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Review: Palm Pre – Hardware impressions

Not too long ago Palm was seen as a company which had a great past record, but no future. They just couldn’t keep the competitive edge, and therefore lost consumer trust and their marketshare year after year while other players like Nokia made big gains (now Nokia faces the exact same situation in regards to the smartphone competition from Apple and Google). Many people said that the secret new device which Palm was developing, would be the last chance to keep the company alive.

And against all odds, Palm didn’t disappoint and suprised many people in the business with a very strong smartphone device. They introduced the Palm Pre – the next generation of Palm smartphones sporting a completely new webcentric operating system called webOS. This project was lead by Jon Rubinstein (one of the main responsibles for the IPod project at Apple), who left Apple for Palm. The new OS not only provided a lot of very interesting innovations like the new feature Palm calls “synergy” which incorporates different social media services to your contact list and calendar, or the new “cards” system, but also a very sleek looking and intuitive UI. Shortly afterwards manufacturers like HTC copied some of the webOS innovations, and enhanced them with their own ideas (just take a look at HTC Sense and you will find many pages taken from Palms WebOS book). Now germany got some Palm Pre love too, thanks to O2 Germany launching the device exclusively. The launch is supported by quite a big marketing campaign like tv spots and print media commercials. I managed to get my hands on a german Palm Pre sample for a week (thanks @o2 Germany), and used it as my main device during that period. This review part will be about my impressions of the Palm Pre hardware, while the second part of my review will be published next week, and go into the depths of Palms new WebOS.

Palm Pre Packaging

The Palm Pre comes with a small and stylish box, very similar to other devices like the IPhone and the HTC Hero. This kind of packaging seems to be the de-facto standard these days. But as with the XDA Touch Diamond, o2 chose to use a different shaped box to stand out of the crowd.

Palm Pre packaging

The Palm Pre comes with an usb cable, a pouch, a power supply unit, earplugs and a booklet. It’s a pretty basic packaging, and up to par with most other smartphones out there. Nothing special here.

Palm Pre packaging opened

Palm Pre Hardware Design

After taking out the Palm Pre, the first impression is that it’s smaller than expected. It’s really a nice looking little device, which isn’t too thick and can be easily worn in a pocket. The form factor reminds me of the Motorola Pebble, and is definetly more mass market compatible than the HTC Hero tricorder-like style. The screen is slightly wider than the HTC Hero screen, and a little bit shorter. Overall the device feels more plasticy than the HTC Hero, and the plastic cover is a fingerprint magnet. I like the optionally available hard-rubber backcover, which is needed to use the charging stone, much more. Speaking about build quality i think that the Palm Pre is not as sturdy as the HTC Hero, because it feels a little bit loose alongside the slider mechanism. But this may be an unfair comparison, since the HTC Hero doesn’t sport a slideout qwertz and HTC devices with a slideout keyboard have their own share of problems. The slide mechanism on the Palm Pre is not bad, but occasionally it’s hard to open the slider with one hand. Somehow it’s not always easily possible to find the correct pressure point to make the keyboard slide out.

Let’s take a look at all sides of the hardware, and start with the front. As you can see on the following picture, Palm uses the same simplistic approach to the hardware keys as apple does. The Palm Pre has only one main button on the front, which is used to access the home screen. Of course whats different to the IPhone is the fact that you have a gesture area around the main button. This area is touch sensitive and used to navigate between apps, or to go back one step within the navigation. It’s really a great idea, since the gesture area will allow you to scope with the above mentioned use-cases without obstructing your own view on the touchscreen, and you don’t have the fingerprint problem too. You will see yellow LED lights when using the gesture area, so you’ll know that your input has been registered.

Palm Pre front

On the left side you have the micro-usb connection slot. And on the top left corner you will find the power button, which is also used to turn on/off the display.

Palm Pre left side 2

The right side only sports the volume buttons, which are easy to use.

