Palm Review - Smartphone Round Robin

Between New Year's celebrations and CES 2010 in Vegas last week, my final Palm review is coming at you about 10 days later than it should. There's a side benefit though. Last week at CES 2010 Palm announced that the Palm Pre Plus and Palm Pixi Plus will be arriving at Verizon in the weeks ahead, so I now have much better perspective of where things are at and going for Palm than I would have had if I had this up when I should have. And with holidays and CES now behind us, the Smartphone Round Robin is back into full swing so stay tuned for lots more fun. If you've lost track of what's going on, be sure to check out the latest updates page to catch-up on who has what and so on. Read on for the review!

A Look Back at Palm Last Year... Do We Really Want To?? lol

In the 2008 Round Robin we took a look at the Treo Pro. While the HTC-built hardware was pretty nice, Palm's old operating system was so far behind the times (it hadn't changed from Treo 680 we reviewed the year before that and was already showing its grey hair) that the Palm device we reviewed was actually running Windows Mobile. For those hardcore types that like nostalgia, you can check out last year's review here.

Suffice to say, 2009 was going to be a year in which Palm would either sink or swim. As 2008 wound down, nobody knew quite what to expect from Palm in 2009, but with Palm scheduling a press conference for CES 2009 right at the beginning of the new year, we wouldn't have to wait too long to find out if Palm still had a pulse.

My First Look at Palm webOS and the Pre - CES 2009


CES 2010 - the Palm Pre Plus and Palm Pixi Plus Are coming to Verizon!

While the Pre and Pixi have only been available on Sprint in the US to date, at CES last week Palm announced that the Palm Pre Plus and Palm Pixi Plus will be coming to Verizon in 2010. It's too bad for Palm this didn't happen months ago - they likely would have sold a lot of devices if it had hit prior to the rollout of the Storm2 and Droid. Now these devices will be hitting Verizon in a sea of solid competitive phones - it will be interesting to see just how well they do. But to make sure they're at the top of the game, the Pre and Pixi that Verizon will receive has been hopped up a bit. We recorded the little video below at CES so you could get a look at what's new (apologies on the video - we were kinda hungover and wiped by the time we got to recording this on Saturday, but it's better than nothing!).

From the Pre to Pre Plus, Palm has doubled the device's memory up to 16GB from 8GB, and scrapped the little ball below the screen and has gone with the straight gesture area as the Pixi has. The Pre also gets what Verizon is calling Mobile Hotspot, allowing you to use the Verizon Pre like a MiFi device, allowing up to five devices to tether to it - very cool. As for the Pixi, it received the WiFi that it really should have had when it launched and some new case designs were introduced. And of course these devices will be running on Verizon, which even from my somewhat limited experience in the USA on carriers I know means a lot. A number of other software enhancements were also announced that will be coming to all of the new Palm webOS devices in the weeks ahead, which include 3D gaming support and some other cool features, like video recording and in-app video editing. All good things which should allow Palm to stay in the game longer. 

Sizing Up The Palm Pre and Palm Pixi

Palm Review
Palm Pixi, Palm Pre (slider open), BlackBerry Bold 9700, BlackBerry Storm2

While the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus are looking good, the Sprint Pre and Pixi are by no means obselete, which is a good thing as they are the devices I have had a chance to spend some time with in this year's Round Robin. The Palm Pre is positioned as the flagship of the two units, while the Pixi is positioned as the starter smartphone.

Palm Review
The view from behind...

Let's take a closer look.....

Palm Pre Impressions

Palm Pixi
BlackBerry Storm2 vs. Palm Pixi

When the Palm Pre came out, Dieter reviewed the hell out of it over at Seriously, I don't think I've ever seen anyone put so much effort into the review of a new phone. It was insane. That said, if you want to learn the specs and specifics and see what webOS is all about in detail, you'll find no better place to look than at Precentral's Palm Pre Review

Key Features: The Palm Pre is a vertical slider, that when closed offers a relatively small footprint for such a feature-rich device. It of course features webOS which you can view on the 320x480 capacitive touchscreen. The device has a 3.2 megapixel camera with LED flash and features WiFi and GPS. All of the stuff you'd expect in top tier smartphone. The small form factor only leaves room for an 1150mAh battery which powers a 600MHZ processor that's apparently been underclocked to a slightly slower speed.

Observations: Conceptually, I really like the form factor of the Palm Pre and the Palm webOS operating system. Putting it into real world use, however, is another story. Looking back at my now biblical (to me anyways!) Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs article, the Palm Pre suffers in the area of everyday usability. The battery life is horendous. It doesn't last a day, which means unless you are able to charge it up during the day, carrying two batteries around with you is a must. I also find the keyboard just a bit too small/awkward to use comfortably with two thumbs. The way the edges of the device are slightly higher around the perimeter make it a bit tricky. It's useable, but just not quite right. WebOS is intuitive to use, and Palm's system of syncing and grabbing stuff from the cloud (they call in Palm Synergy) is fairly friendly as are things like the web browser (yup, BlackBerry needs that webkit browser to hit ASAP) and the unified messaging system. What sucks though is the LAG. It's weird. Sometimes the Pre is very snappy, and that you get tons of random moments of slowness. And sometimes these come at really strange times - like when opening up things you'd think are pretty standard, like the calculator or calendar.

