Earlier this year in March – just five short months ago – I was about as excited as I’ve ever been for a new gadget. After writing Palm off as a ‘has been’ for years, I found my attitude changing after watching the keynote for the Palm Pre in January at CES. And like any lusting affair, the more I read about it the more I wanted it. Gadgets are an obsession for me to begin with. However, my obsession with the Pre was starting to become unhealthy. I recall thinking to myself before the final pricing was set, “I’m sure Palm will price this competitively, but I’ll go as high as, say…five…no, six hundred. But that’s my final offer!”
But unlike many other situations of longing desire, I knew why I wanted the Pre. And even after having left it for another phone, I still know. The Pre promised something that my iPhone never gave and as far as I knew, never planned on giving. At the top of the list was a physical keyboard – something that the writer in me had been missing ever since I stood on the iPhone launch line. But it was more than the keyboard. It was the promise of an untethered experience where I didn’t sync to a desktop but wirelessly with the cloud. One where I didn’t have to worry about going home to plug in and sync my music and where I’d have a replica of my home digital life in my mobile device.
I didn’t sleep at all on the night before it launched. I was too afraid of ‘falling asleep and missing the launch line’. And so, like a love struck fool, I stood on line for four hours at the Sprint Store in Valley Stream and traded text messages with my sister (who had the Pre bug too). And when I first held the phone in my hands, I can’t deny how happy I was… the phone felt so incredible. Some areas were lacking, but I knew it would take some time before I got accustomed to it.
The scene now is not very different from many other breakups. There seem to be regrets on both sides of the table. Here I sit in one room while the Pre sits in another (probably making calls to it’s girlfriends remarking at how much of a liar I was and how full of it I am.)
What’s worse, my new girl…uh…phone… well, it’s a lot like my old phone. The iPhone 3GS sits at my side. Yes, that iPhone 3GS. The one I laughed at Apple for releasing with few additional features than the previous version. The one that was playing it safe. Well, in the end, it turns out that ‘safe’ is probably what I need at this point.
But the question that I’ve been getting from everyone who knew how in love I appeared with the Pre remains the same… where did love go wrong?!
Well, let me explain…
First of all, let me unapologetically say that the Pre is a fine device. A damn fine one, if I might say so. And it served me well in the time that I used it. The painful thing about having to drop it are that ultimately there are some ‘new tricks’ I learned that my iPhone still isn’t capable of doing:
- Push Gmail – Apple has taken a lot of flack over their claims of “push e-mail” during the iPhone launch and ended up apologizing for it not working. When Palm made the same claim, I thought it would be just a matter of time before they’d be on the podium apologizing as well. But the truth is that Push Gmail really does work on the Pre… really, really well. And since e-mail is a big part of where I spend time on the phone, this was a welcome experience. The combination of this and the Pre’s status bar always let me know as soon as an e-mail was sent to me.
- That wonderful keyboard – When I first touched that keyboard on a demo unit, I was thoroughly disappointed. I’m not ashamed to say that I misjudged it. The keyboard was one of the nicest features of the phone.
- Intergrated Chat Application – Apple really needs to get on this train and quick. Having a seamless chat application that works with several chat protocols is critical at this point in the game. With the Pre’s integrated chat app, I found myself significantly more active all day in Google chat than I had ever been. I love the way the phone kept me aware of any chats I’d received. My iPhone, despite the investment into several different chat applications, still can’t hang with the experience I had with my Pre.
- The status bar/Notifications – Just as I thought, those unobtrusive notifications on the Pre are beautiful. I never spent time dipping in and out of applications. If I got an e-mail or a chat, I’d get the notification regardless of where else I was in the U.I. and had the chance to respond when I was ready. This is something I miss, even as I write.
- Camera – Although the camera on my iPhone 3GS is significantly nicer than the one that was on my first gen iPhone, I must say that the Pre’s camera rivals them both. Some of the nicest pictures I’ve taken have been on that camera. And while I have issues with the form factor and the fact that my hand tended to be near the lens when taking an image, I must say that it was a great overall experience.
