Part 2: Synergy, phone, media, applications | Review index

Data performance



A smartphone of this caliber is nothing without a decent network to cruise on, and we were really pleased with data over Sprint's EV-DO option. Since we weren't testing side-by-side with another Sprint device, we can't tell you how it stacks up to something like the Instinct, but running side against the G1 and the iPhone on their respective networks, we definitely saw favorable results. In a somewhat unscientific run of repeated DSLReports mobile speed tests, we found that the Pre averaged 634Kbps downstream, while the iPhone and G1 nabbed 552Kbps and 413Kbps, respectively. Not drastic differences -- and obviously only in a single location -- but certainly promising if you've got good Sprint coverage.

In terms of daily use -- or what the phone actually felt like -- we found that data pushes and pulls were non-obtrusive, and it didn't seem as if we were anxiously waiting for even robust pages like Engadget to load up. Our major gripe is actually directed at Sprint's network: you can't do voice and data concurrently with EV-DO, which meant that we were constantly getting a spew of emails after speaking to someone on the phone. The problem is circumvented if you're in WiFi range, but that doesn't help you if you're on the road. The same goes for web browsing or any other instance where you need to use data -- you're not going to be checking out sports scores while talking to your buddies, and that kind of stinks.

Backup / restore


Palm offers a new service called Palm Profiles, which promises to never leave you in the lurch should you break or lose your device. Like syncing via iTunes, it's meant to store your important user data, such as preferences, email account settings, and what applications you've downloaded. Unlike iTunes sync, however, Palm Profiles are backed up periodically in the background, over-the-air -- meaning you don't actually have to do anything to keep your info in place. Since we had a second device delivered to us by Palm, we got a really good preview of what it would be like to use the service.

In not so many words, it works... kind of. When we swapped devices and input our Palm Profile login into the new phone, it warned that another device was registered, and that it would be pulling that data down to our new phone (along with a warning to backup any files we added via mass storage mode). Then it did some kind of secret Palm voodoo where it filled our device with apps, settings and data from the other phone. It wasn't without issue, however, as we found that details like brightness settings and ringtone selections hadn't carried over to the new phone, and more shockingly, we found that when it restored our AIM and Gmail accounts, it unlinked all of the contacts layers that we'd hand-linked. Not so cool.

It did do most of what it promised, but we'd like to see some extensions to this service. It should at least get your preferences right if nothing else -- though we won't complain too much about a feature that saves us the trouble of having to re-add all of our data.

Battery life


We didn't have the time or the resources (like multiple users) to put the Pre through the kind of lengthy, hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners battery testing some of you might want, but we did have a chance to use this as we would our own device for a pretty good run of days (we'll likely do a follow-up post with harder numbers for specific tasks, like media playback).

In terms of real-world use, the Pre battery situation is good, not great -- though we think that you can (mostly) put your Apple-inspired fear of background processes to bed.

During heavy use -- phone on all the time, browser testing, media playing, lots of conversations -- we could make it about three quarters of the way through a day without having to plug in. We weren't over the moon with how quickly we noticed the numbers dipping, but we also weren't completely surprised. Compared with the G1 (and we're talking 1.5 here), we'd say the Pre does a tiny bit better (or very close) on battery life -- but if you're a heavy talker or plan on running media on this all day long, you'll be reaching for the charger (or second battery) come dinnertime.

Still, for the battery size (1150 mAh) and amount of data being pushed, it didn't seem like the phone was performing unreasonably, and we don't knock the fact that you can snag a second (or third!) battery if you know you're going to push it. During the more conservative days -- which we think reflect the kind of moderate use we put our phones through -- battery life declined much less noticeably from morning till night. We'll be keeping our eyes peeled for third-party options with more juice, but the brick in the box isn't too shabby at all, especially given our expectations.

Bluetooth


We didn't have a wide variety of devices to test the Pre with when it came to Bluetooth (we were on the road for the entire review period), but we did have an Aliph Jawbone and Motorola ROKR S9-HD on hand. Our experiences with the two devices were slightly different.

For the Jawbone, no matter what we tried, we couldn't get it to pair with the phone. We would have been more alarmed with this situation, but we're not entirely convinced it's the Pre's fault. We couldn't get the thing to pair with our iPhone either. We're leaving the verdict out on this one, because our experience was far different when testing out the S9-HD.

