Think of it as the anti-Droid. While Motorola's beast of a smart phone sports a monstrous screen, a blocky design, and lots of muscle, the Palm Pre Plus ($149 from Verizon Wireless with two-year contract and $100 mail-in rebate) is all about elegance and ease of use. What makes the Pre Plus different from its predecessor on Sprint is more memory, an improved keyboard, and a unique application that turns the device into a mobile router. Although we have some of the complaints about the Pre Plus as the original Pre (namely sluggish performance and relatively short battery life), it's still one of the best smart phones available from Verizon Wireless.
Palm has made only subtle changes to its flagship smart phone, but they're certainly welcome. Like the Pre, the Pre Plus has a glossy black rounded design that's reminiscent of a pebble, with a slightly curved profile when the slide-down keyboard is open. It measures a compact 4.0 x 2.4 x 0.7 inches and weighs a relatively light 4.9 ounces. Underneath the 3.1-inch display Palm has replaced the center button (used previously for minimizing apps) with an LED button. The result? A more streamlined look.
Aside from these small changes, the Pre Plus looks nearly identical to its predecessor. The right side of the phone houses the micro-USB port and the narrow volume buttons. A 3.5mm headphone jack, convenient ringer switch, and power button line the top of the device. Unlike the Pre, the Pre Plus comes standard with a Touchstone Back Cover that's compatible with the Touchstone Charging Dock ($49.99); this accessory uses inductive charging to let you juice the device by just dropping it on the dock.
Display and Keyboard
Click to enlargeWith more and more smart phone makers creating devices with bigger screens (the 3.5-inch iPhone 3GS, 3.7-inch Motorola Droid and Nexus One, and 4.3-inch HTC HD2 come to mind), the Pre Plus' 3.1-inch capacitive touch display might seem undersized. However, the 480 x 320-pixel screen still looks remarkably bright and crisp. Plus, unlike some competitors, the Pre Plus supports multitouch gestures, such as spreading two fingers apart to zoom in. You can perform additional gestures on the area beneath the screen; for example, swiping to the left can be used to go back (or up a level inside an app).
Slide the display up and you'll see and feel what a remarkable job Palm has done retooling the keyboard. By maximizing the available real estate, the keys are slightly larger, and they also have a better tactile feel. We had no problem pecking out e-mails and Web addresses; in fact, we prefer the Pre Plus to the BlackBerry Tour's keyboard. The only thing missing is an on-screen keyboard, which would make it easier to enter text when in landscape mode.
User Interface and Software
Click to enlargeLike other webOS phones, the Pre Plus deftly handles multitasking with activity cards you can easily swipe through and even rearrange. Closing an app is as simple as flicking it off the screen. We also continue to appreciate the way Palm handles notifications with its dashboard area. For example, if you get a new e-mail you'll see the name of the sender and subject name pop up; if you ignore it, it will become an icon in the bottom right corner. Nevertheless, we think Android's drawer approach is even less obtrusive, as notifications from different sources on webOS devices initially get stacked on top of one another.
Another hallmark of webOS is Palm Synergy, a technology that makes it very easy to bring in your calendar, contacts, and e-mail. All you need to do is sign in once for the services you use (Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Yahoo are all supported), and the Pre Plus takes care of the rest. It also integrates your contacts into a single view for each person and layers your multiple calendars.
Universal Search continues to impress, allowing you to search both your contacts and apps on the phone, as well as Google, Google Maps, Twitter, and Wikipedia on the Web by simply typing in a few letters from the activity card screen. We just wish e-mail was included in this list; you can only search your inbox from within the e-mail app.
E-mail and Messaging
Synergy also comes into play when it comes to messaging. For example, when drafting an e-mail you can choose which account to send from and which address for the recipient you'd like to use. Attachment support continues to be robust (Excel, PDF, PowerPoint, and Word), and we like that the latest version of webOS lets you search your inbox. Unfortunately, we found the e-mail application to be sluggish; it would often take five seconds for a new window to pop up after pressing the Reply button.
The Pre Plus supports AIM and Google Talk out of the box, and you can easily switch between instant messaging chats and text messaging conversations. Strangely, Yahoo and Microsoft Live Messenger are not currently integrated into the Palm Messaging client for Verizon Wireless.
Web Browsing and Palm Mobile Hotspot App
The Pre Plus offers a top-notch surfing experience, both over Verizon Wireless' EV-DO network and Wi-Fi. It's easy to zoom in using multitouch gestures; the accelerometer kicks in quickly to display pages in landscape mode, and panning around pages is smooth. It took a relatively brisk 16 seconds to completely load the CNN.com home page over Wi-Fi, and 18 seconds for NYTimes.com. Those loading periods increased to a reasonable 28 and 30 seconds, respectively, over 3G. You can't access Flash sites on the Pre Plus right now, but webOS 1.4 will add this functionality in February.