- Call quality – I didn’t remember that call quality could actually be this good, as I’m two plus years removed from my Verizon contract. But this phone just trumps the others in that calls were always of the most pristine and audible quality. (Of course, this depends on where the caller was coming from, but most of the time when the line was bad, it wasn’t me.)
So with all of these likes, you might wonder, ‘Well, why are you leaving’? Ultimately it came down to a few critical uses that just left me empty on the Pre combined with an overall lack of polish that I couldn’t bring myself to deal with. Life is too short and I need to have the best mobile experience possible. This is a big part of my life and wherever I am, it has to be in a place that’s going to yield the best overall experience.
The key area of my disappointment was with the overall design of the phone. No, it’s not the fact that the Pre has a slide-down keyboard – that’s actually nice. My issue is with something that I really haven’t heard anybody else raise. For a touch screen device, this phone’s display is way too small. Having lived with the iPhone for the past 3 years, I’ve come to learn that the screen size is just about perfect. It’s portable enough so that it doesn’t take up too much space in my pocket. At the same time, the screen is ideal for great movie viewing, web page navigation, etc. With the Pre, when I would browse web pages, I found that a zoomed out view for a basic page like CNN.com or Engadget was just way too small. It was a clumsy task to pinch and zoom and scroll – not only up and down… but left and right, just to see the content. It’s hard to explain, but if you come from the iPhone’s display (which was already testing the limits of an acceptable mobile web experience) and move to a phone with 30% less screen real estate, there’s going to be a problem.
Another huge problem I had with the phone in the same spirit as my comment about the size is with the fact that the build quality doesn’t feel solid. I’ll admit that this phone has the disadvantage of having moving parts, and so it’s difficulty to have the same solid feel as that of an iPhone 3G/3GS or even my first gen iPhone for that matter. But the Pre feels unusually light in the hand. I’m thankful that I never dropped it on a hard floor or cement, because I’m not sure if this thing could survive the drop. The light parts make it more portable, but I’m a bit rough on devices and I’d hope for one that had a bit more heft. I wasn’t one of these people who took advantage of the fact that the slider has some give to it and started gradually shifting it into ways it wasn’t meant to rotate. But I just didn’t like the way that the cheap plasticky parts felt in my hand. Did not feel like a $299 device.
The tipping point for me was the media app. It’s funny – you take your mom’s cooking for granted for so many years when you’re a kid. You think, ‘I guess everybody’s spaghetti sauce is going to be this robust’ or, ‘everyone makes their chicken with 8 different kinds of seasonings’. It’s not until you venture out a bit that you realize what you had. And the same holds true here. I’ve been an iPod user since 2001. (I had a 10 Gig that cost me $499 – and I loved it. Still have it.) So much time and effort and feature tweaking has happened to the overall iPod interface and user experience over the years that you don’t really get a feel for how much ingenuity has gone into the final product until you experience a competitor’s offering. Now, the Pre’s media experience wasn’t awful. But it certainly was about as awkward an experience as I’ve had. For a phone who claims that you don’t need to be tethered to a desktop, you certainly can’t have a good music experience without being on the desktop first. I wish they’d have at least let me group my music into playlists. They basically take whatever you throw in the media card and lump it into one big section of music sorted a few different ways.
I actually would have been willing to accept a less than Apple-like experience in the media department. But this experience was just unacceptable. During the first few days, my red flag went up when I heard my music skipping and pausing…and I mean long pauses… (like 10-15 seconds)… as the device was multitasking. Yes, I know multitasking comes with a cost. But the key here is that I found that even after the most desirable conditions – after a reboot and running nothing else but the music application – I’d still hear skipping while the phone was apparently trying to see if I had any new e-mail or messages. This is a huge no-no for me. This is something that didn’t even happen with my first generation iPod and not since. I have OCD and a short attention span. So I find myself skipping songs quite regularly. With my iPhone and all of my iPods, I never, ever noticed even a delay when I skipped a track – that is, unless I was shuffling and the iPod was loading a track in my playlist that happened to be a music video. (I could usually tell when I hit the next track button and heard the pause — “uh oh, must be loading that Weezer video I bought again! Gotta remember to take that out of the playlist.” But with the Pre, it was a regular occurrence to move to then next track and then after about 10 tracks in getting long pauses that make you look down at the phone and wonder whether you mistakenly paused the music. I didn’t. It was just that the phone was trying to find the memory to carry out my command. When there are no other apps open, this is just unacceptable for me.
