Palm Pre UK: Pre-nuptial considerations

We first saw the Palm Pre at CES 2009 and we published our review of the Palm Pre on 25 June. Why the history lesson? Well because it is hitting shelves of O2 stores in the UK next week, so we thought it was time to update all those eager to get their hands on the new device.

9 months is a long time. It's just about enough time to have a baby, but it is a long time in the life of a mobile phone handset and some will question why it has taken the best part of a year for the Palm Pre to arrive in Europe. Sure, there has been a minor hardware switch from EV-DO to HSDPA yet other manufacturers consider this from the outset. We've asked Palm about the delay, but have never got a reasonable answer.

One thing is sure though, the Palm Pre got rave reviews at the time, but how does it stand up against the latest collection of mobile phones? We now have Android devices like the HTC Hero and Motorola's DEXT which offer some of the same features that were well received on the Pre. If you've not read our review of the Palm Pre, why not head over there now?

What about the hardware?

The first thing to note about the Pre is just how glorious the screen looks. It is unique with curved edges and the webOS which fits the device perfectly. The touch response is very good indeed, with smooth scrolling between pages. It has more than just a dose of Apple's iPhone about it, and has to be one of the best looking interfaces you can currently get.

It's an interesting device too, because of the decision to make it a true hybrid. You have the slide-out QWERTY keyboard for text entry, but a system that works efficiently by touch. It side-steps one of the biggest problems with full touch devices, which is losing half your screen (or more) each time you want to enter something like a URL.

Palm's efficient design in the Pre gives a very usable balance between the keyboard and the screen, ideally suited for those that want a keyboard for writing those long emails, but want a rich multimedia experience from the screen space available. As a BlackBerry user, it makes a lot of sense and you get the reassurance of a keyboard, whilst enjoying multi-touch website navigation, all in a device that is still relatively compact.

Sure, the keyboard isn't as good as a BlackBerry, it is a little cramped and the rubbery feel is a little odd, but it works well enough and you do get used to the thumb cramp after a while.

Battery life is a disappointment however. During the testing period we've found ourselves charging it frequently – often more than just over night. The fancy Touchstone charge is a welcomed accessory, but in reality you'll probably want to get one for your phone to live on at your desk at work to make sure you have enough juice to keep it running.

What's all this about Synergy?

Synergy was a buzzword with the Palm Pre at launch. It allows you to bring in your data from various different sources to view them in one location. Essentially, it lets you bring in Google and Facebook contacts over the air and mash them in with your Outlook contacts into one address book.

Setup is blissfully easy and you can then find full rich contact views, with images from Facebook. Enter a contact and you'll find all their information there, so you can call, SMS or email them really easily. It's not unique these days with Motoblur offering the same idea and more comprehensively, even if it doesn’t look so slick.

And what about multi-tasking?

The other major plus point about the Palm Pre's webOS is multi-tasking. Yes, you can multi-task on Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and S60 devices, but none of them handle it with the confidence that the Palm Pre does. Press the central button (which looks like a trackball, but is just a button) and you spring into card view, where all your open apps can be flicked through till you find the one you want.

It means you can very easily and visually switch from one application to another without having to access any menus. Using these cards also adds another bonus – if you want lots of browser screens open, they exist individually, rather than grouped into the back of another screen.

When you have finished with an application you simply swipe the card off the top of the page and it closes – no pressing a Quit or Close button, no scrabbling around with a tiny X in the corner or anything like that. So simple, but it works so well.

Does it have a decent browser?

The browser is a shining example of how accessing the Internet on the move should be. Multi-touch zooming is exceptionally quick and double tap resizing focuses on the text on the page. And the combination of plenty of screen space and the keyboard means you can go to a webmail page and use the full online version, rather than a poor mobile alternative.

What about downloadable apps?

So with the substantial bases covered, what's wrong with the Pre? Welcome to the App Catalog. When we sat down with Palm and O2 back in July to discuss the Pre, a Palm official responded to our "why the delay?" question by pointing out that the App Catalog would have more available for UK customers when it finally launched.

Perhaps this is true, although the recent announcement that the webOS Developer Program will open in December reveals that it isn't really the case. And this is something of a sticking point. Browsing through the App Catalog, it seems sparsely populated. We downloaded the LinkedIn app and have been enjoying Tweed, the Twitter client (which isn't great for posting images to Twitter), but beyond that we're left wanting.

Where is the easy access to instant messaging? Yes, you have Google Talk and AIM included as standard, but there is no Windows Live or Yahoo option, and no app support for them either. There is no Skype, no Facebook, no integration with Flickr.

Perhaps those apps which provide a link to an online service will never really fly, because you can so easily open a browser page for them. We've happily had a Facebook Mobile page open and you can opt for mobile versions of many instant messenger programs too. But in a world where competing app stores get so much attention, we can't help feeling that Palm needs to catch up.

Should I buy one then?

The Palm Pre is a fantastic handset. It has real strengths in multi-tasking and making the most of a hybrid configuration, with a great browser offering. But the lack of depth in support for webOS is a real worry. It doesn’t have the established background that the iPhone gives you, or the choice of operators. Whether you'll get syncing with iTunes or not will yet to be seen, but in the long-term it isn't a sure thing.

It doesn't have the strength of developers currently working on the Android Market place either, and with handsets coming left, right and centre, you're spoilt for choice. Perhaps these things will come to Palm, but it's unfortunate that they didn't take the initiative in the UK earlier in the year.

The Palm Pre is launching as an O2 exclusive in the UK and can be yours for free on a £34.26 a month tariff, if you sign-up for 2 years. 18-month contracts start from £44.05 a month for a free phone, but if a kind relative is going to gift you £100, you could get it for under £30 a month.