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Palm Pre (Sprint) review: Palm Pre (Sprint)

Palm Pre (Sprint)

Bonnie Cha
Bonnie Cha Former Editor
Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.
21 min read


Palm Pre (Sprint)

The Good

The Palm Pre's multitasking capabilities and notifications system are unparalleled. The smartphone features a vibrant display with multitouch functionality as well as a solid Web browser and good multimedia integration. The Pre offered good call quality and wireless options include 3G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS.

The Bad

The Pre's keyboard is cramped. Battery life drains quickly, and the smartphone can be sluggish at times. Lacks expansion slot, video-recording capabilities, onscreen keyboard, and Flash support. The Pre App Catalog is still in beta with a limited number of titles.

The Bottom Line

Despite some missing features and performance issues that make it less than ideal for on-the-go professionals, the Palm Pre offers gadget lovers and consumers well-integrated features and unparalleled multitasking capabilities. The hardware could be better, but more importantly, Palm has developed a solid OS that not only rivals the competition but also sets a new standard in the way smartphones handle tasks and manage information.

Editors' note: The review and ratings have been updated since the original publish date to reflect changed features and bug fixes from various software updates and also includes final battery results.

We haven't seen so much buzz over a phone since the iPhone, but for the past six months, all eyes have been on the Palm Pre. Introduced at CES 2009, the Palm Pre quickly became the most anticipated phone of the year, not only for what it meant for Palm and Sprint--two companies struggling behind their competitors--but also for what the device promised. The multitasking features, the notification system, a physical keyboard, multitouch screen--all of these factors combined made it, in our opinion, the most legitimate rival to the iPhone yet.

Now, here we are, six months later and the Palm Pre is finally ready for release. We've spent the past few days poring over every detail of the device (without Palm's or Sprint's supervision) and we're prepared to answer the all-important question: does it live up to all the hype? Well, we'd say our thoughts on the Palm Pre echo those we had for the T-Mobile G1. There are some hardware and performance issues and we're concerned about a few missing features, but we walked away impressed with the Palm WebOS.

The tiny QWERTY keyboard isn't going to draw any praise, nor is the lack of an expansion slot. We're also disappointed that the Pre lacks some basic functions, such as video recording and voice dialing, though Palm has said these features can be added later through an over-the-air update. Battery life is also a concern, as the smartphone only lasted about a day on a single charge, which, in all fairness, is about the same as the iPhone. All that said, the Pre's "Deck of Cards" multitasking functionality and notification system are what make it special and they are areas where the Pre beats the iPhone or any smartphone on the market right now. In addition, personal-information management is completely changed (in a good way) with the Synergy feature.

While the Pre finally gives Sprint customers something to be excited about, it won't please everyone. Early adopters, gadget lovers, and consumers who need or crave more functionality from their cell phone will be well-served by the Pre, though there is a little bit of a learning curve to the device. Also, because of the battery life and that slight bit of sluggishness, we'd don't think it's the best device for business users or road warriors.

Also, despite some of the monthly savings of Sprint's data plans, we don't expect that many customers will switch to Sprint just to get the Pre, especially in light of the news Verizon and AT&T will eventually get their own models and a crop of hot, new phones on the way.

Starting from the ground up, Palm has really made a solid and smart platform and one that doesn't just match the capabilities of its competitors but offers something more in its multitasking and personal information management capabilities. Palm might not have completely knocked it out of the park with the Palm Pre, but at least it's back in the game, and we look forward to more WebOS devices the future.

The Palm Pre is available starting June 6, for $199.99 after a $100 mail-in rebate and with a two-year contract on Sprint's Everything Data plan or Business Essentials with Messaging and Data plan. In addition to Sprint stores, the Pre will be sold at Best Buy, RadioShack, and some Wal-Mart Stores.

The Palm Pre's design is unlike that of any smartphone we've seen to date, but if we had to give a point of comparison, we'd say it somewhat resembles the HTC Touch. It's a bit like a pebble, with its smooth, black, lacquered finish and rounded edges, and, like the iPhone, Palm keeps it simple by keeping external controls to a minimum.