So after this happened, I found myself carrying my iPhone (first gen) around with my music on it and then using the Pre for everything else. And actually this worked kinda well for a few weeks. I could listen to music on one device and browse the web on another. Yeah, it was clumsy carrying around THREE phones (I have a Blackberry for work as well) – but I’m a connected next-gen kinda guy. I can deal with it.
But slowly, I started to look at the other issues I had with the Pre (I’m getting there…) and I figured that for all of the benefits that a great keyboard and an awesome Gmail and Google chat experience could give me, it just isn’t worth carrying a completely separate phone for. And so the bottom line behind my move comes down to this: I love music and podcasts way better than I actually thought I did.
There are some other areas of the Pre where it just left me empty and I wanted to document those (both for the reader, and for myself, as I’m sure I’ll get the urge to go back sometime over the next few months…):
- Too small – Already discussed above
- Cheap parts – Already discussed above
- Battery life and battery alternatives – I wasn’t one of the people who cried from the rooftops that the Pre’s battery was unacceptable. It was a bit less than I was used to, but I was willing to buy a 3rd party battery. Then when I saw the heft that the battery alternatives added to the phone, it just sunk my spirits. It makes me wonder, “In all these months of testing and these claims of multitasking, didn’t Palm think through the user experience a bit more thoroughly than this??” As much as people like to kick dirt on Apple for it’s draconian practices, sometimes, just like ‘mother’, Apple knows best. Maybe it wasn’t worth the marketing juice to claim that your battery was removable? Maybe this is the kind of thing that just sounds better in practice. Maybe the best thing is to utilize the available space in the phone to make a battery that is bigger and holds a higher capacity, but which also gives the appearance of taking up less space because of it’s non-changeable design. You know – do what Apple did.So if I was the design engineer, what would I do? Well, in addition to just making a solid design with a Touchstone-ready casing built into every phone, one easy way is to just make the entire back of the phone a huge battery. This isn’t a huge innovation. In fact, many traditional mobile phones just use the entire back cover of their phone for one big battery. This is what Palm should have done.
- Multitasking with a cost – I already talked about this a bit above, but multi-tasking on the Pre is both a blessing and a curse. I wasn’t one of these users who kept open applications or ‘cards’ on the desktop. It felt kinda wasteful to me – especially when dealing with battery management issues. But often, I felt the tug on available system resources when I’d go to to do something else. There’s just this pause in the U.I. when you select something where you wonder, ‘It did register my click just then, didn’t it??’ And so you click again, only to realize a split second later than the screen is just now getting around to bringing up that item you wanted and now your second click is going to go towards something else. Yes, this is a phone that can multitask. But it will certainly cost you. It will cost you battery life. It will cost you time (as you’ll be rebooting this baby at least once a week, and that’s being generous). And it will cost you frustration as you try to figure out what the heck the phone is doing.
- E-mail authentication headaches – For all of the great things that the Pre’s e-mail experience gave me, there is this bug that just drives me absolutely crazy. For some reason the Pre loses my Gmail authentication. Perhaps it’s because I have several devices that are accessing my Gmail account at the same time. Maybe it’s because there’s an SSL setting or something in the phone that needs to be enabled or disabled. Whatever it is, it drove me insane. First off, the phone sets up the mail automatically, so it’s not like I chose the wrong setting. I simply gave it my e-mail information and it elegantly set up everything else for me. But now that I’m set up, every few days or so the phone will start trying to search e-mail and I’ll get a warning icon that my e-mail credentials are incorrect. Re-synching does not fix the issue. What I’ve found addresses the issue is that I’d have to click to go into my e-mail settings, change one component – most of the time that meant taking the last letter off from my e-mail password and then re-typing it on the same screen and then exiting. That exiting saves the settings and sometimes this enables me to just synch and get back in business. But often times this doesn’t work. Even after making the change – multiple times – I find that I don’t have access to my e-mail. And so I’m left to go to Gmail.com and check e-mail that way. And with the Pre’s small screen, that can be an exercise in frustration as well.
