Saturday, September 05, 2009

Palm's Pre-eminent device



Image source: http://www.palm.com/us/products/phones/pre/index.html



Prologue


A couple of weeks ago, I happened to lose my faithful Sprint clam-shell phone. I had come to like the LG Muziq as a no-nonsense functional device. Yes, it could play mp3s, browse the web and take pictures. It also sported a loud enough speaker phone and ran on Sprint's reliable and fast CDMA network. But, it definitely lacked the spunk of the iPhone or any other smartphone for that matter. It had a GPS chip built in, which I never used in the two years that I owned it. It had an address book that I never completely filled, but for that matter, never did rely on entirely either. But, I still liked it because it was a work horse and worked as a very reliable communication device. My Dear LG Muziq (VX 570), rest in peace, wherever you are.

Sprint Service contract


Well, now that I had lost a phone, the good folks at Sprint were only to helpful to sell me another one. Luckily, my contract was expiring in a week's time and I was eligible for Sprint's $150 rebate on a new phone and plan. I didn't have any insurance on my Muziq, so getting a similar replacement was not a cheap option.

I had been following the buzz on the Pre for a while, so decided to go take a closer look. My prior experience with it hadn't been as compelling: I had managed to freeze the UI when I ran several applications. To be fair, I was looking at a device in a Sprint booth setup at a company fair and there were tons (> 20) of apps open when that happened. Even then, it did recover after freezing for about a minute (we were all engineers and all very patient technophiles).

So this time, since I needed a phone anyway, I decided to splurge for the Pre. A word of caution to others with wallet friendly plans: you will need to sign up for a $69.99 or $99.99 per month all inclusive data plan. With my Muziq, I was already paying extra for night and weekend minutes from 7 ($5) and the Sprint vision plan ($15) and unlimited messaging ($5) on top of my flexible plan ($29.99). So for me, getting 450 minutes, unlimited messaging, unlimited data, NFL mobile, Sprint TV, Sprint Navigation, Mobile Facebook, Mobile Youtube and a cool phone for $20 more / month made absolute sense.

The device cost me $350 upfront with $150 mail-in rebate ($200 + taxes). I hear now the price has dropped to $150 (+ taxes)! If you buy the Pre in the State of Broke, and by that I mean California, your taxes are generally higher. I'm not sure if they've instituted a disposal fee on cell phones yet, but ya, the taxes are higher.

So plan costs aside, there are several other features of the Pre that make a whole lot of economic and ergonomic sense to me. And these in a large portion balance out other costs typically associated with cell phones.

Physical attraction



I'm all charged up


First and foremost: I have always bemoaned the lack of standardized chargers for cellphones. These are additional devices one needs to purchase and add to the hidden cost of owning cellphones. Manufacturers and networks perhaps considered this a cozy form of "lock-in" but it ends up being just inconvenient. Even Apple, make that especially Apple, products suffer from this. BUT NOT THE PALM PRE!! Much to my surprise, it came with a sleek looking travel charger! And the best of all, the charger on the Pre is a standard MICRO-USB port (not a mini-USB port typically found on your digital cameras. Micro-USB is newer standard with a smaller connection form factor)!

Which means replacing Palm Pre's chargers are cheap! This also means that I instantly have a Car charger since my Car USB adapter now becomes a car charger! This in of itself can save you upwards of $10 (depending on how savvy you are with EBay!). I remember having to shell out $30 for my Samsung phones while travelling. But I won't get bitten like that any more!

Also, connecting your Pre to your computer is a cinch and doesn't require expensive and non-standard cables. Again, money saved. If you have one of the newer cars that provide USB ports for mp3 playback, you not only have a charger, but also a built-in player interface!

No longer do I feel trapped and at the mercy of difficult to procure connectors and chargers. No longer do I need to lug around dozens of different little black wires, adapters and connectors. THANK YOU PALM, FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART!

And the joy doesn't stop there. The Pre comes with a pair of standard 3.5mm bud-headphones. While these are, as several websites will attest, not the very best earphones money can buy, they are definitely very functional and comfortable. And they are also, I can't emphasize this enough, standard. If you want, you can easily hook up your expensive noise-cancellation headphones without any problems. Such wasn't the case with most of my previous cell-phones and makes the Pre's design in my eyes very thoughtful and convenient.

