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Palm Pre review, part 1: Hardware, webOS, user interface

Palm Pre review, part 1: Hardware, webOS, user interface
Joshua Topolsky
Joshua Topolsky|June 3, 2009 9:13 PM

The hardware

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Industrial design

In terms of basic industrial design, the Pre is stunning. Palm has gone to great lengths to talk about the feel of the phone, its likeness to a polished stone, how well it sits in your hand, and we'll admit... it does feel pretty great. The shape of the device is distinct, not quite taking a hardline flat-and-square approach of most brick phones, instead exaggerating the curves of the iPhone 3G to their logical conclusion. Closed, the Pre resembles a tiny, extremely glossy black ball. Needless to say, sliding this into and out of a pocket -- even a tight pair of jeans -- is no trouble (though it is a bit chunky around the middle, clocking in at 0.67-inches at its thickest point).

The front of the device is coated in a tremendously shiny and extremely smudge friendly plastic. The 480 x 320, 3.1-inch capacitive touchscreen is totally flush with the surface of the device, and it just about runs edge-to-edge. Above the screen is a small silver earpiece, and below is the center button, which looks like a small metallic ball embedded in the plastic, but is actually partially transparent, making an LED inside visible when performing gestures (more on those in a bit). Around the left side of the phone are two small volume rocker buttons, on the right is the MicroUSB cover.

The top section of the phone has a hold / power button located on the upper right corner, and next to it sits the old Palm standard -- a ringer on / off switch. In the center is a 3.5mm headphone jack (yes!). The backside of the phone reveals the camera, tiny flash, and new stylized Palm logo.

Underneath all this plastic there's a TI OMAP3 processor (though we don't know what it's clocked at), 8GB of storage (of which about 7GB is user accessible), and an undisclosed amount of RAM (we're guessing around 256MB). There's also a proximity sensor and a light sensor, both of which work almost exactly as they do on the iPhone (like dimming the screen when you put the device to your ear to talk), and an accelerometer, you know... for making stuff flip around.

The Pre, of course, contains a sliding mechanism which reveals a QWERTY keyboard beneath. One of our first minor issues was the build quality here. There's nothing tremendously alarming about how these two pieces connect, but there is certainly a small give when the screen is in its closed position. Sliding the display up, however, definitely made us pause a bit. At first it doesn't seem like there's the kind of tight clicking action you'd expect here -- it does slide up and lock firmly into place, but there's a lot of play from point A to point B. For instance, if you slide the screen slowly, it's possible to just have it stick in a half open state, and we also noticed that there's a divot -- a stopping point -- early on when the slide begins which the screen seems to settle into a bit too easily. What we realized through repeated use, however, is that the faster you slide the screen, the sturdier the mechanism feels -- it's just not that obvious at first. Though we'd rate the general seating and feel a bit higher than the G1, we still wouldn't say that this is as good as it gets -- but it's certainly not a deal-breaker.

When you do slide out the bottom half of the phone, the shape takes on a more banana-like appearance. The bottom and top pieces curve along the same angle, making the phone just a bit taller than the iPhone and G1. Around back, a mirror is revealed when you have the keyboard out, though we'd like to stress that it's for men and women alike.

Besides the standard issues we had with the construction of the phone, we did spot another peculiar problem we hope is just a one-in-a-million fluke with the test device we were given: it physically broke.

There is a small flap that covers the MicroUSB port, and while attempting to get the thing open, a thin piece of plastic which runs along the bottom of the casing just snapped. Now, we're not saying this is a widespread problem -- in fact, reps at Palm claimed this was the first time they'd seen it happen -- but it was a little disconcerting. Still, hats off to them, because they went above and beyond the call of duty to bring us a second phone: they sent someone on a plane from San Francisco to LA!

Our personal damage aside, the Pre is a beautiful piece of technology, and it's clear that a lot of time and love went into the design. It's not perfect, and the quality of the components don't quite match up to those of the Storm or iPhone, but it's a really great looking, reasonably solid device that we'd be happy to show off to friends and loved ones.

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As we mentioned, the display is equal in resolution to the G1, Storm, and iPhone -- and just like those devices it's capacitive. In general we felt the clarity and vividness of color on the Pre was excellent. The screen gave us a little trouble in sunlight, however; due to the sheer glossiness of the phone, it was a bit hard to make out details on-screen unless we had it at the right angle. It's perfectly readable, just not best-in-class when it comes to direct daylight viewing.

Touch sensitivity was more than acceptable, though we do take issue with tracking and accuracy in some instances, particularly when you're close to the edges -- taps sometimes go unregistered and your aim can feel off. Our judgment is that it's not a screen issue, rather a software sensitivity quirk that could seemingly be fixed with an update. Overall though, the touch experience -- whether due to smart programming or the particular display used -- outclasses most other devices in this category (the iPhone still bests it in this department though).


