Back in the Saddle: A Tale of Two Pre

After something of an economically-induced hiatus, I’m back. What happened, you ask? Well, it’s really pretty simple: my family and I had been renting a house here in SoCal for the three years since we moved from Chicago. Our landlords, fine folks that they were, apparently kept our rent and failed to turn it over to their lender. Thus, the house was foreclosed, and we received the ever-welcome “Notice to Vacate” from the bank that bought the house at auction. Needless to say, my time this summer was thus spent house hunting and then purchasing, a fun process made hellish given very little time and a housing market in a state of insanity.

It’s not all bad news. While houses in our area were very far out of reach three years ago, prices had fallen to a level that wasn’t completely laugh-inducing. And, we caught the market right before inventory levels had bottomed out. Thus, while it wasn’t a buyer’s market, it wasn’t a sadistic seller’s market either. We found a house we could afford (well, kind of, without checking ourselves into a mental institution), and fought through the endless layers of red-tape and paperwork to actually make a purchase. Note that while lenders might have given away free money in the heyday of government-induced mortgage insanity, things aren’t quite so free today.

To make a long story short, I’ve just not gotten to a point where the house is semi-livable, and I have some time to devote to ramblings about my favorite gadget, the Palm Pre. Yes, I said that right–my Palm Pre, in spite the shortcomings that have revealed themselves over the last few months, remains my favorite device. To be fair, I haven’t added anything new to my stable of electronic toys… er, tools… but the Palm Pre is still the device that I use the most and with the best results. I don’t play my Zune as often, I find myself Googling on my Pre when my notebooks site idly by, and the growing variety of apps in the App Catalog has kept my increasingly busy of late. The Pre isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty darn good.

And while I haven’t written about the Pre in some time because of the housing fiasco, I must say: said fiasco was made far easier to handle given the Pre’s wonderful ability to handle multiple tasks and to make many different sources of information easily accessible. Being able to keep my realtor’s Web site open while viewing properties, to keep one email open for easy reference while writing another, to run Sprint Navigation while reviewing counteroffer PDFs… all that that and more made the hectic process of seeing over 50 properties (or more, I lost count pretty quickly) in only a few full days of available time a survivable affair. No other mobile device could have worked so efficiently, I’m simply convinced of it. And for that, my Pre will be enjoyed and, some day, remember fondly.

Now, for some of the shortcomings that I mentioned earlier. More details will likely follow in subsequent posts, but here’s a quick take.

Battery life, to be certain, is a constant source of disappointment. I’m lucky to get past 3:00pm after taking my Pre off its Touchstone at 7:00am. Some folks have experienced better results than this, most by turning off what I consider to be important functionality (e.g., the GPS receiver) and some while reportedly keeping the Pre running full throttle. Really, I believe that there are some Pre that simply perform better in this regard than others, but it’s a near impossibility to verify such a thing without running a scientific study. Time and inclination work against that, however, and so I’ll just say that if the Pre has one very significant weakness, battery life is it.

Overall performance also leaves something to be desired. The Pre can be quite laggy at times, particularly when email arrives. The worst culprit is the phone app, which–even following the update to 1.2, which brought significant improvements in performance–can be incredibly frustrating indeed. Speed dials using the on-screen keypad work randomly at best, answering calls can be an exercise in futility, and hanging up calls sometimes requires two or more presses of the big red button. Indeed, if Palm could only fix any one software problem with the Pre, I’d vote for spending some time optimizing its responsiveness as a phone.

Other than those two (glaring) issues, the Pre has steadily improved in both functionality and utility. The App Catalog is approaching 200 apps, the homebrew (e.g., unofficial) application development community is marvelous, and it’s obvious that there’s a great deal to look forward to. A few key APIs need releasing, in particular voice recording and video, but I’m confident that those will come in time. Tasks could be improved, along with calendar functionality, but both are usable (and if task syncing were supported, that would be a welcome addition indeed) in a pinch.

In short, while Palm hasn’t yet hit a home run with the Pre, they’ve certainly improved their swing. And as was demonstrated to me in real-life use during a very hectic and difficult stretch, the Pre is an eminently useful device that excels at switching quickly from one task to another. Since this is such an integral aspect of what Palm’s trying to do with WebOS and the devices based on it, I’d say they’re succeeding handily. At the same time, the Pre’s fundamental performance and battery life issues make it frustrating to use at times.

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