- Screen scratches – Here’s another area where Apple did it right the first time and I wish everyone else would just copy the design. When I first bought my iPhone, I rushed out to the store to get a screen protector. I carefully applied it and it was visibly unnoticeable. The problem came with the impact that this had on my interaction with the screen. The screen protector added a bit more friction and thus caused me to pinch and zoom a bit less fluidly than I would without the cover. I didn’t really realize this until using a friend’s phone and noticing how easily I was able to interact with his screen. So I removed the cover and I haven’t seen a scratch since. When Apple announced that the screen was going to be made out of glass, I thought it was a dumb decision. Well, clearly they knew something I didn’t and those years of being sued over screen scratches paid off for me. Nary a scratch on my iPhone 2G case after two plus hard years and many phone drops and bouts with my keys in my pocket.The Pre used some plastic for the screen and after a few weeks I already started to see scratches that wouldn’t come off. Worried, I bought a “scratch removal” solution on Amazon that almost made the situation worse, but what ended up addressing the issue surprisingly was putting on the Invisible Shield’s screen protector. For some reason the scratches aren’t visible through it. But the price paid for having the Invisible Shield on the phone is probably more costly than had I just dealt with the scratches. The Invisible Shield drastically increases the friction on the screen. So scrolling and zooming is a tiresome chore with that protector on it. Why didn’t they just go for the glass screen?!?!
- Lagging app approval – I’m getting old. Back in the days, I would have joined the rest of the ‘L33t’ community in hacking the phone. However, these days, I’m just too tired. I don’t have time to do all of the hacks. So it pains me to see that the development community is creating beautiful yet unlicensed applications and every day I’m searching for updates on the official Palm store and seeing that it’s the same 25 applications for the past few months. Perhaps Palm is going to embrace the development community someday and yes, I understand that Apple took an entire year plus before it allowed even the first non-Apple developed applications to run natively. I’m the guy who reminded the community of that before. But the key here is that it feels cheap to see the wonderful things that folks are doing with features that the phone is lacking while I’m sitting here trying to get basic phone features to work properly.
- Skipping music – Already talked about this. Completely unacceptable for me.
- Podcast application anyone?? – I am an avid podcast listener and not having access to synch up to the latest podcasts was painful. There are 3rd party solutions that exist, but, as mentioned, I don’t want to go through the headache of hacking my phone to get this to work.
- Local storage on the phone – Considering the Pre’s lack of a podcast application, this omission pretty much sealed the deal for me: When I browse the web, I don’t understand why I can’t save files that I click on to the Pre’s local 8GB of storage. In the case of podcasts, I’m willing to live with no podcast application until they get their act together. But it’s inexcusable for me not to at least be able to save the MP3 file to be able to play when I want. The Pre streams the MP3 file and so you end up listening until you have a problem with the data signal and then you’ll listen until the stream buffer runs out.
- PDF Viewer, but no downloading of PDFs?? – There’s a PDF viewer on the phone. Nice addition. But when I went to open a train schedule that was published as a pdf, I got an error: “Cannot find an application which can open this file”. I’m still scratching my head over that one. What’s worse is this: There’s one PDF that’s on the device as part of their default applications and documents. It’s an open source information document. Well, if you get your hands on a Pre, open the document and tell me what you think is wrong. The text is so small, it’s laughable. To the naked eye, it appears to be just lines. But using the pinch to zoom, you realize it’s actual text. The ultimate insult is that you can’t rotate this into landscape mode, so if you DID want to read this document, you’re going to be scrolling left and right to see the text. This is just inexcusable. Didn’t anyone catch this in QA Testing? Leave the application off of the phone if it’s going to be this poor an experience.
- System resource issues – Already discussed above.
