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Review: AT&T Palm Pre

by Mike
Posted May 23rd, 2010 at 9:56 pm
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The old saying goes: Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. But does it apply to something more digital, say a phone? If it does, Palm would be in trouble. If you take the last couple years of Palm’s portfolio and performance and made that “the cover”, this is one book that would be well worth passing up. And yet Palm’s latest attempt proves intriguing.

The Pre is by no means new, now going on one year old come early June. But one could argue that the Pre Plus which just debuted on AT&T is a sort of a Pre 1.5. The hardware and software between the Pre and Pre Plus may be nearly identical, but that doesn’t mean AT&T’s flavor of the Pre doesn’t deserve a welcoming party of it’s own.

Now that all the preliminary nonsense is out of the way, let’s get to it…

Hardware — General

Gadget gurus familiar with the previous iterations of the Pre will have this down pat. The AT&T Pre Plus is nearly identical to the Verizon Pre Plus in every physical way. When compared to the original Pre on Sprint, the phones part ways, but just barely. The Pre featured 8GB of user accessible storage while the Pre Plus offers 16GB. Similarly, the RAM on the Pre comes in at 256MB — a mere half of the Pre Plus’ 512.

One other difference worth noting — the Pre Plus did away with the small scroll ball in place of a touch panel that registers a few swiping and tapping gestures. Nice, but certainly nothing that I would consider a deal maker. Processor, screen size and resolution, and internal radios (save for obvious differences between GSM/CDMA radios) remain unchanged. So what is so special about the AT&T Pre Plus hardware?

In reality, nothing. I must say though, since this is the first time that i have really used a Pre since launch, I’m finding the Pre Plus and webOS overall to be a nice departure from the standard favorites. Sure I’ve handled it a few times and played with a friends here and there, but I haven’t actually used one as my daily device. So for me, this Pre Plus is almost like a brand new phone. With that said, I absolutely love the Pre’s size and form factor.

Looking merely at how the device fits in your hand, I’d give this phone an 8-10 out of 10. The scalloped back means this phone sits perfectly in my hand. While being lighter than my Droid and iPhone, the Pre still feels just as “hefty” or “there” when being held. This is a huge thing for me as I am sick and tired of this race for the thinnest phones. The only thing super thin phones do is break, fall out of your hand, or cause cramping because you have to bear claw the stupid thing in awkward positions. In this respect, the Pre Plus beats other competitors out of the water.

However, where it falters is that it still feels cheap. While the keyboard has been slowly improved upon as the carrier revisions come out, the overall build quality still leaves an impression of “cheap”. My AT&T Pre Plus felt good in the hand while closed, but once open provided a fair amount of flex and wiggle. Such issues can’t be taken too seriously however as slider phones in general suffer from the aforementioned issues. Nature of the beast it is. Still, I was hoping for a more solid feel. To some, this is a deal breaker.

The Screen

The screen is one area that manufacturers must nail. With more and more phones going either half touch or full touch powered, the piece of glass (or plastic) has to be worth gazing into for hours on end. A bad screen means a bad phone. With that said, I found the Pre’s screen to be much better in sunlight than my Droid, even with my Droid’s screen at full brightness. Speaking of the Droid’s screen, it’s 854 x 480 resolution is simply beautiful. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m dying from the Pre’s lack of pixels (480 x 320). It isn’t that noticeable actually. Perhaps that’s because webOS is so damn sexy.

Being a plastic covered display, scratches are one area that worries me. I was careful with my review unit because (1) it wasn’t mine and (2) because of the whole plastic issue. I partially understand the choice of plastic though. It makes the phone lighter and I’m sure trying to mold that seamless, rounded front fascia would have been quite a chore with glass. Even still, those hoping to make it in the long run with a Pre Plus need to at least spend a few extra dollars on a screen protector. It certainly can’t hurt.

One particular area I was pleasantly surprised with was outdoor/direct sunlight performance. With my Droid and iPhone, any direct contact with the sun’s rays or the simple outdoor ambiance means I see nothing — nothing! — unless I crank the brightness up to 100%. And even then, pecking out virtual letters onscreen is more or less a crapshoot. With the Pre Plus, the screen was bright, vibrant, and easy to see in all but the most extreme circumstances. So beach bunnies and those who have a thing for nature can be at ease. You’ll be able to see the Pre Plus’ screen.

Audio

For audible ventures, the earpiece is what I’d call slightly above average in the volume and clarity department (way better than my iPhone and slightly below my Droid) with no noticeable artifacts or that dreaded “digital voice” syndrome. Calls on speaker phone proved to be plenty loud enough to hear in all but the noisiest environments. Ditto for the earpiece. Most users shouldn’t have any issues hearing what’s on the other end.

AT&T’s network on the other hand was what I’d call average. There were two instances in which the Pre Plus would drop a call even with a perfect signal. And no — before you interject — it isn’t the phone. My iPhone and previous BlackBerries on AT&T all did the same thing. Other than so-so network coverage, the Pre Plus was all around a good performer for those who want to get chatty.

