Palm Pre Smartphone makes multi-tasking a breeze

As expected, Palm on Thursday unveiled its new mobile OS, the Palm webOS, along with a new smartphone that runs the software, the Pre. I showed up to Palm’s invitation-only CES event for the unveiling with very high expectations, and I must say, I wasn’t disappointed.

But it’s not Palm’s latest device that has me truly excited; it’s the OS. Here’s why.

<img border="0" width="300" height="290" src="http://video.itworldcanada.com/ITBUimages/Jan12/clip_image001_0059.jpg" alt="Palm Pre and Treo 650
Palm Pre and Treo 650

First off, it’s worth noting that calling my impressions “hands-on” isn’t quite accurate. Very few press folks were able to get their hands on the device yesterday after the Pre announcement. And even though the company is currently demonstrating the Pre and its Palm webOS at its VIP lounge at CES, I only got to hold the device on my own for about five seconds before it was snatched from my anxious mitts by a Palm rep.

For some reason, Palm isn’t letting anyone actually handle the device. I was able to touch it and experiment with the UI and gesture-based navigation for a while, but wasn’t allowed to hold onto it without the rep also holding it—which, as you can imagine, made for a rather amusing scene. However, I didn’t ask before I initially grabbed it, and I was therefore able to get a sense of the Pre’s weight and durability.

On to my first impressions: While the Pre is an attractive looking smartphone—I can’t help but see similarities to HTC’s first Touch device—it’s a bit too small and too lightweight for my own personal tastes. It also felt flimsy, though I really didn’t have enough time with the handset to be sure. The real deal-breaker for me is the keyboard; though it’s a full QWERTY, the keyboard and its associated buttons are very tiny—they’re slightly bigger than the keys found on Palm’s Centro device, but smaller than any Treo’s keys.

The buttons feel “squishy,” just like the Centro’s keyboard, which I actually like, but their miniature size will undoubtedly be a turnoff for folks with large digits. And there doesn’t appear to be any sort of on-screen virtual keyboard.

The Palm Pre

My favorite thing about the Pre, aside from the Palm webOS, is that it doesn’t feel too top heavy when the keyboard is open, as is the case with many portrait (vertical) slider handsets.

As for the Palm webOS, I honestly couldn’t be more thrilled. Palm is really onto something, and the best thing about the software is the fact that it’s unique; it’s not just another iPhone clone or BlackBerry-esque piece of code.

All of the Palm staffers who spoke at yesterday’s unveiling, including CEO Ed Colligan, repeatedly used the word “synergy,” as did the reps that demoed the device for me today. And that’s for good reason: Palm’s main focus with webOS is to make all of the applications on your smartphone work together, and with the Web, to provide a heightened overall user experience.

For example, when you log into the Pre Facebook app, images of your social networking friends are associated with your address book contacts so you don’t have to save them manually. And it’s simple to respond to an e-mail with alternative communication methods like voice, IM and SMS, without ever having to navigate through the various messaging apps, because they all just work together.

I also really appreciate Palm’s new take on application multitasking. Gone are the days of closing windows or even exiting applications on new Palm
devices.

Now whenever you want to launch an app, you simply drag your finger upward from the “gesture area” beneath the display and an app switcher appears on screen. From there you just tap the app you desire and it launches.

Palm Pre with Keyboard Open

When the Pre is closed, there’s only one physical button on its face—not unlike the iPhone. But unlike the iPhone’s home button, the Pre key currently has just one function: to display, and eventually hide, open applications in the form of “cards.” Colligan explained that in designing Palm webOS, the company tried to envisioned active apps as cards in a deck which users can “shuffle” between.

So whenever you hit the Pre’s “card” button, all of your active apps appear on screen. And these cards aren’t merely icons or jpeg images; they’re actual views of what you were doing when you exited that program. To return to one of them, just tap the card. And to close active programs, you simply slide your finger upwards on the display until it goes off screen.

Palm loyalists will also appreciate the fact that even though the company did away with the fixed calendar, mail and other shortcut keys that can be found on each and every Treo device, you can still quickly access them by dragging your finger from the gesture area beneath the Pre’s display to the middle of the screen and keeping it there. A “ribbon” then appears on screen, and you can slide your finger over to whatever app you want. You can also customize that ribbon to include your most frequently used apps.

And Palm says each and every application that currently runs on webOS was built using only CSS, HTML and JavaScript, which ought to make developing for the platform attractive, as complex tools and languages won’t be required.

Of course, there are still lots of unanswered questions regarding Palm webOS—will the software be backwards compatible?; will it work as well as it appears to; what the #$%^ took so long?; etc.–but the handset was just unveiled yesterday so some unknowns can certainly be expected.

And though it remains to be seen whether or not Palm webOS and the Pre are too little, too late for the struggling handset maker, what is clear is that Palm’s not ready to throw in the towel just yet–and the company’s making a valiant attempt at a comeback. I genuinely hope this marks the first step on the road to recovery for Palm, as such a resurrection could only be a good thing for the smartphone space.

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