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

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 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 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