Since this is a Palm phone, and since it's introducing the rarely-seen portrait slider configuration, the keyboard has been a subject of tremendous debate. Well, we can put your mind at ease folks -- it's actually pretty good. Now, we won't lie, it's not quite the barnstormer of the Bold or Treo 650, but it is a very, very solid typing experience nonetheless. The keys -- made of a similar rubbery material which the Treo Pro and Centros use -- have a surprising amount of depth given their location, and they're actually somewhat clicky (a surprise to us). Spacing between keys is ample, but we wouldn't say generous -- though in general getting accustomed to typing on the Pre wasn't too painful. Our biggest gripe is actually with the software, which omits some no-brainers like double-tap spacebar for periods (though in the phone's defense, it does have a dedicated period key). Auto-correction is in effect here, fixing your lowercase i's, un-apostrophe'd contractions, and the occasional misspelling, but it pales in comparison to the iPhone's intelligent input recognition. We're not quite as fast with the physical keyboard as we'd like to be, but we count our major gaffes or mistypes in the dozens on the Pre -- a number easily eclipsed when using one of its virtual siblings.

If you're worried about copy and paste, by the way, have no fear. Palm has certainly included it here, and simplified the process by employing the gesture area and keyboard for shortcuts. To move your cursor in a text field, you hold down the orange key and swipe in four directions to navigate. To select, you use the same technique, but hold down the shift key instead. Cutting, copying, and pasting are handled via combos of placing a thumb or finger on the gesture area and tapping X, C, or V.


Look, we're just going to say it: we love the Pre's camera. There are two things happening here that make it lovable. First, it's 3.2 megapixels, which makes it at least competitive with its contemporaries. Second, Palm has done something totally radical in webOS -- they've made it so the image processing is backloaded when you're shooting. What that means is that you can snap away without having to sit through the shutter lag you're probably used to, allowing you to actually use the thing like a real camera. Furthermore, the image quality we saw was more than sufficient for on-the-scene shots, with particular clarity and color in daylight shots, though a surprising amount of definition in low light situations as well. Oh, and did we mention it has a flash?

Of course, Palm doesn't provide a video option here, which should chafe some folks. Why they decided to leave it off is a mystery to us (we're going to guess a rush to push this thing out the door before their six months were up), but we'd be surprised if we don't see video recording come to the device in the future.

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Audio quality

Audio on the Pre doesn't disappoint either. The earpiece is very clear and plenty loud, and according to the unlucky humans who've received calls from us, our outgoing sound quality wasn't too shabby (on one call using the speakerphone, the caller didn't even know we weren't holding the device). Speaking of the external output, we can say it's loud, though by no means perfect (we found its range to be a bit middy). It was certainly usable, due mainly to the fact that you can actually make out what your caller is saying, but we've been spoiled by the output of the Bold -- our new high-water mark for phone speakers. For playing music or anything beyond a simple conversation, you'll want to use that headphone jack (or stereo A2DP).

webOS / user interface

We're really reviewing two products here. One is the hardware, obviously. The other is the operating system which will be Palm's platform for mobile devices for the foreseeable future: webOS. Some of the ideas behind webOS -- a Linux-based platform which leverages web standards for development -- are revolutionary for smartphones. It dashes as many design paradigms as it adopts, so there's quite a bit that's fresh here. The real question is not if those ideas are revolutionary, however -- it's if they're usable.


The main focus of webOS is cards, essentially a list of open applications which can be moved into and out of with the press of the center button or a swipe of your finger. The emphasis here is on multitasking as well as reducing the number of steps required to go from one action to another. The premise is extremely simple, and in this implementation, extremely useful. Applications do seem to take a slight bit longer to load than those on competing platforms, but the beauty of the Pre is that you're not opening and closing apps that often. Additionally, if you're used to Windows Mobile or the BlackBerry OS, this is a major shift -- instead of obscuring what apps are open, you can almost instantly snap to a clear picture of what you're working on. The idea allows for some pretty interesting use cases, like being able to jump back and forth between a webpage and an SMS thread, or out of a call, into your weather application, and back into the call with little effort. You can rearrange the card order, and when you're finished with an app (or when you tax your memory), you can just swipe up on one of the cards to quit, though it keeps your data in a save state so you're not back to square one when you reopen.

Our take? The concept and execution on cards is excellent. The experience of using them to get around during the day feels like half application switcher and half active widgets, and is completely appropriate for a mobile device. Additionally, Palm warned that after seven or eight apps, depending on footprint, we'd have to start closing some items to save memory, but we've taken the Pre up to 12 apps and beyond (including four browser windows, email, SMS / AIM conversations, the AccuWeather app, Pandora streaming in the background, dialer, and more) with no issue. The overall OS does seem to get a little sluggish as you pile on the programs, but certainly never to a point that was unusable. We did experience some freezes and a handful of crashes, but only when we pushed the device extremely hard.


