After picking up Palm’s new Pre smartphone on launch day roughly a week ago (and spending over six hours to do so), I thought it’d be fun to run through some early thoughts on the device given my long history with Sprint and Palm products. (I worked on Sprint’s PR team for nearly a decade, leaving in 2004.)
I’ll unabashedly admit that I’m a Palm fanboy dating back to the standalone PDA days. Over the past eight or so years I have owned a Palm Pilot, a Handspring Visor, the Treo 600, Treo 650, Treo 700P and ending with the Treo 800w. I still remember how exciting my first Treo was, how cutting edge at the time. Over the years, however, it seemed that Palm simply was going through the motions as it sat back and produced me-too hardware while ceding real innovation to Apple, Google, RIM and others.
The Pre has certainly changed all that, and has brought sexy back to Palm, something they haven’t really had since the 600 or 650. Overall it’s a fantastic device, but there are some kinks that need to be worked out and some nits that I personally have – my hope is that Palm will take its cue from Apple and push out updates and fixes on a very, very regular basis.
- Build/Design – I’ve read complaints online that the Pre feels “plasticky,” and cheap – I don’t agree with that. The phone has a great feel in the hand, both with the keyboard open or closed. And it’s got just the right heft, but is small enough to fit in my front pants pocket comfortably (certainly more comfortably than my Treo 800w which is about ½” wider and 1″ taller than the Pre). The screen is also bright, vibrant and super responsive to touch and gestures.
- Keyboard – Small keys? Tacky keys? Yes to both, and my first thought is that the keys could be raised up just a hair. But over a week I’ve adjusted just fine, and am typing just as fast as I could on my older “smile-style” Treo keyboards. The Pre is certainly easier than my wife’s Centro to type on. And a physical keyboard trumps virtual any day.
- webOS – is just fantastic. While I was used to multitasking with my 800w, it was nothing like this. I realized the power when I was at lunch, listening to music and simultaneously following Apple WWDC news on three different web sites and Twitter all at the same time, while still being able to tweet. And frankly the GUI is elegant and fun to use. Being able to flick away open cards hasn’t gotten old yet. Gestures take a day or so to figure out, but seem very natural.
- iTunes syncing simply rocks and it looks like it may be difficult for Apple to shut it down. Face it, iTunes is the default music standard for many, and this makes transferring favorite podcasts and playlists easy-peasy, and allows me to carry only one device which is a huge plus for me. The music player features and functions are certainly more than adequate.
- Email – Despite an acknowledged problem with Exchange Active Sync for some, after applying the first OS update (pushed out near launch), I’ve had no issues with syncing to my Enterprise Exchange account. Linking to Google email was just as simple and using push settings on each delivers mail lightning fast.
- Synergy – To be honest, syncing only with the cloud had me a bit nervous for whatever reason, but by and large it works very, very well. Universal search from the launcher is fantastic, and I like being able to get info from multiple profiles. Would love to see some sort of integration with LinkedIn as a future capability set
- Photos – The 3 megapixel camera with flash is excellent, especially outdoors. I’ve taken some really nice shots with the camera, and the application itself is intuitive and easy to use.
- Web – Palm’s new browser is great; speedy, and has had no problems rendering pages; night and day vs. the old Palm OS Blazer or even the mobile version of Internet Explorer.
- Video Player – no real bells/whistles, but gets the job done.
- Battery – Shocker: the battery life stinks. Palm appears to be using the same 1150OmAh battery as it did for the Centro and 800w, and it took a lot of tweaks and tricks to eke decent business use out of the 800w. I haven’t found all of those tricks yet for the Pre. If I’m going to be at an event and live blogging or tweeting, I’m going to want to take one, or maybe even two extra batteries to get me through that type of day. Frankly that’s not really acceptable, and I hope there are some OS tweaks that can be made to help extend battery life.
- No, Nyet, Non, Nein – No video. No voice dialing. No picture-based speed-dial screen/app. No tethering. No visual voicemail. Not having voice dial capabilities or a picture-based speed dial are things I really miss from my Windows Mobile 800w. Having video was handy as well, whether capturing for download or using Qik. And tethering came in handy for the occasional train trip or when blogging from an event and wanting to use my laptop without having to spring for a MiFi or laptop card. Given Apple’s announcements around the iPhone 3.0 software and the iPhone 3GS, Palm needs to work on adding video and voice sooner rather than later.
