Review: Verizon Palm Pre 2 108
Verizon's Palm Pre 2 is the original Pre done right
What the Palm Pre should have been. That’s been our response to the Palm Pre 2 since we first got our hands on it, and it continues to be our response now as we’re finally getting to review the Verizon Pre 2. The differences between this phone and the unlocked variety are few: a CDMA radio in Verizon’s, and a GSM radio in the unlocked one. The differences between this phone and the original Pre, or even the Pre Plus are much bigger than they appear on the surface.
The Pre 2 contains a 1GHz TI OMAP processor, in comparison to the 600MHz affair inside the previous Pre-series devices. It also has 512MB of RAM and 16GB for storage, the same as the Pre Plus and double on both counts what was available in the Pre. Physically, the keyboard on the Pre 2 is much improved over the older devices (especially the double/missed typing keyboard from the Pre Plus), the slider action is more solid, it has a flat glass screen, and it weighs just a touch more. Oh, and there’s that whole webOS 2.0 thing too. After the break, we really get into the nitty gritty of what makes the Palm Pre 2 the phone that it is, and how this phone is the underappreciated true successor to the Pre.
Unlike the Pre and Pre Plus, Palm opted to ditch the funky angled-for-display corner on the packaging for the Pre 2, instead giving us the rectilinear version of the box. It still comes wrapped in a smooth plastic sleeve, adorned with carrier logos and the like. Slip off that sleeve and lift off the top and you’ll find a Palm Pre 2 inside at rest, battery pre-installed. Below its perfectly-sized clear plastic tray is a bundle of packets sporting red Verizon branding: Getting Started, Gesture Guide, Consumer Information About Radio Frequency Emission and Responsible Driving, and other Important Consumer Information.
You’ll throw all of those away (especially the last two) to get to the bits underneath. There’s a box inside the box that contains the Micro-USB charging cable, AC USB adapter, and Palm-brand headphones, all swathed in black. Palm broke with the previous Pre packaging precedent here as well: instead of separating the pieces with an eco-conscious ribbon of bright orange corrugated paper, they instead built a cardboard tray with slots for the plastic-wrapped charging and listening bits. It’s easier to deal with, as we suspect their customer feedback reflected, but we can’t help but lament the loss of unique funkiness in the packaging.
Yeah, it's packaging and yeah, we just reviewed it. No apologies.
On to the phone itself. From the rear you’d be hard pressed to tell the Pre 2 apart from the Pre Plus (or a Touchstone backed Pre). That’d be because in that arena Palm didn’t change a darned thing (at least outwardly). The Pre 2 uses the same back, battery, and lower-half chassis as its predecessors, though undoubtedly it’s seen tweaks to improve durability. Same speaker, same LED flash, same camera.
Actually, the camera’s not quite the same: it’s seen an upgrade to 5 megapixels, but it’s still a fixed focus shooter living in an autofocus world. It does still at least have Palm’s “extended depth of field” technology baked in, so you can get some software-enhanced imagery, but as with the Pre, we don’t recommend you go looking too closely at your shots. Yes, the 5MP camera is an improvement in raw pixel count over the older 3MP sensors. Does it take fantastic pictures? No. The problem is that extended depth of field tech, which while making for slightly sharper shots, sacrifices a degree of image quality and makes us long for an autofocus camera in our webOS devices. As before, low light performance is barely adequate, and the dinky LED flash is only good for real picture quality improvement for a few yards. When it comes to video, the Pre 2 is really no better than the older Pre phones. It records at the same 640x480 resolution (the 5MP camera snaps pictures at 2576x1928) and spits out video in friendly H.264 mp4 files. We suppose the biggest frustration with the camera in the Pre 2 (and all other webOS devices) is the software and the complete lack of any customization options. It takes photos and videos, and not much more. All that said, they say the best camera is the one you have on you, and if this is going to be the camera you have on you, it’s not a bad one to have. Not great, but also not bad.
Up front is where the real action is. Instead of the curved, easy-to-scratch, crack-prone, fingerprint magnet, plastic front that was present on the Pre and Pre Plus, the Pre 2 has dispensed with those unpleasantries for a more modern, chemically-hardened Gorilla Glass screen. No matter how smooth you thought the Pre’s screen was, this is smoother. Performing the wonderful webOS gestures we all know and love is a buttery smooth delight. It’s also perfectly flat, with a very thin plastic ridge around the front, blessedly coated in the same soft touch material as the Touchstone backing. Being chemically-hardened, the glass is both shatter- and scratch-resistant. We aren’t about to put it to a harsh key scratch test, but trust us: this stuff is good. Underneath that glass is the same 3.1-inch 320x480 24-bit capacitive LCD screen from the older Pre-series phones. One additional benefit to the glass screen: when wearing polarized sunglasses the screen no longer appears awash in iridescent waves (though it does still darken considerably in landscape mode).
