The Palm Pre through the eyes of a former Palm OS Treo Business User


I’ve been a business smartphone user since the category was invented.  I started with Palm and have been loyal to them through the years as the market has developed from a niche geek market to the fastest growing segment of mobile communications.  Analysts say it will easily overtake conventional cell phones in developed countries very soon.

As a business user, I’ve always assumed the ‘next’ new device would be better than the previous device at getting the job done.  That job being primarily communicating with colleagues via voice or text.  Originally email was the exclusive text method, but of course today we have SMS, IM, Twitter, Facebook etc.

So why am I upset with what Palm has done in their latest ‘comeback kid’ device, the Palm Pre?

Read on to find out.

I’ve been using Treo’s in my business since they first came on the market from Handspring (before they were acquired by Palm.).  My first unit was a Treo 270.  This was about 6 years ago.

treo270The Treo really hit its stride with the Treo 600 (although there were many quality issues with the physical phone) and later was moved into 3g territory with the 700p.

The name ‘Treo’ got a bit  confusing because eventually Palm supported both their own OS and Windows mobile.  Many, including myself,  would say that the Palm OS was always a better solution in terms of high productivity one handed operation.

However, as time marched on the Palm OS became stale.  It was eventually spun into a separate company and later sold  to a foreign company.  It never even gained mainstream support for technologies such as Wi-Fi.  You might think of the Palm OS as similar to Windows 95/98.  Yes it was graphical,   Yes it was productive and feature rich, but it never had a truly protected memory architecture.  They did allow apps to run in the background, but that’s usually what caused slowdowns and crashes – just like (serious) multitasking would often crash  windows 95/98.

10 years later even the iPhone can’t really multitask due to the same overall challenges and issues.

What Palm really excelled at was being a great PDA in terms of handling calendars, tasks and notes.

Email came later and was ‘OK’.

Third party email apps such as ChatterEmail really cranked it up a notch and made the Palm Treo a very viable competitor to the Blackberry.  Unlike BlackBerry at the time, the Treo would directly connect to most email sources including Exchange without what might be a more expensive extra monthly data fees or middleware servers.

Palm prided themselves on designing the physical phone (they practically invented the ‘candy bar’ form factor) so that you could  be productive with one hand.  Although the Treo had a stylus, toward the end, it was almost completely unnecessary.  Unlike Blackberry of that era, it always had the touchscreen and Palm pretty much invented or at least popularize everyday use of the touchscreen PDA (some would argue that the Apple Newton got there first but it was a commercial flop).

Treo’s use of a ‘5 way’ navigation ring with a button in the middle was much faster than a tiny Blackberry trackball.

treo700p_dsEventually with the release of the ‘sexy’ iPhone and the ever shrinking physical hardware designs (and pricing) of the Blackberry would force Palm to make a do or die decision to  start over.

After hiring some  key original Apple design talent, it was clear Palm was going for sexy hardware and software designs.  For me the fear was, and at this point it looks  well founded, is Palm sacrificed the productivity and functionality they were known for.

Thus the Palm Pre and WebOS was born and released last June.  I bought mine in late August 2009 wanting to give them a chance to get any initial release hardware/software bugs out of it.

On paper the Pre is a great device.  It already delivers pretty much everything the iPhone doesn’t and for my use, matches or beats the iPhone on style and visual appeal.  The Pre includes arguably the most elegent UI for a true multi-tasking phone.  Similar to the differences between Windows 95 and Windows 7 in terms of managing multiple applications.

Palm Pre has  delivered a device that is even smaller than the iPhone (but a tad thicker) and it does so with the same screen resolution and, very important to many, a REAL keyboard.    GSM and CDMA versions are available and it is available on numerous European carriers and soon US carriers.  (Verizon has publicly stated early 2010).

In addition, although they have far fewer apps ( one fart application instead of 20 like the iPhone) most of the important ones are there.  In addition, Palm and Sprint have stated their intent to be MUCH looser on what they will allow in the App Store and what they won’t.  Because the Palm Pre multitasks, many of these apps are much more productive.  For example you can listen to Pandora while doing something else.  You can use the excellent FREE Sprint Navigation and listen to Pandora (which will mute while a turn is being spoken) and surf the web all at the same time.  (Of course that web surfer better be the passenger :)  )  Oh, and then Trapster can notify you when you are approaching a police radar trap.  Although the iphone has a Trapster app, it can’t notify you of upcoming traps while you drive unless that is all your phone is exclusively doing.  It’s the multitasking that is probably the biggest differentiator between the Pre and the iPhone.