Hold me


The device itself is fairly compact and glossy. Several have described it as "plasticky", but I found the device sturdy and useful. Several online reviews have described the slide-out keyboard as "razor sharp", but I found no truth in those assertions. The slide out keyboard feels robust and easy to grip. It does not, however, slide very well with one hand, and typically using the Pre is a two-handed operation. DO NOT OPERATE THE PRE WHILE DRIVING (I haven't tried this, but am willing to bet that it is difficult, especially if you password lock your phone. Btw, I highly recommend password locking for reasons highlighted later).

The keys maybe small, but are easy to use. I have neither very large hands, nor are my fingers stylus sized. I am able to use both my thumbs for typing and the full QWERTY keyboard is definitely much easier to use than the poke-and-correct soft-keyboard on the iPhone. The "shift" and "caps lock" keys work a little differently than their regular full-sized counterparts. The "shift" key is an orange key on the Pre and selects alternate characters or numbers. It, however, does not toggle between upper and lower case letters. That's where the "caps lock" key, denoted by a bold up-arrow, comes in.

Both the orange "shift" key and the up-arrow "caps lock" keys are by default one-shot, i.e. pressing them once invokes their functions for the immediately subsequent key press. E.g. if you press the up arrow key and typed the letters h, y, p, o the text would appear as "Hypo". To make the shift key "stick", press it twice. Press it once more to return to default mode.

Pre's key interface is very intuitive and very well done. Pressing the shift key once causes a blue circle to show up under the cursor indicating that the next character entered will the alternate text. When a character is entered, the circle disappears indicating a return to default mode. When the shift key is pressed twice, a black circle appears indicating that the shift key is "stuck". All text entered while the black circle is shown will be the alternate characters on the keypad. Pressing the shift key once more causes the circle to go away, indicating a return to default. A similar tack is followed with the "caps lock" key. However, instead of a filled circle, an arrow (filled blue for one-shot and filled black when "stuck") appears.

Touch Me


The Pre comes with Copy + Paste functionality, though I am yet to entirely master this. Perhaps some manual somewhere describes how best to do this, but I generally need a couple of attempts to get the cursor where I really want it to be. I tap twice in text to move the cursor to a particular location. To select text, I tap twice and drag my finger. This isn't usually very easy and I sorely miss arrow keys. Once text is selected, I copy / cut / paste using the Edit menu at the top left of the app in question. This works, but don't expect to rely on this mechanism for any amount of serious editing. For things like Facebook and Twitter status updates, you are much better off simply using the backspace and retyping. Perhaps if someone has a better technique, I am willing to learn! so let me know!!

Watch those hands


The Pre, being a very smooth glossy black plastic device, is a natural fingerprint magnet. However, Palm very thoughtfully provided a stylish black and orange chamois cover that not only protects the device from scratches but also helps keep it clean. I've seen iPhone users squeal and ohh-and-ahh over my Pre and its brilliant skin to no end!

NOTE: you will NOT be able to make your Pre look tacky by using some form of swaddling skin over it. Doing so will probably hinder the slide-out keyboard. You are better off using the cover Palm provided or buying something similar. It is the very convenient and functional on the whole.

Update: 09/17/2009

It's not just a physical thing



It's all about who you know



If you have changed phones as many times as I have, either due to expiration of your contract or through an untimely loss to the vicissitudes of the Universe, then you have most likely suffered the pain of losing all your contact information. You have probably also learned quickly the value of frequent backups, but have consistently run into the problem of synchronizing your new device with all your contact information. You also probably ended up having the same persons contact information in several different entries and formats. Well, at least I did.

The good thing was that because I had wireless backup on my plan already, all my contacts were neatly backed-up on Sprint's cloud. However, getting these on to my new Palm wasn't as I had expected. I expected that I would sign up for the wireless backup plan with the Pre and viola all my contacts would be loaded in to it again. Bada bing, bada boom. Errrnnnn!!!

The Pre is incompatible with Sprint's wireless backup service! And before you can curse out "retards" at Sprint, I'd ask you to breathe deeply and reconsider. Despite the fact that the Sprint salesperson told me this after I had already purchased the Pre, I have to hand it to Sprint's call-in customer service. They guided me to a download assistant app that can transfer my contacts from Outlook to my Pre profile / device. However, this too wasn't exactly what I was looking for, since the transfer is ONE WAY, i.e. I could get contacts on to the Pre / Palm's profile, but then I would have locked myself in.

