Six Months with the Pre: Real Review | webOS Nation

Six Months with the Pre: Real Review 49

by Jonathan I Ezor#IM Mon, 28 Dec 2009 6:53 pm EST

This week marks six months since I received my Palm Pre as one of Palm's 10 Real Reviewers. Since then, I've been writing about the Pre on Twitter (where I tweet as PalmPreLawyer), on Facebook, in person and (thanks to an invitation from Dieter Bohn) here on PreCentral. While I've published some shorter Real Reviews over the past months, I thought it might be useful to provide a more complete story of my experiences with the Pre and webOS.

First Impressions

I've been a Palm customer and strong supporter since 1996, when I got my first Pilot 1000. I'd outgrown and replaced a number of Palm devices since then, but they had always been PDAs, not smartphones, although the final three (the solid Tungsten C, the horrid LifeDrive, and the incredible T|X) were all Internet-enabled. Before the Pre was announced, though, I was becoming a bit concerned about where to go next, since my T|X was aging, Palm had essentially discontinued selling them (or designing replacements), and neither the iPhone nor the iPod Touch fit my needs anywhere near as well as did my T|X, even without smartphone capabilities. The launch of the Pre at least gave me hope that I could remain within the Palm family, and its physical keyboard and Bluetooth (more on that later) were very much to my liking. Unfortunately, I didn't have the budget (or the willing employer) to get a Pre and data plan on my own, but Palm came to my rescue when it named me a Real Reviewer.

By the time I got my Pre from Palm in mid-June, the earliest adopters had already begun using, raving and complaining about their Pres, so I had a bit of warning about some of the issues that people were facing. Happily, I was not given a Pre with a too-small battery or dead pixels (no surprise, I suppose, given the source), and was quickly able to set up my work Exchange account, my personal IMAP account, and my Gmail account. My Pre had issues with another outside IMAP account because of a non-standard SSL certificate; once I figured out how to download the certificate to my PC, move it manually to the USB volume of the Pre, and import it through the Certificate Manager option in Device Info (far from intuitive, to be sure), that account came in as well. My home WiFi router settings (with WEP encryption) worked well also. Having read the first reviews, I knew not to enable AIM (not that I used it anyway) and to keep the GPS off when unused to save battery life, and I was up and running. I was also able to work with Palm to quickly port my own Verizon cellphone number to the Pre, rather than having to give everyone a new one that might change again in six months.

Almost immediately, my Pre showed its power, when my oldest son (who has Asperger's Syndrome) began freaking out on the way to his middle school graduation because he'd forgotten a line in the pop song his class was to perform. As we pulled into a parking space, I took out my brand-new Pre, typed in the song name and "lyrics," tapped "Google" to search and had his answer in about 3 seconds. Crisis averted. The Pre continued to come in handy that day, taking really nice pictures of my son and his friends at graduation, which I was able to immediately e-mail to his grandparents.

My first impressions of the Pre, particularly when comparing it to the T|X, weren't entirely favorable. While the Pre's browser, e-mail client and Internet speed blew away the older T|X, the lack of an expansion card slot meant that the Pre had less than half the storage capability of my T|X (which I'd patched with Dmitry Grinberg's PowerSDHC driver to support a 16 GB SDHC card), so some of my music and many of my videos had to be left behind. To this day, I question why Palm missed the opportunity to beat Apple by incorporating removable storage into the Pre and Pixi, especially given how tiny microSDHC cards are.

