When Palm launched its Pre at CES, we were both blown away and pretty overwhelmed. Besides issuing new hardware, the company also demoed a completely original operating system called webOS which incorporates some pretty heady ideas about what a mobile phone can do. Now that we've had a little time to step back, we're taking a more methodic look at the device and its software, and hoping to answer some of those nagging questions you've been asking. Read on for a look at everything we know about the phone right now.
Note: This post originally went up just a few days after the Pre had been announced. We've gotten answers to some lingering questions we had, and have updated parts of the article with additional information.
What's the hardware like?
While we didn't see the final, final version of the hardware, Palm has gone to great lengths to bring its industrial design up to date, and they've landed a winner. The casing of the phone is made from sleek, glossy plastic, and the 3.1-inch touchscreen is flush with the face of the device, just like the iPhone or Touch Diamond. The phone has a bit of a curve to its body both in the back and around the sides, but would easily slip into a pocket. When you slide out the QWERTY keyboard, it has an almost banana-like shape to it, curving slightly to meet the contours of your hand and face. As you might expect, it feels great in the hand -- it's slightly smaller than an iPhone when closed, slightly larger when open, and roughly the same width.
On the bottom half of the phone below the screen is a black "gesture area" used for finger and thumb swipes. In the center of that space is a small metallic ball, which looks like a movable trackball, but is actually just a button. It's used to call up one of the most important parts of the UI, the "cards," but not much else. The black space is dotted with soft LED lights that glow when you swipe your finger across it -- a nice touch.
The screen itself is a sensitive capacitive touchscreen, which seems as responsive (if not more) than the iPhone's display. The resolution is the same as Apple's device (480 x 320), though due to its smaller size, it has slightly higher pixel density. Colors looked bright and clear, and overall the screen was sharp and easy to read. The high gloss may cause issues in the sun, but most modern touchscreen phones seem to deal with the problem, and we expect no less from this one.
The QWERTY keyboard slides out from underneath the screen in a portrait arrangement, so users of the Centro and older Treos will feel right at home (while Tilt, Fuze, Mogul, Touch Pro, and other HTC users might have a harder time making the switch). The action of the slider didn't seem to snap into place the way we were hoping -- it had to be nudged -- but Palm assured us that this wasn't the final hardware, and that would change. Like the Centro, the keypad uses Palm's "jelly" keys, which aren't nearly as clicky as something like the Bold, but protrude more than those on the G1's keyboard and felt decent enough to tap out emails on.
Along the left side of the phone are volume buttons, and up top there's (thankfully) a 3.5mm headphone jack and ringer on / off switch. On the backside of the device is a large speaker -- not a huge difference from previous Palm phones.
A MicroUSB port lets your charge the phone or work with files for the device, though Palm is also somewhat psyched on its Touchstone, a inductive charger that lets you just place the phone atop it for power (it even snaps into place thanks to a few well-placed magnets). The Touchstone seems like it will be sold separately, but it's the first time we've seen a major phone-maker offer something like this... and it's pretty damn cool.
Around back there's a 3 megapixel camera with an LED flash which reps say can snap continuously without saving (a nice touch), and the back (as well as the battery) is removable -- a point Palm made sure to note in its presser.
While we were told at a meeting with the company that the Pre would sport a microSD slot, apparently someone got their wires seriously crossed. The device won't have expandable storage -- which is kind of a disappointment.
The phone has an AGPS chip, and looks like it will come with dedicated navigation software on-board (if Palm's official UI pics are any indication).
The phone will be released in at least two versions to start. The first, a Sprint exclusive, sports EV-DO Rev. A and 802.11b/g, as well as Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR and A2DP; the second model will get 3G GSM in place of EV-DO for sale in other parts of the world. Like the iPhone, it also touts a light sensor, proximity sensor, and accelerometer. One critical thing to note for business users and frequent flyers: the Sprint version of the phone -- the first to be released -- will not be a global phone, meaning it can't be used on GSM networks overseas.
What's the software like?
This is a harder question to answer, because there are so many new ideas that Palm is implementing in its webOS, the operating system it's developed based on Linux.
There are a few main ideas at play in the UI, and we'll try to cover them as extensively as we can. Given that we only had a brief time to really give it a workout (and the fact that the software isn't finished), we expect to see and hear a lot more than we know now.
The UI itself is absurdly slick -- certainly on par with the iPhone's interface and HTC's TouchFlo 3D. There are smooth zooms, transitions, and fades in and out of content, and there's little noticeable lag or stutter when moving through actions. Fonts are tastefully chosen, and the icons are akin to OS X's or Vista, with soft shadows underneath and lots of dimension.
Using the interface is mainly accomplished with swipes along the screen and by pushing the center button. A quick swipe up with your thumb slides a launcher (essentially a prettied up traditional Palm app screen) over your current state. What's notable is that you never leave the application you're in to do this. It goes up, then it goes away. Unlike the iPhone (which is really its nearest competitor), webOS provides true multitasking, allowing you to switch between active apps. You don't have to close and reopen, just shuffle through your programs. If you switch to another app, the UI scales back the program you're in down to that deck of "cards," then zooms up the new selection. By pressing the center button on the phone, you zoom out all of your cards, and can swipe through them to find what you're looking for. The content inside of the cards isn't just a snapshot like tabs in Mobile Safari -- they're live applications that can be flipped and manipulated. You can also rearrange the cards in any order by touching and holding, then sliding them around. Gestures can also be used to move back and forward in a document or webpage (swipe left or right), and there's a gesture used to bring up a quick launcher "wave" over top of whatever application you're in.
The gestures are useful, but not immediately natural. There will be a learning curve with this device, but Palm is clearly looking for what makes sense to them -- they've tried to implement components of the old OS in the new one (like having quick access to your most used apps and not bogging things down with lots of dropdown menus), and at a glance seem to have succeeded.
