What's hot: Fresh and polished new OS, excellent display, multitasking.
What's not: Battery life.
Reviewed May 17, 2010 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Palm's webOS that debuted on the Sprint Palm Pre in June 2009 has become one of the most polished and fresh operating systems available today. It makes vanilla Android look a bit dull and outshines the iPhone OS with full multi-tasking, a more open app market and sheerr tweakability. There's no need to jailbreak the Pre Plus, and Palm just about encourages OS hacks and modifications. Palm hasn't had an easy time of it though, with waning funds to market their products, the original Pre was the coolest phone that hit the media and disappeared quickly because Palm lacked the funds to keep review units in reporters hands for more than a week. With the HP merger, Palm's future should be secure and their platform will likely receive the marketing support it deserves.
The Pre Plus is well worth a look if you're tired of the iPhone, want full multi-tasking and a really sweet smartphone OS. There are a few thousand apps in Palm's App Catalog now, with some of the same titles found in the iTunes app store and the Android Market. In terms of numbers, both competitors have many more apps, but the current "must haves" are available for webOS, including several Twitter clients, Facebook, tier one weather apps, Foursquare and slick 3D games. The app selection and the maturing of webOS over the past 11 months make the AT&T Pre Plus the strongest Pre yet.
The smartphone has a 3.1" capacitive multi-touch display that's one of the nicest we've seen, a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, GPS, sharp 3 megapixel camera, WiFi 802.11b/g and Bluetooth. Like the Verizon Pre Plus, the AT&T version has 16 gigs of storage and 512 megs of RAM (double that of the Sprint non-Plus Pre). That 512 megs of RAM keeps multiple apps running smoothly and we've routinely left 10 open at a time with no slow downs or errors. As with all webOS phones, the Pre Plus uses a card metaphor where each app runs in a virtual index card when moved to the background. You can swipe through the cards and tap on one to maximize it to full screen. It's slick, it's pretty and it works well. This iteration of the Pre Plus is the fastest yet, and switching between cards and maximizing them is quick.
When Palm first released the Pre and Pixi, both devices masqueraded as Apple devices when connected via USB so they could sync with iTunes. Apple repeatedly blocked the feature with each iTunes update, and Palm gave up patching their software to work with iTunes. That means if you want to sync non-copyprotected media from iTunes to the Pre Plus, you'll need to use a free program called DoubleTwist that allows various mobile device platforms to sync to iTunes, including webOS. DoubleTwist works with Windows and Mac OS X computers.
The Pre doesn't sync PIM data (contacts, calendar, tasks) via USB to computers but instead syncs to the cloud (Internet services), as does Android. Palm's Synergy does by far the best job of syncing to multiple sources including MS Exchange (including multiple MS Exchange accounts), Google for gmail, contacts and calendar items, Facebook for contacts, your Palm profile (you'll create one when you get your phone), LinkedIn, Yahoo and the AT&T Address Book service. Synergy combines all these sources in your contacts and somehow manages to avoid duplicates. Good stuff. Palm's unobtrusive notifications for email, appointments and updates from these services are the best we've seen and are more sophisticated than even Android's.
WebOS is a Linux-based operating system and active developer communities have come up with their own system patches and enhancements that include overclocking and alternative app catalogs. If you're into tinkering with your phone, check out Preware.
Many readers are already familiar with the Palm Pre and Pre Plus, and for you folks, here's a quick list of what's changed in the AT&T version.
- 16 gigs storage and 512 megs RAM (same as Verizon version, double that of the Sprint Pre)
- The hardware button on the front face is replaced by a touch sensitive button (same as Verizon Pre)
- The phone ships with webOS 1.4.2
- The keyboard is the best yet with less sticky, more clicky buttons.
- The slider is tighter with less of the Oreo effect.
- Obviously, this is a quad band GSM phone with HSPDA rather than CDMA and EV-DO on the Sprint and Verizon versions.
- The Touchstone compatible back ships on the phone, so there's no need to buy it separately. At intro, AT&T is throwing in a free Touchstone charger. We prefer the Touchstone back since it's grippier and doesn't attract fingerprints. The Touchstone is a conductive charger; just rest the Pre on the Touchstone to charge. If you answer a call while the Pre Plus is on the charger the Pre will automatically use speakerphone mode. If you remove the phone from the charger while the phone is ringing, it will auto-answer the call (and not enter speakerphone mode). When on the charger, the Pre's display changes to nightstand mode with a dimmed view of the time and notifications.
