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Home / Cell phones / Multimedia smartphones / CES 2009
Palm Pre and Palm WebOS in-depth lookBy Philip Berne, 8 January 2009
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Palm shows us its newest smartphone, the Palm Pre, a touchscreen wonder running the slick new Palm WebOS.

At CES 2009, Palm unveiled their revolutionary new Palm Pre smartphone. The Palm Pre goes well beyond updating the stale Palm OS platform, and brings an entirely new interface and hardware paradigm in the form of the Palm WebOS. The WebOS is a jewel of a touchscreen interface, and it includes some interesting synchronization options to allow users to seamlessly navigate between corporate mail, personal e-mail on Google as well as social networking on Facebook. The Palm Pre hardware itself packs all the high-end features you'd expect from a modern smartphone, all in a slim, rounded design.

Judging the cover and the guts

We got to take a very close look at the Palm Pre, and we were quite impressed with what we saw. The device itself is slick enough to win us over, but it was the OS that made a lasting impression. The Palm Pre phone features EV-DO Rev. A, which it will use to browse Sprint's high-speed, 3G network. The phone uses Wi-Fi as well, and features Bluetooth with A2DP support and GPS for turn-by-turn navigation, presumably from TeleNav, who handles Sprint Navigator.

The Palm Pre is indeed a full-touch device, with a touch sensitive area that extends well beyond the 3.1-inch, 480 by 320 pixel display. Beneath the screen is a single home button, but both sides of the phone next to the button are also touch sensitive and react to gestures. We've seen a similar idea on the original HTC Touch, but Palm has included more gesture control from the start. In addition to the nice screen, Palm includes a 3.5mm headphone jack and packs in 8GB of internal storage, which should help make this a better multimedia player than any previous Palm device.

If touch isn't your thing, Palm has included a full-QWERTY slide-out keyboard. It slides out from the bottom of the device downward in a curving slope, and Palm claims an ergonomic advantage to the curved shape. To round out the hardware specs, the Palm Pre uses microUSB, and features an accelerometer, a proximity sensor and an ambient light sensor, which brings it in parity with Apple's iPhone 3G for sensors and internal radios.

High power processing

When the Palm Pre launches, it will be the first mobile phone to use Texas Instrument's new OMAP3 chipset. This is a solid and powerful piece of kit, and we're glad to see that Palm didn't sell the phone short, as the interface will surely require some powerful processing under the hood. We saw interface screens that were 3 or more layers of translucency on top of each other, and the phone boasts effects and transitions as slick as the Apple iPhone. The demo models we saw were also highly responsive, and Palm product managers assured us that the demo units were very close to complete, barring some carrier tweaks and last-minute adjustments.

It's all about the WebOS

The star of the show was the new Palm WebOS. It's not just a snazzy new touch interface. It's a useful system with some thoughtful ideas that we've been looking for. First of all, the Palm WebOS takes live, while-you-type searching to a new level. On a Windows Mobile phone, typing from the home screen initiates a search of the address book. On the Palm WebOS, typing starts a search of the entire phone, from contacts through applications and more. If the phone can't find what you need, it offers to search Google, Maps and Wikipedia. It's an example of Palm's goal to create a unified, seamless interface.

Other examples of this unified philosophy can be found in the calendar, contacts and e-mail features. The Palm Pre will gather all of your information from your Exchange account, your Gmail account and your Facebook account and display them in a single, unduplicated format. The contact listing for our friend Dave might draw his phone number from our Exchange account, his e-mail address from Gmail and Facebook, and instant messenger from Gtalk. All of these are combined in a single entry, with a status indicator to show if Dave is available for IM chats.

The same is true for e-mail. The Palm Pre aggregates all your e-mail accounts into a single inbox, if you like, so you can read all your unread messages in one place. In the calendar, you can see all your appointments together, or separate multiple calendars. Palm even has some great, innovative ideas about how to organize and display the calendar in new ways, and we've been dying for a refreshed calendar idea for a long time.

Keeping up with the competition

Besides all of these new features, the Palm WebOS can hold its own with other popular multimedia smartphones on the market. The Palm Pre gets an all-new media player, with support for album cover browsing and plenty of convenient playback options. Palm wouldn't comment on any upcoming media transfer software, or any upcoming software, for that matter, but we take the lack of comment to mean that something new is coming, and if it's half as innovative as WebOS, it will be worth trying.

The Palm WebOS also uses a new Web browser, and the demonstrations we saw were reassuring. Gone is the old, archaic Blazer browser, and the new Palm browser is a full desktop-grade browser running some form of Webkit technology. The browser won't support flash, but it seemed to handle standard Web pages with no trouble.

Instead of tabs, the Web browser integrates nicely into the WebOS "Cards" paradigm. New applications and new browser windows alike open as a line of 'cards' on the Palm desktop. You can flick between Web pages, open apps and alert messages, or flick them off the screen to close them.

An unobtrusive OS

One of the most interesting aspects of the new Palm WebOS is the fact that it tries to stay out of the way. There are no back buttons, instead the user uses gestures in the area below the screen. Instead of a close button, you flick the cards away and the app closes. We love the way new alerts don't ever stop the action. You can keep typing an e-mail or reading a Web page without pause, and then address the alert when you have time.

The new OS is a great, fresh start for Palm, while keeping with Palm's roots. Palm has always been known for simplicity, requiring the fewest taps to get to the action. The new Palm Pre loses the buttons, and the gesture system might require a learning curve. Still, Palm is definitely onto something with the unified messaging and contacts system and the tight integration between all the different apps on the phone.

When, where and how much?

Palm didn't have many details on this front. The Palm Pre will be available in the first half of 2009, so June 30 is our best guess, though we'd like to see it much earlier. Sprint will have the exclusive at launch, but Palm usually launches their phones on every network but T-Mobile, so we expect that exclusivity won't last through the holidays. Pricing has yet to be determined, but we usually see new, high-end Palm smartphones launch in the $300 range. A $200 price tag would attack the iPhone more directly, but we doubt it will be that low at launch.
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Name Score Price Carrier
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Nokia N95 8GB NAM 85% $650Unlocked
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