Geek Foibles


Smartphone impressions: Palm Pre
November 19, 2009, 3:10 pm
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As a former Palm OS user, the Palm Pre is a phone I’ve been really looking forward to using. Years ago I had a Handspring Visor, then a Sony CLIÉ.  Even once I usurped them with a cell phone that could sync all my organizer data, I lusted after the Palm Treo 600 and 650.  After a few years of Palm’s wheel-spinning the iPhone came along and their anemic offerings lost their appeal, but I’ve still kept a soft spot for Palm-related things.  So when in January Palm revealed webOS, I was stoked.  The multitasking, web-based app development and iPhone-like multitouch gestures all hooked me, and I was ready to get it into my grubby little hands.

Holding it in said grubby hands at the Sprint store last night, I was pleased with the build of the phone.  It felt more solid than the CLIQ, and it seemed to have fewer little bits of plastic joined together, thus resulting in a more rigid feel.  It’s still a slider, which I’m not a big fan of build-wise, but it was still an improvement over my last experience in that regard.

The screen was very impressive.  It’s definitely the brightest of any phone I’ve seen so far, easily outperforming the one in my iPhone and any of the other phones on display there in the Sprint store.  Pictures and video looked great on it, better than on my iPhone.  Even though the display is the same resolution (320×480), it’s a good bit smaller dimension-wise so I have to squint a little harder at it if I’m not wearing my glasses (which I don’t 90% of the time).  For this reason I wish the screen were a little bigger, but it’s certainly not a dealbreaker.

I liked webOS a lot.  Any degree of multitasking is welcome, and webOS delivers in spades.  I’ve always been curious how other mobile operating systems handle opening all these different things when they only have ~256MB of memory at their disposal, so I put it through its paces by opening lots of apps and browser windows simultaneously and switching between them.  I opened about 8 different “cards” and didn’t notice any significant performance hit, so webOS’s ingenious method of having all apps being nothing more than a window in a browser seems to pay off in terms of performance.  One thing that always irks me on the iPhone is that while you can open multiple windows in Safari, the phone won’t keep the page in more than one loaded for very long.  I assume this is due to memory constraints, and if window number two needs more memory it will forget the content of window number one so that two can do what it needs.  I understand the technical practicality of this, but it’s still frustrating when you’re trying to flip back and forth between two windows and it will have to reload the first one because it forgot its content.  I did try having several browser windows open on the Pre, each displaying a page with a large number of individual pictures (the sort of page the iPhone is prone to forget) and it did maintain the content of each page for several minutes of testing.  After I’d opened a bunch of other apps and gotten up to about 8 different cards it finally forgot the content of the first browser card I opened (I assume for the same reason the iPhone does), but it definitely fared better than the iPhone in that regard.

The interface wasn’t as responsive as the CLIQ’s was.  Like my iPhone 3G there was a slight, fraction-of-a-second delay on a lot of taps, but I didn’t experience any of the frustratingly long (e.g. 1+ second) pauses like I do regularly on my iPhone.  I experienced a complete phone crash while watching the demo video that was on the phone.  It was playing for several seconds, then the frame abruptly froze and the phone became unresponsive.  Tapping the button to go back to the home screen did nothing, and after a few seconds the phone simply restarted itself, presenting me with the Palm boot screen.  While it could totally be a one-off glitch, I can’t say that webOS’s built-in media player crashing the whole device while playing Palm-supplied content left me with a flawless impression of the Pre’s stability.

I did the same network tests that I did on the CLIQ, trying to get a feel for Sprint’s EV-DO network.  Pings were startlingly low, averaging about 140ms.  This was really impressive for someone used to the 240+ ms pings on UMTS networks.  However, Sprint’s actual transfer speed wasn’t impressive.  I did about ten tests and got widely divergent results.  While two were in the 800kbps range, most were down around 500kbps, two even lower.  It definitely wasn’t as consistent as T-Mobile, or even as consistent as AT&T.  But AT&T definitely has bad days, and maybe I just caught Sprint at an off moment.  Not a great impression in terms of bandwidth, though.  Real-world testing in the browser yielded average results, more or less on par with my iPhone 3G.  It loaded pages well without any noticeable hiccups (it got the page the CLIQ didn’t) but wasn’t as snappy as the CLIQ had been.  The presence of multitouch was very welcome in the browser, though, as I forgot to mention in my CLIQ review that the absence of it on that device was a bit frustrating.  Obviously as an iPhone user pinching to zoom and double-tapping to zoom on a particular element are second nature, and much simpler and more precise solutions than the zoom slider the CLIQ tried to pass off instead.  I was happy to see those gestures implemented on the Pre.

Palm Pre keyboard
Image from precentral.net

The keyboard was a huge disappointment.  At least on the CLIQ there was a soft keyboard I could fall back to if I didn’t like the hard one, but on the Pre no such option exists.  Which is unfortunate, because I really disliked the Pre’s keyboard.  First off, it is tiny.  Far and away the smallest I’ve seen.  I’ve got big hands and already find normal mobile keyboards a bit cumbersome because of this, but this really took it to the extreme.  The keys are simply too cramped together for me to type on comfortably.  When I tried to type with the pads of my fingers, as I do on my iPhone and have done on all other mobile keyboards, the pad of each finger touches three or four different keys simultaneously.  As long as I’m careful about where I’m directing my finger’s pressure I was usually able to depress only the desired key, but this required extra care and made typing a less than comfortable experience.  I found I could type much more precisely and with less uncertainty if I bent down my thumbs and used their tips and my nails, but this quickly made my hands really uncomfortable so that was no good.  Additionally, the keys were made of some sort of soft rubber material that kept the keys from having the sort of firm assurance I’d like from a hard keyboard.  I’m sure typing on the Pre would get easier with time, but no amount of time is going to make the keyboard a more reasonable size.  I expect that even after months of practice, typing on the Pre’s keyboard would still be less than ideal.

So while in my head I was definitely expecting the Pre to be a final contender, it actually got knocked out pretty quickly entirely because of having a disappointing keyboard.  I liked the software, it was reasonably responsive and the phone seemed reasonably well-built, but given how much I disliked the only way the device allows you to type, that pretty much ruins everything else.  Maybe Palm will put out a device in the future with a better keyboard (the brand new Pixi sitting next to the Pre I tried wasn’t significantly better), but until then I’m sadly going to have to steer clear of their offerings.