Obviously, stereo A2DP is a feature that end-users are becoming more and more accustomed to seeing on their devices -- we think Apple's addition of the option in iPhone OS 3.0 speaks to that. Palm smartly saw fit to include it out of the box with the Pre, and it seems to work perfectly. Pairing with the headset only took a few seconds (once we'd charged the thing up, of course), and the Pre flawlessly switched over from playing audio out of the external speaker to the Moto device. Quality was excellent, though in this case, you've either got a connection or you don't. Overall, the experience was about as painless as it gets -- and we see ourselves putting the feature to quite a bit of use.

Accessories

Palm Pre unboxing

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The Pre ships with a MicroUSB cable, a small pouch, and a wall adapter for charging. There's also a pair of earbuds in the box with an attached remote and microphone. In terms of fit, this may really be the area where Palm is trying to outdo Apple... in badness. We mean the buds don't fit in your ear well, if you're not catching our drift. That's kind of sad, because they're not bad looking, and they actually sound really great -- if you can manage to keep them in your ears. But you probably can't. It's a real missed opportunity for Palm, but at least you've got a standard jack that you won't have trouble filling. Seriously, can anyone get this right?

Otherwise, there's a car jack kit, which we've already seen for the Treo Pro and... a little something known as the Touchstone.

The Touchstone has been the subject of a lot of attention given that it's the first induction charger for cellphones that a major manufacturer has offered, and it clearly has a lot of "wow" potential for people who aren't familiar with the technology.


Don't get us wrong, we think it's really quite cool, but in terms of practical use, we're not sure it's a must-have accessory for the Pre -- especially at $70. Yes, it's definitely great to be able to throw the phone on there for charging without mucking about with cables, and we actually prefer the soft-touch back to the glossy one which ships with the phone, but there were a few minor issues we had with the Touchstone that could make it less desirable to some. For starters, when you're charging on the Touchstone, the phone display dims but keeps the time on the lock screen... and there doesn't seem to be any way to switch it off. That may be fine if you don't mind the glow, but we didn't care for it and we don't like the idea of not having control over this setting. Additionally, the phone seems to charge much more slowly than with a direct-to-adapter connection, and the backside of the device can get pretty hot while it's on the base.

It's certainly a conversation starter and a showpiece, and we could see it for use as a secondary charging option, say, if you're using the phone for some A2DP in your living room and want an easy way to keep it juiced. Ultimately though, we think it'll be a bit of a challenge to pry that money out of most buyer's hands for something so superfluous.

Pricing


Given its undeniable status as a hero device (the hero device?) in Sprint's lineup, and considering the high-end phones it's designed to fight, "value" might not be the first thing that comes to mind when talking about the Pre, but it's not just about saving $10 or $20 month to month -- over the course of a couple years on a carrier contract, even a modest difference amongst plans can turn into hundreds or thousands of dollars. On paper, Sprint seems to have the clear-cut advantage here over the other nationals -- Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile -- on account of its hyped $99 Simply Everything plan that it's pushing harder than ever with the launch of this device. But in practice, what does it mean for your wallet?

For phones like the Pre and its contemporaries, it's a forgone conclusion that you want unlimited data -- email with attachments, powerful mobile browsers, and streaming video all collaborate to make it a non-negotiable requirement these days. As for messaging, granted, not everyone's blowing through thousands of text and picture messages a month, but the capability is more important (and better implemented) than it ever has been before, so you may as well lump it in. Really, that leaves only voice calls as the wild card -- some smartphone users make a handful of calls a month (often these are the same folks working their thumbs raw on texts), while others are on the horn several hours a day. To that end, we wanted to break down what the Pre's going to cost you over the course of a two-year haul versus its closest competitors -- Verizon's BlackBerry Storm, AT&T's iPhone 3G, and T-Mobile's G1 -- on unlimited and relatively low-minute voice plans.

As its name implies, Sprint's Simply Everything plan is... well, simply everything. $99.99 gets you unlimited voice, on-device data (sorry, no free tethering here), and messaging of all types. As we mentioned before, you get Sprint's TeleNav-powered navigation at no additional charge, which most other carriers bill for as an a la carte service. On Verizon, you're paying $99.99 too -- problem is, that's only for voice. The closest thing to unlimited messaging on Big Red's going to be the 5,000 plan, which runs another $20, data for $29.99, and VZ Navigator for $9.99. All told, you're paying $159.97. Similarly, AT&T will cost you $149.99 (of course, turn-by-turn's not an option here) and T-Mobile -- commonly considered the value leader -- takes second place at $124.98. At the end of 24 months, that means you would've shelled out $2,599.75, $4,039.27, $3,799.75, $3,179.51, respectively, after you take the costs of the phones into account; Sprint wins by a country mile, and there's a stunning $1,439.52 savings against its most expensive competitor, Verizon. Sticker prices on phones are subject to near-constant variation thanks to regional fluctuations, rebates, and moon phases, but even if the Storm were free and the Pre were $500, you'd still come out well ahead.

