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The full UK Palm Pre review: webOS is where things get exciting

It’s been just over a week since I took loan of a Palm Pre, a device that bears the weight of Palm’s future success on its shoulders. Or so the story goes.

And it’s far too good a story for most pundits not to have written, me included. The truth, of course, is a little less dramatic but significant nonetheless.

While the Palm Pre is undoubtedly the company’s comeback device, the big bet is the accompanying webOS that powers the Pre along with the subsequently released Palm Pixi. In fact since the second device running webOS was unveiled, Palm have announced that, moving forward, they’re dumping Windows Mobile to pursue a single OS strategy. Thanks Redmond for easing the transition away from the dying PalmOS to the newly born webOS. But make no mistake, that’s all you were good for.

It’s in this context that when reviewing the Palm Pre it’s more tempting than usual to consider the phone’s hardware as separate from the operating system it runs on. So that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

(Spoiler: The hardware is OK but webOS is where things get really exciting.)


steve-palm-pre-191x300As iconic as the iPhone’s industrial design has become, the Pre largely attempts to carve out its own distinctive cues unlike the raft of ‘slate’ copycats churned out by LG, Samsung and others.

Aside from the portrait slide-out and arched QWERTY keyboard (more on that below), when closed the device follows the natural lines of a pebble or so the marketing fluff goes. Think chubbier and heavier than the iPhone and with curvier lines to match.

It’s also smaller in width and height due to housing a 3.2 inch (rather than 3.5) multi-touch capacitive touchscreen. That’s MULTI-TOUCH and CAPACITIVE. I hope Nokia is reading.

The overall effect is that the Pre is really comfortable to hold, much more phone-like if you will, although it could be a tad lighter.

In terms of build quality, the Pre is certainly plasticky and the slide mechanism does wobble a little but I haven’t found it to be the deal breaker that some reviews have elevated it to. However, this particular Pre seems to suffer from the loose battery problem that others have reported online, which means that the phone occasionally shuts down involuntarily. (Tech historians will know that a very similar problem plagued the original Palm Pilot PDA). The remedy, apparently, requires the contact pins to be bent back into shape or the insertion of a thin piece of foam below the battery.

Next up, let’s deal with that QWERTY keyboard.

I’m disappointed.

It’s not that it’s rubbish but it’s definitely a bit of a let down. I want to love it, I really do as it ticks so many boxes. It’s a real keyboard. It’s portrait not landscape. And I have no issue with it being a slider.

But as much as I’ve practiced, I still can’t get up to the typing speeds I achieve on my Nokia E71 or a BlackBerry or even an old PalmOS-powered Treo. The keys on the Pre are too stiff and the top row too close to the protruding edge. There’s also not enough error correction built into the software and no auto-completion either, both of which could have helped to mask the keyboard’s deficiencies. However, for those who like me don’t get on well with an onscreen keyboard, it’s still preferable having a real one.

The Pre’s call quality proved to be good, although the speakerphone is a bit shrill, and despite O2’s reputation for having it’s network hammered by iPhone users, data connections held up well. I also haven’t experienced any problems joining various WiFi hotspots.

palm-touchstoneIn terms of battery life, the Pre is probably its own worst enemy, such is the device’s always-on and multitasking capability (see below). That said, there’s certainly room for improvement. With moderate use of WiFi for web browsing, 3G pulling in email, a few tweets and calls here and there, you should be good for a full day. The temptation, of course, is to do a lot more, more of the time, in which case you won’t want to be too far away from a charger. However, this is where the utterly brilliant Touchstone comes into play.

The Touchstone is the Pre’s optional (and pricey) desktop ‘inductive’ charger. To charge the Pre you place it face up onto the Touchstone – it snaps into place via a magnet – and the device ‘wirelessly’ begins charging. The phone also sits at a slight angle, perfect for viewing emails and incoming messages while the Pre’s battery is getting a top up. Of course, unlike a certain popular smartphone, the Pre’s battery is also user swappable, so carrying a spare is another option.

The Pre’s camera is mediocre. It’s 3 megapixels and fixed focus, with a single LED flash. There’s no dedicated hardware shutter button – it’s a purely onscreen affair – and like most smartphones, the camera app takes a few seconds to launch, after which, however, shots can be taken in fairly quick succession. In summary, picture quality is passable but the Pre is certainly no camera phone. This is most evident by the complete lack of video recording capability.

To summarize the Pre’s hardware, Palm have made some really smart design choices. The non-iPhone copycat design, the bright 3.2 inch capacitive touchscreen, multi-touch, a physical portrait QWERTY and the optional Touchstone ‘inductive’ charger. But execution, in places, is poor. The wobbly slider, sub-par keyboard, and smallish and poor fitting 1150mAh battery immediately spring to mind.