The Palm Pre Plus has a 320 x 480 pixel display (the same resolution as the iPhone, but a smaller display) that's made by Sony. This is the most colorful and sharp display we've seen on a phone and it reminds us of AMOLED displays without the unwanted color bloom that reduces sharpness. Like the iPhone and unlike most other touch screen phones, it's very viewable outdoors. It supports multi-touch and that means you can pinch to zoom just like the iPhone and some high end Android devices (not the Motorola Backflip). Zooming is smooth and responsive and touch works extremely well in webOS. The usability touches you'd expect from Palm are here, including the ubiquitous tap the upper right corner of the display to bring up the wireless manager, and a unified UI design that uses simple gestures to accomplish tasks. As with the old Palm Treo smartphones, there's a ring silencer slider switch on the top of the phone next to the 3.5mm stereo jack (a headset is included).
Those of you who hate on-screen keyboards will likely be interested in the Pre Plus' sliding QWERTY keyboard. While we weren't in love with the Sprint version's keyboard, the Verizon version was a bit better and the AT&T Pre Plus has the best keyboard yet. It's small, but if you're used to small vertical keyboards like the Treo's and BlackBerry keyboard, the size isn't shocking. Gone are the gummy keys of the old Pre and the AT&T model's keys are just right-- a tad rubbery so your fingers don't slide off the keys but not mushy or sticky. They've also gained more tactile feel and the slider is tighter than the competing versions (almost too tight, it takes some effort to slide open). I had no trouble typing quickly and accurately on this Pre, something I couldn't say about the older models.
There is no on-screen keyboard, but if you're dying for one, check out alternative software packages that can be had via Preware. The hardware keyboard's Fn key and shift key are sticky (you need not continue holding them down while pressing the desired letter, number or symbol) and the keyboard is backlit.
Call Quality, Reception and Data
The Palm Pre Plus has very good incoming call quality with full and loud voice, and good outgoing call quality that sometimes sounds a bit digitized when calling from noisy areas but is clearer and louder than the iPhone 3GS. Reception is average among AT&T phones, and we had no issues with call drops or ping-ponging between EDGE and 3G (our coverage is fairly good here in the Dallas area). There is no way to manually force the phone to EDGE.
To make a phone call you'll use the large on-screen dialer, or you can speed dial using the QWERTY (including letter assignments a la Treo). In addition you can create photo caller ID shortcuts and put them in the launcher where they reside along side application icons. You can press and hold to rearrange application icons, giving a semblance of order to what otherwise might be a big mess. There is no voice dialing or voice command, but there is a full featured call history tab in the dialer. The Pre Plus' speakerphone isn't deafeningly loud, but the quality is pleasing. If you're in a noisy car, you'll need to turn up the volume to hear conversations or spoken directions from AT&T Navigator. The phone worked well with a variety of Bluetooth headsets including the Jawbone 2 and Plantronics Discovery 925. The Pre supports A2DP Bluetooth stereo but there's no tethering yet. Likewise you won't get Verizon's sweet free mobile hotspot feature that turns the Pre Plus in to a wireless modem for your notebook computer.
Data speeds on AT&T's 3G wireless network were very good with the Pre Plus (again, we have fairly good coverage here and the network isn't over-saturated). The DSL Reports mobile speed test averaged 1,400kbps for downloads which is on par with our iPhone 3GS and HTC Tilt 2. Palm's webkit-based web browser is excellent and is a good competitor to the iPhone's. In fact, it will have an edge once Adobe's Flash is ready for webOS. Pinch zooming works flawlessly and it's easy to scroll and select links. Our only complaint is that the 3.1" display is a little small and thus you must zoom in to read text on web pages. But that smaller size makes for a smaller phone, and we appreciate the Pre's compact size.
In our 11 minute video review of the Palm Pre Plus on AT&T, we cover the hardware, applications and OS speed. We test out YouTube high quality video playback over 3G, the web browser, Google Maps and AT&T Navigator as well.
Multimedia and Apps
Palm's music player is excellent, and though you now need a free third party desktop utility to sync iTunes playlists, it's still a pleasure to transfer and play tunes on the phone. The Pre also acts as a mass storage device over USB, so you can manually drag music, videos and photos to and from the smartphone's 16 gigs of storage. We tested a variety of videos we'd ripped to iPhone-friendly resolutions and formats (480 x 320 MPEG4) and these played fine on the Pre. Sound quality is decent via the speaker and very good through headphones with a 3.5mm standard jack.