More seriously, after using a combination of PalmOS Memos and Outlook Notes to take and carry a few thousand notes over 13 years, I was suddenly unable to do so, since neither Exchange ActiveSync nor Google Sync (Palm's chosen technologies) support notes, and the bundled Notes app in webOS was all but useless (no categories, sync, search, etc.). There wasn't even a way of getting editable text files onto and off the Pre, which was astonishing; Evernote was a possibility, but never worked well for me. I created a partial (non-syncing) workaround by purchasing MotionApps' Classic (a great program for what it offers, although Palm's webOS updates have periodically crippled it) and manually copying the memo file from my T|X to Classic, but it was still clumsy and worked only when Classic didn't crash. I also missed (and still miss) my frequently-used Bluetooth keyboard from my T|X, which was inexplicably not supported on the Pre (another chance to beat Apple, which still does not support BT keyboards, although someone announced a jailbroken iPhone solution this week). I've written before here about my need for an external keyboard, so I won't belabor the point yet again, but it remains a sore spot. 

Road Trip

After using my Pre fairly extensively at home in July, I had the first opportunity to truly test its functionality and usability during an extended family road trip to New Hampshire during the first week of August. I of course made sure to pack both wall and car charging solutions (the microUSB cables from Monoprice were a particular help in this), and purchased a belt case with a top flap from Radio Shack (and a second one from Walmart when the first broke quickly) to protect the Pre while we were "out and about." I had also checked Sprint's coverage in the area; while the voice coverage was solid, the data coverage was roaming with "limited access to some services." I considered trying the unauthorized tethering solution to use my Pre as a modem for my laptop, but in the end obtained a Verizon wireless USB modem for the trip. This turned out to be a wise decision.

From a features perspective, the Pre was a star. Sprint Navigation helped us find our rental house when my Magellan GPS got confused by a planned-but-never-completed road on its map, Google search found us museums, supermarkets and other necessities along the way, and the camera helped with some great shots (including this one of my fellow Real Reviewer Craig Froehle, whom I'd never met in real life; I discovered on Twitter that Craig coincidentally was staying in the next town over doing a rally driving course, and we arranged to meet one evening). One subtle advantage of my Pre over my wife's otherwise more capable digital camera was the Pre's accelerometer; it can automatically detect the orientation of the camera and rotate landscape or portrait photos accordingly, while my wife's camera occasionally saves sideways or upside-down shots that must be manually fixed on a computer.

In contrast to the features, though, was the problematic battery life. While the Pre's signal reception was reasonably strong everywhere but deep within the White Mountains, it was almost always roaming for both voice and data. Craig and I both discovered that continuous data roaming (especially for the available Verizon 1X network rather than faster EVDO) severely reduced the Pre's already challenged battery life. A few hours away from my car with data turned on could completely drain the battery, requiring me to choose between connectivity and any usability. I found myself focusing much more on battery life than I ever had at home, and worrying whether I'd be caught short at a critical moment. (Immediately after the trip, I purchased a Seidio 2600 mAh battery from the PreCentral Store, which has all but removed any battery life concerns I had.) Battery life notwithstanding, though, the Pre was of tremendous assistance during our trip, in a way that my T|X would not have been (given how sparse WiFi hotspots were along the way).

PIMs and Palms

Beyond the lack of desktop Memos (and Tasks) sync, perhaps the biggest disappointment for me (and many of my fellow PalmOS veterans) was the seeming lack of attention to basic usability in the Calendar app and other PIM functions, given that one of the strongest features of PalmOS right from the start in 1996 was fast, efficient and easy access to the Datebook and Contacts. While it has improved sharply since webOS 1.0, the Pre's Calendar is still painfully slow to load and accept data at times, making it difficult to quickly check or schedule appointments. I do appreciate the ease of background synchronization with my Exchange calendar at work, but the app is still far less efficient than the Datebook app on my Palm T|X. (I considered shooting a side-by-side video of the two for this review, but didn't want to humiliate my Pre in public that way.)

It was the design of and problems with the Calendar app more than anything else that convinced me that, irrespective of whether the developers and testers of webOS had been part of the team that developed PalmOS (and they probably weren't, given the years and turnover), they weren't users of PalmOS devices. Had they been, they would have seen the issues with the Calendar app long before the Pre was released, and would likely have spent a greater amount of development resources on making it work well. Instead, it appears that they devoted their obvious talents to the (very cool) Synergy integration aspects, and all but ignored the day-to-day use of the app.

