Palm Pre: Exceptional Design

Collaboration SuitesMobilitySoftware

At last the Pre has arrived. It’s a great phone, but has issues that will limit its use in the enterprise

Background applications

Unlike the Apple iPhone, WebOS supports background applications, and Palm has made it much more intuitive to switch among running processes than it is with other mobile platforms that support background applications (such as Windows Mobile).

When using an application on the Pre, I hit the Center button to enter Card View, essentially shrinking the foreground process to a smaller box on the display. By scrolling to the side within Card View, I could find the open background application that I wanted, and could bring it to the foreground simply by tapping on its Card or pressing Center again. To close a running application, I simply swiped its card (called a “throw”) toward the top of the screen.

Applications can be launched from two different locations.

At the bottom of the home screen is the Quick Launch bar, which by default provides quick access to the Phone Dialer, Contacts, E-mail and Calendar applications, in addition to a link to the Launcher. All other applications can be found in the Launcher – a series of three side-scrollable overlay screens that appear over the wallpaper, with Quick Launch still available at the bottom.

Each screen of the Launcher appears to hold only nine applications, but the user can scroll downward using the touch-screen to find more. Both the Quick Launch bar and the Launcher are customisable, allowing users to group applications in a different order or prioritise more important applications into the Quick Launch bar.

The Quick Launch bar can also be viewed within a maximised application by dragging a finger upward from the gesture area into the plane of the touch-screen, allowing the user to select one of the applications in the bar.

These design elements – plus other touch-screen gestures that allow users to zoom in and out or select text for cut and paste – make the Pre quite easy and fun to navigate.

Hardware issues

Unfortunately, when using the device, I sometimes felt the hardware couldn’t keep up with the software’s complexity. When launching applications or switching between applications, the device sometimes took longer than expected to complete the actions. Certainly boot times on the Pre take a lot longer than I would expect (commonly more than 90 seconds), and the device frequently ran much hotter than I felt comfortable with during tests.

Available only on the Sprint network at this time, the Palm Pre supports Sprint’s EVDO Rev A. 3G network and is backward compatible with Sprint’s 1xRTT network in both the 850 and 1,900MHz bands.

Anecdotally, I found 3G coverage in places I usually struggle to get 2G coverage (on AT&T’s network) in both my home and office, and experienced few dropdowns to 1xRTT when driving on the highways of the greater Bay Area. As always, your coverage mileage will vary.

The Pre makes it simple for the user to configure radios. Simply touching the indicators found in the top-right corner of the screen pulls up configuration controls for both the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios. Airplane mode is available on the Pre via the same easily accessible interface as the radio controls or simply by depressing the power button for a couple of seconds.

The Pre comes with an 802.11b/g Wi-Fi radio for operation in the 2.4GHz band, and the device offers a fairly robust set of wireless security options. The Pre supports both the PSK (pre-shared key) iterations of WPA and WPA2, as well as 802.1x-based security.

The Pre supports Bluetooth 2.1 and A2DP for stereo sound in those applications that support it. I found that the Pre paired easily with a MotoROKR S9 Bluetooth stereo headset, and drove stereo sound to the headset for add-on applications such as the Pandora music service.

Great data integration

WebOS does the best job of any smartphone platform I’ve tested to date at helping users juggle personal information from multiple data sources. Called Palm Synergy, the operating system feature coalesces data into integrated views that span disparate sources while clearly delineating where the data came from. In tests I could configure multiple sources for e-mail, calendar and contacts, and I could merge personal and work data into manageable constructs.

For e-mail, the Pre supports Exchange ActiveSync, IMAP and POP3 protocols. I set up my device to receive e-mail from the Ziff Davis Enterprise Exchange servers and from Gmail via IMAP. The e-mail client presents a unified inbox, merging incoming mail from both accounts into a single interface while allowing users to comb through a single inbox if they want. Configured subfolders for each e-mail service are also available (although not merged into the unified view). Replies go out via their respective accounts, while new e-mails are sent via the default account.

Each e-mail account can be configured with its own synchronisation interval, allowing users to save a little battery power by setting relatively dormant accounts to get checked less frequently.

Attachment handling worked as advertised on the Pre. I could easily download and view pictures and documents in tests (DOC, DOCX and PDF). One tap on an attachment downloads the file, and a second tap opens it, read-only, in the appropriate application. The Pre comes with separate applications to view Word documents, PDFs and pictures. Document editing on the Pre is not currently possible.

Unlike the iPhone, which lets me tap above a message to get back to the top of a long e-mail I’ve already scrolled through, the Pre offers no touch commands or keyboard commands to quickly move to the top or bottom of a message (or a Web page, for that matter).

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