Saturday, June 06, 2009

Hands On with The Pre

I headed to my local Sprint store this morning to get my hungry hands on the new Palm Pre. Eschewing the local Best Buy, whose inventory for my local store was supposed to be a meager 2 units, I opted for the company owned Sprint store about 10 miles up the road. Before you ask, no I did not wait in line or camp out; I meandered in around 11AM. No surprise, the store was sold out of its 30 units (thought they did say they had them until about 10AM), and expected about 30 more on Monday. But to my surprise, they did have two fully functioning demo units for me to play with, as you can see from the god-awful iPhone picture to the left.

After reading Engadget's superb Pre walkthrough, I had already decided the phone would have to completely wow me to make me pull out the credit card and make the carrier switch. I played with the Pre uninterrupted for about 30 minutes; here are my impressions, along with my ratings 1-10 (8 being as good as an iPhone; 9 being better; 10 being truly perfect):

Hardware: The size of this thing is perfect. Closed, it's roughly the size of a thin bar of saop. I expected it to be larger, but it felt small. Compared to my iPhone in its silicone case, this actually felt better. The nice touches were the design of the minimal exterior buttons, but the really nice touch were the subtle translucent lights that indicated when you were using the "gesture" area to the left or right of the main button; that was a surprise, and I can see all sorts of possibilities. These lights pulse and glow subtly when you use the area, and its extremely elegant.

The slide out keyboard felt awkward. It changes the shape of the phone, making it feel slightly unbalanced. There is no way to type on this thing one-handed; between the ultra smooth back and the off balance feel, it feels like it will drop at any moment. The keyboard was a surprise: I have used the iPhone for over 18 months, and keep saying how I miss a physical keyboard, despite how proficient I am with the touchscreen of the iPhone; this keyboard makes me question that. It's very small, even for my tiny hands, and it feels a bit cramped, wedged under the main body. Yes, the keys are slightly sticky, but I expect that will change over time. What shocked me is how much my typing skills have deteriorated, thanks to the iPhone autocorrect and my Windows program, As-U-Type. I kept expecting the Pre to correct my mistakes, a la iPhone, and found myself a bit mystified as to how to intuitively go back and fix them. The bottom edge of the keyboard is sharp. As in, I can see palm occasionally cut from it. I was a little shocked by this, as that's the primary place your hand naturally rests, but if you use it two handed, I can see it less of an issue.

The case and screen don't feel cheap at all, as some reviews have said. It is, however, a massive smudge magnet: the screen was nearly impossible to see at times under the store's direct lighting. Even trying to wipe it on my jeans yielded no effect. The mirrored back was a very nice touch, as was the LED flash on the camera; very cool. The MicroUSB cover, though, was even being cursed by the store staff as frustrating, and prone to breaking. Of course, the $70 Touchstone charger (which was very cool) uses magnets and induction, so you won't be removing that cover a lot to charge it, but if you plan to use this as a device to plug into the PC often, this is a problem. Overall: 7.

The Phone functions: Calls were fast and crisp between the demo unit and my iPhone. I was surprised how much I missed the speed dial feature of the iPhone, although I curse how easy it is on the iPhone to call the wrong speed dial. The Pre uses it's keyboard for speed dial numbers, which means sliding it open; that was a bummer. By the same token, dialing by name means sliding the keyboard open: with my over 3000 contacts, scrolling a long list is not an option. In practice, that means to make frequent calls, I have to open the keyboard and use two handed; not practical when driving. No voice commands that I saw, so that is a major drawback.

The Messaging application, however, was a dream. The Pre's notification system should be standard on all phones: unobtrusive, informative, and wonderful. I texted it, and it elegantly slid a notification at the base of the screen. If I touched it, it went to the full message thread; if not, after a second or two it gently collapsed to the bottom right as an icon, letting me know it was there. I could touch the icon whenever, and it would bring up the message. Absolutely ideal, compared to the iPhone's completely modal approach: you absolutely have to decide what you want to do with the message to go back to what you were doing. MMS was simple and elegant. I did not get a chance to try the Synergy approach to messages (integrated SMS/MMS/IM), but I can easily see how it worked.

The Contacts application was beautiful looking, and improves vastly on the iPhone default view by adding pictures of the contacts in the list view. It makes powerful use of the Pre's universal search: just start typing in any part of the Pre, and it finds the contact. Again, though, that requires the keyboard. Without it, you can only scroll and tap; it doesn't have the iPhone's first letter shortcut on the screen. Overall: 8, but that's mostly because of the strength of the Messaging application and the required reliance on the keyboard.