Cards aren't the only angle Palm wants to push, of course. The Pre is navigated through a series of gestures, most geared towards one-handed operation. The touchscreen actually runs into the black plastic beneath the screen, into what Palm calls the "gesture area" (go figure), and that's where a lot of the action happens. The center button -- and two LEDs on either side of it -- glow softly when you swipe in this section, creating a kind of trail or landing strip for your movements. The basic set of gestures you need to learn (and you do need to learn them) are as follows:

  • Swipe up: zooms you out from an application, brings up the launcher, closes the launcher
  • Slow swipe up: brings up the Quick Launcher (or "wave," as we like to call it
  • Swipe left: goes back in pages in the browser, back through sections of an application, eventually takes you to card view

The phone also has more familiar movements, like pinch, double tap, and a standard flick left and right. As we mentioned, there is a learning curve, especially coming off of an iPhone, but it's not too steep. Mostly, these gestures are intuitive and helpful, but we do question a few decisions Palm made here. For instance, when you want to bring up the launcher and you're in an app, you have to swipe up to zoom out to the card view, and then swipe up again to get the launcher up. Why the extra step? We have no idea.


Here's another major score for webOS. Instead of obtrusive pop-ups, Palm has opted for small wedges that appear at the bottom of your display with a message and icon (sometimes accompanied by a little chime, as in the case of a new email). As these gather, your content above scales to fit in the space allotted -- it sounds like it could get messy, but it's actually an elegant solution. Not only do the messages collapse into a single, manageable line until you're ready to deal with them, but you can swipe away alerts once you've read them.

There are also certain apps which plug into that space when in use, allowing you to control them even if they're in the background. An excellent example would be Pandora and the included media player. Both applications give you a small menu which expands and collapses on touch, revealing controls for the players, and in the case of Pandora, the thumbs-up or thumbs-down symbols used to rate the music you're listening to. It's an ingenious idea -- one which we're sure developers will find all sorts of creative ways to use.

Finally, a third type of notification is meant to force your attention toward it, such as a calendar event. In those cases, you're given the option to dismiss or snooze the alert.

Launcher / Quick Launcher

The launcher and quick launcher should seem pretty familiar to most smartphone users. The standard launch window is almost identical to the Android or iPhone gridded home screens, but in addition to being able to swipe left and right through individual pages, you can scroll up and down on each page as well (so you have room for more than just nine icons). To rearrange icons you tap-and-hold, and webOS auto-shuffles placement as you find a spot for your selection. You can move and remove icons from the Quick Launcher in the same fashion, but you're limited to four interchangeable choices, and stuck with a largely useless arrow icon that's only used for pulling up the launcher window. We don't get that part, since you're given a gesture to do the exact same thing.

The Quick Launcher sits at the bottom of the screen when you're in the launcher window or card view, but disappears in apps. To bring it up, you can slide your finger slowly up the length of the screen. It's a neat trick, but we didn't find it much more efficient then using the standard launcher, though for things like the browser and camera it did make some sense.

Universal Search

The first thing you should know about the Pre's Universal Search is that it isn't really all that universal. From the card view or launcher, the find-as-you-type engine allows you to look up contacts, applications, and if all else fails, take your query to the web via Google, Google Maps, Wikipedia, and Twitter Search. What it doesn't do, however, is let you search any actual content on your device, like a mail message, an SMS, or a document. In that sense, the term "universal" is somewhat misleading, though we'll give Palm props for making it work as quickly and painlessly as it does. We're going to call it out right now: Palm needs to extend this feature to mail at the very least -- we're happy that we can jump quickly to a contact or internet search (really really happy), but we've honestly gotten pretty used to iPhone OS 3.0's broad searches.

Look and feel / other thoughts

Simply put, webOS is absolutely gorgeous. As far as phones go, it's not just the only device we've seen which competes with the iPhone for looks, but we'd go as far to say that it bests the iPhone in some categories. The selection of fonts and font styling, use of transparencies, unified look of all of the elements, smooth transitions, and detailed application icons tie together in a really elegant way. It's clear that Palm's designers took a page from the Apple playbook here, but when something looks this good, you can hardly fault them. As our man Oscar Wilde said, "Talent borrows, genius steals."

Generally speaking, the Pre's UI makes sense and makes it easy to get things done rather quickly and painlessly. It is an impressive beast, though a beast nonetheless -- and that means taming will be in order. We saw plenty of little glitches: messages that wouldn't pop up (or go away), transitions that hung for a bit, and we definitely had a crash or two. In particular, it seems like Palm still needs to work on memory management -- we noticed the device getting a little laggy after a day of heavier use, so we're thinking not every process is being killed completely.

Keeping us hopeful about these issues is the way in which Palm plans to address them. According to the company, updates for the phone will be made OTA as necessary, which means they'll be able to put out fires quickly, and respond to customer needs with greater agility than a lot of their competition. We have a feeling we'll see a handful of fixes just after launch based on our conversations.

There's certainly room for improvement, but in 1.0, webOS has leapfrogged a lot of the competition, and seems to have its sights set higher than that.