- Lag – it doesn’t happen often, but there have been a couple of times where all the apps simply stop working/hang. You can take the device back and forth between launcher and open cards, but it takes a minute before the apps start working again.
I’ll repeat, I’m a big Palm fan, so I tend to give them a pass on some stuff happening here in v1.0, hoping that they’ve seen the light and will speed new features to market, either directly or through applications. They need to follow Apple’s “there’s an app for that” slogan and either build some stuff directly or get developers working on tweaks and gap fillers. It’s already very promising that the hacking community has found developer mode for the device and is actively working on how to get the most out of webOS. And as you see from the accompanying photo of the packaging, Palm is telling us all that “no detail is too small.”
- Customization – I can set main ringtone, ringtones for individuals in my contacts, and select my alarm sound, but I can’t customize sounds for SMS or other alerts? I can’t set up a special ringtone for unknown callers? Lame.
- Nag, nag, nag – seriously, alerts are great, and not that difficult to dismiss, but I’d like more control and options here also. I’d personally rather have just the small alert icons on bottom right of screen vs. full banners I must swipe away – current options are just on/off.
- Get the BugSpray – There’s a bug where you’ll get audible system sounds playing when on a call, even if ringer switch is set to off. It’s very distracting, especially if you are the one speaking on a conference call. My guess is this happens only when wifi is on/you have simultaneous voice and data streaming down to the phone, something you wouldn’t have when on a CDMA call, hopefully it’s an oversight and gets fixed. I also ran into a bug where signal dropped and a screen pops up to redial or hit OK to dismiss (see photo) – hitting OK does nothing and you have to swipe up and flick up to dismiss the card/close the phone app.
- Ringer Volume/vibrate – ringer sounds are too low in volume, and it would be nice to have a longer vibration notification.
- Launcher bar – please, please, please let us remove the static quick launch bar at the bottom of the screen. I can swipe up for the dynamic wave launcher, do I really need a second way?
- Button – talk about under utilized, the center button in the gesture area simply takes you to card/application view. It would be great if it could be used to turn the screen on (vs. the more inconvenient power button). Even better, make the button into a BlackBerry-like trackball to help with cursor placement for cut/place/insert (using the orange button and finger swipes can still be a little difficult to place the cursor exactly where you want it in a block of text). And yes, I realize you can slide the device open to wake it, but the button would be faster and easier.
- Add video, voice dialing, picture-based speed dial, tethering and visual voicemail. It would also be nice to add little icons to FF/RR/Save/Delete voicemail messages when listening to my Pre’s voicemail, another nice feature my 800w had.
- More Launcher Pages – Unless I’m missing something, we’re locked into jamming all of our apps under just three launcher pages. Would like to add additional pages and be able would to label these pages (work apps, multimedia, games, etc).
- Memos/Tasks – I have yet to find a good, simple way to move over memos/notes and tasks from Outlook. Palm needs to figure out a way to do this beyond the one-time sync option.
- Games – Seriously, not a single decent game included at launch? No bubble breaker or Bejeweled? I think every Palm device I’ve owned has come with at least one game pre-loaded (and I’m not counting the lame Sudoku in the App store at launch as meeting the need here).
- Apps – only a few select partners received the webOS software developer kit prior to launch. It’s now time to open that baby up and let the world start to build applications.
- MicroUSB port – After a week, connections to the micro USB port to charge have become loose to the point where I’m concerned the cable won’t be able to stay on consistently. I hesitate to mention it, as I haven’t seen any other reports from others with a similar issue, but it *could* become an issue.
Palm is off to a great start with both webOS and the Pre itself, which is a pretty fantastic device. There are some tweaks that need to be made, but much of that is to be expected with a 1.0 OS and device. If Palm focuses on regular fixes and updates, continues to push for developer support, and rolls out anticipated new devices like the Pixie and mysterious Zepfloyd, they will have re-established themselves again as a leading player in the smartphone market.
Steve Lunceford is a strategic communications professional for a leading provider of consulting services to U.S. Federal and state/local governments. Steve has 20 years experience in media relations/corporate communications working on behalf of firms such as Sprint, Choice Hotels International, BearingPoint, RadioShack and the NFL. He is the creator of GovTwit, a directory of government using Twitter. Follow Steve on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.