Similarly, the less-than-Universal nature of Universal Search seems derived from the previous generation of the iPhone, rather than the simple, fast and powerful search feature of PalmOS, and Palm's offering only the (limited) cloud backup versus even the possibility of a desktop backup solution like that built into Hotsync and improved upon by products like BackupBuddy has led to some tragic information losses (and even a lawsuit). Hopefully, as webOS matures, the Palm team will keep in mind that famous misquotation, "It's the PIM apps, stupid!"

Homebrew and Patching: The UpUps and DownDowns

As a decade-plus long PalmOS user, I have a great deal of faith in the talents of the independent developer (aka homebrew) community to help maximize the abilities of my device, and was pleased that Palm chose not to follow the "our way or the jailbroken way" path that Apple took with the iPhone. The open source/Linux-based nature of the Pre made independent development possible; the discovery of the Konami code as a way of enabling Developer Mode made installation and patching accessible to us mere mortal non-coders; the creation of cooperative standards for clean installation/uninstallation of apps and patches by Jason Robitaille, the webOS Internals folks and others made customization safe and friendly. My only hesitation in trying it for myself was that my Pre wasn't really mine; I needed to get at least informal confirmation from Palm that I wasn't violating my Real Reviewer agreement by trying homebrew and patches. Once that confirmation was in hand (along with a warning that anything I did was at my own risk for replacement cost), I jumped in with both hands and a mouse, and haven't looked back since. I also haven't hesitated to recommend homebrew apps to other users.

That's not to say that my homebrew experience was entirely without incident. Like many others, I tried some patches that didn't work out (two trials of the 500 Mhz Powersave SmartReflex patch both failed, requiring repeated webOS Doctor reinstallations), and others that have been incredibly useful (the 4x5 icon screen, percentage charge icon and hidden launcher bar on my launcher screen as just a few examples). I've also been grateful for the Emergency Patch Recovery Linux app to ensure smooth updates of webOS.

The biggest homebrew/patch problem I had, though, turned out to be caused by something else entirely. At one point in late July soon after the release of webOS 1.1.0, I installed and uninstalled the tethering app to see what it looked/worked like. After uninstallation, something got screwed up in my OS and my Web browser no longer worked (although other Internet connections on the device seemed to). "No problem," I thought, "I'll just download and run webOS Doctor to reset my Pre back to factory." Wrong; it was a big problem, since as soon as I tried to do so, my Pre first wouldn't successfully run webOS Doctor, and then even when I got it to work (with the volume-up-with-battery-out trick to force my Pre into "recovery mode"), I was unable to fully activate my Pre. I could get the phone to work, but the data indicator (1X/EV) never appeared, nor could it connect to the Sprint network to either restore my profile or create a new one. The result? An essentially-dead Pre, because (I thought) of my patch attempts.

With some trepidation, I reached out to my contacts at Palm and explained the situation. They were stern but sympathetic, and worked with me on various efforts to restart the data connection, without success. We were close to a hardware swap (which I would have had to pay for) when a bit of internal research on Palm's part discovered an interesting (and unpublicized) fact: the downloadable version of webOS Doctor was not the 1.10 already loaded on my Pre, but the earlier 1.0.4. It wasn't my patching, but the unintentional downgrade, that caused my data issues. *Whew!* It wasn't my fault after all. Ultimately, I was able (with the use of the MSL code provided to me from Palm) manually activate my Pre with webOS 1.0.4, and after a few tense moments, the EV icon popped back up, and I was back in full operation. Since then, I've been very careful to wait until others confirmed that webOS Doctor was updated to the most recent version before using it whether for full reinstall or to drive webOS Repair Utility.

