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48 hours with a Palm Pre


[Note: I have written this quickly and will clean it up over the next few days. I wanted to get some thoughts down prior to the launch. I apologize for typos or clunky language.]

On Tuesday (Aug 25, 2009), I attended an invite only event thrown by Bell. I, along with about a dozen others, were given a Palm Pre and one month of Bell service. We were given a short walk through of the device and orientation. Here are my impressions of using the phone over the past 48 hours.

In the interest of full disclosure, we are the Agency of Record for Virgin Mobile which is owned by Bell. We do some work for Bell but not Bell Mobility. I use an iPhone 3Gs on the Fido network as my primary phone.

I first saw the Pre at CES in January. My initial impressions were very favorable. I really thought they did a great job with the design of both the software and the hardware, but at CES we were not allowed to handle the phone so it was a little like watching someone model clothes for you and deciding if it would look good on you.

A few months ago, I was invited to a private Bell event around the announcement of them bringing the Pre to Canada. I was given a walk through of the phone similar to the one I had seen at CES. There were some additional details on the SDK and some features that had been solidifed from CES but essentially it was the phone I had already seen.

Tuesday was the first time I got to actually USE the phone.

The setup is incredibly easy. Turn on the phone and it will ask you for a language preference. Then it will get you to create a profile using your primary email address. It informs you that it has sent you an email which you will need to activate the phone.

It then asks you if you want location services turned on. Which you will say “yes” to. There are some terms of service agreeing that Google can watch where you go.

Then, you are given a short tutorial on how to use the gesture space. The gesture area is the strip right below the screen. By swiping your finger from right to left in this area you are able to go “back” in any application.

The back gesture

The back gesture

That is the only thing they teach you in the tutorial. That’s it. At first I thought it was bad design if this phone needed to teach you to use it. Shouldn’t it be intuitive? But after you use the Pre for a while you understand that you use this gesture a lot. I forgave them for teaching me this gesture since it saves a lot of time when using the Pre.

After that a short video plays. This video is annoying and unnecessary but it does showcase what can only be described as an amazing screen. I think the phone is doing some work in the background and this is intended to make you ignore “the man behind the curtain”. After the video it reboots. Go do a load of laundry because the Palm boot up is looooonnnngggg.

My one complaint with setup is from turn on to actually getting to the home screen it took about 5 minutes. It felt like a long time to get up and running.

First impressions
The phone UI looks very good. Physics are smooth, the touchscreen is responsive. Unlike the iPhone the home screen is bare. 4 default applications (phone, email, calendar, contacts) sit in the launch strip at the bottom of the screen above the gesture area. The fifth icon opens a series of screens that hold the other applications.

Home Screen

Home Screen

There is one hard button in the center of the gesture area. This allows you to “minimize” any current application.
Gesture Area

The UI metaphor WebOS uses is called cards. Cards are just running applications. When you launch an application it fills the whole screen. You can press the center button it scales the application back revealing the home screen. You can now launch another application.

You are now running 2 applications. This is VERY IMPORTANT! Two applications simultaneously. You hear that Apple? More on this later.

By pressing the center button again, you can launch a third (fourth, fifth) application or go back into the first application. Each application becomes a card on your phone. You switch between cards by dragging your finger across the screen to the left or right. Cards are ordered in the order you launched them. You can change this order by touching a card and holding. The card will scale down and you can reorder them by dragging.

Reorganize cards

Reorganize cards

I love these cards. They are great. I can have email running while sending a txt message and having a Web page loading. I can switch between them easily just like on my computer.

Closing an application is so easy, you just “flick it” off the screen. By moving your finger from the center of the card upwards to the top of the phone you ditch the app. It is so rewarding to flick off the applications. Great UI detail!

The Cloud
One of the unique features of the Pre is that it LOVES the cloud. The name WebOS is very appropriate because it really uses the Web to function well. One of the first things I did was enter my Facebook credentials. The Pre went and got my friend list and placed it into my contacts. It did the same for my Google Contacts and if we ran Exchange it would do it for that.

Since Facebook supports contact info it brings that info into the Pre. Also contacts immediately get Facebook profile photos. If your Facebook contact changes their photo or info, it is reflected on your Pre.

