digging into the Palm Pre…

After being with my K800i for more than three years, indeed I wonder why actually get a new cell phone, why bother dealing with syncing contacts, configurations, … between two devices again? Well, while being a good, reliable, stable device, there are some things about the K800i that have come to bother me, recently, and subsequently are the features I’d like to see in a successor. Some of them, in no particular order:

  • The e-mail functionality that comes with the K800i is next to unusable. Most of the mails I tried to read didn’t get rendered correctly due to “unsupported character set” which seems a known problem / limitation of this device. To compensate for that, I’ve been using the open source, Java ME based mujmail for a while, which worked more or less stable but is in no whatsoever way integrated with the rest of the cell phone, so neither you can open embedded HTTP links in the K800i browser, nor you can dial any phone number right out of an e-mail rendered in mujmail. There are ways to compensate for that, but it’s sort of annoying.
  • More than just once or twice, the last couple of weeks, I felt the ability to open PDF e-mail attachments a feature rather useful even for a mobile device. Been searching for some tool to fill this gap for quite a while, but failed to find a feasible Java ME / native K800i PDF renderer…
  • While being decently fast, the K800i embedded browser is pretty limited in terms of functionality, especially when it comes to displaying some sites I regularly use (java.dzone.com). There, too, aren’t really any options how to improve this situation.
  • The K800i doesn’t know about WLAN, which is painful as once in a while I end up being in a situation in which there’s no cell link and some sort of wireless LAN is the only way to connect with any piece of the world, and be that textual / for the purpose of sending and reading mails.
  • Using my Internet Pack M, I then and now used Google Maps for navigation purposes, which however proved difficult as the K800i is not capable of recieving GPS signals, so you basically have no location-based services at hand.
  • Doing remote access to our servers, so far I used K800i + dial-up + netbook, mostly for small operations (restarting a service, looking at some log file, …). Though this works rather well, it always requires you to have two devices at hand, two devices sufficiently charged, and you need a, though fairly small, place to operate the both of these devices. For most operations, simply having an SSH client installed on the cell phone will perfectly do, so I was looking for a phone to allow for doing right this, as well.

After comparing a few devices, also (of course) taking monetary aspects into consideration, I ended up ordering a Palm Pre, which is distributed by o2 in Germany exclusively it seems, recieved it the very next day (wow, that’s fast…), and by now already spent a few days with the device, learnt a couple of things, played around a lot, did come to some preliminary conclusions…

the good…

Starting out with ‘good’ things, and with the most obvious thing to be seen first: The design involved with the Palm Pre is gorgeous to me. It seems, somehow, that Palm folks spent quite some time designing the Palm Pre as well as its box and mini-manual in a way to remind one of Apples somewhat successful iPhone without just being a blatantly obvious rip-off. I’ll surely have to find out how the shiny black surface of the Pre will look like after being in use for quite a while, but at the very least by now it does look somewhat appealing.

Then: The software. With iPhone, Google Android based cell phones, Symbian and friends around, it seems the Palm Pre, based upon Palm WebOS, runs sort of a niche platform… which, as I have to admit, doesn’t really bother me at the moment: Android, so far, is under some lawsuit fire by Oracle (due to the fact that Google did questionable things under the “Java” trademark / name). iOS is not available on most platforms except for the iPhone. WebOS, at the very least, is partially open source (talking about the core operating system), provides a pleasant web integration feeling and a touch screen / text input user interface which is at the very least pretty good. Actually, after playing with the touchscreen for a couple of days, it’s hard to imagine one wanted to operate a device like that in any other way, before…

More than that: At the very core of WebOS, there’s a GNU/Linux kernel doing its work, and there’s Preware which allows for easily installing additional applications also addressing more “geek-specific” needs of yours, like a basic terminal emulator, additional networking stuff (like netstat or the OpenSSH client/server environment) and more. So, though I so far haven’t found vim, zsh and friends (but at the very least a rather well-configured GNU bash and nano), the Palm Pre ends up being pretty well-equipped, once you managed how to add the preware app and get all these packages installed. 🙂

Another thing which really does amaze me about the Pre is the Synergy feature which basically is supposed to merge a bunch of similar information coming from different sources (i.e. messages from Google Mail and Facebook, contacts from Facebook and your local phone SIM, short messages from Twitter, Facebook and your dear Short Messaging Service, …) into a homogenous user environment where you have all this stuff handy whenever you need it. I am not yet sure whether or not to really use it (after all, why do I need all of my Facebook contacts to show up in my phone contacts list?), but it’s an interesting feature nevertheless, and pretty well thought-out it seems.

Talking about thought-out features: In many respects, the user interface is very straightforward, and in some situations I really see people spent some time on thinking about what kind of complexity an end user needs to see. Best example, in my opinion, is Wi-Fi configuration… kind of “roaming” between several WLANs, most of them encrypted using some WPA variant, some of them still using some sort of WEP, I was easily able to join all of them without ever having to think about what kind of encryption is used – simply selected the appropriate network from the list, entered the password required, online – done. Effective, elegant, simple. Good job.