Hardware Wars (and Pieces)

While I did get my Pre directly from Palm, it appeared to be in a standard retail package, so I think my hardware experience has been relatively typical. Overall, I've been pleased with the hardware quality. Yes, I see a bit of the "Oreo" flexing between the screen and the lower portion, and my USB cover is long gone (as is the replacement one Palm quietly sent me after the first one fell off), but I have seen few if any defects. Even better, my Pre has been sturdy enough to survive a fall down some cement steps and suffer only a few nicks. As careful as I am with it (especially after the cement steps!), though, it has sustained a few subsequent falls, one of which resulted in a temporary locking of the keyboard slider, and a more permanent faded yellowish spot at the bottom left of the screen, just above the gesture area (somewhat similar to those discussed in this thread). (You can see it most clearly against dark backgrounds, like this shot using Preware.) It doesn't seem as though the yellow spot has affected usability or sensitivity of the touchscreen, though, and I quickly learned to ignore it. Beyond that and the common scratches a frequently used device gets, my Pre has withstood my (ab)use over the past six months quite well. One final advantage over my previous devices: since there isn't a specific input area and since a standard pointy stylus won't work on the Pre, I don't have the standard scratches over the bottom left of the screen (the Graffiti text area) that all my Palm PDAs developed over time.

As for the ergonomics of the Pre hardware, count me basically satisfied. Even with my large fingers, I had no trouble adjusting to or using the Pre's thumbboard, although it is too small for true touchtyping, and the screen is sharp enough for my past-40 eyes, and much more so than that of my beloved T|X. If anything, I found the Pre with the standard battery a bit too thin for comfortable holding; the extended back of the Seidio battery and the tiny bit of additional weight actually improved that for me. Earpiece, speakerphone and headphone jack volumes are fine, and while I do still occasionally hang up a call by accidentally touching my cheek to the Pre before the proximity sensor can blank the screen, I've mostly learned to avoid that. I've had no real issues with pairing or using either of my Motorola Bluetooth devices (the H700 headset and T305 speakerphone), nor with the Bluetooth speakerphone feature of my Magellan GPS, absent an occasional issue with automatic detection (a quick manual selection of the right device solves that).

I do not generally use the voice direction of the Sprint Navigation system, both because I have bigger (and louder) GPS units in my cars, and because I've found the directions to be occasionally wonky in some of my travels, but I'm thrilled to have it as a backup, along with Google Maps and some of the other GPS and mapping options available via homebrew. I also successfully implemented the GPS hardware "upgrade" discussed in this thread (and reimplemented it after installing 1.3.1), and have been pleased with the speed and accuracy increase it generated.

Conclusion: Real Reviewer, Real Satisfaction

When I received my Pre, I had two key questions in mind: could it replace my constant companion T|X in day-to-day use, and what would I do if/when Palm asked for it back. Six months in, the answer to the first question is a clear "yes." Other than a few times when I have needed a portable solution to type something (see my frequent Bluetooth keyboard rants above and elsewhere), and especially with my Outlook notes now happily loading, syncing and searchable via Chapura's PocketMirror), my T|X has remained in happy retirement, while my Pre is now my everpresent assistant.

As for the second question, while I put up at least token resistance at first ("Well, maybe I'll keep the Pre after six months..."), it's no longer a question: I've been assimilated to the smartphone collective in general, and the Pre in particular. My work habits now assume not only constant Internet access, but multitasking and full Web browsing as well. I'm more comfortable giving my cellphone number out as a contact method, because I know that whenever I have my Pre, I'll have my phone (as opposed to my old Motorola e815, which was frequently but not always with me and turned on even, although I always had my T|X). I've become spoiled by the ability to search anywhere and anytime, and feel even closer to the kind of networked power I envied in the MILLIE-connected users from Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

8-4-09 Picture of Jonathan I. Ezor taken by fellow Real Reviewer Craig Froehle

So I'll see you all here on PreCentral, on Twitter, and even in the real world. You'll know me if you see me; I'll be the tallish, dark-haired, geeky looking guy using a Palm Pre.