By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, June 14, 2009
The new Palm Pre comes from a company that's been developing handheld gadgets since 1992, but the Pre owes almost nothing to that heritage. It has all the promise -- and many of the limits and glitches -- of a bright, young startup's 1.0 release.
That's because much of the Palm, Inc., that we knew had to die for the Pre to be born.
The Sunnyvale, Calif., firm was headed toward extinction not even three years ago, when its Treo smartphones had gone stale and its chief executive scoffed at the idea of Apple getting into the phone business.
Since then, the iPhone has changed what we expect from a smartphone. But with the designed-from-scratch, smartly Web-connected Pre, Palm finally has a respectable competitor to Apple's increasingly inescapable device.
The Pre -- $299.99 before a $100 rebate for new or renewing Sprint customers who take one of the carrier's $69.99-and-up unlimited-data plans -- is a sleek jelly bean of a phone. In looks alone, the Pre can stand up to anything on the market, although sliding the Pre's top half up to reveal its thumb-typeable keyboard also exposes hard plastic edges that feel cheap and unrefined.
Like the iPhone, the T-Mobile G1 and the latest BlackBerry phones, the Pre includes a Web browser that can display full-sized pages (plus e-mail, contacts, calendar, to-do, memo and Google Maps software). But Palm's new device, which can go online via Sprint's mobile-broadband service or WiFi wireless, is one of the few to handle the Web as well as Apple's iPhone. Its browser runs the same WebKit open-source software as the iPhone's Safari and even recognizes the same simple two-finger gestures: Pinch two fingers together to zoom in, spread them apart to zoom out.
The Pre also includes 8 gigabytes of internal storage and a 3-megapixel camera with a flash that took clear pictures indoors and out. The battery on a review unit loaned by Palm allowed four hours of talk time, with WiFi and Bluetooth wireless on and its e-mail program checking a few accounts in the background.
Note the mention of checking e-mail in the background -- the Pre can easily do more than one thing at once. Instead of letting you run only one application at a time or requiring complicated menu interactions to "multitask," the Pre employs a brilliant, card-shuffling interface to manage multiple programs.
To launch a new program, swipe a finger from below its 3.1-inch screen to its top to call up its Launcher interface, then tap the application you want. Then swipe from the below the screen to halfway up to see card-shaped images of each open program; to close one, flick its card upward, and it whooshes satisfyingly off the screen.
The Pre's system software, based on the open-source Linux operating system, stayed responsive most of the time, although music playback stuttered once as I launched its camera program. Once the Pre's working memory fills up, it won't let you run any more programs but will advise, "Dismiss unused cards to free memory."
Palm also innovates with its synchronization system. Instead of syncing the Pre's contacts and calendars to those on one computer, it syncs them to the Web services of Google and Facebook. (Business users can also sync a Pre to Microsoft's Exchange server.) The Pre then weaves data from these sources together -- its address book includes data you've saved in Google Contacts and information Facebook friends posted about themselves on that social site.
This Synergy feature, however, suffers from practical and conceptual problems. If people aren't listed under the same names on Facebook and in Google, Synergy may not know to link their records. And if you've been generous in your Facebook friendship, the Pre's address book can overflow with acquaintances you're unlikely to call or e-mail. Palm should let users sync only a particular Facebook friends list.
Palm also provides a free Data Transfer Assistant to migrate data from its old Palm Desktop or Microsoft's Outlook. But the Windows version of this tool failed to bring over one or two records in tests with each organizer program; even in a successful transfer from Palm Desktop, most items took hours to appear on the Pre.
The Pre's built-in iTunes synchronization may run into problems later on. To allow iTunes to transfer music files, the Pre impersonates an iPod. You can bet Apple is not amused by this trick and will try to block it.
The Pre's App Catalog constitutes another weakness. It makes finding and installing programs as easy as in the iPhone's App Store, but the review Pre only listed 28 programs available on Thursday -- compared with more than 50,000 titles in the App Store.
That should change when Palm allows more than selected programmers to join its software-development program. Further updates to the Pre's own software should bring fixes for other issues, such as its limited Bluetooth capability (unlike a four-year-old Treo, the Pre can't send a photo by Bluetooth to a computer) and the "universal search" function that doesn't look through your memos or e-mail.
Think of the Pre's name as shorthand for "prelude," and you should have a good idea of its potential. Palm has made itself relevant again with this device, but its work isn't done yet.