So much for that. I will keep myself from mentioning that the Pre actually needs all my requirements outlined above (because, after all, that’s why I bought it. 😉 ) and rather, for the sake of fairness, have a look at the other side of the coin…

…the not-so-good-yet…

Of course, getting new features usually comes at a price. And, given the Palm Pre as sold by o2 in Germany is what I’d consider “affordable”, it is not likely to be a price just in terms of money but also in terms of excelling in some fields of technology while being a little more limited in others. I am aware that, eventually, some of these things are to be overcome by tweaking the phone, installing additional apps and so forth, but generally, this is what I first stumbled across:

  • Camera: If you’re used to utilizing your cell phone for mobile imaging, the Palm Pre camera is the one thing to make you suffer the most, initially, as, compared to the CyberShot-labeled device in the K800i, this one is rather rudimentary. Though it is a 3.2 MP camera with a lens not smaller or larger than the one of the K800i and also comes with an LED flash light, the camera features itself are painfully limited (crippled?): No matter whether talking about auto-focus, macro mode, exposure control / correction, things like the “best pic” or “panorama” mode and different pre-sets for different environmental conditions (“snow”, “night”, “portrait”, …) – you can be pretty sure not to find any of these features in the Palm Pre cam. Overally, to be a little more accurate, there’s hardly anything, option-wise: Switch flash mode between “off”, “on”, “auto”, switch between “video” and “still” (in newer revisions of WebOS), and you’re pretty much through. Plus, compared to the K800i it takes rather long to get the camera started: Where, in the K800i, keylock activated or not, opening the lens slider started the camera application, left you capable of taking pics within a couple of moments, in the Palm Pre you have to eventually unlock your phone, find the photo app in the quick starter, click it, wait for it to come up, and then get your “work” (…) done. I am aware that this comparison is not really fair, as the K800i is a dedicated “camera phone” whereas the Palm Pre simply isn’t, but still: If you want a camera phone or need more than just basic features, the Palm Pre is not what you want.
  • E-Mail – sync: Despite its various shortcomings along related to e-mail communication, the K800i used to have one major advantage, both using its internal e-mail client and using mujmail: Both applications were capable of “syncing” mailboxes not by downloading full messages but just by downloading the most important headers (sender, date/time, subject) to show an Inbox list, downloading the full messages only as soon as the user decided to open / read a particular mail. Though this is a little more work in terms of “sync”, it is quite an essential feature: You certainly don’t want your Pre to pull that large mail containing several megabytes of PDF attachment which you know you will just need in the office tomorrow in the morning through your UMTS or GPRS link. This is a feature which really would be helpful in the Palm Pre mail application.
  • Configurability: Yes, as far as technology is concerned, I like to be in control, and the first thing I usually do is try to find what comes closest to a “control center”, to browse through things once or twice and see what to be set up where. In the philosophy of the Pre UI, these settings which are reachable seem to be spread across various applications and modules, there is no such thing as a central configuration tool. Worse, some of these options are just to be found while “searching” for them, as they aren’t part of the quickstart screen, with a lot of different things to be found while starting to type its name. Want to set display brightness? Well… type “B”, you’ll see, among other things, an app called “Bildschirm and Sperre” (German for “screen and locking”), and this is where you can set things up. Eventually (looking at my computer), I would expect an option for “Anzeige” (German for “display”), write “A” and not find what I am looking for… but I also haven’t found a way (yet?) to see all the apps installed relevant to system configuration and tweaking. This is not a fundamental problem, but one feels kind of lost in there at times…
  • Syncing things: The K800i comes with syncml support, and o2, using the Communication Center, provides a service to sync at the very least contact data between different devices. Unfortunately, all the tools and approaches talking about synchronizing these both devices, ultimately, seem to come down to using Google Contacts for transferring information to the Palm Pre. So, it seems to end up being manual labour, as I do not really want to have my contacts data synced with Google. I am not really sure who’s to blame for that – Palm for not supporting SyncML in the Pre, or o2 for not making their branded devices work with other services they offer to their users (Communication Center). I will see whether or not z-push, a solution someone out there proposed to this problem, will do what I need here…

…and all the rest

So, what to say overally? There are, of course and as always, a few things worth dealing with, worth trying to address, but overally, the Palm Pre is a rather pleasant device to deal with. At the moment, I am trying to get all along diving head-first into the depths of the rather well-documented WebOS software development kit to see how to get a little more out of this device. And, I am trying to get the phone configured the way I need and want it, starting, of course, with importing all my old phone contacts, best of course without having to dump them into Google Contacts altogether. Let’s see how these things will turn out in the end – eventually, it’s at the very least another thing worth blogging about. 😉

Update, 2010-09-22: I at least partially managed to ease access to the Pre camera, in a rather straightforward way (actually, that’s what happens when you’re learning…): Replacing the screen-lock password with a numeric PIN and moving the camera app to the quicklaunch bar makes the camera drastically more easy accessible. I should have come to think of this myself, earlier… 🙂

2 Replies to “digging into the Palm Pre…”

  1. Well, thanks a lot for these insights. I’ going to buy a new phone the next weeks due to contract renewal and I’m still pretty unsure what phone/platform to buy. What (I think) I need is a platform where virtually _any_ application can be replaced by a custom one. So Android seems pretty “sexy” at the moment. Does WebOS give you the opportunity to replace even “standard” apps (address book and the like)?

    1. @Ralf: Well, I think it does allow for doing so. Basically, the WebOS configuration panel offers a notion of setting up “default applications” for dealing with certain data and file types (in example, how to handle phone numbers, e-mail addresses, web links, as well as file types based on their extension, similar to the way they do it in other environments). I haven’t yet completely explored the WebOS SDK in full depth to figure out how to actually replace such an application, but given the OS provides such a feature, I think it should be possible… By the way you might want to play around with the SDK a bit (to be downloaded here), eventually side-by-side with the tutorial on building a first application. Given they provide a “WebOS emulator” (which is based upon, and, thus, requires VirtualBox to be installed), you can do so easily even without owning a WebOS compliant device. The ‘Advanced Topics’ section of the developers documentation also is pretty insightful at a quick look, to see some more things which are possible… Let me know where you get from here… 😉

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