Palm Pre: A review by an ex-dumbphone user

Today we welcome back Unclutterer programmer Gary DuVall to the front side of the site.

Smartphones are all the rage these days. From Palm’s earlier creations, through the Blackberry and the iPhone, I’ve managed to resist the urge to upgrade from my old Motorola RAZR. As my thinking went (and had for nearly a decade), all I needed was a phone that worked — not one that included the kitchen sink. All of that went away this past weekend when I finally upgraded to Palm’s newest creation: the Palm Pre.

The Palm Pre sports a veritable plethora of features found on many competing smartphones: a camera, integrated mail and contact management, an easily-accessible online store (called the App Catalog), media playback, and more. What set the Pre apart from the others in my mind were some distinctive features that promised to make life just that much easier: Synergy, multitasking, iTunes sync, turn-by-turn GPS, and a very sharp 3-megapixel camera with integrated LED flash.

Synergy, Palm’s contact management system, integrates and merges your contact lists from Gmail, Facebook, Instant Messaging, and Microsoft Exchange into one easy-to-manage profile for each contact. Merging my Facebook contacts with my AIM list was easy; out of approximately 175 contacts, only three wouldn’t automatically merge. Linking the remaining three unmerged AIM contacts with the profiles they belonged under took maybe two extra minutes.

One of the more quirky and unexpected features of the Pre is its ability to masquerade as an iPod and synchronize with your existing media library using iTunes. While it won’t allow you to listen to files containing Apple’s DRM, it will synchronize your non-DRM MP3 and MP4 video collection to its 8GB storage without a problem. One caveat: Apple may not look upon this feature so favorably in the future, so you may not want to exclusively depend on it.

With the Pre’s on-board 3-megapixel camera, I no longer find it necessary to bring my everyday point-and-shoot along with me. The pictures are more than acceptable in both well-lit and low-lit situations. The LED flash works well enough, providing just enough light to get the right shot in dim light. That said, if you’re a dedicated amateur photographer, you may want to stick with your higher-end camera because the configuration options are currently slim.

The on-board turn-by-turn GPS system, called “Sprint Navigation” by Telenav, could easily replace most in-car GPS systems — provided you’re in a coverage area. Looking for the nearest bank? Three button presses and your directions are already queued up. While Google Maps on the Pre also offers much the same functionality, the spoken directions of Telenav’s system make it a much safer proposition. Sprint Navigation is provided free on the Pre.

And now we come to multi-tasking, perhaps Palm’s biggest achievement with the Pre. WebOS, Palm’s new operating system, allows multiple applications to be opened and used at once in the form of “cards.” While the iPhone has unofficially supported minor multitasking in certain applications, Palm takes it to a whole new level, allowing a user to view a PDF (through either the included PDF Reader or the newly-available Shortcovers e-reader application), listen to Pandora, map out a route using Google Maps, write an email, and browse the web all at once without having to close out from any of them to access the other.

While the App catalog may be sparse until more developers get on-board, there’s already evidence the organization-minded will have even more to enjoy on the platform: Evernote and SplashID Secure Password Manager were both released last week, offering even more tools to keep everything in its place.

With the Pre, I’ve come to realize just how much the smartphone has to offer: an innovative OS just ripe for organizing multitaskers, and (most of all) I no longer have to keep a notepad, GPS, point-and-shoot camera, or iPod with me. While I’m not going to step into the inevitable “Is it better than the iPhone?” fray, I can at least tell you that Palm has most certainly made me a believer in keeping life organized using the Pre.

(The Palm Pre is currently available for $199 (after $100 mail-in rebate) with a 2 year contract through Sprint, but other Palm phones using the WebOS platform are expected to find their way to other carriers including AT&T as well as Verizon in the next 6-12 months.)

16 Comments for “Palm Pre: A review by an ex-dumbphone user”

  1. posted by CJ on

    I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to say Sprint Navigation is included with the Pre. It’s included with your Simply Everything plan (both the 450 minute and unlimited minute plans), which you are required to get to get the Pre.

    With that said…I love my Pre to death.

  2. posted by iMatt on

    Congratulations on your new purchase. It sounds great. Is there any feature in particular that convinced you to buy the Pre over the new iPhone?

  3. posted by Susan on

    DD got the new iPhone. It looks very similar to this Palm Pre. However I must tell you I am a technology Ludite . . . no cell, no laptop, no broadband, no cable tv, no iPod . . . so I wouldn’t know the difference if it hit me in the head.

  4. posted by BJD on

    I love my palm Treo phone and have been looking forward to the Pre. I’m disappointed that its only offered with Sprint (because my company requires I use AT&T in order to get the expense reimbursed). I really do hope an AT&T version comes out in the next 6 months. If it takes much longer than that – I may have to look at the new iphone.

