The highly anticipated Palm Pre smartphone arrives in U.S. shops this Saturday, and today multiple reviewers have published their
kvetches insights. All in all, they like it—a lot. But it has exactly the shortcomings it was predicted to have, so we've rounded up the key points from the reviews for you.
Pro: User Interface
All in all this seems to be where the Pre shines brightest. BoyGeniusReport sums it up most neatly with the phrase "it's really refreshing to see something that's brand new with a UI unlike anything else out there." We always knew webOS was going to be a winner, given Palm's long heritage of developing portable gadget OSs and user-interfaces.
Particular praise is heaped on webOS's card system for managing apps. It's apparently incredibly intuitive—launching an app starts with the Launcher app which pops up with a press of the home button. Newly selected apps pop up in a new "card" pictorially on screen, nudging aside your currently-running apps. A card can be dismissed by sorting to it and gesturing upwards.
Pro: Multitouch and Gestures
Jason Chen at Gizmodo describes the multitouch like this: "The touch is more accurate, more responsive and just plain better than the iPhone's. The invention of a ripple effect where you press the screen is genius." Walt Mossberg particularly likes the way "some gestures—like a quick sideways swipe to go to the previous screen—are performed in a black area below the display, which also has a button that zooms in and out of card view."
Palm has been hyping the Pre's multitouch and gesture-based UI to the extent that Apple's hackles were raised. It's satisfying to know that the hype is backed up by solid performance, which even rivals the iPhone's mastery of a gesture-based UI.
Another highly-promoted feature of the Pre's webOS is the Synergy feature—this automatically merges contacts and calendar details from different sources like Google, Facebook and so on. In the reviews, Synergy gets a general thumbs-up thanks to its convenience of all contacts in one locale. An unexpected bonus is that while the Pre doesn't sync with OS X's contact address book, that list can itself be uplinked to a web-based system, and then back down to the Pre.
It's the Pre's most lauded iPhone-trouncing feature. It's managed via the card interface, with each card containing an app that runs even if you're looking at a different one. That means your IM stays connected while you're checking mail, and the off-screen apps alert you with a pop-up notification bar.
All in all, the multitasking is seen as a significant bonus card for the Pre over the iPhone. As Steven Levy at Wired puts it "Multitasking rules!"
Apple said they wouldn't implement a full background-apps feature on the iPhone because it saps the battery, and eats up processor resources. Using the Pre's card management system requires active choices about which apps to keep or close—since having too many open significantly impacts the responsiveness of the phone. Jason Chen even observed this interfering with the smooth playback of music—something he'd "never experienced once on the iPhone. Ever."
The question of real keys vs virtual keys is as hot a topic as the Macs vs PCs argument. Pre's physical keyboard is touted as a significant boon. But in reality it appears much less satisfying, matching up to neither the iPhone's touch-keys or RIM's solid design. The main criticism is of the key size: Jason Chen notes "Each of my thumbs takes up the width of four keys," which makes for lots of erroneous key-pressing if you're of an average hand size. The keys are also pretty stiff to depress, and reviewers didn't like each key's "sticky" or "rubbery" feel. Since the keyboard is a hardware feature, which of course can't be fixed with a future firmware update—like some of the other issues—this is bad news.
BoyGeniusReport has the harshest criticism, saying "It's really not good...kind of disappointing." But on the other hand, there are users who just prefer clicky keys over virtual ones any day, and to them the keyboard's inefficiencies are probably tolerable.
Con: Battery Life
We questioned whether one of the Pre's Achilles heels is its battery life, and it looks like that that's the case. It's partly due to the small capacity of the power unit Palm's chosen, and partly with running background apps. In general, reviewers found it lasted roughly a day. Mossberg labels it as "relatively weak" and notes that the Pre can only deliver half the iPhone's 24 hour music-playback, and just 5 hours of video versus iPhone's 7. Something to think about if you're on a long flight, for sure.
Con: Build Quality
The other Achilles heel (didn't Achilles himself just have one weak spot?) we'd heard about before was the Pre's potentially low build quality. While that accusation was leveled at the internal components, like the small battery, it seems the physical build actually isn't up to scratch either. The phrases "design flaws," "liability," "could be better," and "plasticky" and so on are being bandied about. And that's a shame—while webOS is being applauded, it's being delivered on a sub-par hardware device, which will do no good for Palm, who's entire reputation is hinging on the success of Pre.
All in all, the Pre is performing exactly as we'd imagined it would. It's fabulous, and it beats the iPhone in some features. It's an exceptionally strong contender for the iPhone's crown...but overall, especially with the new iPhone(s) due next week, it's not necessarily going to be stealing any headware.