Ever since the Palm Pre was announced for a premier on Sprint last year, speculation has raged about when this contender for the smartphone crown would show up on the technologically compatible Verizon network. With the Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus, announced in January, a souped up arsenal of WebOS phones finally arrive on the Big Red Carrier. Was it worth the wait?
At the original Palm Pre launch last year, the device created significant excitement: it featured smooth multi-touch gestures and rich web browsing like the iPhone, along with a unique platform for developers to create applications using web technologies. What troubled the first Palm Pre, in our opinion, was that despite an innovative software platform, the hardware that arrived in June 2009 was aimed at 2008 competitors, particularly the iPhone 3G. When the iPhone 3GS came out just after the Pre’s launch, the phone was immediately outgunned in speed and storage capacity. Since then, the unquestionably impressive Droid also arrived on the scene, firmly establishing Android as a smartphone option. To top things off, the phone was on Sprint, a network that continues to be panned by many users.
A little over six months later, the Palm Pre Plus arrives on Verizon. With double the storage space (16GB) and a RAM boost, it grows closer to parity with its competitors. The removal of the center button that graced the original Pre also allows the Pre Plus to one up even Apple on minimalism – there are no buttons on the front of the device when the keyboard is slid into the closed position.
The Pixi is another story. Since it too has a full hardware keyboard, but does not have a sliding mechanism, it has a full QWERTY compliment of keys on the front much as Palm’s venerable Treo line did in the past. Unsurprisingly since the Pixi is lower end and the standard Pixi appeared on Sprint only a few months ago, the Pixi Plus offers only a few upgrades over its predecessor – primarily the inclusion of Wi-Fi support.
When the keyboard slider is closed, the Pre Plus exhibits an elegant simplicity.|
In actual usage, the two devices are remarkably similar, though the Pre’s larger 3.2” screen is certainly appreciated (as opposed to the Pixi’s 2.6” display), especially since some buttons in WebOS are a bit small for a touch-oriented system. Neither screen is overly spacious, particularly if one compares the Pre and the Pixi with the Droid and its beautiful 3.7” display and the Droid Eris and its 3.2” display, respectively.
A few small targets for fingers aside, it is clear that Palm’s WebOS, the two devices’ operating system, is a platform with touch in its DNA. With the complete lack of buttons – even a home button – on the front of the Pre, virtually every function is completed using a series of gestures, most of which begin or work entirely from the “gesture area,” which is directly below the screen. Although the gesture area does not seem to make things work all that much better than simply focusing on touching the screen, it does work well and, after a short time with it, quite naturally. Presumably having flicking gestures begin outside of the screen does help eliminate some mistaken gestures.
The system is visually appealing and unique. It mirrors neither Android’s nor iPhone’s appearance, though we would say it is more aesthetically appealing than Android. WebOS has an Apple-esque attention to visual details that surely comes from the large number of Apple alumni who are now working on WebOS at Palm. The WebOS experience is visually fluid and “organic” feeling, setting it apart from all but the best touch-based platforms at the present time. (The thoughtful little details also extend to other elements, such as including with the Pre Plus a very fine “self cleaning carry pouch” to keep the phone safe and the screen free of smudges.)
The web browser, based on the same WebKit engine used by iPhone OS, Android and Symbian OS devices did a good job rendering pages for the most part. We ran into a few inexplicable loading issues, but nothing of great significance. Gestures made it easy to move from page to page, and the hardware keyboard was handy for typing in URLs and other information that can often be somewhat more challenging when using soft keyboards.
The e-mail client was also convenient to use and browsed through hundreds of e-mails with ease. Unlike the iPhone, which loads a fixed number of messages at a time and then requires the user to click a load button to see more, the Palm Pre defaults to storing an entire week’s e-mail initially.
The phones’ voice features worked well and the built in synchronization of contacts with Facebook is a treat – one’s contacts will have photos attached to them with no additional effort required. Voice quality was quite good and signal strength never presented an issue in the urban and suburban areas we tested the devices in.
Multitasking is perhaps Palm’s best achievement with the WebOS devices. While some other platforms, such as Android and Windows Mobile 6.5 (though not the upcoming Windows Phone 7 Series) support multitasking, running multiple applications on a cell phone has always felt awkward. With WebOS, one can “zoom out” to see open applications and web sites on a swipable strip of “cards.” It works well and is extremely easy to get the hang of. We wish Android had such a sensible multitasking arrangement.
The Pixi follows a more traditional Palm form factor.|
Perhaps the most enticing feature, and the feature that inclined OFB Labs most favorably towards the devices, is the innovative Mobile Hotspot application. This application is linked to a $40/month add-on option from Verizon which enables these webOS devices to become mini-Wi-Fi base stations that can share their EvDO connections with up to five devices, much like Novatel’s MiFi. If you need both a smartphone data plan and a cellular Wi-Fi hotspot, Palm’s Mobile Hotspot is a more affordable alternative to the separate $60/month plan required for 5GB of data usage on the standalone MiFi. Importantly, we received very good speeds well over 1 megabit through the Palm devices, very similar to the performance the MiFi delivered for us on Verizon’s network last year.
The Pre and Pixi, in many ways, give Android and iPhone OS a run for their money. But, a few critical issues hold the devices back at the present time.
The first and most critical matter is device speed. The device almost always launched core apps such as e-mail and contacts at least two or three times more slowly than the iPhone 3GS equivalents launch (and, though we did not make a direct comparison with the Palms, the Droid tested similarly to the iPhone 3GS in past examinations). A few apps took up to nine times longer to load on the WebOS devices than the equivalent apps on the iPhone did. Likewise, web browsing was markedly slower. The Palms lagged behind both the iPhone 3GS and the Droid.
What makes these performance issues disappointing is that the device is well thought out and the OS is the most pleasantly designed smartphone UI we have encountered, save for iPhone OS. Unfortunately, the slowness of the devices hobbles the experience by forcing the user to wait for the phone to load common tasks. This is only exacerbated by the fact that the Palm’s much vaunted multitasking capabilities can cause the system to slow down further.
For all of its fit and finish, the platform also suffers from some rough edges. Recall the earlier note about some buttons being hard to tap – the menu at the top of the screen is a good example. It can be called up through a gesture as well, but why Palm retained a Palm OS style place to tap to call up the menu (a decidedly non-touch oriented element for such a touch-focused system, anyway) is hard to say. In other places, such as Mail, Palm’s bubble-like buttons used in lieu of a toolbar at times became problematic – content can go directly below the buttons, making it harder to read the full list.
It would have also been nice if the Verizon variants of the WebOS devices would have included GPS navigation in the base package pricing. Particularly since Verizon’s flagship Droid is one of the few phones to offer our favorite GPS navigation option, Google Maps Navigation, built in, we had hoped Verizon would follow Sprint’s cue and include navigation service for no additional charge.
We continue to hope that Palm can remain a going concern for long enough to release a device that realizes the potential they appear to be on the cusp of reaching. Paired with the 1GHz processors many new 2010 smart phones are receiving and these phones could really excel. While many people may find the Pre and Pixi suitable to their usage habits, in their current iterations we would recommend the Droid and Droid Eris on Verizon or iPhone 3G and 3GS on AT&T as our continuing favorite choices available at very similar prices (Verizon/Palm, $79 for Pixi Plus or $149 for Pre Plus, www.vzw.com).