It's been about a year since Palm pulled itself back from the brink of imminent destruction with the announcement of webOS and the Palm Pre, and even less time since the products announced actually hit the market. In that time span, the company has issued another handset (the small, less powerful Pixi), released a number of over-the-air updates to its OS (nine in all), and created and disseminated a slew of developer tools, including iterative releases of its SDK and a new web-based development environment called Ares. Throughout the ups and downs of the past 12-or-so months Palm has been "back," the company has stuck with Sprint as its lone carrier partner in the US -- so while it's been innovating and tweaking on its platform and devices, the third-place partner has kept it from the larger audiences AT&T or Verizon might offer. Now -- almost a year to the day -- Palm has turned around and opened its devices up to the country's largest carrier, in addition to bumping the specs and features of both phones it offers (the Pre getting an additional 8GB of storage and double the RAM, the Pixi is now equipped with WiFi). All the while significantly improving its SDK (with the new native Plug-in Development Kit) and app distribution model. So can Palm finally really get this ship sailing, court the developers it badly needs, and deliver on the promises of webOS, or is it too little, too late? Read on to find out!
Pre Plus (Verizon)
More memory and storage space than the Pre
Verizon's network is rock-solid
Mobile Hotspot add utility
Lackluster software selection
Performance is sometimes sluggish
Hardware feels dated
Pixi Plus (Verizon)
Great hardware keyboard
Sleek form factor
Not compatible with all webOS software
Not enough differentiation from Pre Plus
First off, there's not a lot to say about substantial hardware or software changes to either of these devices -- they are very much the same phones we've used (and reviewed) for Sprint. In fact, as a primer to this review, we suggest you take a look at our encyclopedic rundown of the Pre and webOS, and our more recent Pixi review for the basics. We'll concentrate on the Pre Plus here, since it's undergone the most significant and noticeable changes (both externally and internally).
As we've just so eloquently stated, there aren't a whole lot of differences in these devices from their Sprint counterparts. Most noticeable is the removal of the "home" button from the front of the Pre, and a slight change to its keyboard which makes the keys a bit clickier and less gel-like. Palm also says it's altered the hinge mechanism and updated the build quality of the phone -- that seems to be true, though there are still issues to be found. The Pixi Plus is -- for all intents and purposes -- identical to its Sprint cousin, save for its new Verizon branding and the inclusion of WiFi.
As far as looks go, this should all seem very familiar to those of you who've checked out the Sprint Pre. That physical home button has been replaced with a thin LED slit, just like the Pixi, and in general we don't see it as much of a change, though we did miss the tactile feel of the physical button now and again. Even if it didn't get a lot done, the click was nice to hear. The new style certainly goes a way to retain the "polished stone" design motif which the company has touted, and we can't complain too much about clean, unbroken surfaces on our gadgets. Palm also says that the hinge for the slider mechanism (a pain point on older models of the phone) has been improved as well, and in our tests it does seem a bit tighter, though we noticed that when we used the phone with the keyboard open, it seemed to want to slide shut a bit easier than the previous version. Additionally, the company has altered the keyboard to be a bit more stiff and plasticky (a la the Pixi), though it's by no means as clicky as we'd like it to be. The overall effect is minor, and coupled with the fact that the company has yet to really tighten up its word correction / prediction, typing on the Pre still takes some getting used to. We're also not sold on the new monochromatic color scheme for the keyboard -- being able to clearly see the orange number keys was a nice little touch, now it's a bit of a challenge to find the digits.
Otherwise, changes are nonexistent, even down to the cheap, plastic cover which Palm uses on the MicroUSB door here -- we broke the first one on our original Sprint test unit, and every time we pull the thing up, it feels precarious. We wish they'd gone in the direction of the Pixi with this (a small flap which doesn't have to be pushed into place). Overall, it's the same Pre you know and / or love. Palm took smarter steps with the industrial design of the Pixi -- which feels like a more solid phone -- and we wish they'd have put some of that juice into a new version of the Pre.