However, the Pre’s software or specifically webOS tells a very different story.


tweed_2009-23-10_161744I’m going to shoot from the hip. Based on its ease-of-use and in particular the way multitasking and notifications are handled, Palm’s webOS has the best User Interface of all current mobile operating systems. It’s a contentious thing to say I know and I’m admittedly discounting Maemo 5 as the N900 has yet-to-be-released but I have lived extensively with all recent flavors of Symbian S60, Windows Mobile, Android, iPhone OS, INQ and a whole bunch of dumbphones.

OK I’ll admit that getting to grips with webOS takes a little longer than iPhone. Yep, all ten seconds longer, less than the time it takes to actually sit through the interactive tutorial that ships with the Pre.

The additional learning curve mostly involves getting up to speed with the gesture area and the card system that webOS uses for multitasking. Otherwise, the Pre borrows many of the UI ideas that we first saw on the iPhone, such as kinetic ‘flick’ scrolling or the use of an inverted pinch to zoom in on web pages, images and other documents. There’s also the usual grid of app icons and these, like the iPhone, can be re-ordered and organised across multiple screens, accessible by swiping left or right.

It’s all perfectly finger-friendly, as you’d expect, and the visible feedback given with each finger press in the form of an onscreen ripple is particularly helpful.

One of the most refreshing aspects of webOS is that essential toggles and settings are brought to the surface in the form of a dedicated app for each instead of being buried in one gigantic kludge of a menu S60-style. Examples include discrete apps for WiFi and Bluetooth, adjusting screen brightness and time-out, and toggling GPS on and off. Accessing preferences within each app is also consistent via a finger optimized drop down menu. The result is that I rarely wasted time hunting for a particular setting, something that can’t be said of most mobile OSes.

The card system employed by webOS to support multi-tasking is GENIUS.

It’s one of the UI designs that is deceptively simple and after you’ve used it, you’ll find it hard to go back to the old way of doing things. To switch between running apps, you press the hardware menu button and the Pre zooms out to display each instance of a running app as a card side by side. You then swipe left or right until you’re focused on the card displaying the app you want to switch to, tap on it and webOS zooms in and that app is brought to the front. It’s not dissimilar to Mac OSX’s Expose feature and is almost identical to the way Safari Mobile on iPhone handles switching between open web pages.

Notifications on webOS are equally well thought through. For example, when a new email or text message arrives, no matter what app is in the foreground, a notification area pops up at the bottom of the screen. These can then either be acted upon, such as reading the full email, or dismissed with the swipe of a finger. If there is no interaction after a set period of time the notification is minimized. It’s a very efficient but non-obtrusive system. Far, far better than iPhone’s push notifications and and still an improvement over Android.

A flagship feature of webOS is the way it plays nice with third-party Cloud services, something Palm is calling Synergy. That means syncing with Gmail, Google Contacts and Google Calendar, along with similar support for Facebook. I’ve found Synergy to be reliable and, as noted previously, dead easy to setup (see my Day One impressions: “In some ways the webOS-powered Pre is the Google phone I was always hoped Android would be”).

Palm’s biggest issue with Synergy, however, is that it’s no longer a unique feature. Almost all of Palm’s competitors are now offering or talking up a unified address book that pulls in and converges data from Facebook and other Cloud services – HTC, INQ, Motorola,Google (Android 2.0) and Vodafone (360).

The latest version of webOS also adds LinkedIn to the list supported by Synergy but the UK is currently at least one iteration behind.

You read that right.

Despite getting the Palm Pre three months after the US, we’re saddled with an out of date version of webOS. Palm plans to eventually offer parity between US and UK versions, but again, we’ll have to wait a while. Currently, along with Synergy support for LinkedIn, UK Pre owners are missing much better cut ‘n’ paste and overall speed improvements. I did, however, find a really nice LinkedIn app in Palm’s own app store.

findapps_2009-23-10_162004Talking of apps, this is one area where webOS is far behind the iPhone. On the Pre, the app cupboard is fairly bare but it’s slowly filling up a little.

The two questions I’d ask: does the Pre have 1st or 3rd party apps for the features you need? What does the future look like? i.e. is webOS attracting developers?

As for essential features, for my own needs the Pre has most apps covered. YouTube, fantastic web browser, push email, Twitter client, weather, Google Maps, Flixster (movie reviews), PDF and Word viewer, Instant Messaging, Podcasts etc. I’ve also noticed many new apps being added on a daily basis, even in the week or so that I’ve had the Pre.

By the way, the webOS web browser is very, very nice, at least on par with the iPhone, which helps to fill some of the gaps in third-party apps e.g. Facebook.

I also think webOS will/is attracting developers in sufficient numbers and I’m very optimistic about the future of third-party apps. For evidence look no further than the vibrant homebrew community that, like the iPhone’s original jailbreak development community, started before Palm released an official Software Development Kit. And about that SDK, it was only made public and widely available a few months ago. Palm also recently made two smart hires to boost its developer relations.

In other words, it’s early days but on the app front the signs are good.

And that pretty much sums up webOS. It has a very bright future if technology and UX is to win through. Whether or not Palm can sell enough webOS devices to remain cash positive in the meantime – the Pre is a good start and the Pixi should do well – only time will tell.

