Palm Pre
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It may be true that good things come to those who wait, but the painfully protracted delay between the North American launch of the Palm Pre - which took place in June - and its UK release has pushed many mobile enthusiasts to breaking point.

However, the potentially groundbreaking device - which is tipped by industry experts as Palm’s final chance to leverage some much needed cash out of the smartphone market it once dominated (but has since lost to Apple) - is finally on UK shores courtesy of network provider O2.

Since its announcement at the start of the year the phone has been the subject of much hype and attention, and the interest has hardly abated since the release of the phone in the States. But how does it stack up in today’s market?

Hardware

Not so long ago, smartphones were judged more on their ability than their appearance, but since the launch of the iPhone that has changed considerably. These feature-packed handsets must dazzle antithetically as well as amaze in terms of what they can do, and thankfully the Pre does both.

In its closed position the Pre resembles a highly-polished stone: the glossy surface practically begs to be picked up, touched, fondled, and caressed. It’s also a magnet for finger marks, but then the same is true for many other phones in this class.

The unit boasts a 3.1 inch capacitive touchscreen display which fills much of the Pre’s front; the back houses the 3.2 megapixel camera (with LED flash). Sliding the phone into its open position exposes the all-important QWERTY keyboard - a feature that is almost a requirement on Palm handsets.

First impressions are extremely positive: it’s a gorgeous phone and in many respects outranks the iPhone when it comes to pure desirability.

However, there are niggles - the slider mechanism doesn’t feel quite as robust as we’d like and the keys on the QWERTY pad are small and tightly packed (an unavoidable consequence of the portrait layout) but on the whole this is a phone you’d be honoured to have occupy your pocket.

An OS to end them all

The Pre is a talking point in itself but what is arguably more exciting than the design of the phone is the proprietary software it contains.

webOS (the small 'w' is intentional, in case you were wondering) is nothing short of revolutionary and its this element of the device that marks it out as such a must-have item.

The operating system is Linux-based and Palm intends to use it in all future phones. It’s heavily skewed towards the notion of cloud computing, much in the same way that Motorola’s Android-based MotoBlur is: it pulls contact information from social networking sites such as Facebook and presents your online life in a manner which is both concise and intuitive.

Palm has dubbed it 'Social Networking Synergy' but all the tiresome buzz words in the world can’t dampen its impact - few phones have the power to connect their users in the way that the Pre does.

In fact, it’s probably a little too well connected. Because Synergy is all about tying up each of your myriad social networking accounts in one place, it means you can unwittingly expose yourself to a massively inflated contacts list.

If you add multiple social networking accounts then all of the contacts you have on those accounts will be pushed to your phone as acquaintances - even if you hardly know them.

It’s a messy way of handling things but we’d be willing to bet that Palm will tinker with the way this particular element functions in future updates. For now, we’d recommend that you keep it simple and link as few profiles as possible.


Playing with a full deck

Because webOS uses 'Cards' to show which apps are currently operating, the Pre is a hub of multi-tasking activity which puts the iPhone’s one-app-at-a-time system to shame. You can shuffle these cards as if they were in a physical deck, keeping the apps you use the most at the top and discarding those you want to close.

Another excellent aspect of webOS is the way notifications - such as SMS alerts or other app-related messages - are displayed. Information is shown at the bottom of the display and can be tapped to access or swiped to clear. It’s like a more elegant version of the Notification Bar seen on Android phones.

Other features - including the effortless Quick Launcher, powerful Universal Search and the ability to dock certain apps into the screen so they’re always accessible - help to round off what is an astonishingly full-bodied operating system.

Naturally, all of this multi-tasking malarkey comes at a price - just as is the case with many Android phones, the Pre’s battery doesn’t last long when you’re constantly switching between multiple apps and the 'always on' connectivity means your power source is forever being rampantly consumed.

‘Appy applications

Of course, no new smartphone challenger is complete without its own fully-functional app store and the Pre is no exception. Palm’s take on the App Store/Android Market concept is the snappily titled “App Catalogue”.

Sadly - just as Android fans are finding out - when you have a company like Apple which so ruthlessly dominates the arena, every other manufacturer seemingly has to make do with the scraps that fall from the table.

There are some impressive third-party programs on the cards - including versions of both Doom and its follow up Quake - but the App Catalogue simply cannot hope to confront the App Store when it comes to depth of variety.

The Verdict

While us Brits have had to endure a long and painful wait for the Pre, it’s arguably been worth it. Granted, it loses out to Apple’s iPhone in some areas - the lack of expandable memory is irksome, the QWERTY keyboard never really gets any easier to use unless you have your hands surgically replaced with those of a small child and Palm needs to get developers to support the platform with application - but in others it’s markedly superior and certainly bodes well for Palm’s future output.

Let’s just hope that we don’t have to wait half a year longer than our US cousins to get our grubby mitts on successive devices.

Palm Pre

Palm’s great white hope combines beautiful design with powerful features and a mesmerising interface to deliver one of the most pleasing mobile phone packages in recent memory; if you’re unwilling to dance to Apple’s tune and find Google’s Android too daunting then this is unquestionably the best smartphone option
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