Palm Pre
BlackBerry Bold 9700 vs. Palm Pre

Palm Pre
BlackBerry Bold 9700 vs. Palm Pre (slider open)

For a platform that's so young I give kudos to Palm for getting it out there and improving it so quick. With the new OS updates coming I hope the lag issue is sorted out. Right now between the poor battery life and lag it's just not a device I could use, but otherwise, it's useable. The other thing I found myself wanting from the Pre was a bigger display. With the new Palm's the stylus is gone (thank god!), but with a relatively small screen size you need to be very careful and accurate on where you're tapping. It also just seems like you really have to LOOK at the screen. In our Windows Phone review we looked at the massive screen on the HD2... I think Palm needs to think along those lines on their next form factor they introduce. They've got a vertical slider, they've got a little front-facing full qwerty. Next up, MASSIVE touchscreen-only device with a big honking display. I think Palm webOS would provide a great user experience on a larger display.

Palm Pixi Impressions

Palm Pixi
Palm Pixi vs. BlackBerry Bold 9700

While Palm describes the Pixi as a great phone for the first time smartphone owner and their new Palm equivalent of the old centro (a phone that sold really well to teenage girls), the size of the device to me makes it seem like a competitor to the BlackBerry Pearl even though the Pearl uses SureType. Compared to the 81xx series Pearl, the Pixi would probably be my clear choice. Don't get me wrong, I love my BlackBerry Smartphones, but at this point in time the Pearl 81xx series is ready for retirement, especially considering it won't make the leap to OS 5.0. The Pixi is lower end than the Pre, and you can tell the screen lacks in brightness. In that respect, and the fact it has a full qwerty keyboard and a low price point, I guess maybe it's more fair to compare the Pixi to a device like the new Curve 8520 or Curve 8530. Again, both the battery life and lag need to be worked on, but what I did like about the Pixi is the keyboard. It's TINY... yet somehow, it's really nice to type on. I'm actually shocked at how nice it is to type on. It's one of the only keyboards I have used on another smartphone that I could probably get as comfortable with as on one of my BlackBerry Smartphones.... even though it's so tiny. Kudos to Palm on nailing that. For the full nitty gritty on the Palm Pixi, be sure to check out PreCentral's Palm Pixi Review. Another great job by Dieter.

Palm Pixi
Palm Pixi vs. BlackBerry Bold 9700

BlackBerry Users on Palm Phones and webOS

Even though Palm pretty much invented the smartphone, they're the new kid on the block in the current smarpthone game we find ourselves in. With the Palm Pre they experienced some growing pains (hardware issues for many users) and they had to start from scratch in the app space. Homebrew saved the day for many Palm Pre owners and after a slow but steady start Palm is starting to get all the pieces together that should make for a more compelling ownership experience. Though Sprint has had the new Palm devices for a while, which have also been available on other carriers around the world, I really look at this all as the new Palm in beta. When the Palm Pre Plus and Palm Pixi Plus hit Verizon, that's going to be the true test of whether or not Palm is going to thrive or merely survive. At this point, I'm honestly not sure, but I hope they do will with it (I like cheering for the underdog). 

I think a BlackBerry user who picks up one of the new Palm devices will be impressed with the things mentioned at the start of the article -- the intuitive multi-tasking and the notifications -- and will likely be pleased with the experience - the web browser is solid, the app situation is improving (I played some of the 3D games on the PrePlus and experience was pretty darn good) and things like synergy are user-ish friendly. What's missing is the rock. Despite our BlackBerry gripes about things like memory leaks, for the most part a BlackBerry is fast and solid. It's the ultimate communication tool and that reliable performance is what makes it a device you can easily integrate into your life and depend on. The Palm products to me don't seem steadfast enough yet to get to that place of utter dependance. To me it feels like you use your Palm Pre or Pixi, like a gadget, vs. how so many of us simply can't live without our BlackBerrys (if you forget it at home, you always turn around to pick it up. Am I right?!). Oh yeah, and there's no BBM on Palm webOS. Lol.

Some Closing Thoughts

Palm impressed me last year at CES 2009 when they unveiled the Palm Pre and Palm WebOS. And the innovations they introduced that so greatly impressed that I longed to come to the BlackBerry OS still haven't arrived. But innovations are not enough for me as a smartphone user. Innovation is only nice once that base level of usability and performance has been met. Palm is back in the game with an OS that was really designed for mobile and it shows. It's good. But I'm still not sure they've matched it to hardware yet that makes it a killer smartphone, though they have built two very good smartphones in the Pre and Pixi that are getting better with the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus. Third time is the charm right? The Pre and Pixi have kept Palm treading water in a turbulent sea, and their coming to Verizon should have them swimming. Hopefully their next new device will be a real attention getter, so by the time next year's Round Robin comes around Palm is sprinting laps like Michael Phelps.