Palm Pre right side

On the bottom you have the cover lock, which is a small button you have to press in order to open the backcover.

Palm Pre bottom

Luckily palm uses a standard headphone jack, as you can see on the next screenshot. Also you’ll find a hardware button to turn off/on mute mode. This is especially nice, since you don’t have to unlock your phone, to quickly turn off the sound.

Palm Pre top

Palm Pre Touchscreen and QWERTZ Keyboard

Nearly every new smartphone nowadays provides a touchscreen, after Apple managed to make it massmarket compatible by introducing the IPhone. Even Nokia started to release touchscreen smartphones, after decades of ignoring and dismissing this technology. And of course the Palm Pre is no exception, since Palm has many years of experience providing touchscreen based devices. The capacitive screen of the Palm Pre works very good, and using it is as comfortable as it gets. There are some occasions where your input is not registered directly, but let’s be honest, no touchscreen device manages to perfectly give you feedback to your inputs all the time. No, not even the IPhone 3GS. The story of the perfectly working touchscreen is a myth, as you will always have situations were the cpu is busy doing something else, and is not able to keep up with your input. Often this is the fault of some app eating up to many ressources. But still it does happen, and i can’t see how this could be eliminated for good in the near future.

Palm Pre HTC Hero comparison front 6

The screen displays colors brilliantly, and it is also quite readable in bright surroundings. I would say the Palm Pre display is up to par with the HTC Hero on that regard, while the IPhone is slightly ahead. The screen resolution is 320*480 (same as the IPhone and the HTC Hero), and in my opinion this is really enough. Of course a higher resolution would be nice, but then the display should be bigger too, since otherwise the texts onscreen will be just too small when in example surfing on the internet and viewing complete pages.

The QWERTZ keyboard is a little bit hard to get used to at the beginning, since it’s quite small. I have small hands, but still had problems finding the correct buttons on the keyboard when trying to type fast. After a while i started using both hands when typing, and it worked much better. For one handed typing i would still prefer an optional soft keyboard. As far as i know there are some soft keyboards hacks out there, but no official support yet.

Palm Pre vs. HTC Hero comparison

Currently i’m using an HTC Hero as my main device, so i took some comparison shots between with the Palm Pre. Most importantly the Palm Pre is only slightly thicker than the HTC Hero, even though it does provide a slideout keyboard. Palm managed to keep the Palm Pre really pocket friendly.

Palm Pre HTC Hero comparison height

The Palm Pre display is not embedded as deep within the frame as it is the case with the HTC Hero, and i like Palms approach much more. I don’t know why HTC placed the display so deep into the HTC Hero frame, at first this is irritating since you might think that the gap between the outer touchscreen and the inner display is too big.

Palm Pre HTC Hero comparison side 3

Regarding battery life both devices are up to par. Especially the first weeks, when the user is playing around a lot, the battery will not last much longer than one day. But this will surely change, when you come back to the average usage frequency after a while. I guess a realistic result is between 1,5 or 2 days on average.

Palm Pre HTC Hero comparison bottom

I’m not an sound expert, and never really put too much importance on the voice quality when talking to a person using my mobile. For me everything is fine, as long as i understand what the person is saying. But there are many people out there who complain about bad voice quality, especially with smartphones like my old Windows Mobile devices. The voice quality on the Palm Pre is pretty good, and a tad better than the HTC Hero from what i could experience within one week. So for people who pay attention to this, it could be interesting to see that the Palm Pre is performing good in this regard.
However the general build quality of the HTC Hero is better than the Palm Pre as i already mentioned earlier on this review. Every part of the HTC Hero fits very tightly, and feels like high quality material. The Palm Pre isn’t bad either, but it has a more plastic look to it, and because of the slideout mechanism of the keyboard, it doesn’t feel as tight too.