Stepping down to more modest voice allowances, Sprint loses -- but only because T-Mobile cheats. On Sprint, you'll pay $69.99 for 450 minutes, totaling $1,879.75 over the duration of your contract including the cost of the phone. Verizon gets you going for $99.97, or $2,599.27 over 24 months and AT&T goes for $89.99, $2,359.75 in total. T-Mobile doesn't offer a 450 minute individual plan, but you can step down to 300 with no myFaves for $29.99, which means $64.98 with features added or $1,739.51 by the time your two years of indentured servitude is up. So yes, T-Mobile comes out on top here, but only because you're getting short-changed a smidge on the voice bucket.

In the final analysis, this is definitely a valid talking point for Sprint and something would-be Pre owners ought to consider. Granted, no one's going to question that Verizon's got a larger coverage footprint -- but if Sprint works everywhere you need it to, you're basically looking at a new laptop, a bunch of steak dinners, or a metric ton of ramen by the time you've worked your way through a full contract.

Wrap-up



It's not easy to sum up things as complex as webOS (a totally new operating system and UI) and the Pre (a totally new piece of hardware) in a tidy closer. Even if we could strip away all of the superfluous details and just look at those two aspects of Palm's work in a vacuum -- not accounting for things like carriers or price-points -- it still wouldn't make the job of leveling a verdict much simpler. Still, it's gotta be done, and we wouldn't want anyone else at the reins. So... what do we make of the Palm Pre?

There's no question that Palm has built this phone on the foundations laid by numerous devices before it -- most obviously the iPhone -- but the Pre clearly carves out its own path as well. Some of the ideas and concepts at play in webOS are truly revolutionary for the mobile space, breaking down lots of the walls that separate the experience of using a dedicated PC versus using a handheld device. One feeling that we were constantly stuck by while testing the phone was a kind of revelatory, 'Hey, this actually feels how a computer feels.' It was an experience not completely unlike our first encounter with the iPhone -- that little light that goes on that tells you that things can really be different than how they've been before. We also felt that same thing the first time we picked up a Treo, so it's fitting that the Pre should inspire a similar response.

To put it simply, the Pre is a great phone, and we don't feel any hesitation saying that. Is it a perfect phone? Hell no. Does its OS need work? Definitely. But are any of the detracting factors here big enough to not recommend it? Absolutely not. There's no doubt that there's room for improvement in webOS and its devices, but there's also an astounding amount of things that Palm nails out of the gate.

Still, if you're considering the Pre right now, you have to debate whether or not you want to hop onto Sprint's network. If you're already a customer and you're looking for a new phone, this one is a no-brainer -- but is this enough to lure you away from another carrier? We've debated (and continue to debate) the point ourselves -- though it looks like given what AT&T and Verizon are saying, that might not matter pretty soon. We will say that our experience on Sprint's network has been excellent, and its pricing more than competitive, though being mostly limited to North America is certainly a major factor when making this decision. There's also no guarantee of developer support with this phone. As we mention earlier, Palm needs to stoke those fires or the Pre will quickly be cemented as a tiny island in a large sea. We think the platform looks very promising, but with no big push (yet) to put a great SDK into dev's hands, and no existing userbase for those apps, it's hard to feel assurance that the software will come.

Ultimately -- carriers and developers notwithstanding -- what Palm has done is a major feat for a company of its size (and its dire position), and we think it's an important step in the evolution of mobile computing. Just like the iPhone's notches up the ladder, and the G1's contributions, the Pre moves the game forward in a very real way. We know this won't be the last of the webOS devices, and we know that as Palm improves its products, so will Apple, RIM, Microsoft, Google, and the rest of the smartphone gang. Unfortunately for them, their work just got a little bit tougher.

Part 2: Synergy, phone, media, applications | Review index

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Palm Pre review, part 3: Data speeds, backup, battery, Bluetooth, pricing, wrap-up