The Problem The Pre Must Overcome

The phone has been fairly successful considering its only on one US carrier who is not  the market leader (Sprint).  However, less than 1 million units total have been sold while the iPhone has sold something like 24 million.

The real problem I’ve had with the Palm Pre goes back to my argument with friends about Web based apps versus native applications on a PC.  In almost every case a native application runs faster and more productively than HTML based applications.

Virtually everything that runs on the Pre is written the same way you would write a web application (hence the name WebOS).  This means millions of developers should be able to come up to speed quickly and that code written for the Pre can be easily ported to the web and vice versa.

The reality is this adds many layers of overhead to the device.  In my daily usage many applications run substantially slower on the Pre than their counterparts did on the Treo, even though the Pre’s hardware and processor can run rings around the Treo’s.

Simply put, the Pre has one of the faster mobile CPU’s on the market today, and yet the device runs, in many cases, as the slowest mobile device on the market.  It’s processor is a TI OMAP and runs at 600mhz, the same speed as the iPhone 3gs processor and the same processor as the upcoming Droid.  Yet  this simple test points out what we’ve known for years, hardware alone does not determine end user experience.

Not only that, but in the rush to get the product out to market,  Palm seems like they cut alot of corners in functionality and application design.  Case in point, it takes me almost 20 seconds to enter an appointment on the Pre Calendar between gestures, navigating and waiting.  It took about 1/3 that time with a Treo.  It’s faster to write down an appointment and enter it later than be embarrassed in front of the Dentist trying to put your next appointment in your Pre.

The email app (IMHO the most important non-voice app on a mobile device) has almost no previewing of emails when looking at your inbox.  So it takes 3 to 5 seconds every time you tap and email header until the time you are seeing the contents.   Doing this with scores of emails daily makes it very slow.  Much slower compared to the Treo.  They don’t even have a mechanism to mass delete emails.  you have to swipe delete one at a time and it often is unresponsive to your gestures due to the problems mentioned above.

When you watch their ads, pay very close attention to those fine print notices that the screens have been sped up for presentation purposes.

I could go on  but simply put, Palm needs to either optimize the OS and key applications soon, or come out with a new hardware unit with a processor that is 2x faster.  Instead, the Pixie is coming out soon and has an even slower processor than the Pre.


Palm Pixie

To me Palm looked like they were on the verge of a huge comeback, but now they  seem to be running out of steam.

This couldn’t come at a worse time.  After spending well over a year wallowing,  it seems that a wave of new Google Android devices on so many different carriers has the potential to smother the Pre.   Even Sprint, the flagship launch carrier of all past Palm devices is carrying Android devices including the HTC Hero.( HTC used to contract manufacture Treo’s for Palm).

There are more and more apps that seem to be going Android but not Pre. Most of the ‘cloud’ services for example. I love SugarSync, and of course they have an iphone app, a new Android app, but no mention of Pre.

Palm has got to pull out all stops now or this rocket may run out of fuel before reaching escape velocity.

My opinion:

Have to get on Verizon (AT&T additionally would be a plus) and not just appear, but have major POP exposure. Otherwise ‘Droid’ is going to bury them into insignificance.

They have to figure out what makes this OS so sluggish at times need to speed up the Pre.  With that, they have to rewrite the killer apps – mainly email and calendar. Entering data into each of the core applications is too slow and cumbersome.

They have to continue to aggressively pursue  developers and open up the device to lower level apps. Even if it risks a few going haywire as these apps just don’t compare to the iPhone’s unless they are pure web type apps.  The Pre has a high performance dedicated Graphics Process Units (GPU) and yet it sits their idle because WebOS doesn’t appear to make use of it.  That’s partly why transitions are choppy and sluggish as it’s all juggled by the CPU.

In addition, I feel they need to release some new form factors fast. Perhaps a Pixie Sr. that is bigger and more inline with like a Treo 700 (but much slicker and thinner). We all would love essentially a Pixie with a bigger screen and keyboard.  The Pre’s slider make the phone look cool but detracts from one handed operation and appears its going to be the physical fault point of the majority of these phones.

