UPDATED Review: Verizon Palm Pre Plus can't win back this Palm fan yet

When I saw that the Palm Pre Plus was coming to Verizon with wireless hotspot capability I was all set to trade in my MiFi for the device. Unfortunately, the hardware doesn't match the power and capability of the software and continues to disappoint me.

This review is one of the hardest I had to write because I have a long history with Palm devices (started using them in 1997) and I had high hopes for their new webOS operating system and Palm Pre devices after they blew us all away at CES 2009. I actually stood in line and bought my own Sprint Palm Pre last summer and posted some thoughts on it at that time. There have been several software updates since last year and at CES 2010 Palm announced the Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus launching on Verizon Wireless with the ability for the Pre Plus to act as a MiFi and share out wireless Internet. Palm sent me a device to try out for a couple of weeks and I am glad they did because they saved me a ton of money since I was considering a switch from my Verizon MiFi to the Pre Plus. Using the Pre Plus actually helped push me to shut down my MiFi service and pick up my own Sprint Overdrive for wireless data and keep using my Nexus One for a smartphone. Check out my image gallery and thoughts below on why I think Palm still has a long road ahead of them even with a slick UI in WebOS. UPDATE: It turns out my review unit may be defective so a new eval unit is on the way and I will post an updated article after some further testing. See my last paragraph for more.

UPDATE 2: It turns out the particular hardware I had was faulty and Verizon replaced it with another more robust device that did not experience the wobbly display or random shutdowns. I also tested out a Pixi Plus from Verizon. The new webOS 1.4 added needed features and functions to make the device so much better that I am seriously considering buying my own and if you are with Verizon or Sprint I think the Palm devices are ones you should definitely consider. Check out my new thoughts on the Verizon Palm offerings and webOS 1.4.


Image Gallery:Check out product photos of the Palm Pre Plus.
Image Gallery: Palm Pre Plus in hand
Image Gallery: Retail boxes

Hardware

The Palm Pre Plus offers a couple of improvements over the Palm Pre from last year, including double the integrated flash storage (up to 16GB) and removal of the physical center button on the front that is replaced with a touch sensitive area and a small indicator light. The device feels pretty good in your hand, much like a large skipping stone, and is quite pocketable. It still has rather sharp edges around the keyboard and the keyboard is very cramped, even for someone like me that doesn't really have huge fingers. I also did not like having to bounce back and forth between the keyboard and display so much and think Palm should add some directional arrows on the keyboard so you can hang down there and enter text while navigating around a bit. This disconnected navigation and text entry experience was what I found irritating on some Windows Mobile devices in the past.

The power/screen toggle button on the upper right is a bit tough to press when you have the display up and the keyboard exposed, which is the way I found myself using it 90% of the time. I think something like the Pixi form factor may be more appealing since you need a physical keyboard to enter any text on the webOS platform so it is much more convenient to have one always available.

I also found my Sprint Palm Pre to be a bit cheap with a display that started to feel loose and wobbly after just a week. Unfortunately, I am seeing this same rather cheap feel in the Palm Pre Plus. I primarily bought Sony CLIE devices in the past due to their better construction than Palm branded devices and am not finding high quality in the Pre Plus either. I did spend some time with the Pixi Plus and think that is a more solid piece of hardware. To see what others thought of the Pre Plus I had several family members and friends try out the Palm Pre Plus and just about everyone of them said it felt cheap, lagged too much, and was too hard to hold in their hand with the display slid up.

The display looks cool being integrated into the front panel, but it is quite small at 3.1 inches and I honestly found browsing to be a bit frustrating after using a 3.7 inch display Nexus One and 3.5 inch Nokia N900. Fonts did not appear as crisp and clear as I wanted them to be and maybe I am spoiled by these other fantastic displays.

It is nice to have a physical ringer switch on the device and I appreciated this Palm touch. I did not find battery life to be that great and found myself charging it more often than other devices, even when I wasn't actually using the device much.

webOS and 3rd party apps

Palm webOS has a nice user interface, but you do have to learn the gestures and how to interact with it too. After you get used to it though it is a lot of fun to flick and throw cards off the screen and slide emails into the trash. webOS does a good job of multi-tasking with the card interface, much like Maemo 5 on the Nokia N900 and IMHO this is the strongest aspect of the operating system. The Synergy service integration is nice and I appreciated the inbox options and calendar views too. Notifications are also done right in webOS and I wish more companies would implement notifications like this.