Things start to get a little more interesting when you look at the guts of the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus. The former gets a much-needed storage boost to 16GB, plus the RAM has been doubled in the Verizon version. The Pixi doesn't change at all save for the inclusion of WiFi, which admittedly makes the phone much more desirable, even for those not in need of data-heavy sessions. On the Pre, we saw a notable increase in the amount of cards we could have open at a single time, and with ten separate apps up, we were still able to load Need for Speed: Undercover -- an impressive feat no matter how you slice it. We certainly found that memory errors (warnings to kill some cards) were far less prevalent than on the Sprint version, though the RAM increase doesn't seem to alter the loading of long lists -- we still got the annoying "loading" message when quickly scrolling through our contacts. Luckily, since finding a contact on a webOS device is painless, we barely ever had to touch that list.
Besides the small spec increase, you're left with the same phone that's been out since June -- not necessarily a bad thing, but we think Palm is likely due for some new hardware soon, especially given the current trend of smartphones with higher resolution screens; devices like the Pre and iPhone are starting to look a little cramped compared with the Nexus Ones of the world.
One other note -- the sound quality on the Pixi seems substantially better to us than the Pre, both on the earpiece and speaker. The Pre produced shrilly, almost painful mid-rangey tones, while the Pixi was much smoother and pleasant. Here's hoping Palm makes some changes in this area on upcoming hardware... though we've been spoiled by the Droid when it comes to sound on cellphones.
As Palm announced at its CES event this year, there is a fairly major update coming for webOS (version 1.4) which will include -- among other things -- the ability to record and edit video on both phones, and an early version of the Flash plugin for the webOS browser. Unfortunately, 1.4 isn't slated for release until February, and the devices we received for testing are both running 126.96.36.199 -- the same version we have on our Sprint phones. That's not to say there aren't some differences; thankfully (and naturally) the NFL, Nascar, Sprint Navigation, and Sprint TV apps are gone from the device. Only the navigation is replaced, with Verizon's hand-rolled turn-by-turn standing in here, and we have to say, it's a distant second place. We greatly preferred Sprint's GPS software, even if Verizon Navigator offers a lot more in terms of location info, news, and weather. Also different here is the inclusion of the new Mobile Hotspot app, an amazing little piece of software that allows you to use your Pre or Pixi as a connection point where up to five devices can latch onto the network via WiFi. In our testing, the software worked flawlessly and was super easy to setup, meaning if you're a road warrior and you've got one of these devices, you might be able to leave the 3G card at home (though we suggest you bring an extra battery for your phone... or two). Oh, one hitch -- you'll have to cough up an additional $40 for the use of the hotspot, with a 5GB cap and a $.05 per MB charge after that. It might be cheaper than a 3G card plan... but not much.
Besides that inclusion, the software is the familiar version you probably know. Now, Palm has done a series of updates (as we noted in the intro), and the company has taken pains to add much-needed features and squash bugs. Unfortunately, we've been reminded about what is missing in webOS during our testing much more than we've been surprised by the additions (of course, we've also been tracking these updates closely). We're still waiting for basic inclusions in the software, like the ability to set our own notification tone (and set it for different alerts), better word prediction and correction on the keyboard, multiple message management in the email app (really guys?), a decent way to manage Synergy contacts and calendars, and a handful of other obvious changes that we have yet to see (we won't even get into our plea for threaded emails). And then there's the issue of consistency and speed -- for a phone which boasts a CPU as powerful as the iPhone 3GS, you certainly don't see it shine here like you expect it to. Applications still take longer than they should to open, and we still saw some lag during heavy use. We also take issue with notifications on webOS -- the little pop-ups are handy, but compared with Android, Palm still has a ways to go towards making them manageable. When you get four or five messages at a time, things can get a little hairy. And it needs to be said: the mail application is just not that good. It really needs some TLC from Palm.
Palm promises speed improvements in the next iteration of the software along with battery life improvements, and both are definitely needed. In particular, the battery life on the Pre is just awful when put through a day of heavy use. In our initial review, we noted you probably couldn't get through a full day, but now it feels like you might not even get through an afternoon. On one lengthier call (about 50 minutes), we watched our battery life dip from 67 percent to 24 percent. That's just unacceptable as far as we're concerned -- this is an issue that must be addressed by the company if it keeps pushing these data-heavy services.