The face of the device only has one control: a center button that will take you back to the Deck of Card view. The center key is a bit deceiving in that it looks similar to a trackball navigator, so there were times where, out of habit, we would try to navigate a page by trying to scroll up and down using the center button, but you can only press it like a key. On top of the unit, there's a power button, a silent ringer switch, and a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack, which we're always happy to see. The left side features a volume rocker, while the Micro-USB port is on the right. Finally, on back, you'll find the camera, flash, speaker, and removable battery.

Palm Pre is shown sandwiched between the Google Ion and the Apple iPhone 3G.

In its closed state, the Pre measures 3.9 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick and weighs 4.76 ounces. It fits nicely in the palm of your hand and is certainly more pocket-friendly than the iPhone. Some have worried about the durability of the phone, since it's made of plastic. We didn't throw it off a building or anything, but we thought it felt quite solid, not cheap or toylike. The only negative things we'd note are that the phone is a smudge/fingerprint magnet and the slider design can feel a bit rickety at times.

However, the sliding mechanism is smooth, and the screen clicks securely into place when pushed up. There's a bit of a curve to the phone in its open state, and we preferred keeping it that way when talking on the phone, since it felt more comfortable against our cheek.

Touch screen
We have to say the Pre's display is one of the main highlights of the phone. It measures 3.1 inches diagonally, so it's smaller than the iPhone's and some other touch-screen devices, such as the T-Mobile G1 and the Samsung Omnia, but what it lacks in size, the Pre makes up for in quality.

The 24-bit color HVGA display is vibrant and sharp with its 320x480-pixel resolution. Images, text, and Web pages all looked amazing. We'd say it's on par with, if not just slightly crisper looking than, the iPhone's screen. Under the Preferences menu, there are settings to adjust the screen's brightness and backlight time. You can also customize the phone with preinstalled wallpaper, or use your own images and set them as your background.

The Pre's vibrant touch screen is one of the highlights of the smartphone.

The Pre's display has a built-in accelerometer so the screen orientation will automatically change from portrait to landscape mode when viewing photos, videos, and Web pages. The accelerometer is fast and changes pages without any lag. There's also a proximity sensor, which will automatically turn off the display when you lift the smartphone to your ear for a phone call.

The capacitive (meaning it responds to the touch of a finger) touch screen is pretty responsive. There's no haptic feedback, but white rings will appear around an icon or menu item to let you know that the screen has registered your touch. To scroll through lists, you can drag your finger along the screen or give it a quick flick to get through longer lists. The onscreen dial pad is simple, with large buttons, and it includes shortcuts to voice mail and your call log. Of course, you can also just use the Universal Search function and start typing a contact's name to get quicker results.

The Pre's screen is multitouch, which is a fairly big deal since the iPhone has long stood in a class of its own with this functionality--but not anymore. Like the iPhone, the Pre lets you zoom in and out on pages by pinching your fingers apart or close together; double-tapping the screen will also achieve the same task. In addition, swiping left to right on an item, such as an e-mail or call log number, will give you the option to delete it.

To copy, cut, and paste, just tap on the screen to place the cursor at the start of what you want to copy/cut, press the orange key on the keyboard, and drag your finger across the desired text. You can do this anywhere on the screen, by the way; it doesn't have to be right over the words. Once you've selected everything, tap the upper-left corner of the screen to bring up the drop-down menu with your copy, cut, and paste options.

Below the screen, there's a gesture area where you can perform a couple of tasks, which we outline in the section below. Two small LEDs and the center button will illuminate white to indicate that it has registered your command.

User interface and navigation
We'll say it outright: the Palm Pre isn't the most intuitive device to use, at least at first. When you fire up the smartphone for the first time, there's a brief animated tutorial to familiarize you with the various gestures, such as swiping right to left in the gesture area to return to the previous page. The gestures are also illustrated in the quick start guide, but even so, it takes some time to learn all the various commands.