I found that many of the applications I want on my devices were present on the Palm Pre Plus and I didn't really find much of anything major missing even though there are not that many apps in the Palm App Catalog. There is still no Office editing software so I don't see much appeal to enterprise customers with the current webOS platform. I enjoyed using Slacker, Evernote, gDial Pro, New York Times, Foursquare, and Tweed. I also purchased the Brothers in Arms game to try out and think Palm may have one of the best smartphone gaming platforms available. However, the display size again comes back to make gaming less than optimal as two thumbs touching areas of the display get in the way of the gaming experience. Gaming is not personally a major need for me though so I won't make a purchase decision on the gaming capability.

I did find times when I was looking around for menus and settings to customize my application and did not find much of that in the Pre Plus. I understand this is something I am used to from other mobile operating systems and may be considered a strength in the mind of many users.

The OS seemed fast at switching apps, but launching them was sluggish and after tapping an icon it would often take several seconds for the application to open up and be used. webOS can't be compared to the speed and response of the iPhone or even what I am seeing on the Google Nexus One.

For some reason, the Pre Plus would often just turn off by itself while I had it sitting aside. I grabbed it (happened about once a day) and found it was turned off and then I had to turn it on and wait a few minutes for it to get started up and running again. It was not a low battery issue and I have no idea why it kept locking up like this.

I thought the MiFi feature would be a major selling point for me, but was disappointed in the experience. It was easy enough to enable and launch and easy to connect with my computer and other devices, but I did not consistently see speeds I was hoping for and would never pay $40 extra on top of the minimum $120 per month (basic phone and data service) for this feature. A couple of other sites (MobileCrunch and jkOnTheRun) tested out the mobile hotspot feature and reported rather slow speeds too. I did see speeds of up to 1.45 Mbps at times, but most of the time I was seeing speeds in the 500 to 700 kbps range. I saw the Pre regularly turn itself off while using it as a MiFi and was frustrated by the experience. Your battery also gets eaten like nobody's business when in wireless hotspot mode so it isn't really a very practical solution if you still need to use your phone as a phone. A dedicated device just for wireless data access seems to be a more reliable solution. I would rather see a more metered pricing scheme for phone use too since people are more inclined to use their phone as a modem on just an occasional basis while dedicated devices like the MiFi and Overdrive should see heavier usage.

I understand the 1.4 firmware is set to become available soon and that is supposed to finally add video capture capability (which should have been on the device at launch) and some other stability and performance improvements.

Pricing and monthly service fees

The Palm Pre Plus can be purchased for $149.99 on Verizon Wireless after a $100 mail-in rebate and two-year service agreement. Basic voice with 450 minutes is $39.99/month, 250 text messages is $5/month, and data is $29.99/month. So that is $75/month, plus taxes, for limited voice and text messaging and then another $40/month to use the wireless router feature.

So why won't I buy a Palm Pre Plus?

There are a few reasons why I will be skipping the Palm Pre Plus again and that is the quality of the hardware, stability and speed of the operating system, and high price of Verizon Wireless services. With Google Android, iPhone, and upcoming Windows Phone 7 devices offering good user experiences and higher quality devices I don't have much faith in Palm ever rising too far in smartphone market share. It is also tough to have a ton of apps when developers see other operating systems that have more potential and market share. I think webOS is a decent operating system, but the hardware needs to get much better for me to recommend a webOS device to people at this time.

I was thinking that maybe the Palm webOS devices would be good replacements for the Palm Centro type user (high end feature phone and new smartphone user), but after having people try it out and see that they were not very happy with it I am not sure where Palm fits in at this time and wonder if it is just appealing to Palm fans who are loyal to the end.

If you want to check out detailed coverage of the webOS and Palm devices, including more opinions on the Pre Plus, then I highly recommend you visit PreCentral.net.

UPDATE: Review unit may have been defective, new unit to be tested

As you read in my review above, most of the issues I had with the Palm Pre Plus were due to the hardware. I think the webOS operating system is revolutionary for Palm and an attractive choice in today's smartphone world. After my review was posted a local Northwest Verizon WIreless representative reached out to me and asked if I would like to try out another Pre Plus and a Pixi Plus to see if the review unit I had was defective. He stated that some units have had issues shutting down when the keyboard was slid open, but this was a specific device issue and is not something that should be happening. I want to give all of you readers an honest and informed review and what you read above was what I experienced with the current evaluation Palm Pre Plus I had in my hand. I ALWAYS recommend people read various reviews on devices before they make purchase decisions because we all have different preferences and likes/dislikes and as you can see above sometimes we get devices that have specific issues that are not widespread across the entire stock of devices. I will post a 2nd take article and review of the Pixi Plus after I get a chance to use these other devices for a while.

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