A closer look at the Palm Pre and webOS

The Palm Pre smart phone and the company's much-anticipated new operating system--called webOS--are among the most buzzed-about products to come out of CES this year.

The Palm Pre.

The Palm Pre.

The Palm Pre smart phone and the company's much-anticipated new operating system--called webOS--are among the most buzzed-about products to come out of CES this year. Despite staging its splashy launch, Palm has been a bit secretive with the device--reminding us of a certain company in Cupertino. But PC World had the chance to sit down with the company and delve into the OS everyone is talking about. And though we had very limited time with the Pre and WebOS, we can tell you what we liked--and what we didn't.

Hardware: First Impressions

The glossy-black Pre has a unique curved slider body: When you slide the 3.1-inch screen up, it curves slightly towards you, a design point intended to resist glare and make the phone feel comfortable in-hand and against face. We only got to hold the phone briefly, but it did feel good in hand and the body felt sturdy enough as we typed on it with the screen extended. The slight angle made it easier to view screen, but we couldn't test the anti-glare claim because our demo room was dimly lit.

The slide-out vertical QWERTY keyboard has glossy, tactile keys that are easy enough to type with. The keyboard looks much like that on the Palm Centro; here, the keys are black, with reddish-hued lettering, and separate colors to designate the embedded keypad. The Palm has no touch keyboard, but a third party developer could come out with an app.

We do have some complaints about this early unit. The keys are slightly recessed, and the bezel lip on the sides and bottom can interfere with typing. Furthermore, the top row is a few millimeters too close to the top of the slider screen, so we had to angle our fingers in order to press those letters. Palm says that the form factor may be altered slightly before the release date, so we'll be curious to see if our design nits might be addressed by then.

The specs on the Pre's camera are a bit disappointing. The 3.0-megapixel camera has an LED flash, but no zoom--a feature that even some mid-range phones carry. The Pre also doesn't have video recording, a feature the iPhone also lacks. But since the OS is open source, a video recording app could be forthcoming.

Another big disappointment is the Pre's lack of removable memory: The unit comes fixed at 8GB of storage. But Palm says you can tether the unit to a PC using a USB cable, and transfer files directly from your PC to the phone; it will be recognized as a mass storage device.

The Palm has a clean looking home screen with easy-to-identify icons, but we found that their labels didn't exactly pop out, especially when compared with the brightly hued, more distinctly designed icons of the Apple iPhone 3G and T-Mobile G1. Palm did say that the graphical assets were not final, so we could yet see some changes here.

WebOS Impresses

From what we saw, the new webOS is one of the silkiest and best-designed smart phone platforms we've seen in a while. Clearly, this phone operating system will give iPhone and Google Android some competition when it comes to phone usability and overall appeal.

The Pre's capacitive touch screen requires just a handful of primary gestures, including scroll, page, and a half-swipe to go back. It supports the increasingly familiar gestures of slides and glides, and pinch and zoom accomplish the sorts of tasks we've come to expect in touch-based phones. You can navigate within apps and among them by using the touch-sensitive gesture area below the 3.1-inch capactive touchscreen.

This gesture area replaces Palm's previous dedicated navigation buttons and controls. The Pre has only button on its face, a rounded Center button that acts as a home button. Happily, the top of the unit retains Palm's slider switch for turning off the phone's volume and it has a shortcut to jump to airplane mode (something travelers will appreciate).

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