Besides the input and design, there are core ideas that are new to mobile OSs at play here. The first is something that Palm calls Synergy, which allows you to pull together contacts and calendars from lots of different sources, but without altering or merging that data. Synergy will grab the same contact from Facebook, Gmail, and Outlook, then combine those into a "stack" of info for that person on your phone. It looks for duped data, so you don't get doubles of phone numbers or names. It's essentially a contact aggregator, and if they can pull this off, it will end a lot of headaches for a lot of people. It looks like it will do the same for calendars, and it's also pooling IM services together, allowing for modes where you can keep a threaded conversation going with someone over SMS, AIM, GTalk, and other services. It's heady stuff, and only time (and use) will tell if this does what they say it will -- but right now it looks like a terrifically unique and innovative way to handle a myriad of data.
Notifications on the device are handled similarly to the G1, so when you get an SMS or have a calendar event, webOS scales back your app a little bit and brings up a dialog at the bottom of the screen (whereas Android adds them in a "curtain" up top). Palm insisted that this lets you have control over how and when you respond to alerts, rather than having to "dismiss" pop-ups. We like how Android implements this -- we'll see if Palm's variation is as effective.
The OS also has a rich search function which pulls up a dialog when you begin typing something on the keyboard. Like Mac OS's Spotlight, it uses a universal search to pull applications and content, but switches to a web search if you can't find what you're looking for. Right now the phone defaults to Google, Google Maps, and Wikipedia.
While we can't run through every app, we can say that the browser is Webkit based, seems snappier than other Webkit browsers we've used on mobile devices, and a Flash plugin is supposed to be available for the phone by the end of the year.
There's way, way more to talk about in the UI and OS design, but we'll save that for when we can take a longer look at the device and its interface. The long and short of it is this: the Palm Pre and webOS are the first real challengers to the iPhone's innovative approach to a mobile UI and data management. Oh, and yes, it has copy and paste functions (triggered by holding down your thumb on the gesture area and selecting your text with another finger).
Cloud services, syncing (added May 25th, 2009)
Palm seems to be striking a bit of a balance between the iPhone and Android when it comes to services, offering a centralized Apple-style push notifications system for developers, Synergy for pulling / merging contacts, email and calendar data from services like Google, Facebook and Microsoft Exchange, and a "Palm Profile" for backing up phone settings and apps. The Palm Profile, which is tied to a user-provided email address and can be setup on the phone on first boot also helps with OTA updates and App Catalog downloads.
Thanks to phone's reliance on the cloud, users can also send a "kill pill" to wipe the phone by logging into their Palm Profile online. Palm won't be offering a desktop syncing app, but there will be a PC-based "Data Transfer Assistant" for getting data off of an old Palm OS device and onto the Pre. There's been no word on how multimedia syncing is supposed to work, but hopefully the Pre will operate in some sort of mass storage mode when plugged into the computer -- both for loading on music and movies, but also for pulling off purchased media like Amazon MP3s.
Cost, release date (added May 25th, 2009)
After almost half a year of speculation, Palm finally confirmed the release date and price for the handset: June 6th, for $200. That's the price with a 2-year contract, and is after a $100 mail-in rebate, though some retailers like Best Buy will offer the phone at rebate-free for $200. Out of contract the price has been pegged at $549 by sales reps, though that hasn't been "officially" confirmed by Palm.
Unfortunately, word of expected Pre shortages mean that folks looking to get one within the first week or so might want to look into that age-old rite of gadget lust: lining up for it. Retailers at launch include Sprint stores, Best Buy, Radio Shack and select Wal-Mart stores.
Developer support, third-party apps (added May 25th, 2009)
As far as developer support is concerned, Palm has effusively stated that it wants to engage the community and stoke the fires of app development. Given that webOS is based around really simple tenets of web coding, it shouldn't be hard to get in the game and start experimenting for most people, and seasoned devs will probably sink their teeth into it wholeheartedly.
In even better news -- especially for longtime Palm users with extensive app collections -- the company is also allowing legacy Palm OS apps run via emulation in the Palm Pre Classic emulator, which can even handle 3D gaming and should provide a nice stopgap for any still-lacking functionality in webOS at launch.
There's still a lot we don't know about the Pre, and with a device this new, you can never truly understand what the experience will be like until you put it through the test of an average day's work. That said, Palm has made enormous strides with webOS and the Pre, both putting the brand back on the map, and offering a lust-worthy device that delivers on a big stack of promises. If they can keep the quality as high or higher than what we've already seen we think the smartphone game just got a whole lot more interesting.
There are plenty more tidbits we aren't able to touch on here, so you can track our ongoing, comprehensive Palm Pre coverage here, or check out some particular morsels below:
Leaked Palm Pre Gesture Guide lets you get some finger-flicking practice in early
Plethora of Palm Pre interface videos emerge from leaked emulator
Palm Pre tasks, memos, browser on display, automatic backup confirmed
Palm Pre to run $549 off-contract
Palm Pre on June 6th for $200: It's official!
New Pre Classic emulator video shows off 3D gaming prowess
Pre Sprint Navigation app demoed on video
Palm Pre Classic emulator demoed on video
Pandora, Amazon, other third-party apps demoed on Palm Pre
Palm announces webOS SDK availability, Palm OS emulation for Pre, new cloud services
In case you missed 'Late Night with Jimmy Fallon' last night
Palm confirms games are in development for Pre, drops a few other tidbits
Palm Pre's Touchstone charger requires matte, soft-touch battery cover
Palm joins Adobe's Open Screen Project, Pre to support Flash
GSM Palm Pre spotted with Vodafone SIM card
Apple vs. Palm: the in-depth analysis