunately that's your lot, since there's no option to add memory cards.
Battery life was fairly good for a high-powered smart phone like this. It gave us almost two days of moderate use with WiFi switched on constantly.
The Palm Pre is a more than competent smartphone and full marks to Palm for attempting something that feels genuinely different. The interface is genuinely fun to use and it handles the majority of its tasks with ease. The Synergy feature makes importing and managing your contacts easy, the media functions are good, the browser is excellent and messaging is fine. We'd like to see a better camera next time round, some option for memory expansion and perhaps an improved keyboard, but Palm has shown it's definitely back in the game.