Between that Touchstone back and Gorilla Glass screen lurks an assemblage of underappreciated and underreported hardware. The Pre 2 has a Texas Instruments TI OMAP 3630 clocked at 1GHz as its beating heart. And compared to the 600MHz chip in its predecessors, this heart is pumped full of adrenaline and steroids. Of course, we’re comparing this with webOS 2.0.1 (still wondering when 2.1 will land for Verizon, if ever) to lesser hardware running the older webOS 1.4.5, but we’ll take what we can get. And what we get is an experience that is not in need of overclocking, nor underclocking as the Pre 2 dynamically throttles down the processor when full power is not needed. So you have maximum thrust when you need it, and exellent fuel economy when you don’t.
Apart from the processor, the Pre 2 also contains 16GB for storage (~15GB user accessible), and as with all webOS phones, can be mounted as a USB mass storage device to your computer to facilitate the easy transfer of files. You might be wondering why the Pre 2 didn’t improve on the Pre Plus’ 512MB of RAM. The simple answer is this: it didn’t have to. We rarely had memory issues – the dreaded Too Many Cards Error – on our Pre Plus phones, and we haven’t had any thus far using the Pre 2. Simply put, 512MB of RAM is more than enough for a modern smartphone. Heck, it’s enough for many tablets, but we’re glad to see HP is putting more than that in the TouchPad.
Slide the Pre 2 open and you’re greeted with buttons that look very much like the same old keyboard from the old Pre. The layout is the same, but the differences are subtle. The Pre 2’s keyboard is definitely more clicky than that of the older devices, and we haven’t suffered from any of the missed or repeating keystrokes that afflicted many Pre Plus owners. Additionally, the keys are ever so slightly flatter, which makes them feel more broad and gives us better confidence in our thumb pushing. Of course, there are only so many improvements that can be made while sticking with the same Pre form factor and frame. Key travel is still pretty shallow, so while it’s more clicky, it’s just nowhere near as awesomely clicky as the Palm Pixi, or even the classic Treo 7XX keyboards.
On the subject of the slider, it’s yet again more refined than its predecessors. Palm was making steady improvement with the Pre-series sliders from the near disaster that was some early Pre phones to the more solid performance of the Pre Plus. The Pre 2’s slider is definitely much more solid, though it still has some slight wiggle, though no more than we would expect from a similar long-track slider phone. It snaps right open and closed with no issue whatsoever.
Everything else with the Pre 2’s hardware is just about the same. The volume buttons, headphone jack, ringer switch, and power button are all in their familiar positions, and even made out of the same material. The Touchstone battery back is exactly the same, and just as frustrating to move as it’s always been. There’s one more minor improvement that’s been hailed with resounding choruses of herald trumpets from the user community: the Pre 2 has finally ditched that cursed little USB door cover for an exposed Micro-USB port like practically every other phone produced over the last three years. That’s right, no more fussing around with a silly little plastic door on a miniature leash and having to reach up under into the slider seam with a fingernail to get to the USB port. It’s out there in the open for all to see, and it’s not ashamed of it at all.
The Pre 2 is the phone that webOS deserved from the start. It’s got the guts to handle webOS with aplomb and then some. In fact, if this had been the launch phone for webOS, or even the Pre Plus (which we imagine Palm really wanted it to be), we could see an entirely different world for webOS right now. But it wasn’t, and neither HP nor Verizon seem to be particularly keen on pushing a really decent device to customers. We actually had to go our and buy this phone ourselves, as HP wasn’t going to give us a review unit. It could be that they don’t want attention focused on the Pre 2 while they’re winding up for the launch of the Veer and Pre 3, but they’re neglecting that this is a solid smartphone, and it’s available at a very reasonable price on Verizon.
We’ve already reviewed webOS 2.0 in depth, and sadly, more than five months after we first reviewed the operating system, the Pre 2 on Verizon is shipping with the same software. It’s frustrating to know that webOS 2.1 is out there with features like Exhibition and a multitude of bug fixes, and it’s not available to the Verizon Pre 2. Given how few of these phones we suspect Verizon expects to sell, we don’t know that they’re going to be willing to invest the resources in approving the update, which would be a damned shame. With all that out of the way, we’re not going to go in depth and review webOS 2.0.1 on the Pre 2 for two reasons: we’ve already done that, and with webOS 2.1 now available that just wouldn’t be fair.
There are a few Verizon-specific apps on deck: First up, we have VZ Navigator and Mobile Hotspot (technically not a Verizon exclusive, but included out-of-the-box due to the availability of tethering plans). VZ Navigator hasn’t changed at all from its previous incarnations, at least on the surface. Usage of both apps will cost you, however. VZ Navigator is a $9.99/month plan option, while Verizon and/or HP have elected not to extend the Pre Plus’ free Mobile Hotspot option to the Pre 2. That option will cost you $20 a month for 2GB of 3G (or 2G *shudder*) data.
There is one exclusive software feature that the Verizon Pre 2 brings to the webOS party: Skype integration. Thanks to Verizon’s exclusive deal with Skype, the VOiP service is deeply integrated into webOS on the Verizon Pre 2. The set-up couldn’t be simpler: all you do is enter your Skype log-in credentials and it automatically loads your Skype contacts into webOS. If our Skype contacts only had a Skype username, Synergy auto-linking failed us, requiring manual pairing to make the magic happen. With Skype Synergy you get integrated Skype calling built in to the phone (only to Skype accounts, calling a phone number automatically happens over cellular) and Skype chat in Messaging.