Thanks to the clever Palm mobile hotspot app, you can leverage the Pre Plus' data connection to turn this smart phone into an 802.11b/g wireless router. However, you'll need to to pay $40 per month on top of your $29.99 data plan. In the case of Palm's mobile hotspot app, you can connect up to five devices at once, whether it's a netbook, notebook, iPod touch, PSP, or a compatible digital camera. This app would also come in handy for business users who travel in groups. The MiFi 2200 Intelligent Mobile Hotspot from Verizon Wireless offers similar functionality, but service for that dedicated device costs $59.99 per month for 5GB worth of downloads.
So just how does this app perform? After setting up a password, it was a cinch to connect to the Pre Plus with our Lenovo ThinkPad. Using Speedtest.net, we saw an impressive download speed of 1.8 Mbps and an upload speed of 350 Kbps. Then we fired up a Nexus One and streamed Pandora over the Pre Plus' connection while conducting the same speed test. This time the rates dipped to 1.3 Mbps and 280 Kbps, respectively, which is still good. While the stream was still going we downloaded The New York Times home page on our laptop in 15 seconds. Upon disconnecting the Nexus One, this time decreased to 9 seconds.
It's important to note that while you're using the Pre Plus as a hotspot, you can't use it as a phone; making a call will drop the wireless connections. Also, beware of the heat: when using mobile hotspot app, the back of the phone got as high as 108 degrees Fahrenheit. We consider anything above 100 degrees to be uncomfortable.
Click to enlargeAt our last count the Palm App Catalog had about 1,100 apps, which pales in comparison to the Android Market (approximately 20,000) and the iPhone App Store (130,000+). However, Palm promises that its selection is growing by about 100 apps per week, and there are already some high quality programs available, including The New York Times, The Weather Channel, and Yelp. Pandora actually works best on the webOS platform thanks to playback controls that are always present in the dashboard area.
The Pre Plus really shines when it comes to 3D games. The 1.3.5 version of webOS brings with it support for iPhone-quality titles such as EA's Need for Speed Undercover and Gameloft's Let's Golf. Both games offer rich graphics, and the accelerometer provided tight control when racing on the streets.
Our biggest beef with the App Catalog, other than its somewhat limited selection, is that carrier billing isn't an option. You have to use a credit card.
While the Pre Plus has the same processor as its predecessor (a TI OMAP 3430 CPU), Palm has doubled the amount of memory to 16GB (from 8GB). This allowed us to run more apps simultaneously than with the original Pre, which would frequently pester you to close programs to free up memory.
Camera and Multimedia
Just like the original Pre, the Pre Plus takes sharp 3.0-megapixel shots both indoors and out. The integrated LED flash didn't overwhelm subjects, and most images were vibrant and colorful. You can also do a lot with photos with just a tap--such as uploading them to Facebook and sharing via e-mail and MMS--even though the Photo Roll sometimes took its sweet time appearing on screen. Uploading to Twitter requires that you download a third-party app. For now you can't record videos, but that functionality will be added with the webOS 1.4 update.
On the entertainment front, the Pre Plus doubles as a fine music and video player, even if premium content is lacking in the latter category. Users can easily download tunes with the bundled Amazon MP3 app, as well as watch YouTube videos. The iPhone is clearly a better choice for movies and TV shows, however, because of its iTunes integration. If Hulu works on the Pre Plus once Flash support becomes available, however, that will make this smart phone more compelling.
GPS and Maps
If you like the idea of spoken turn-by-turn directions on your smart phone, VZ Navigator fills the bill, though you'll have to pay $9.99 per month for the privilege. This functionality is free on the Motorola Droid (thanks to the beta of Google Navigation) and the original Palm Pre (Sprint Navigation is included with the data plan). Still, VZ Navigator certainly looks snazzy; the home screen scrolls weather updates, local gas prices, and movie times. The app calculated a route in Central New Jersey in less than 5 seconds, but it took a few more seconds for the map to fill in.
Google Maps on the Pre Plus is relatively bare bones compared to Android and the iPhone. You don't get a built-in compass, and it lacks such features as Google Latitude for sharing your location. Nevertheless, it's easy to search for nearby businesses and navigate through traffic and satellite views.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Click to enlargeIn our testing, the Pre Plus offered mixed call quality. Some callers sounded muddy, while on other calls the sound was clear in both directions.
Overall, battery life was mediocre. Palm claims up to 5.5 hours of talk time on the Pre Plus, but after using the device for about 2 hours straight (including Web surfing, some gameplay, and using the mobile hotspot app), the battery meter went from 90 to 21 percent. On another day with moderate usage, the battery meter dropped from 100 to 5 percent in about 5.5 hours. While living up to Palm's claims, these results suggest that many users may not make it through a full workday, so you'll want to be mindful of what applications you keep open (such as instant messaging).
The Palm Pre Plus doesn't really feel like a proper sequel, and its name reflects that reality. However, this smart phone is still among the best in Verizon Wireless' stable. For $149, you get a responsive multitouch display as well as an intuitive approach to multitasking and managing your contacts and calendar. The improved keyboard and innovative hotspot apps are also pluses. Power users looking for more speed are better off with the Motorola Droid, and we wish Palm integrated a longer-lasting battery. But assuming Palm's App Catalog grows at a rapid pace--and the OS 1.4 update delivers Flash and video recording in a satisfying way--this device will only get better with age.