I do hope so.

– – – – –

Steve O’Hear is a tech journalist and consultant based in London. Steve writes the blog last100 and has written for numerous publications, including The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld. He also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. You can follow Steve on Twitter here.


  1. Nice review Steve, and I think we basically coincide when it comes to an opinion on the Pre. While my loaner device is long gone, I still miss the intuitive notifications and wish Android handled such things better. The app switching is also a real joy (I'm hoping someone whips up an Exposé-style switcher for Android sometime soon). However the hardware was a bit meh; I wasn't impressed by some of the sharp edges, and the keyboard was just that little bit too small.

    Now, make it a side-slider, throw in an autofocus camera and memory card slot, and that's a different matter. webOS is definitely exciting, and I hope Palm have enough success with the Pre/Pixi to bring out some second-wave hardware.

  2. Thanks Chris! I don't think it's the keyboard's size that hurts it so much but the way it's designed. The kb on the Nokia E71 is just as small and more cramped but each key has a nicer click (less resistance) and doesn't have a protruding ridge to content with. Add the better error correction and the (optional) auto completion, and I can actually draft blog posts on it (at a push) or reply to emails in full.

    That said, I'm still tempted to buy a Pre or Pixi (despite it's lack of WiFi), as I like webOS that much!

  3. After using the iphone, I could never go back to a real keyboard. I don't know why people have such difficulty with an onscreen keyboard.

    On the other hand, the Palm Pre is the only phone in the last couple of years that has tempted me in any way at all. If they bring out an onscreen keyboard version, I would definitely give it a try.

  4. hey a US owner of a palm pre and would advise you to go to and learn to download preware to your pre if you get one if so you can have a onscreen keyboard 4 version with haptic feedback and landscape mode as well as 80 other patchs that add what is missing from the stock pre like led notifications landscape in text and email, over 500 themes to add pretty much its too much to list but with the added patches the pre stomps any phone out there believe me look it up on precentral

  5. Steve, a good in depth review there. With regard to the supply of apps, I would like your readers to know about an issue with WebOS…

    For the non-technical, Palm WebOS is effectively a web browser like Firefox or Internet Explorer. Applications such as the phone dialler, the calendar, the clock, etc, are built using HTML/CSS and Javascript. Which is *exactly* the same technology used to create this web page. But, and it's a biggy, Palm in their wisdom *removed* important functionality from the program model, which is preventing programmers from creating cool apps.

    These frustrated developers thought they could port Android and i-Phone apps over to WebOS and thus, populate the Palm Store. *buzzer* Wrong answer. We can develop 'listing' apps very well in WebOS, and a few text based games, but that is about it. With missing code features and no access to the graphics engine, there is no chance of creating 'killer' 2D and 3D games. Even retro classic Space Invaders is a virtual no-go.

    Despite Palm's 'generous' offers to host open source apps for free, or pay ~70% of net, developers and development houses are suspending development with WebOS. “Mojo SDK is an overall letdown”, “API's are unfinished”, “It's just not do-able,” are some complaints. Investing time, effort, money and people in other platforms like i-Phone and Android is a better bet: Especially with speculative apps where the market decides the number of downloads.

    There seems a cultural issue too where the consumer can 'pimp' their Pre by downloading a 'code patch' from a third party website (like PreCentral or WebOS-Internals). But not every Palm consumer is a freeking Linux geek! I should also add that WebOS apps are *so* open source, that any geek can edit the downloaded *.ipk file… and make changes. Palm did not consider code protection as important, but almost all developers do: especially those developing secure or commercially confidential applications.

    There is a glimmer of hope that in Q2 2010, Palm will launch WebOS with support for Adobe Flash. Which will open the flood gates for apps. Go for it Palm!!! This is a *maybe*. In the meantime, the imminent release of WebOS version 1.3 may go some way to addressing developers frustrations. But really, we need WebOS 2.0

    So if the shelves in the Palm Store are a little empty, the reason is that WebOS is not the most popular kid on the developer's block right now. But that said, the i-Phone had real issues in uptake when it began; which were solved by opening up its 'Coca' code and aggressively growing the App Store. Sadly Palm didn't learn from Apple's early mistake and seem destined to repeat it. Speculation is the Pre is not shifting in the volumes that Palm expected. Palm's share price was also downgraded this week. Are these connected?

    Meanwhile, in an O2 store in Central London… I was playing with a Pre and asked the sales-teen about the quantity of apps. He replied, “there's thousands of them.” The actual figure is just over 300. My advice: if before Christmas you want a nice phone with a real keyboard buy a Pre. If you want to play lots of nice apps on Christmas Day, get another phone.

    Andi3 is an Indi3 developer

  6. In the UK the Palm Pre has done an exclusive deal with mobile phone operator O2. Well I guess I have to wait a little longer to get one for myself.

    I am an Orange UK customer and I have still five month left on my contract until then I can only dream of owning one.

    pay as you go mobile phones


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