- Responsiveness – This is just a general assessment of the overall feel of the device. I know it takes awhile for the dev team to tweak the interface, but even for an initial release, this phone’s OS just feels a bit sluggish. People remind me that the iPhone wasn’t perfect when it launched. And it wasn’t. But there wasn’t any sluggish feeling that I experienced in the user interface. Maybe that’s because the phone wasn’t pushing any boundaries (and it can be argued that compared to the current offerings that it still isn’t pushing any next generation boundaries). But I remember my iPhone initial OS experience and it was a much less sluggish U.I. than this one. Simple things that make the user experience more immersive, like double tapping to zoom, are much better on the iPhone. When you double tap on a web page in Safari on the iPhone, the screen shows the phone actually zooming in to the section of the page. It’s a small thing, but it gives you a better feeling for where you are in the experience. On the Pre, a double tap yields this immediate ‘jump cut’ to the part of the page where they think you want to be. Most of the time they’re right, but that lack of graphical polish just makes the experience a bit less friendly. These little nuances are all throughout the interface. I’m sure these are things that Palm will address in subsequent releases of the OS, but I just can’t deal with them when there’s a better alternative available.
- Landscape availability – The Pre copies some of the iPhone’s worst behaviors in that it doesn’t let you rotate the phone in some applications where it might really lend to a better experience. With the Pre’s smaller screen, I often wanted to view e-mail in landscape mode. Guess what? You can’t. Rotate all you want. But the real insult is this: if you enter this hack on the phone (the Nintendo classic Contra 30 lives hack – up, up, down, down, left, right, left right…. you know the rest) you can get the phone to work in landscape mode! Yay! Well, why isn’t this an option that is available in the settings? Even after the first major phone OS update? You’d think this was an easy win, but they seem to be dragging their feet in response to the community.
- Remote purchase of music – Here’s another head scratcher. Palm has a partnership with Amazon Music. Sounds great. However, in order to purchase music on the phone, you need to be connected to a Wi-Fi hot spot. Say what?!! You want me to connect to a hotspot just to download a file that is probably going to be between 3 and 7 megs when I have a perfectly functional EVDO connection where I can download a 10 meg attachment in under 2 minutes? Are you serious? I don’t know whether it’s Sprint or Palm who dictates this rule and honestly I don’t care. But it’s shaping my opinion of the overall experience and not in a good way.
- iPhone cat and mouse games – For users like myself who are reading tech blogs and listening to podcasts all the time, the fact that Palm touts that the phone can synch with iTunes isn’t a big deal. Yes, it’s nice. But there are a ton of other ways to synch devices with iTunes. My problem comes with the fact that not everybody spends five hours a day reading Engadget and Gizmodo. What happens to the general consumer who bought this phone (and I’ve seen quite a few since launch)? When Apple removes the ability to synch, are they aware of the alternatives? It’s really not worth the trouble to the less technically inclined users to play this kind of game with Apple. They think they’re being cute and in the end they’re causing their customers to have an unpredictable experience. (NOTE: Rumor has it that this might be a moot point when Apple releases iTunes in September that synchs natively with 3rd party devices. Could be just a rumor, though.)
- Organization of tabs/Lack of folders – This is a problem that phones like the iPhone and Pre share alike. There’s just no efficient way to group applications and tasks of a certain kind. With the iPhone you have icons all over the place. And with the Pre, at least I have the keyboard to type the first few letters of the app or the task that I want to use. But I don’t always know what application I want to use. Sometimes I need to browse the list. And here it just doesn’t work because there’s no effective way to group applications. Can a brother get a folder or something?!?! What’s worse on the Pre is that it only allows for 3 pages of applications – so instead of grouping them horizontally, you have apps that are out of view. Just a poor design decision overall.
- Charger door – File this one under “poor design” but the Pre has a rather cheap piece of plastic that they use to cover the charger. So it’s difficulty to get to the USB Micro without using your nail to open the door. Again, ironic that for a device this poor on battery management would provide this difficult an experience getting to the power charger. I ended up just pulling the door off and the USB micro port doesn’t look that bad as it’s exposed, but it just speaks to the poor design on Palm’s part. The door should not be this difficult to access – or this cheaply made.