Problems aside, going back to webOS after some time apart reminded us of what a truly elegant and revolutionary smartphone platform this is. Sure, there are those lingering issues, but webOS is also a tremendous mobile operating system which allows you to handle lots of little tasks at once, and doesn't buckle under what we consider to be a tremendous amount of pressure. Even when running ten cards or more, the Pre Plus still felt snappy and usable, and made us remember just how much fun -- and useful -- webOS can be. Android and the iPhone OS may have their killer features, but neither one of them can handle multitasking like the Pre and Pixi -- and while the latter isn't as fast as we would like it to be, both phones still perform admirably with a lot of balls in the air. This is a powerful and creative mobile OS with tons of potential, and it seems like Palm is just starting to tap into that.
And that brings us to the PDK -- or Plug-in Development Kit. With the new tools for developers, app-makers will be able to create the same content- and graphically-rich applications that they would for say... the iPhone. We've already seen this demonstrated in the form of a handful of 3D games now available for the Pre (sorry Pixi users -- you're out in the cold here). As a first pass at gaming on the Pre, the offerings are excellent. While we noticed a slightly lower frame rate when compared side-by-side with the iPhone 3GS, they still held their own. Graphically, we couldn't see much of a difference, though the Pre's smaller screen squashed some of the details out of scenery. Small issues notwithstanding, the crop of applications using the PDK show enormous potential for webOS. Provided Palm gets these tools into the hands of developers and lets them go crazy, we could see some fascinating new software for this platform.
Network / Pricing
We won't bore you with too many details about Verizon's network, except to say that our reception was largely outstanding on the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus, with no dropped calls and generally loud and clear signals otherwise. On the data side, we were impressed with the speed of page loads, and doubly impressed to see that same bandwidth passed along to other devices while using the Mobile Hotspot app. You really can't beat Verizon's network for sheer robustness here in the US -- a situation we hope some other carriers will rectify in the near future. No one likes a monopoly on bandwidth.
As far as pricing is concerned, Verizon isn't breaking any new ground with the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus. The devices will be available for $149.99 and $99.99, respectively, with a two-year contract and mail-in $100 rebate. If you're smart and buy the devices online, you get that rebate instantly, and Verizon is also offering a buy-one-get-one deal through February 14th which lets you pick up a free Pixi Plus with the purchase of either device.
As you can probably tell, it's not a sea change for Palm with the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus. In fact, it's barely a bump at all. If you've just purchased one of these devices on Sprint, you may feel a little sting, but don't let it get to you -- they're not markedly better on Verizon -- especially the Pixi. In fact, we're just going to say if you're reading Engadget and serious about finding your next smartphone, just count the Pixi out. With a mere $50 price difference, there is no possible way we could recommend the inferior device to readers. When you factor in the increased storage, RAM, and processing power of the Pre Plus, the Pixi looks outrageously unattractive (even though, honestly, we think it's really physically attractive).
So let's just talk about the Pre Plus for a moment.
As far as phones go, it is by no means perfect -- like the iPhone 3GS or the Nexus One or the Droid, it has its issues, and you will find yourself annoyed by certain decisions Palm has made here. It should be obvious that as a smartphone buyer, you have some amazing options right now. If you're a Verizon customer, you can get the excellent Droid, or wait for the forthcoming Nexus One, to say nothing of the BlackBerry offerings on the network (if that's your cup of tea). If you're carrier independent, then your choice is even harder -- T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T offer a stack of seriously great phones that would make even the pickiest geek happy. So why choose the Pre Plus on Verizon? To answer that question, you have to figure out if you believe in the potential of webOS devices; Palm doesn't have the fastest phone, or the phone with the highest resolution, certainly not the biggest app selection, and it doesn't have a massive community behind it. What it does have, however, is a brilliant platform with huge potential to change the way you work and live with your phone (provided they tap that potential soon... as in now). If you're as hopeful as we are that that potential will be fulfilled, your decision should be a simple one.
*Verizon has acquired AOL, Engadget's parent company. However, Engadget maintains full editorial control, and Verizon will have to pry it from our cold, dead hands.