Again, though, Palm surprised me. Instead of pulling an Apple / BMW on me and cruelly locking me to some horrendous closed interface, I had the option of using Palm’s Synergy. The moment I entered my Gmail and Facebook account information, it automagically pulled in and merged contacts! I now had people I’d never previously managed to add to my phone contacts, all in one place!

Getting the numbers in from my Sprint Wireless backup became ridiculously painless too: I exported all my contact info from the Sprint Website to a CSV (comma-separated values text) file. Next, I imported this into my Gmail contacts and before I could blink, the Pre had literally wirelessly synced all the new numbers as well!

Synergy isn’t panacea though: several of my contacts were repeated in Gmail and appeared so on the Palm as well. But Google’s Contacts management interface is fairly functional and merging similar contacts is relatively painless. Again, as you update your Gmail contacts, the Pre syncs almost instantaneously. I’m not entirely sure if there’s a push protocol underneath it all or if Pre polls that often.

The Pre also pulls in profile photos from Gmail contacts, so if your contacts have set a profile picture, it shows up on the Pre’s address book, and also when your friends call. Which I found super neat.

Sidebar: not sure if this opens up a security hole / malicious code execution exploit of some sort, e.g. if some of your contacts use a specially crafted JPEG. If this really a concern, one must wonder what kind of people you’ve been chatting with :)

Overall, it took me about 5 minutes to go from “I don’t have anyone’s contact information because I just lost my phone” to “Dude, how many freaking email addresses do you really have?” And “Babe, that’s a sweet profile pic!”

Talk to me



I long resisted the iPhone because of the lack of a physical keypad. I still fear that having a cracked screen will make the phone entirely useless during an emergency. Laugh all you want, but I have been through such an incident: the screen on my clam-shell was cracked, but I could still dial the number using the keypad. And I love the fact that with the Pre it is still possible to call someone using just the slide-out keyboard.

Calling people is easy on the Pre. You can either use the touch keypad, or the slide-out keyboard, which has the phone keypad highlighted in orange over the letters of the English alphabet.

Remember the Orange “shift” key? You don’t have to use it when dialing! The Pre searches through your contacts to determine if you are entering someone’s name or typing in a number and all options are shown in a easily scrollable, selectable list. If typing numbers, you can simply hit the “Enter” key after you are done typing the number and Pre starts dialing. Sweet. I typically prefer the keypad for calling people, but have found the on-screen keyboard fairly functional as well.

Navigating IVRS (interactive voice response systems, e.g. the automated menu that greets when you call your bank) using the Pre is easy as well: move the device away from your ear and the screen lights up with the keypad shown. Again, I prefer using the slide out keyboard, but the keypad is very useful. To add another person to an ongoing conversation, you tap the “person with a plus sign” icon on the bottom right.

Answering phones when your phone is locked is thoughtfully done as well. You don’t need to enter your password for picking up a call: simply slide the lock icon and you can talk. Use any other feature, however, requires you to unlock the phone. This is a minor inconvenience compared to typical clamshell phones, but is unavoidable.

Sup YouTwitFace!



The Pre comes preloaded with Facebook, and Youtube apps, which are generally very functional. There are Twitter apps available in the Pre app catalog, but I haven’t downloaded it yet, since I’m not a huge Twitter user. I know, I know, I’m one of those who didn’t participate in Iran’s failed revolution. Nor am I one who ardently follows Ashton Kutcher. Or CNN for that matter.

I think the iPhone Facebook app is a little more functional though: on the Pre, while you can update your status and read feeds about other people’s statuses, you can “share” or respond to someone’s published status / photos. I found that mildly annoying, but the problem is easily resolved using the Pre’s web-browser. But still, if someone from Facebook reads this, I hope it moves them enough to update their app for the Pre!

Which brings us to Pre’s web-browser. It is awesome. I’ve used the iPhone browser and felt the Pre’s browser to be just as good, if not better. It supports the same auto orientation (from landscape to portrait and back) depending on the orientation of the phone. It also responds to the de facto standard two finger zoom-shrink and one finger pan / focus controls.

Where the h3$$ am I?



The Pre also comes with two mapping / navigation applications: Sprint Navigator and Google Maps. Both display your current location on a map, though Google Maps is a 2D display. Also, it doesn’t provide any turn by turn directions. Sprint Navigator, on the other hand, does, and with street names! The Pre is well on its way to replacing my Garmin since I never need update maps. I haven’t used Sprint Navigator in no-network conditions though, so am not sure if it is reliant on assisted modes or can function standalone.