The Home screen looks easy enough to understand, with a simple tray along the bottom that includes shortcuts to the onscreen dialer, contacts, e-mail, calendar, and the main menu (aka Launcher). Pressing the Launcher icon will bring you to all your applications and settings. It consists of three panels that you can swipe from left to right (and vice versa), and each panel is dedicated to a more general category. For example, the first panel includes all the core functions, such as messaging, Web, multimedia, Google Maps, task list, and so forth; the second panel is focused on applications and Sprint services; and the third panel features the phone's various settings and options. The user interface, in general, is very sleek and fresh, and provided smooth transitions. Also, it's more inviting and engaging than Google Android, which will make it more appealing to consumers.

To launch a program, you simply tap an icon, and once you're in an application, you can tap the upper-left corner of the screen to open any relevant menus for that particular app. Of course, the beauty of the Palm Pre is the multitasking capabilities, so you can simply launch another program without having to exit off the current one. To do this, drag your finger from the gesture area up to the screen and you'll see the home screen tray appear in a cool little wave; from there, you can move your finger to one of the dedicated shortcuts or open the Launcher for a full list.

If you want to return to any running apps, a press of the center button will bring you to your Deck of Cards view where you can simply select the card you want. If you're wondering why the feature is called Deck of Cards, it's because each application is presented in a card window and you can then shuffle through the open cards. You can drag and drop cards (or rearrange the order of apps in the Launcher) by pressing and holding the item until you see a halo around the card and then you're free to move it, but it's not like with the T-Mobile G1, where you can drag and drop icons onto the main home screen. When you're done, you can flick the card upward and that will close out the program.

As you can see, there's a lot to learn, but after a couple of hours, we felt more comfortable and familiar with the gestures. Obviously, with more use, these commands will become even easier and soon you won't even have to think about it, but when comparing the out-of-the-box experience of the Pre with that of the iPhone, the iPhone definitely wins for its ease of use. That said, we give props to Palm for its connection manager. By simply touching the upper right-hand corner of the screen, you get instant access to the Pre's connection settings--Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane mode--instead of having to go through several menus as on the iPhone.

The lack of a physical keyboard was a big reason why some people chose not to buy the iPhone. There will be those who argue that the iPhone's onscreen keyboard is fine and just needs some getting used to, which is fair enough. However, there are also some who desire physical keys and don't want to give them up (present company included), so it was like a dream when the Palm Pre was announced at CES 2009 with its full QWERTY keyboard. Fast-forward to now, where we actually have the device in hand and we have to say, we're a bit disappointed. Similar to the Palm Centro and Palm Treo Pro, the jellylike buttons are quite small and there's very little spacing between them. In addition, the top row of keys runs right up against the edge of the open cover, so it's easy to bump into it when typing.

The Palm Pre's keyboard is less than ideal, with its small buttons and cramped layout.

I was still able to type faster using the Pre's keyboard than the iPhone's, but I also have small hands so it was easier for me to punch the keys. However, I can definitely see people with larger thumbs having problems and, unfortunately, there's no onscreen keyboard option at this point. I took a quick poll of some co-workers and all agreed that the keyboard was small; several called it a deal breaker, but a majority said they could get used to it after a while.

Before making any snap judgments, we'd say to give the keyboard a try. While clearly not as easy to use as a BlackBerry or some of Samsung's and Nokia's QWERTY devices, the Pre's keyboard is not completely unusable. Just as with the iPhone's virtual keyboard, with time, you make adjustments, find your groove, and ultimately can learn to type quickly. Symbols and numbers share space with the letter keys, and the latter are highlighted in orange. There are no shortcut buttons on the keyboard.

Getting started and data transfer
The first time you boot up the Palm Pre (which takes quite a while, by the way), you'll have to set up what's called a Palm Profile. It takes a few moments, but is worth the time, since it gives you access to several key services, including backup and restore settings, remote erase in case of a lost or stolen phone, and over-the-air updates. The latter will become important as Palm pushes out firmware updates that include new features and any bug fixes for the device.