I was a little upset it didn’t support LinkedIn natively. You can download the LinkedIn app but those contacts do not end up in your contacts.

Calendars that exist in the cloud like Google Calendar and Exchange will sync as soon as you provide your login credentials.

Since my calendars and contacts don’t exist in the cloud, they exist on my computer I needed to figure out how to sync the Pre with my Mac. My iPhone has good syncing of Apple’s Address Book and iCal through iTunes.

When you plug the Pre into your computer it gives you three options

USB connection

USB connection

If you choose “Media Sync” the Pre shows up as an iPod in iTunes. Awesome. It will sync everything as if it were an iPod. Everything except calendars. I had to go and download something called Data Transfer Assistant from Palm which grabbed my iCal calendars and imported them to the phone. Sort of. There were missing events and unless I migrate to a cloud service like Google Calendar I will need to go throughout this process every time. There is software from Mark/Space called The Missing Sync that will solve some of these issues but out of the box syncing is less than perfect on a Mac.

App Store
Palm has an app store. I immediately downloaded OpenTable, LinkedIn and Tweed (a passable Twitter client). Right now all apps are free while the App store is in beta. The key to the success of this device will be the apps. The choice right now is pretty thin but give me some good apps, and I will over look a lot of short comings.

App Store Home

App Store Home

New apps in App Store

New apps in App Store

Homebrew App Store
There is an alternative app store that has some very good apps. It requires putting your phone into Dev mode and using non Palm approved apps but for the adventurous Pre owner, well worth it.

Music Player
While the Pre syncs with iTunes and pulls your music and videos onto the Pre, that is all it does. The Pre music player sucks. There I said it. It sucks.

It pulled all my Podcasts into the music app but it just presented them as a list. No indication of what had been listened to or organized by subscription. Essentially useless. There are stand alone podcast applications available but I manage all my media through iTunes so this solution doesn’t appeal to me

When you view by song/artist there is no a-z listing to easily jump to a specific song or artist. There is an app in the homebrew app store called Music (remix) which corrects some of the deficiencies in the stock app, but its still way underwhelming.

Music Player

Music Player

If you want to carry one device phone/media player, the iPhone is way better.

It has one. It’s 3 megapixel with LED flash. Takes a good picture. ‘Nuff said.

Video Camera
Doesn’t have one. Don’t really care.

Hard keyboard is the reason to get this phone. I hate the iPhone keyboard. Absolutely hate it. Steve Jobs lied to me when he said I would get used to it. I was so excited to get my hands on this phone just so I could feel the key press as I write.

After 48 hours I can tell you, this keyboard is… meh.

The buttons are very small. They are also this plastic coated sort, almost like its a waterproof keyboard. The travel on the depression of the keys is short and sticky. The keyboard is inset in a crater in the slide out mechanism. This means your thumbs rub up against a sharp edge of the slider mechanism.

Palm Pre Keyboard

Palm Pre Keyboard

Compared to a Blackberry the Pre keyboard is terrible. Compared to no keyboard it’s amazing. I am getting used to the keyboard. I would dread having to respond to messages in length on my iPhone. I don’t think twice about writing complete sentences and thoughts with the Pre. If Palm could slap an old Treo keyboard on the Pre it would be perfect.

This is where the Pre wins. The ability to multitask is so good. It alerts me when emails, txt messages or IMs have come in. It alerts me to appointments. I can have multiple IM conversations going and check an email. All of this is not doable on the iPhone. I have determined that doing “business” on an iPhone is essentially impossible since you can not multitask. Push notification is total BS, it is not a replacement for multitasking.

There are many other features I love and complaints I have about this phone. But here is the bottom line. It is a very good phone. It has a great balance of business features and personal features.

It definitely feels like a first generation product. It needs a faster processor or more memory since it can bog down a little when you have multiple cards open.

Will it knock out my iPhone as my primary phone? Hard to say after 48 hours. If the media player were better and the app selection larger, I would say it has a really good chance.

I am going to keep using the Pre over the next few weeks and post some thoughts as I get closer to the end of the month.

Jon Lax More posts by Jon Lax