Palm Pre Test Drive makes me want to keep the keys

Palm comes running out of the gate with its latest incarnation, the Pre. Despite some quirks, it's a very impressive device worthy of competing in the smartphone arena.

Michael Gaines
8 min read

The advantage of having technology as a big part of my life is seeing some of the wondrous creations that companies produce. Fifteen years ago my first cellphone was an unfriendly Motorola with an LED display and couldn't send text messages. Today, cell phones are akin to the communicators on Star Trek. We are truly living in the future.

I had received my Palm Pre from CNet last night and was thrilled to be testing a new piece of technology. I've heard so many things about it and I wanted to try this out for myself. Opening the box, I was like a kid on Christmas morning who wanted the latest LED football game.

Palm Pre box
Palm Pre Box. Small, but there are some nice goodies in here. Michael Gaines

Palm Pre box opened
Palm Pre box opened. Most of the space underneath is manuals and accessories. Michael Gaines

Palm Pre box contents
Palm Pre box contents. Michael Gaines

The Pre comes with the standard accessories: instructions, charger, USB-to-miniUSB cable, headphones, and case. Thankfully, Palm isn't using a proprietary headphone jack for the Pre. I was eager to turn the Pre on, and perhaps it was my excitement but I couldn't find the power button. The way the Pre is designed, the center of the phone that runs its circumference is made of matte plastic where the volume buttons and mute switch are, and it's so thin that I didn't notice where the power button was. I had to open the manual to see where it was located. I have good eyes, but I didn't notice the tiny power symbol on the power button in the upper right hand corner.

Powering on
Once I turned the Pre on, it took a long time to boot. I didn't time how long it took it like I probably should have, but it felt like a good minute passed before it finally finished booting. Once it did, it asked me which language to use as the default, and then after taking a while to activate, it asked me to create a profile. This was my first use of the Pre's keyboard and I had trouble typing with my thumbs because the keys are so small and close together. I eventually started typing with my thumbnails since that was the only way I could guarantee that I wouldn't accidentally press the wrong key.

After that setup, it brought up a series of tutorials which I wasn't very interested in going through, but there was no way to turn them off. I had to sit through tutorials on how to select, go back, and other things I already knew how to do. I'm glad the house wasn't on fire during this.

Palm Pre tutorial
Palm Pre tutorial Michael Gaines

After another long reboot, I was finally given access to the phone's impressive WebOS. Right off the bat, I wanted to play with the UI to see how intuitive it is. I was quite impressed with how well the UI is designed and how responsive it is to what I do on its touchscreen. The Pre creates this neat ripple effect showing you where your finger touched. There were some icons that were small and I had to hit them twice to target them properly, so the ripple gave me an idea of how far away I was. I don't particularly like the small icons to begin with, but it's not a serious concern.

Using it
I called a friend of mine who was home to see how the audio quality was on a phone call. On both ends, we found that the quality was very good. There were some very, very brief cutouts, which also happened while I was recording my voicemail message, but nothing serious.

When I hung up, I found that the UI was smart enough to have an icon of an address book next to the number I dialed, showing me that I can add that number to my address book, which I did very easily. It even showed that I can add a ringtone just for her. I browsed through the ringtones, but didn't find anything that impressed me much. They're typical, cute little ditties which really don't have much personality to them. I look forward to putting the ringtones I currently use on this phone.

I also wanted to try sending an SMS, and this is where I got a little frustrated with the keyboard. By default, the text field for the SMS's destination is for letters. I didn't read the manual about this, but I found that if you wanted to type in a set of numbers, you had to press the orange key for each number. I found that if you double-click the orange key, the keyboard goes into a "num-lock" type of mode and you can type the numbers just fine.

Next on my list of things to try was the calendar. As soon as I tapped the calendar icon, the Pre asked me if I wanted to sign into my Google account and grab my calendars there. I signed in, and almost immediately the Pre saw all my calendar items on my Google calendar. I was able to edit, add, and delete them right from my phone. It even alerted me to one later in the evening.