You'll also get an opportunity to transfer data from any desktop clients or your old smartphone to the Pre. This will be easiest if you're already using Google, Facebook, or Microsoft Exchange, since Synergy can pull in all your data as soon as you enter your account information. For those content with using their current desktop app, including iCal and Address Book on a Mac, Palm Desktop, or Outlook, there's a bit more work involved for you. First, you'll be required to set up a Google account and then you will need to get a third-party application, such as Google Sync or CompanionLink, to sync your data with the newly created account and then to the Pre. A third-party app (Chapura PocketMirror for Outlook) is also necessary if you want to sync the Pre over a Wi-Fi network to your PC.

Finally, for people coming from a Treo or any other Palm phone, Palm offers something called the Data Transfer Assistant (DTA) that performs a one-time transfer of data from your desktop, including Palm Desktop, iCal, or Exchange, and to your phone. DTA is available as a free download from Palm. Sprint can also help transfer your old phone's address book to the Pre in stores.

Phone features and contacts
While the Palm Pre does a ton of stuff, let's remember that it's a phone first and would only be a glorified PDA without the voice features. The Pre offers a speakerphone, speed dial, conference calling, airplane mode, a silent ringer switch, and TTY compatibility. Unfortunately, the initial version of WebOS does not support voice dialing (much like the iPhone) and, unlike the Samsung Instinct, there is no support for visual voice mail at this time.

The contacts list is only limited by the amount of available memory (about 7GB) and includes fields for multiple numbers, e-mail and IM addresses, street addresses, birthdays, and more. With Palm's Synergy feature, the Pre can pull a contact's information from various sources--Facebook, Outlook, Gmail, and so forth--and automatically fill all the fields in a single contact sheet, so you don't have to go through the hassle of manually entering all the data. In addition to numbers and e-mail addresses, Synergy will also attach any photos that are associated with that person's Facebook or e-mail account. If you don't want all your information merged together, there is a way to unlink contact profiles so you can keep that separation between social and business contacts. Be aware that if you have a large contact list, it can take a while for the Pre to sync all the information, but you can still work in other applications during this process.

Messaging and calendar
The Palm Pre supports multiple e-mail accounts, including POP/IMAP and Microsoft Exchange. However, the latter has been a bit limited in that the smartphone didn't support PIN service or remote wipe--a big issue with some enterprise users. While Palm WebOS 1.0.3 brought new enhancements, such as support for non-SSL Exchange servers, it appears that the rumored WebOS 1.1 update will deliver more of the substantive , such as IT-initiated remote wipe, device wipe if the wrong PIN is entered a certain amount of times, autolock, and more.

All accounts are housed under the E-mail card, from where you can access your various in-boxes. Synergy also allows you to view messages from all accounts under one view, though we think most would prefer to keep personal and work e-mail separate. E-mail delivery was almost instant (you can also set different retrieval intervals), and an action, such as deleting a message or moving an e-mail to a folder, is reflected on both sides whether you do it from the Pre or your computer. We were able to download and view attachments as well as send them.

There is a separate messaging app that houses all your instant, text, and multimedia messages. In this folder, you'll be able to see all conversations with a contact in a single, threaded view in chronological order, regardless of message type. The Pre ships with two instant-messaging clients: Google Talk and AIM. Once you're signed in, you'll also be able to see any of your friends who are online from the contacts page when a green dot appears next to their name.

With the e-mail set up, all relevant Calendars will also be synced to the Pre and brought into one calendar view via Synergy. Appointments are color-coded to help you differentiate between the different accounts. Alternatively, there is a drop-down menu where you can view each calendar separately. Again, like e-mail, the synchronization of our Outlook and Google calendars was seamless. We also created new events from the device, which automatically synced back to our Outlook and Google calendars. Though we didn't encounter this problem ourselves, Palm Web OS 1.0.3 fixed the issue where Google Calendar entries containing symbols or accented characters in the event name wouldn't synchronize between the mobile and online components. Also, synchronization time has improved.

Universal search
With all the data that the Pre can handle, searching for items could be a cumbersome and tedious task, but universal search takes care of that problem. From anywhere on the phone, you can start entering a search term and the Pre will look through your contacts, applications, the Web, Google Maps, and Twitter. The feature worked well when we searched for contacts, businesses, and more general terms, but it's not quite as robust as the iPhone's search in that it doesn't search e-mail headers, calendar, notes, or the music library. WebOS 1.2.0 did, however, bring the ability to search within e-mail folders, so once you're in the e-mail app, you can begin entering any search term, and the Pre will search your messages for relevant results.