Compared to the Garmin though, the Navigator appears a little brusque and chatty at times. When starting up in parking lot, the Garmin typically starts off with “Please drive to highlighted route”. Most GPS devices tend to be similar in this regard because they lack orientation / trajectory when still. However, Sprint Navigator starts with the rather unhelpful “You are now off-track.” To which my response typically is “Gee thanks, Captain Obvious!” Also when going along really long roads, Sprint Navigator often says things like “Drive 2.2 miles to (sic) Continue to…” [LongRoad], which is a little jarring.

HOWEVER, given the fact that it is FREE (and by that I mean, already paid for and at a price that brings so many other features), it is totally worth it. I haven’t used Google Maps or my Garmin once after discovering Sprint Navigator.
The Pre has only one speaker and while it is not as loud as the Garmin, it is very usable and functional in a closed car. It is almost impossible to use in a convertible with the top down, but then so is the Garmin, and as I imagine, any other device that does not hook into the car’s audio system.

My car doesn’t have Bluetooth, so I’m not sure if the Sprint Navigator can use that. If it can, it would be at par with several newer standalone GPS devices.

Call-quality on the speakerphone is generally very good. I found the speaker louder than my previous phone and none of the people I spoke to over the speakerphone complained of echoes or low sound.

In your face!



The Pre comes with a point-and-shoot 3 MP camera. It, interestingly, also supports a surprisingly bright LED flash. The picture quality is fair, but definitely not a match for anything Canon ever produced. While iPhone owners told me it was better than theirs, I do not appreciate the fact that it suffers from the same “soft-key” problem of the iPhone: you have to tap the screen to take a picture. This renders self-portraits and impromptu arm’s length group captures impossible. I preferred the dedicated key and the “vanity screen” of my clamshell. The Pre does give a polished surface on the back, which some (e.g. women obsessed with their lips?) may find helpful.

But here’s the most important part: the pics captured on your Pre can be immediately as attachments, or uploaded to your Facebook profile or shared via MMS. Take that iPhone! You can ofcourse browse them on the phone with the same intuitive flick and swish and zoom and pan gestures. And as expected, the photos auto-orient themselves depending on how you shot them and how you view them.

Coming soon:

NFL MOBILE
USB media sync
BATTERY LIFE
SPRINT NETWORK and service
Built-in WiFi vs. EVDO / 1x data

Epilogue


While there are a few things I'd like to see Palm improve in the next generation of the Pre, I am very satisfied with Pre and Sprint's service. I have seen my iPhone owning friends go ga-ga over the Pre and I have never suffered any dropped calls or the slow network issues. The features and accessories are very thoughtfully designed and make this device exceedingly easy to use and supremely functional. I have, thus far, no qualms in encouraging you to switch to the Pre and Sprint should you find yourself in the market for a new phone / plan. FWIW, I’m not a Palm or Sprint shareholder as of this writing :)

Justify Full
`

3 comments:

Pallavi said...

Nothing comes closer to the iPhone :)

kage said...

Actually, I would go a step ahead and say this surpasses the iphone :) Makes me curious to know what the iPhone comes up with though.

kage said...

Update: first real Palm Pre bug, after one month of satisfied usage.

Palm Pre audio bug: lost ability to audio through headset after placing / receiving call with headphone plugged in.

Was listening to Pandora and received a call. While I was very impressed at how beautifully it handled the transition to the headphones and didn't blow my ears away when the phone rang, I subsequently discovered that I could neither hear others nor could they hear me without the headset. switching to speakerphone seemed to work correctly, which lead me to believe it was a software / hardware state issue: the phone probably got confused if it was in headset mode or not. restarting didn't seem to help (though i didn't try removing the battery), which leads me to believe that it might be a hardware issue (some switch not releasing after removing the headphones).

Anyhoo, fix was relatively simple: insert headphones, initiate call, remove headset midcall and viola, it works!

After i fixed it, I also googled "palm pre audio bug" to see if others had similar issues and found the following link with a similar fix :)
http://forums.palm.com/palm/board/message?board.id=video_and_photo&thread.id=9116

Overall: I'm still absolutely pleased and amazed at how well put together this phone is. haven't had a screen freeze yet, and call quality and data speeds have been awesome!