  5. posted by Rue on

    I’ve heard good things about the Pre and would have considered it…but my phones are all AT&T and from the research I’ve done, the plan I have with AT&T is cheaper than what I could get something similar for through another carrier. So I just went ahead and ordered the new iPhone. 😀

  6. posted by Amphritrite on

    Thanks for this 🙂 Like you, I’ve put off upgrading my Razr (I heart my phone!), but as I’m spending about $65 right NOW with my Razr plan (month to month with Tmo), this might just be right for me. It looks like their base plan is about $5 more, with data and messaging included. That would make me a VERY happy camper.

  7. posted by Gary on

    iMatt: Multitasking, certainly. As a PM and web developer, my mind’s already accustomed to being in a dozen places at once; the multitasking capabilities of the Pre help keep my ‘flow’ without having to open and close applications in between.

    In (a close) second place, it’d have to be Synergy’s snazzy contact management.

  8. posted by Michael on

    Well, finally, I can stop taking my GPS with me when I walk around town!

    So, Gary, honestly…how much did Palm pay you for this?

  9. posted by Millie on

    This phone does look ok, but I still love my boyfriend’s iPhone much much more. I can update my wordpress blog from it too.

  10. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Michael — Gary paid for the phone with his money from out of his own pocket. We always disclose when a product is given to us for review vs. we buy it ourselves. He even waited in line!

    Also, we NEVER accept payments to write reviews.

  11. posted by Paul on

    I don’t think I can look at a “PDF…listen to Pandora, map out a route using Google Maps, write an email, and browse the web” at the same time on my laptop. I can have them all OPEN, but the best the human part can do is listen to Pandora and look at something else simultaneously. Is there a substantive difference between switching applications and having these open at the same time (excluding the listening)? In real life, I may have them open but will switch from one thing (looking at a map to writing an email referencing the map) to the other.

    Not a criticism of the Pre – it looks great (and I think its Palm OS emulator is an underappreciated asset). Just wondering what “multi-tasking” really means in the real world.

  12. posted by KEN on

    I read another review where the reviewer said they crashed their review unit three times in one afternoon. Are you experiencing any crashing problems?

  13. posted by Gary on

    The crashing problems were more or less isolated to the 1.0 version of the WebOS system which, for the most part, only review units were affected by. At launch, users were immediately offered an over-the-air update to version 1.0.2 which seemingly fixed most of these problems.

    For the record, mine hasn’t crashed even once, likely due to my immediate update to 1.0.2.

  14. posted by mjh on

    @Paul: I didn’t realize the power of multitasking until I started using my Pre. Basically what was going on was I was deep in the middle of doing something, looking at a PDF that I’d spent a long time trying to find the specific information that I was looking for, when phone call came in.

    Without multitasking, I had a choice: either ignore the call, and lose whatever information there was to be shared, or take the call and redo all of the effort that I’d already spent trying to find the space in the PDF file.

    But this happened while I was on my Pre, not on my Centro. So I answered the call and when it was done, I went right back to where I was in the PDF file without a hitch.

    Now, certainly this capability exists (to some extent) in the iPhone. But what the Pre brings is the ability to make this possible for every single application that is currently available for the phone, and that will ever be available for the phone. This feature is built into the OS (WebOS) not a feature tacked onto some applications but not others.

    Couple that with the smart notification system that the Pre has, and the phone allows me handle the inevitable interruption much better than any other phone that I’ve used.

    Multitasking isn’t why I bought the phone. I just wanted a real browser *NOT* on AT&T’s network. Had the iPhone been on Sprint or Verizon, I’d have had one a long time ago. But multitasking is why you will not be able to get my Pre from me until you pry it from my cold dead fingers.

  15. posted by Paul on

    @mjh: This makes sense but, for what it’s worth, sounds like the most useful aspect for you has been for an application to remember where you last were more than actually having operations running simultaneously. I certainly don’t see a downside to multitasking but I’m still having trouble understanding what it really means.

    But your response helped to clarify the issue for me. Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that true multitasking is needed where an application is only useful when “always-on” – such as instant messaging, music playing, or some sort of location reporting. For example, Loopt wouldn’t make any sense on the iPhone (notwithstanding that they offer an app) as it would require running Loopt at all times (although perhaps the push notifications have solved that). Nor would Pandora (which push could never solve).

  16. posted by Jen on

    I HATED this as a PHONE. Contacts are listed by last name only, touch screen was slow but sensitive so you end up calling people you don’t want to. Swithing from one call to another was a real chore, horrible dropped calls. Great concept but needs a lot of work. The keyboard is difficult to slide also and very crowded. Ringer volume did not go loud enough to hear unless you are in a very quiet setting, earpiece volume same way. Battery did not last long if you use the phone.

    Summary: I bought one as did a friend and we both returned them. As a mini computer it was great but as a phone it was horrible.

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