Multitasking and notifications
If there's one area where the Palm Pre holds the edge over the current iPhone, G1, and other smartphones, it's in its multitasking and notification capabilities. The much-talked-about Deck of Card feature works well, letting you keep multiple applications open and running in the background while working in another. Like on a computer, you can minimize and maximize tasks by using the center button and swiping through the various cards. In addition, the aforementioned quick-launch bar makes menu access and launching new apps a snap.

The center button will help you manage your running applications.

The notifications bar also seamlessly alerts you to incoming/missed calls, new messages, appointments, and so forth, and even displays them when you have your screen locked. The notifications are unobtrusive. E-mail subject headers and a single-line preview of text messages and IMs will appear in the bar. If a call comes in while you're working in an app, you get an alert along the lower third of the screen and you can accept or ignore the call without having the incoming-call screen overtake the app. You can also immediately open messages or, in some cases, you can interact with the app right from the notifications bar--for example, when fast-forwarding or pausing music tracks in Pandora and the music player. It's really a well-thought-out system and one of our favorite things about the Pre.

The limit on the number of cards you have open will depend on which applications you are using. The more memory-intensive ones, such as complicated Web sites, will take up more memory and consequently reduce the number of apps you can have open. A notification will appear if you've reached the limit and recommend you close other applications to open up memory. We got this alert twice during our testing period, and it was while we had several Web sites active and also had three or four other apps open, so you still get a good amount of multitasking. We even got up to 12 active cards at once.

With so many apps going at once, you're probably wondering how it affects performance, and we have to say that the Pre surprised us. There was some slight lag when launching applications (see Performance section for more), but the smartphone was still very responsive and didn't show any signs of freaking out, which was very impressive.

Wireless options
The Palm Pre is outfitted with all the wireless options you could need. It works on Sprint's EV-DO Rev. A network, which promises average download speeds of 600Kbps to 1.4Mbps and peak rates of up to 3.1 Mbps, and average upload speeds of 350 to 500 Kbps, peaking at 1.8 Mbps. Sprint's 3G network covers 18,600 cities and 1,832 airports, and reaches 270 million people, a wider coverage area than AT&T and T-Mobile's 3G network. Alternatively, you can get online using the Pre's integrated Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g with WPA, WPA2, WEP, 802.1x authentication).

Bluetooth 2.1 is also onboard and supports a number of profiles, including stereo Bluetooth, hands-free kits, personal area networking, phone book access, and audio/video remote control. While the Pre is capable of Bluetooth tethering, Sprint is not supporting the feature since the phone-as-modem plan is not eligible with its Everything Data, Everything Data Family/Share, and Business Essentials Messaging and Data plan.

The Palm Pre comes with an integrated GPS receiver for positioning and navigation capabilities. Google Maps is loaded on the smartphone, providing maps with satellite view, real-time positioning and text-based directions, business searches, and traffic data. However, for features like voice-guided directions and automatic rerouting, you will need to use Sprint Navigation. The use of the location-based service is included in Sprint's Everything Data plan, so you don't have to pay a monthly subscription fee or pay for day use. Also, let's not forget the fact that you're getting turn-by-turn navigation from the outset, whereas iPhone users are still waiting for this feature through iPhone OS 3.0 and third-party developers.

We were quite impressed with the Pre's GPS capabilities. Testing it in San Francisco, it got a read on our location within a minute and its positioning was almost spot on. We entered a trip from the Marina District to CNET's downtown headquarters, and within a few seconds, Sprint Navigation returned with directions based on the fastest route. Once on the road, the GPS accurately tracked our progress. We purposefully missed a couple of turns to test the route recalculation rate, and the first time, it was a little slow to realize we had gotten off track and barely provided us with new directions in time for our next turn. The other times, the route recalculations were fast. The audio quality of voice directions, in general, wasn't all that great.

