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. Cards
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. Gestures
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.