There are currently three major players in the touchscreen operating system business for cell phones: Apple with the iPhone OS, Google with Android, and Palm with webOS. Palm’s is the newest and is only available on their Palm Pre, so like the iPhone, it is a closed operating system. The small phone looks modest enough, but what makes it unique is the software and the touchscreen.
A 3.1" screen covers most of the front panel, with only a small space beneath it and a single white button. On the top is a 3.5 mm audio jack, and beside it on the top right corner is the lock/unlock key, which we found to be bothersome in comparison to other devices. The right side has a USB-Micro port, and the left side houses only the volume control. It’s a simple and elegant design, though the phone does feel small in the hand.
Sliding out the bottom reveals the full QWERTY keyboard. What is surprising about the sliding function is that the edges are sharp enough to cleanly cut cheese, bread, and who knows what else. It’s not sharp enough to hurt you during use, but it seems to be a surprising and odd design choice.
When first activating the phone with a Google e-mail account for our tests, it automatically synced over the air Gmail contacts and the Google calendar. While every other phone in this roundup required several steps either directly through the phone or when plugged into a PC, the Pre only required an email and password and went straight to syncing mode. Within minutes we had full access to all of our information saved on that Google account. We should note that a Google-supported Android phone was not included in this roundup—though Android phones might have just as seamless integration with Google accounts.
Next are the gesture controls. While recently we’ve seen a few gesture controls on PC applications, the Pre uses several powerful and easy gestures without sacrificing power or space. Underneath the screen and above the single white button, the glass is touch-sensitive. Sliding a finger up from that area slides the main menu bar up and releasing the finger over the selected application or menu will open it.
The Pre also supports running multiple applications simultaneously like the N97, but instead of opening the menu and selecting the desired application, users just push the white button and select from all open applications, which appear in smaller windows. Sliding your finger across the screen moves you between applications. Or, when in a given app, sliding a finger across the touch-sensitive area will immediately switch to the next or previous application, depending on which direction you slide your finger.
The phone’s lack of a menu system is disappointing. Similar to the iPhone, there are multiple pages of apps to scroll through, with the last containing settings. One app is for brightness and screen settings, another is for volume, and several others do entirely different things. It’s simple, but spread out and annoying compared to the simplicity of the every other tested device.
One significant downside of this phone is the poor battery life. The Pre barely makes it through a full day of moderate use, and unlike the other phones, the Pre needed to be recharged nightly or it wouldn’t survive the next day. It’s a shame that the battery life is so poor.
However, the Pre is a new phone from a company that used to own the smart phone operating system market. There are plenty of kinks to work out before it’s a perfect product. For now, the Pre remains a very pleasing handset to use.