Camera/Video

I didn’t put the camera and video recorder to any hard testing, but, from what I saw I came to the conclusion that it’s merely adequate. It’s 3megapixels with an LED flash. So night shots should be bearable within a few feet. Video recording on the other hand was actually pretty decent in VGA quality.

Being a consumer oriented device, sharing is the name of the game. Likewise, uploading your custom vids to YouTube or sending them via email/SMS was simple and intuitive. Though as expected, longer shots will take awhile to upload of 3G.

Bottom line: It won’t replace your stand alone camera/video recorder, but it will do.

The Buttons

The few buttons adorning the Pre Plus’ facade include the up/down volume buttons on the upper left side and the power button up top and right. That’s it. Everything else is either controlled via finger inputs on the screen or the little gesture area below the screen.

It’s not a bad thing per say. webOS itself is designed so that it doesn’t need a menu button, instead relying on a sudo “menu” button that acts much like the Apple logo/button OS X — it’s always there. Whatever app your in, take note of the menu specific button in the upper left.

It’s a handy approach to a phone that lacks a dedicated hardware menu button. But it’s hardly a go-to solution or replacement. Being the nerd that I am, I use the menu button a lot. On the Pre Plus I still find myself several days later sliding my thumb to the bottom left (precisely where the Moto Droid’s menu button would be). Not having (repeatedly) said button isn’t the most important or biggest gripe in the world. But to some, the fact that it falls into the gripe territory is reason enough to avoid this phone.

The Keyboard

To me, keyboards are a huge thing. They can literally make or break a phone. Time and time again I’ve been destroyed inside by an all around killer device only to be let down by it’s crippled leg of a keyboard. With that out in the open, I’d have to say I’m still on the fence with the Pre Plus’ keyboard.

After sifting through countless forum posts on a few Pre Fan sites, it’s easy to gather that the keyboard from the original Palm Pre to this AT&T Palm Pre Plus have undergone several subtle changes. The original Pre had very odd, sticky, thick keys that didn’t like being pressed. Furthermore, because of their sticky nature, sliding from key to key was too much of a chore, leaving users to peck-lift-peck technique. I can attest that the AT&T Pre Plus does not suffer nearly as bad.

One other thing that bothers me with the Pre Plus keyboard is that it isn’t quick enough. I mean, with other hardware keyboards when I’m typing I can slide to keys that are close to each other without having to lift my finger. It’s certainly makes a difference if you’re a big texter or emailer. On the Pre Plus I was finding that the peck once and slide method was not working very well. It sadly won’t recognize the immediately following key. So if I slide across three keys, the middle key would be missing — unfortunate.

But it it isn’t all bad. I really like the vertical sliding style of the keyboard. I am a small guy with small hands so I don’t have any problems with space or “fat fingering” keys. Basically, the Pre Plus’ keyboard is roughly the same size as an BlackBerry keyboard, the only difference being BlackBerries have much more responsive keys.

Another benefit of vertical sliding keyboards is one handed operation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve flicked the screen up and belted out some textual thoughts rather quickly with nothing more than my right hand. But even intuitive one-handed operation can’t make up for sterile keys and a harder than average typing experience.

The keyboard still has a ways to go before “perfect” is obtained. If I had my pick, I’d vote for some more key travel and a hair bit more “click” action.

Apps, Apps, Apps

This is more of a hardware review, not software. Not to mention, most of you if not all of you out there already know a fair amount about webOS, so I’ll spare those details. What I was interested in however from a hardware standpoint was how exactly do the upgraded hardware specs help apps? In regards to app launching, a considerable amount — ~20 — could be fired up before noticeable lag reared it’s ugly head. I have to point out though that webOS overall is kind of slow, even with the Pre Plus’ upgraded hardware and recent 1.4.2 webOS update which supposedly has been sped up considerably from 1.0. On that note — there’s room for improvement.

Battery Life

These days, with all of the features, chips, and radios that get crammed under the shells of the phones that make us tick, you can’t ignore battery life — the life force that keeps us all going. I have one word to say concerning battery life — average. Not great, but certainly not terrible. For the record, my “day job” places me in a wireless void, ensuring that any phone within it’s grasp sputter every last electron in search of signal exponentially faster than is normal. Even still, I started my wireless fasting at around 6am for several days straight and managed to last until 3pm before getting the 20% warning.

That doesn’t sound too fantastic until you remember I was in a no signal area and the phone was beaming it’s waves into the abyss at far greater strengths and far longer than is normally warranted. I could have just turned off the phone. But then where would that leave us….?

After going on some travels this weekend and further testing the Pre Plus’ run time, I can attest to the fact that the Pre Plus’ battery life sucks. It wasn’t great in no-coverage area pumping out hopeless signals for help into the abyss. Even in cellular saturated areas the Pre Plus is still below average. I turned off all notifications from 3rd party applications and set emails to only poll every 15 minutes (way too long IMHO), turned WiFI/Bluetooth off, and reduced screen brightness to as low as it would let me, and still, still was barely able to go from 6am until 6pm without having to plug in. That is ridiculous.