In my opinion if they can’t accomplish all of the above in six to twelve months it’s acquisition time or game over for Palm.

Gear Diary Palm Pre Review

Categories: Editorials

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19 replies

  1. Hi,

    Nice to see people still interested in Palm and embracing the new OS.

    Your article does have some very critical errors that show a lack of research or just a clear bias.

    1: The Iphone does multitask, after a fashion.
    With jail breaking, and installing an app called Backgrounder, it essentially does multitask.
    I know, the Pre does not need this done for multitasking but does need to be rooted for simple things the Iphone does do, right out of the box.

    2: Your little jab at the Iphone for not having the app Trapster, it does indeed run and is available for the Iphone.
    If you had checked their website, as I did after reading the above article, you would know this.

    In your zealousness to promote Palm, the Pre, and WebOS, you neglected to do some simple fact checking that have helped the article carry more weight.

    Instead it comes off as a cheap shot at the Iphone from a Palm fanboy.

    Everyone is entitled to an opinion and while I do respect yours in regards to Palm, the Pre, and WebOS, you lose points when you provide inaccurate facts to back up your opinion.

    Maybe the editorial staff needs to proofread your pieces before they are posted.

  2. Thanks for the feedback.

    You could hardly call me biased. I own an ipod touch and love it. Most of the article is spent ripping the Pre, a company and product that I wanted to love.

    1) I don’t consider illegal hacks not supported by the vendor as a feature of the phone. What key things do you need to root a Pre for to make it work like an iphone? That would be like saying ‘itunes isn’t expensive, you can just download all the free music you want and play it with the itunes player.

    2) I didn’t mean that the iPhone doesn’t have Trapster. It’s had it for awhile. What I said is that its pretty much useless because unless you want your phone completely tied up with that one application, it won’t alert you at all. They very recently added a ‘notification’ feature, that will use notification services if Trapster isn’t running, but it only notifies you based on the last GPS position it had you had before closing the app. What good is that?

    I can’t believe you call this a hit job on the iphone and a palm pre fanboy article. The article essentially says the Pre is a dead issue if they don’t radically speed it up and that the iphone runs rings around it speed wise. The only negative to the iphone I brought up is the fact that it can’t multitask, and some esoteric warranty voiding hack that could brick the phone with some future update is hardly what I call me not stating the facts.

    Trust me, if I wanted to get into a comparison war with the iphone and its faults, I could have made the article much harsher. The simple reality is, good bad or different, the iPhone is massively more successful than the Pre so far. The hope was that given time, the Pre had a chance. I still feel it does but my hopes are fading due to the rapid rise of Android and Palms inability to speed the core functions of the phone up.

  3. Sherlock, I did reword the paragraph about Trapster such that it is clearer that the app exists, just that it is relatively useless unless that’s all you want your phone doing while you drive.

  4. Hi,

    You say this was more a shot at the Pre, if you were taking shots at all.

    There are several times in your piece that you take shots at the Iphone, why?

    If this was a piece about the Pre, I would have though you would have talked of it, and not spent so much space criticizing the Iphones apps, no multitasking, etc…

    As for the legality and such and comparisons to the rooting on the Pre, to each their own conscience.

    Just because you jailbreak, does not mean you pirate apps, and as much as Apple may want to tell customers it is illegal, I have not seen any charges or prosecutions so far.

    I do not recall in my post above, saying you spent most of the article ripping the Iphone.

    I did bring up two points that I feel were and are, inaccurate.

    Also felt the comparisons in quality of apps, from each appstore to be somewhat interesting.

    To each their own.

    I hope WebOS does catch on but, in all honesty, I do not see Palm capable of building a quality piece of hardware.

    When I was a PalmOS user, I had a clie, simply because the Palm inits felt cheap and more like toys, and the Pre feels the same way.

    Again, my opinion and I am not trying to inflame peoples feelings here.

    The article was good, I just thought, and still do, that certain things were tilted or just not needed.

    Sorry for the ramble here and if these posts sound somewhat harsh.

    Just was always taught to speak my mind and this was the result this time.