Call quality and connection delay (upwards of ten seconds until ringing) on Skype was actually a touch on the disappointing side. We had hoped that we would get 3G voice quality calls out of the deal, but Skype callers all reported that our voices sounded worse than a normal Skype call, or even what they would expect from a cell call. Of course, there’s the problem with most Skype users doing their calling from a computer, which tends to always have higher quality speakers hooked up to it than a phone earpiece, so it’s a matter of perspective. They’ll know you’re on a phone, but the sheer convenience of having Skype on-the-go and so well integrated into webOS simply can’t be topped.
Lastly on the software front: Verizon saw something right in the world and seems to have decided that the Pre 2’s GPS didn’t have to be crippled like the Verizon Pre Plus. Without that blocking the Pre 2 was able to achieve an accurate GPS lock in seconds flat. aGPS (cellular-assisted GPS) is still locked down to Verizon apps, but regular GPS now works without interference, It’s a small victory to have fully functional GPS on the Pre 2 without having to pay Verizon for the privilege or hack it into barely functional oblivion, but for reasons beyond our comprehension the older Verizon webOS phones are still stuck with crippled location functionality, and still brings a tear to our eye.
Using the Pre 2 in conjunction with Verizon’s network is like getting a German sports sedan and driving it at the speed limit. You’ll have a pleasant and reliable experience with enough power to get you through your work, but you won’t be going that fast. That’s not a knock on the hardware – the Pre 2 could easily handle much more data than is capable of being piped in over the cellular radio (just use Wi-Fi if you don’t believe me) – it’s a knock on Verizon. Big Red’s 3G EVDO network is super reliable and has fantastic coverage, but it’s simply lacking in speed. It’s not so obvious in using apps on the phone, but when you fire up that Mobile Hotspot and hook up the laptop, then it becomes a source of consternation. Verizon’s brand-new LTE network makes up for that and takes a bounding leap over AT&T in the process, but that’s of little consolation to webOS fans who don’t currently have a 4G smartphone looming on the horizon.
With the exception of a drive far out into the boonies (we’re talking three hours from all recognizable modern civilization, where all cell phone reception goes to die), Verizon’s signal never failed in our testing. Call quality on Verizon was just as good as we had expected, which is to say it was good. Not fantastic, not great, but good. As mentioned above, Skype call quality was also not great, but hard to compare. The Skype user on the other end usually had a better microphone and speakers than they would with a phone, so the audio received on both ends may not have been truly indicative of the quality of the connection. But... Skype integration worked exactly as advertised.
Battery life with the Pre 2 has been lifted out of the realm of dismal and into that of adequate. If you’re a heavy power user you’ll want to keep that charging cable nearby or stash Touchstones all around your home and work. But for the regular user they shouldn’t expect to encounter any difficulties in making the phone last through the day with juice to spare. You’ll still want to charge it up overnight, as you’ll be running on fumes come morning, but it’s still better than the Pre and Pre Plus, with the same battery, and more powerful internals. The battery life improvements come in parts from both more efficient chips and from more efficient code with all of the native programming goodness baked into webOS 2.0.
The Pre 2 is a difficult phone to review. In part because it’s not all that different from its ancestors, and in part because when it is different, it’s significantly so. The glass screen, faster processor, and webOS 2.0 all combine to allow the user to experience webOS the way it was meant to be. It’s fast, it’s smooth, and it multi-tasks like Mike Tyson punches (which is to say, really well). The Pre 2 is everything that was great about the Pre – the form factor, the keyboard, webOS – wrapped in a fresh skin that fixes much of what was wrong.
It’s a solid little phone. It’s not the fastest, biggest, thinnest, or newest phone on the market. But it’s no slouch either. For many the Pre 2 might be the perfect smartphone: it’s small and pocketable, while still having all the power they could possibly need and a physical keyboard to boot. But many will never know that it was an option, as HP and Verizon don’t seem to be all that interested in pushing the Pre 2 with any sort of vigor. In a way, we can understand why; the HP Veer is just around the corner, and the Pre 3 won’t be that long behind it.
But in a way, we can’t forgive it. The Pre 2 is a good phone. It deserves its moment in the spotlight, not a press released followed by what amounted to a footnote in the announcement presentation of other products months later. Instead HP and Verizon are content to let it sit in the back of their stores and warehouses where potential customers have to know that the phone exists and actually want to see it to get a demo. If the Pre 2 had come out on Verizon in October when it was first announced, then we might be singing a different tune. But with the release landing so many months later than we suspect was intended, it’s like HP and Verizon are just going through the motions because they couldn’t afford to stop the wheels of distribution. “We’ve got the phone, we might as well release it,” seems to be the overwhelming attitude.
Which is sad, the Verizon Pre 2 is a good phone. It’s fast. It’s solid. It does just about everything we want it to do and never once balked at our asking it to do too much. It’s everything the Pre should have been, and it’s made us more excited for what’s yet to come.