I’ve seen varying accounts in several Pre forums, though all of them share the belief that the Pre’s battery isn’t what it should be. Whether it be more optimization needed with webOS or simply better hardware doesn’t matter. Something needs to be done. Hopefully HP can work some magic on whatever plans they have into webOS.

The Gripes

There’s always a catch, a fault, an imperfection. The Pre Plus is hands dow the best hardware and software to come from Palm in years. But it’s far from perfect. As the recent acquisition by HP has shown us, Palm still has a long way to go before people hoard their products again. About that hardware…

While it looks rather slick and expensive, the Pre Plus feels cheap. Some reassurance can be had in the fact that it’s at least a bit little sturdier than the original Pre — but not buy much.

Second, the Pre Plus runs hot! And I mean, hot. If burning electronics frighten you, forget charging and actually using the device at the same time. During a normal nightly charge and doing nothing more than responding to a few emails, my test unit became so hot it was almost unbearable. But I manned up and pushed on…just for you. The fact that it gets so hot (hotter than my overclocked Moto Droid no less) is slightly worrisome.

Thrid, for inexplicable reasons that I can’t fathom, my Pre Plus would routinely slow down to a crawl and even completely lock up numerous times during the day. Each and every day I counted no less than 5 instances in which I had to wait a solid 1-2 minutes for the phone to “remember” what it was doing and/or finish whatever it was preoccupied with. This leads to number 4…

No indication of active downloads/processes is a huge pain. This is coming from an Android user, so the inner geek/hacker/tinkerer in me is slightly biased. I know the average user could care less about such things. But perhaps if I had a simple indicator as to what the hell the phone was doing I’d be a little more at ease.

The Comparisons

I figured that many of you already knew at least a little bit about the Pre or webOS and instead needed something like a simple comparison highlighting the differences between a few platforms. For you folks I have something too…

  • Coming from a BlackBerry:

    • Pros
      • Navigation is much easier/simple. (Single button)
      • UI is a lot nicer to look at — prettier
      • Apps are of higher fit and finish — again, simply prettier
      • More consumer focused and less “cold/business” feeling
      • touchscreen (Excluding Storm 1 & 2)
    • Cons
      • Corporate abilities not it’s strongest selling point
      • Keyboard isn’t nearly as good
      • Not as many supported carriers
      • Battery life is abysmal


  • Coming from an iPhone:

    • Pros
      • Perhaps a more appealing “grown up” UI
      • louder earpiece and speakerphone
      • Not as locked down (by the manufacturer)
      • A physical keyboard
      • Replaceable battery
    • Cons
      • Not nearly as many apps
      • No iTunes integration (anymore)
      • Build quality
      • Created by a company with an uncertain future — that bit is now nearly negated thanks to HP
      • Not as unified hardware/software environment. (Think: iTunes, Mac, iPhone trifecta…)


  • Coming from Android

    • Pros
      • Much more consistent across devices (all 2) as well as a cleaner and more finished operating system
      • Easier to navigate, almost to the point of brain dead easy.
      • Depending on if your current Android phone has a keyboard — the Pre Plus’ keyboard while not perfect, certainly gets the job done.
      • More comfortable in the hand than many Android devices.
    • Cons
      • Less customizable in some regards (taking into account rooting/hacking/patching
      • Not as many hardware devices to choose from.
      • Limited number of apps compared to other popular platforms.
      • Perhaps too few buttons/too simple?

There you have it. The best Palm device yet for sure. But Palm will have to do better. Looking into the future, it’s nice to know that we can once again expect to see Palm there, albeit under the dictatorship of their new owner — HP. My only hope is that HP can better read their customers and execute new ideas/products much faster.

After a solid 4 days with the Pre Plus on AT&T, while I can’t claim this little pebble device will become my daily driver, I can at least recommend it as a decent option to smartphone buyers looking for a powerful platform coupled with somewhat decent hardware and software with a heaping amount of potential.

Are you finally falling for the Pre now that it gains the “Plus” and moves to AT&T? Do you have any suggestions for comparisons sake? Shout out below.

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3 ResponsesLeave a comment
  • Scott
    May 24, 2010 at 12:11 pm
    Reply

    You can really increase battery life by turning Data Usage OFF, turn you email to manual , and keep WiFi off except to check your email, or go on the internet. I got 48 hours of moderate use, with 48 % battery life left. You can easily turn Data Usage back on if you need to.

    • Mike
      May 24, 2010 at 12:25 pm
      Reply

      That would be a worthwhile solution IF the Pre wasn’t marketed as a smartphone of which data is a big part of operation. No offense, but why buy a smartphone to turn off data most of the time?

      I used the Pre Plus as close to as I use my Droid and it came no where close to meeting runtime.

      Helpful FYI: I had wifi and bluetooth turned off for the duration of my review and email set to push because, well, I need my email.

  • Tim Saxton
    May 24, 2010 at 3:12 am
    Reply

    Review: AT&T Palm Pre Gadgetsteria http://bit.ly/bTdPLE

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