Web browser
The Pre's Web browser is quite good. Based on WebKit, it renders sites onscreen as you would see them on your desktop, and pretty quickly at that. Of course, as we mentioned before, thanks to the multitouch screen, you easily zoom in/out on pages with a double tap or by pinching your finger together or apart (as with the iPhone) and you pan pages by touching a point on the screen and dragging your finger in any direction.

To enter a Web address, simply start typing the URL and an address bar will appear. You can bookmark sites, which will show up as a card when you first launch the browser and will be backed up to your Palm profile. For even quicker access to your favorite sites, there's also an option to add a dedicated shortcut to the Launcher page. If you'd like to open a new window, just select the New Card option under the drop-down menu on the left.

Overall, we were happy with the Pre's browser in terms of navigation and functionality, but there were a couple of misses. One was the lack of an onscreen keyboard. Without it, you can't type URLs or enter any text into relevant fields when you're viewing sites in landscape mode, so you'll need to switch back to portrait mode, which is annoying. Also, there's no Flash support at this time, so you can't view Flash videos within the browser. However, Palm announced its commitment to Adobe's Open Screen Project back in February and promised to bring the Flash 10 Player to its WebOS devices by the end of the year.

We ran a couple of quick tests on DSLreports.com just to give you some reference of Sprint's EV-DO Rev. A network speeds. For a 400K file, the Pre averaged 619Kbps for download speeds over three tests. Full versions of CNET's and The New York Times' Web sites loaded in about 26 seconds and 30 seconds, respectively, while ESPN's mobile site came up in 5 seconds flat.

CNET Labs also ran a similar browser speed test on the Pre as it did with the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS, using WorldofWarcraft.com as the control. The Pre loaded the bandwidth-heavy Web site in 1 minute and 7 seconds using 3G (26.4 seconds from a fresh boot). By comparison, the iPhone 3GS loaded the same site in 37.7 seconds and the iPhone 3G in 49.9 seconds. Using Wi-Fi, the site came up 37.6 seconds (21 seconds from a fresh boot) on the Pre.

The Palm Pre has got a solid set of multimedia features. The built-in media player supports a number of formats: MP3, AAC, AAC+, WAV, and AMR music files and MPEG-4, H263, and H264 video formats. The music player offers basic functions: play/pause, track forward/back, and shuffle and repeat modes. In addition to the standard forward/back buttons, you can swipe the album covers to proceed through songs. It's not quite as slick as the iPhone's Cover Flow feature, but it works.

There are several methods for getting media onto the smartphone. First, the Pre has the capability to act as a storage device, so you can sideload music and video by connecting the smartphone to your computer via a USB cable and selecting the USB Drive option from where you can then drag and drop files.

As we learned at the D:All Things Digital conference, the Pre also works with iTunes, so you can sync any non-DRM tracks (no videos) to the smartphone. Since the Pre's launch, it's been a cat-and-mouse game between Palm and Apple, with the latter disabling the feature through newer versions of iTunes and then Palm following up with an update to fix it. With the most current update, WebOS 1.2.1, the Pre works with iTunes 9.0.1. We synced the Pre with both Mac and PC iTunes versions by simply connecting the Pre to our laptop via a USB cable and selecting the Media Sync option on the Pre, which then automatically launched iTunes on our computer. The Pre is essentially identified as an iPod and from there, you can automatically synchronize your music library or manually drag and drop tunes.

The 8GB memory cap really became an issue when we were transferring our music library. We watched nervously as our storage diminished, so people with large libraries are probably going to have to cull their selections. Just as we said in our iPhone review, a microSD expansion slot really could have alleviated the problem (and potential complaints), but, according to Palm, it didn't fit with the design they were going for but did not rule it out for future devices.

While you can't purchase tracks from iTunes, the Palm Pre works with the Amazon MP3 Store, from which you can download songs over the air using your Amazon account. There is no support for Sprint's Music Store. You can download songs over both Wi-Fi and 3G. We bought a couple of tracks off the Amazon MP3 Store from the Pre and each song was downloaded within a couple of seconds over Wi-Fi. Once connected to our PC, we selected the USB Drive option and found our downloaded tracks in the


Palm Pre (Sprint)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 8
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