  5. I need to interject one thing – as an iPhone user, and as someone who has not used the Pre:

    In reference to point #1 above – I don’t think it is fair to compare a feature that the Pre has out of the box to one I must jailbreak the iPhone to get. As Dan and Larry love to tease, I am just too chicken to jailbreak. And yes, I know that it is relatively easy process and I am missing out on some amazing features…but I just can’t bring myself to do it.

    If / when Apple introduces supported multi-tasking, it will be a lovely feature and I’ll be the first to upgrade. But until then – as far as I am concerned and I suspect the majority of iPhone users are concerned, the iPhone doesn’t offer that capability.

    BTW sherlock, I bought CLIÉs over Palm hardware for the exact same reason as you, it sounds like – absolutely fabulous hardware. I hope that there will be similar WebOS devices made by other manufacturers eventually, because that is probably what it would take to get me to carry one.

  6. The purpose of this article was to highlight how a long time Palm OS user who was hopeful about the Pre felt about the product after some significant use. To not include the other 2 viable ‘modern GUI’ solutions on the market (iphone and Android) would have left a gaping hole in the analysis.

    It’s no doubt that both Palm and Android hit on the points, both in marketing and reality where the iphone has its weaknesses:

    In no particular order:

    1 No Multitasking
    2 Locked to a single carrier that has a poor reputation on voice calls and who charges some of the highest prices in the industry for data plans.
    3 No Physical Keyboard
    4) No replaceable Battery
    5) No Removable Memory (nor does the Pre)
    6) A very controlling group between Apple and AT&T as to what’s considered OK to run on the iphone as an App. (without Jailbreaking)
    7) A mediocre email app (a bit faster than the Pre, but much less productive than a BB or Palm OS)

    Those are pretty much established facts.

    My point of the article was that Palm OS was long in the tooth and tired technically and visually but was very productive at doing what a phone should do and that is, quick voice call management, great high volume email management, great calendar application, and a great task manager.

    All these things the Pre does better in terms of style but the substance level is lower and performance is sorely lacking.

    Trust me, if the iPhone could be gotten on a carrier other than AT&T and it multi-tasked, I could live with all the other shortcomings and I’d choose it over the Pre.

  7. Oh, and just to get you excited, we are working on an article as to why I feel Windows 7 will stop any bleeding from PC’s to the Mac for the most part.

    If you want to reply to this as to the reasons you think MacOS is superior to Windows 7 (or Vista if you haven’t used Windows 7, just don’t talk about Speed as that is now a moot point under 7) I’d be happy to include valid points in the comparison.

  8. Remember that Palm outsources most of their manufacturing. For the longest time, HTC was making the Treo’s and most people have a fairly high opinion of HTC devices.

    That being said, the Palm Pre ‘feels’ like it is fragile, but until mine actually breaks its not fair to say that it is fragile. Every portable device I’ve owned with a Hinge or slider, eventually that mechanism gave way. I can’t remember how many Nintendo DS’s I’ve been through with 4 young boys due to busted hinges.

    My guess is the Pre Slider will give way. Hopefully not until after my 2 year contract is up which is all any tech users like us expect to own a phone for. The Pixie obviously won’t have that problem.

    I will add though that as ‘smudgy’ as an iphone gets, nothing I’ve ever owned attracts fingerprints like the Pre. At least with the Touchstone back, only the front gets finger prints.

    For all you potential criminals out there…Never leave your Palm Pre at the scene of a crime. The cops won’t have enough time in the day to pick up all the fingerprints they find :)

  9. Hi,

    The fact that Palm outsources their manufacturing really does not overcome the low quality of construction

    Palm is still the one putting their logo on the phone.

    As for the article on Windows 7, I look forward to reading it as I am looking to upgrade from Vista.

    I did not feel the post was directed to me anyways.

    PC user here, but use an Ipod Touch.

    My only loyalty is to who has a product that meets my needs at the time I am looking for a new device.

    I have used PalmOS, WM, Maemo(Nokia), and now the Ipod Touch.

  10. So what phone do you currently use?

  11. Hi,

    Just a crappy little, several years old nokia that does nothing except make phone calls.

    I guess it does play really crude games and can do text but strictly a phone for me.

    It really is a smartphone because it knows it is just a phone and does not cop an attitude and want to be more than a phone.

  12. Wow. So why were you so defensive around the iPhone when you don’t even have one?

  13. Hi,

    Not defensive.

    Just thought your piece was inaccurate.

    No fanboy here, to each their own.


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