Palm Pre slideout HTC Hero comparison

The official hardware specs of the Palm Pre don’t mention the processor or the RAM size, but according to different sources the CPU is running with 600 mhz, while the RAM size is 256 MB. The HTC Hero has a 528 mhz CPU and 288 MB of RAM. Also the camera of the HTC Hero does sport 5 MP while the Palm Pre only offers a 3 MP cam. It’s noteworthy to say that the Palm Pre cam still makes way better pictures than the 5 MP HTC Hero cam. The Palm Pre is missing an micro-sd slot, which is a big mistake in my opinion since the internal 8 GB just don’t cut it for a lot of customers out there. But overall both devices are pretty much alike on a pure hardware performance base, so it will come down to the OS to decide which of them will be better at the end of the day. The following complete specs are taken from Palms official Palm Pre website.

Palm Pre Hardware Specs

Operating system Palm webOS™ platform
Network specs UMTS/HSDPA and EDGE/GSM
Display 3.1-inch touch screen with a vibrant 24-bit color 320×480 resolution HVGA display
Keyboard Physical QWERTZ keyboard
Email Microsoft® Exchange email with Microsoft
Direct Push Technology
POP3/IMAP (Yahoo! Mail, Gmail™, AOL, Hotmail®, etc)
Messaging Integrated IM, SMS, and MMS
GPS Built-in GPS
Digital camera 3 megapixel camera with LED flash and extended depth of field
Sensors Ambient light, accelerometer, and proximity
Media formats supported Audio Formats: MP3, AAC, AAC+, AMR, QCELP, WAV
Video Formats: MPEG-4, H.263, H.264
Image Formats: GIF, JPEG, PNG, BMP
Wireless connectivity Wi-Fi 802.11b/g with WPA, WPA2, WEP, 802.1X authentication Bluetooth® wireless technology 2.1 + EDR with A2DP stereo Bluetooth support
Memory 8GB (~7GB user available)
USB mass storage support
Connector MicroUSB connector with USB 2.0 Hi-Speed
Headphone jack 3.5mm stereo
Palm Synergy Includes aggregation for Facebook®, Google™, Google Talk™, and AIM Instant Messenger.6
Universal search Searches user’s applications, contacts, dialing information, and web.
Activity cards Third party and ROM applications accessible as movable, multi-view cards.
Palm Services Includes over-the-air backup, restore, remote erase, and software updates.
Palm Touchstone Charging Dock Compatible
Dimensions Width: 59.5mm (2.3 inches)
Height: 100.5mm (3.9 inches)
Thickness: 16.95mm (0.67 inches)
Weight 135 grams (4.76 ounces)

Palm Pre hardware verdict
Palm managed to produce a nice smartphone, which looks more stylish than the Android competition, and is pocket friendly despite having a full slideout QWERTZ keyboard. All hardware buttons are easily reachable, and i especially like the mute hardware button. But for the next model Palm should try a different casing, since i don’t like the high gloss plastic look of the Palm, it just doesn’t feel as good in your hand as soft rubber, or the newly introduced teflon coating on the HTC Hero. Of course you can get the charging stone, which comes with a soft rubber backcover for the Palm Pre. But then you have a glossy front and a soft rubber back, which isn’t the perfect solution either. My biggest gripe though is the missing micro-sd card support, since 8 GB is just not enough space for many smartphone users. Palm needs to either provide a micro-sd slot in future models, or at least give us different Palm Pre storage sizes to choose from, just like Apple does with the IPhone.
The technical specs are not revolutionary, and while not as good as the coming generation of smartphones sporting 1 GHZ CPUs like the “Snapdragon” processor, they still are good enough to get the job done. To get further impressions about the Palm Pre device, check out my Palm Pre picture gallery with many hardware shots and comparison pictures.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

The big thing about the Palm Pre wasn’t the hardware though, it was the newly introduced webOS which has a ton of potential and a lot of innovations. And therefore it’s up to the Palm Pre OS now to prove that it’s possible to work efficiently with the device. Check out my review of webOS, to see the most important differences when comparing the new OS from Palm to Windows Mobile and Android.