Pre-mature Palm?

This guest article was submitted by Chris King.

Pre1 The past few weeks were pretty eventful for Sprint with the carrier releasing two devices that have been long-awaited by many people. Sprint is not used to being in the spotlight for new devices, and their lineup had gotten a bit stale over the last 6-8 months, at least for power users. So they doubled the fun and first released the Novatel Wireless MiFi 2200, the first truly pocketable portable hotspot, and then a few days later Palm joined in with the long overdue webOS-based Pre smartphone. I had been eagerly waiting for both devices, so of course I took my early-adopter self down to my local Sprint store and bought both on their respective release days. But a funny thing happened in the following week: I quickly returned one of the devices after just a few short days of use.

I don’t think I am alone in saying this to Palm and Sprint about the Pre: “What took so long to release this phone, and why did you release it too soon?”

Now before you start thinking that Yogi Berra, the former New York Yankee great and non-sensical quote genius, wrote the above line, stop and think about it for a minute. Palm is under extreme pressure to deliver a winner to help return them to the top of their game, which at one time had them leading the way in the handheld market with the original Palm Pilot and then later with the Treo smartphone. On the carrier side, Sprint is hemorrhaging huge amounts of money and customers, much of that due to the willingness of their customers to jump ship to the warmer waters of AT&T and its main cruise liner, the iPhone. Combine the desperation of the two companies, and you have a phone that looks so promising yet comes up a bit short in too many areas in its first version.

The Pre has a good bloodline, so it’s hard not to imagine things improving quickly. Even though the Treo was considered the smartphone benchmark for many years, the road was not always a smooth one. Remember the first Treo 300 from Sprint and its massive flip cover? I do because I had one, followed by a Treo 600, then a Treo 650, a Treo 700wx, and then my current Treo 800w. Each version got physically smaller, lighter, and more powerful. But the Palm OS became less and less relevant, and Palm decided to use Windows Mobile as a stopgap measure while they worked on Palm OS 6, which never saw the light of day before being sold to ACCESS of Japan a few years back. Pre-tsNow Palm is back in the game with webOS, which is a completely modern smartphone OS that should provide many years of service for them.

Since that is the end of my very abbreviated Palm smartphone lesson, let me get right to what I did and did not like about the Palm Pre. Some of these positives and negatives do overlap at times, which is usually the case on devices like these, and I will expand on the most important points in my observation.

The Good

  • Excellent size and weight; easy and comfortable to hold 
  • Multitasking allows power users some freedom; CPU and RAM allow plenty of speed
  • Web browser is the best of any smartphone; extremely fast scrolling and rendering
  • Standard microUSB charging; Touchstone magnetic charging option is also a nice touch
  • Very bright and clear LCD; resolution seems to work well with screen size and OS
  • “Card” interface very intuitive for switching and closing apps
  • Standard 3.5mm audio jack

The Bad

  • Battery life is subpar; same battery as Centro and Treo 800w
  • Limited selection of third-party apps on launch
  • Keyboard seems a bit too narrow; keys are soft like Centro 
  • Center “home” button does not turn on device; must always use power button 
  • Annoyingly hard-to-open cover on charging port
  • No video recording 
  • 8GB memory might prove to be too small for many; no memory card slot 

The Ugly

  • Build quality not up to Treo standards; shiny plastic and screen cover look too inviting for scratches and wear, mirror finish on top back seems too gimmicky
  • Screen shows small specks from certain angles due to capacitive screen grid overlay 
  • Keyboard very hard to open one-handed due to design of large lip on bottom edge
  • Problems with backlight bleeding and heat-related spots

After reading some of my points, you should see a trend. If you noticed that the good and the ugly are almost all hardware issues, then you get a gold star. Yes, most of my problems with the Pre were on the hardware side, and these are probably more subjective than anything else. I have been spoiled by my Treos over the years, with their rock solid build quality, one-handed usage, and customization possibilities. And the iPhone, which I also use, takes that to an even higher level with its slim size, scratch-resistant glass screen, and huge selection of useful apps.

I don’t quite understand why Palm took a huge step forward with their great webOS, but then cut corners with the hardware. They knew what was out there from their competitors and from their past, and they had plenty of time to get things perfect. Yet they failed.

From the horrible battery life, which saw my battery meter drop faster than an SUV’s fuel gauge, to the flaws of my LCD, which had approximately 8-10 bright pixels and dark spots across the bottom, I was very disappointed. I declined to exchange the phone when I returned to my Sprint store and will wait and see how Palm addresses some of the Pre’s shortcomings.

Since I returned mine, many forums are abuzz over the newly discovered ability to gain root access and make many customizations. I look forward to seeing how these hacks progress, as it is very similar to what happened in the early iPhone jailbreaking days.

Palm, your margin of error in this day and age has gotten smaller, so keep that in mind because I’m sure there are many like me who will not wait for you to get things right. Maybe it was pressure from Sprint to get this thing to market or maybe it was cost-cutting in this rough economy. Whatever the reason, I hope for the sake of the excellent webOS that you decide to get serious and return to the top of the mountain, where Apple has currently taken up residence for the foreseeable future.

How many of you bought a Palm Pre and are you happy with your decision? Let’s hear some of your comments below.

Chris King (orbitalcomp) is a long-time handheld tech user, dating back to the original Newton MessagePad and then moving on to dozens of different devices over the years. Currently, he finds himself surrounded by a multitude of touchscreen devices, including a pair of Fujitsu U-series, a Nokia N800, and an iPhone 3G.

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Pocketables is a US-based online tech magazine that brings news, insights, opinions, and comprehensive reviews on various mobile computing devices, portable technology, and related topics to a global audience. We focus on devices that fit into pockets of all sizes, from jeans and jackets to backpacks and purses. The gadget experts that comprise our staff produce high quality articles and original features colored with real-life use of products over weeks and months, not first-impression opinions formed within hours or days.

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