- E-mail deletion – When I handed the device to a friend of mine, he excitedly wanted to try out some of the features that he had read about. And so he proceeded to swipe his finger in my e-mail view and accidentally deleted e-mails I had. The problem is that I didn’t know which ones he deleted. (I have an inbox scheme where I use inbox items as part of my to-dos). It wasn’t his fault. It’s just a poor design decision to not have an option to confirm deletion after sliding an item to the right or left. I’ve done this accidentally myself a few times and it just makes me insane. Didn’t someone stop and think about how critical it might be to make a mistake here? I mean, at least give me an ‘Undo’ for this.
- 8GB? Really?!! – Here’s the one area where they copied Apple and should have gone their own way: why doesn’t the phone have expandable storage? And even if they don’t want to give you expandable storage, 8GB is really what you figured would be an acceptable size for a device that has video, pictures and music? You’ll never get the hardcore audience playing that way, and if you do get them, you certainly won’t keep them.
Does a perfect mobile experience exist in a handset form factor right now? Certainly not. The iPhone is a lot closer to what I need right now and having the 32GB 3GS has been like falling in love with a girl that you had some time apart from – only to realize that she’s been thinking about those things that you’ve said to her and decided that you were right. But the phone is not all good. I could write a list of about 50 things that bother me about the iPhone experience and come CES, I’ll probably be smitten again by the next phone that promises to address these issues. Hell, I want to be smitten. Please, dazzle me. I don’t care if it’s RIM or a revised Pre or even something from the Android side of the fence – someone has to get this e-mail/chat/web browsing/music thing right. But what I did learn in my time away from my iPhone is that there’s a lot more to a mobile experience than the bullets that are on the back of the box. You can look at a chart all day that compares an electronic device to any other. But ultimately it’s the culmination of features and the way that those features work in concert with each other that determines whether the experience is going to be a compelling one.
One other thing that played into my decision to move back to the iPhone that I didn’t list was a suspicion that I have about Palm. I think that Palm has been quiet and isn’t really spending a ton of time endearing the community right now because they are hard at work on their revision of the Pre. Maybe they play it safe and just release the same or slightly improved Pre on T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T. Or perhaps they go for broke and do everything mentioned above and then some! I can see Jon Rubinstein taking the stage at CES and saying, “Well folks, Palm had a tremendous year in 2009. The Pre was a runaway success for us and it surpassed even our wildest expectations. Well, this year we’re going to try to out-do even the success that we had last year. And it’s with great pride that I present to you the Palm Pre Pro!” Yes, I know.. that’s the way of the world when you deal with technology. But the difference between Palm and Apple is that despite the fact that I had a first gen iPhone, all throughout the upgrade and revision of the iPhone OS, Apple managed to keep my old device relevant. I was eligible for every update released for the phone. And even though I think this strategy is starting to hold the platform back a bit, it’s a comforting thought that the company you’re signing up with is thinking about the entire ecosystem (especially now that they want to sell apps to an increasingly larger installed base of customers.) Palm is in such a critical point of their life that I can totally see them abandoning the existing Pre and focusing on new sales. At best, they’ll allow the existing Pre to upgrade to the new OS. At worst, the new Pre will be so much better that there will be no way to get the Pre Pro or Pre Ultra’s OS to work with the first gen Pre’s dated innards.
I am not one of these fanboys who ultimately needs to love one phone or manufacturer and hate the other. There are redeeming qualities to be had in both the Pre and the iPhone experience. I don’t regret the time spent with the Pre. It is a intriguing journey to carry another phone and get a feel for the pros and cons and nuances that define that experience. What it came down to for me is the fact that there are a few core experiences – music, podcasts, e-mail, web browsing and chat – that I had to use as a benchmark for what I would be able to tolerate and what I wouldn’t. This time, the iPhone came out on top. And I’m loving the experience more than I thought I would coming from a first gen iPhone. But CES is just a four months away. And more than any other CES, I’m anxious to see what each of these companies decides to bring to Las Vegas for me to dream about.