Other apps include a high res YouTube player, Google Maps (a little dated in terms of features like layers), a photo viewer, video player, full PIM applications, memos, threaded messaging for SMS, MMS, Google Talk and AIM, an MS Office viewer, PDF viewer, email client that works with MS Exchange, IMAP, POP3, gmail and supports HTML email and MS Direct Push, Amazon MP3, calculator, a digital flip clock with alarms and the App Catalog. The list of downloadable applications via the App Catalog is quite impressive and I suggest you take a look at Palm's website to get an idea of what's available. Most impressive are the tier one 3D games that run fluently on the Pre Plus. Titles include Assassin's Creed, SIMS 3, Brothers in Arms, Need for Speed Undercover and Avatar. These games' quality are comparable to those for the iPhone 3GS (though the iPhone still has more available titles), and beat Android whose 3D gaming is coming along slowly.
Palm's fixed focus camera is still unusual among camera phones: it uses a fixed focus lens that takes photos instantly but the images look like they were taken by an autofocus lens. The camera software uses software from DxO Labs to improve depth of field, lighting correction and vibrancy (the same software is used in some Nikon and Canon cameras). This doesn't mean the Pre Plus beats the Nokia N95 for image quality, but still photos do look better than most camera phones on the US market, including the iPhone 3GS. Video quality is quite good and the Pre Plus can shoot video at VGA resolution, 30fps.
Happily, AT&T hasn't filled the Palm Pre with bloatware, something even the Android-based Motorola Backflip couldn't escape. AT&T has added only 3 apps to the Pre Plus, and they're actually desirable: AT&T Navigator (TeleNav), Yellow Pages Mobile and AT&T Address Book backup and sync. You'll have to pay $10/month for Navigator, but it's well worth it if you need spoken turn-by-turn directions, a feature Google Maps on the Pre lacks. You do get a trial period to test out TeleNav and the GPS, which worked quite well in our tests. We did note one bug where if we quit TeleNav before ending a navigation session, the phone's GPS location was off by about 1/8 mile until we rebooted the phone. Be sure to end a nav session before quiting TeleNav.
Ouch. Still not good. With moderate use, we had to charge daily, and with heavy use the Pre Plus needed to spend some quality time on the Touchstone charger by late afternoon. If you use the GPS and YouTube heavily and talk for an hour or more per day, the phone will need a charge each evening. Get a car charger if you're a heavy GPS user, and get a spare battery if you're a heavy user who is away from AC during the day.
The Palm Pre Plus on AT&T is simply the best Pre yet. WebOS has had nearly a year to evolve and it's now responsive, full-featured and ripe with eye-candy and intuitive user interface elements. The smartphone has full multi-tasking that juggles several open applications easily, an excellent notification system and a solid selection of downloadable apps in the Catalog. The Plus version is a good refresh with enough RAM to handle 3D games and many open applications, and plenty of storage to compete with the iPhone. Is the Pre Plus better than the iPhone 3GS? It's different, and which you choose depends on what you want from your phone. The iPhone has a larger display, more downloadable apps and an obviously huge following. The Pre Plus has multi-tasking, a more open OS and app catalog, and a hardware keyboard all in a smaller form factor. Our only complaint? The battery life is weak, but at least you can swap in a spare battery.
Display:24K color capacitive touch screen. Screen size diagonally: 3.1". Resolution:
HVGA 320 x 480, supports both portrait and landscape modes in certain applications (has accelerometer). Has proximity and ambient light sensors.
Battery:1150 mAh Lithium
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable. Claimed talk time: up to 5 hours. Claimed standby: up to 14.5 days.
Performance:Qualcomm MSM ARM Cortex-A8 (TI OMAP 3430) with Qualcomm MSM6801A, 600MHz CPU, 16 gigs flash storage built-in, 512 megs RAM.
x 2.3 x 0.67 inches. Weight: 4.89 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad band world phone 850/900/1800/1900MHz with 3G HSDPA3.6 Mbps on AT&T's 850 and 1900MHz bands (Palm and AT&T may elect to provide a firmware update for 7.2 Mbps HSDPA but no promises).
Camera:3 MP with LED flash. Takes photos and up to VGA resolution video.
GPS: Has GPS that works with AT&T Navigator and Google Maps.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Stereo headset included. Can play MP3, AAC, AAC+, AMR, QCLEP and WAV files. Video player can play MPEG H.263 and H.264 formats.
WiFi 802.11b/g and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR with A2DP Bluetooth stereo profile.
Software:Palm Web OS 1.4.2. Messaging (SMS, Google Talk and AIM), web browser, email, photo viewer, video player, tasks, memos, music player, Google Maps, YouTube player, Amazon MP3, AT&T Navigator, calculator, MS Office document viewer, PDF viewer, clock, App Catalog, AT&T Address Book sync, Yellow Pages mobile.
Expansion:None. Micro USB connector for data transfers and charging.
In the Box:Palm Pre Plus, battery, compact charger, USB cable, slip case and headset. Touchstone charger is provided in a separate box (included as an introductory offer by AT&T).