I didn't like the month view so much. It uses shades of gray to display items on your calendar which can be difficult to see. I'd prefer it if the calendar can use the color codes that are assigned to each calendar for these items. I also didn't like that I couldn't swipe the screen to the left or the right to move forward or backwards a month. Even using the swipe area below the screen didn't work. I had to explicitly set the month and year I wanted to look at using a menu which made going to August rather cumbersome.

Palm Pre calendar
Palm Pre calendar Michael Gaines

This brings me to a point about the Pre's readability. The font used on this device, which was designed specifically for the Pre, is very easy to read. The design of the text doesn't strain my eyes or make the text hard to read, even when the brightness is turned down, or if the font is small. I'm very impressed with that.

Navigating the UI was easy to get the hang of. Clicking the up arrow icon on the app bar brings up page one of the Launcher menu, which has what Palm thought would be the most used app on the phone. There are two small vertical bars in the lower right hand corner of the screen. I tried tapping on them several times, and they did nothing. I wasn't sure what they were for until I flicked to the left and saw that they represent the number of pages in the Launcher. It's not a very clear indicator, but makes sense after you see it. You can reorganize the apps by holding and moving them around. Launching them seems to take a few seconds in some cases, more time than I'd expect for small apps.

What's nice about the Pre is that apps can run in the background. I haven't yet tested what this does to your battery life, but it certainly gives users more freedom since they don't have to stop doing their work in one app to fire up another. If you want to quit an app, make sure it's minimized on the main screen by pressing the Center button, and flick the card of the application up.

I played with the camera a bit, taking pictures of a few random things. I noticed that the phone has a flash, and you can tell the phone whether or not to use it. It's mediocre at best, I had a better flash on my Sony Ericsson, but it serves its purpose. It really just turns a light on while the picture's being taken, rather than actually create a short, timed burst of light. The picture quality in low light is mediocre. It's been difficult to take pictures in sunlight due to the fact that the weather in this part of the country has been like Seattle lately. I did not see a way to take videos with the camera.

I wanted to look at some of the web-based apps like the browser and YouTube, so I told the Pre to look for my WiFi at home, which it did, and connected to it just fine. The speed of the Web browser was inconsistent amongst different sites. Engadget.com started rendering in about eight seconds. My own geekistry.com started rendering in twenty-one seconds. Since Engadget has much more information on it than my own Wordpress blog, I was confused as to why it would take so long to render my own site. It could have been network lag, and I'll have to test it extensively later, but for now I'll just make a note of it as an anomaly. Going to the app store, I found a Twitter app for the Pre called Tweed. The app itself is rather nice, and its speed was fast. YouTube did well also, doing a fast search and playing a video within five seconds of me selecting one.

After playing with the phone for a few hours, it told me that it needed to be charged. Getting the door to the miniUSB connector open on the phone was a challenge because I was afraid I was going to break it. The door itself is small and with my big hands, I had to be very careful not to pry it open too hard. After inspecting it for about a minute, I realized that the door swings on a hinge, so that moves the door out of the way for the charging plug. I plugged it into my Mac and nothing happened at first. You have to tell the phone what you want to do with the connection: Media Sync, USB Drive, or Just Charge. For now, I selected Just Charge. I'll do the media tomorrow.

Palm Pre microUSB door
Palm Pre microUSB door Michael Gaines
Palm Pre USB choices
Palm Pre USB choices Michael Gaines

Overall, I've been very happy with the phone. One of the biggest quirks to me is the need to swipe to the right to go back when all other cell phone and desktop apps use going to the left to mean going back. It took me a while to figure out that a right swipe will get me out of places I wanted to go since I was always doing left swipes out of habit. I don't know if I can get used to the small keyboard, though. The way I have to type makes the phone wobble a bit at the top, and it seems like it's going to fall out of my hands. It's going to take some getting used to. I think Palm has a winner with this phone.

I'll be posting pictures of the phone, and pictures taken with the phone on my flickr account.