E-mail: The process of adding e-mail accounts was simple and fast; I hooked up the Pre to my Gmail account in moments. First, this was the biggest drawback I saw of the Pre: as soon as I did, the whole phone became very sluggish. It informed me that it was performing a Google sync, which I suspect is mostly a one-time intensive process, but it was significant, even slower than my 1st generation iPhone. It also prevented me from doing other things while it did the sync, such as switching back to the main e-mail screen. Engadget called out the biggest drawback: no multi-message delete. I also found the UI a bit unintuitive: several times I expected to move to another message, but instead brought up details on the sender, and could not figure out how to get back to the previous screen - those gestures take some adaptation. The messages themselves were fine, although surprisingly pokey on the Sprint 3G network; about on par with my 1G iPhone. Overall: 6

WebOS: Wow. Looks, feels, and performs like a dream. Elegant, smart, and intuitive. This is what an iPhone would be like, evolved. Fonts and colors are super readable while still being achingly gorgeous. Navigating between applications (or "cards") is unbelievably natural, and the background multitasking is perfect. As they used to say on the SAT's, as the iPhone UI is to say, the RAZR, the Pre is to the iPhone. Overall: 10.

Media: Sadly, the demo unit had none, but I have heard and read enough to feel confident on this score, especially with the ability to sync to iTunes. The 8GB restricted memory, though, is worrisome. I'd love to see Palm reach out to some of the alternative media library applications, such as Winamp, and embrace them in addition to iTunes. Overall: 7.

Applications: My Pre demo unit had no additional apps, so I fired up the Palm App Store. I actually prefer the UI and browsing options that the Apple App Store: intuitive and easy to find apps. I downloaded the AccuWeather application (see the photo at the top of the screen), and even over the 3G it was fast and intuitive. Bonus: it downloads and installs, without leaving the Store. Nice touch. The Accuweather application makes the Weather Channel App on the iPhone look like a piece of crap, both visually and functionally.

The Notes were cool, though a bit mystifying how you actually finish typing, and go back to the main Notes (note to Palm: add a "done" icon). The Calendar was all it's cracked up to be: massively useful and powerful, although the iPhone with multiple Exchange calendars does much of the same. Visually, nice touches. The Sprint apps were not bad, including the very grainy streamed Sprint TV, and a nice bonus. I didn't get to use the GPS, as my demo unit was not registered for the service, but reviews have been very complimentary. Google Maps was as expected. Overall, the applications were rich and responsive, without the hesitation and general instability of many apps in the iPhone. Overall: 9.

Battery: I picked up my fully charged Pre from its Touchstone, turned on the Wifi and Bluetooth, and began my examination. In 20 minutes, without a Wifi or Bluetooth connection even, the battery was down to 88%. Oof. That's a killer. Some have speculated that the problem is not the battery or the drain from the Pre, but a software problem for battery management, and that Sprint will fix it with an over-the-air update (like the one they released today), but it better happen soon. As it is, I would be very concerned about the battery life. Even my 1G iPhone can go a full day without charging, with Bluetooth and Wifi enabled. Overall: 4.

My overall impressions:
  • The phone is definitely ready for primetime. If you are a current Sprint subscriber with iPhone envy, envy no more. Don't hesitate; get it.
  • If you are an at&t customer, its tempting, but not enough with the expected announcement on Tuesday of the new iPhone and the impending iPhone 3.0 software upgrade.
  • G1 users on T-Mobile will look at this and be mystified what the hullabaloo is about (I'm talking to you, Adam). Many of the Pre's innovations are a lift from Android (notifications, background processing), but the Pre does them better, and in a better form factor. Plus...T-Mobile? Seriously? If you are a T-Mobile subscriber, you've already made the leap to a 2nd class carrier; jumping to another (Sprint) for hardware makes no sense with the G1.
  • I can see Verizon subscribers wanting this. The lower overall price, superior hardware...makes sense.
Personally, I'm very impressed with the software on the phone. I'm not as enticed by the keyboard as I thought I'd be (I was definitely way slower on it than the iPhone's on-screen keyboard). I think the Pre is very good right now, and tempting, but I think it needs at least 1-2 major OTA updates to fix the battery and e-mail issues before I could make the leap. I have a feeling my hardware critiques would soften as I got used to it (as were my critiques on the iPhone), but today I was pleased with the Pre...but will still wait for iPhone Tuesday.

No comments: