When a handset gets a refresh just 6 months after its UK launch, you have to wonder whether or not it got it right in the first place. Needless to say that hasn't stopped Palm launching the Pre Plus, a successor to the Palm Pre. But is it any good and have the annoyances gone from the first?
With most of the competition going for metal framed or metal covered handsets, it's strange to have a phone in the palm of your hand that is still made so completely of plastic. Plastic front, plastic back, plastic keys, plastic covers, plastic, plastic, plastic. The design on the whole has been retained from the Palm Pre aside from a few design choices here and there.
You get a pebble like phone that slides out to reveal a QWERTY keyboard. Buttons are dotted around the edge of the device for volume or turning the ringer off, and there's a 3.5mm jack for the music fan in you. Those not fussed with headphones can enjoy the rather large speaker grill on the back and the 3-megapixel fixed focus camera with LED completes the multimedia experience from the outside. Fixed focus means you don't get any autofocus shenanigans, but also some limitations too. With no macro mode you won't be able to snap shots of funny things you see on supermarket shelves, but it does do an okay job of people at arms length and you'll get video (640 x 480 pixel resolution) as well.
While the back hides an induction charging case (an optional extra on the Palm Pre) you'll still have to pay for the Touchstone charger, making it a rather strange addition to the mix. If you haven't opted to buy that accessory, then you can use the Micro-USB socket on the side. Annoyingly it's got a plastic cover to it which within 2 days of use refused to go back in the slot properly.
To keep the top panel flush, the design has been changed, ditching the trackball in favour of a touch sensitive panel. It's a good move. Less to go wrong, less to clean, easier to manage, and on that front it's well done.
Complaints of a fiddly keyboard have forced Palm to tweak the keyboard for the Palm Pre Plus and the end result is still a fiddly keyboard. While the keyboard layout has supposedly changed - we've struggled to notice a difference - the obvious change is that the number pad numbers have changed from red to white (now harder to see) and the shift key likewise. It's still as fiddly and worryingly so the edges of the tray that it sits in are sharp. Cut cheese sharp. It's no improvement on the first outing.
The storage capacity has been doubled to 16GB (still way off the 32GB from other handsets) and the RAM has been doubled to so you get a faster, smoother experience. Turn it on and you get the same operating system as the Pre (one of the benefits of the webOS platform and its Over The Air updates). The Palm Pre Plus is faster than the original model, but it is still sluggish when opening apps for the first time. Google Maps for example took over 10 seconds to launch on numerous occasions. Something we think is not acceptable on a top-of-the-range handset like this.
Those that have seen the Pre before will know that the main interaction with the handset is through a series of swipes with your finger. A tap of the light slit sat beneath the screen will let you call up the dock as well as shift between "panels". Other simple gestures include swiping upwards to throw a panel away, while a swipe to the left sends you backwards.The panels work like a deck of cards and let you to run multiple applications at the same time and then flit between them.
The system takes a couple of moments to get used to, but once you do, it's very easy to get around the interface, breaking away from the standard grid mentality you'll find in many other devices.
But it's not just about getting around the interface that is important, but what you get on the phone to let you either stay in touch with the world or have some fun. Here like the Nokia and Anrdoid handsets, e-mail setup is incredibly easy. All you have to do is just enter your e-mail address and password and away you go.
Keeping within that theme, contacts and calendar functionalities are the same with support for Google Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Mircosoft Exchange, and Yahoo straight away. Letting the phone access all your contact details doesn't create duplicate lists, with Palm using something called Synergy to merge contact information together.
If that wasn't enough when a contact does get in touch via email or a calendar update appears you get a small notification at the bottom of the screen that you can either interact with or swipe away.
Get past your emails and contacts and you enter the world of apps with Palm bundling some on the phone itself and others in the store for you to download. On the business side of things you get a DOC viewer and PDF viewer so you've got no excuse not to read that important document - just don't expect to be able to read that much on the small, but crisp, 3.1-inch 320 x 480 pixel screen.
Like most phone operating systems there is a app store, this time called App Catalog, and it is filled with apps that will help you make the most of your new phone. The problem is that the App Catalog is fairly empty, even 6 months after the launch of the first pre in the UK. It's easy to find stuff, but the problem however is that there isn't much in there, certainly not from triple-A brands that you normally find in the iPhone App Store and (hopefully) in the Android Market. That might change with HP announcing they've got high hopes and big plans for the OS, but for now, while you might be able to find niche apps here and there, don't bank on finding your favourites.
The web browser is very good. Based on the WebKit platform, it's quick and nippy. Although not currently available as yet, Palm have confirmed that they will be offering Flash support in the near future, something that's needed for watching most of the video on the web. Failing that for the time being there is YouTube support built-in via a dedicated app and a media and music player app to entertain.
There are four main problems with the Palm Pre Plus, and to us they are all major disadvantages.
1. Build quality or lack of it is the major stumbling block for the Palm Pre Plus. It's plastic casing is unlikely to stand the test of time and certainly not a 24-month contract.
2. A fiddly to use keyboard means you're effectively left with half a phone, not optimised for touch alone. Yes you could say that for occasional use it will get you out of a bind, but why have a keyboard there if it is just for occasional use?
3. Battery life. Once again a smartphone makers launches a handset that can't go a full day on a single charge. Even when the Palm Pre Plus isn't doing anything it seems to eat battery. Think four o'clock with light use rather than 8pm with heavy use.
3. There are better phones out there. Palm choose to go head to head with the iPhone in the US for the original version and now it's doing the same in the UK for the second outing. That combined with a stronger Android offering, better BlackBerrys and Windows Phone 7 on the horizon (albeit some way off) means you've really got to want the OS to get involved here. That's fine if its compelling, but while the interface is nice to use, the experience is still sluggish and developers are yet to embrace the App Catalog fully.
There is potential here with the operating system, we've always said that, and if you aren't fussed about adding apps or using the camera then you could be tempted, but unlike the Pixi Plus, the build quality here lets it down drastically.
The problem for Palm is that Android, the iPhone and BlackBerry give you a better bang for your buck.