My Palm Pre Keeps Failing Me

By Ivan Gevirtz

created: Monday, June 15, 2009
updated: Thursday, June 25, 2009

I guess I have to admit, I'm a Palm fanboy.  My initial foray in PDA world was when I got a Motorola branded Rex device which piggybacked on my StarTac.  The extent of integration was that I could look up a number on the PDA, and have the phone dial the contact.

Shortly thereafter, I joined forces with a fellow MIT alum, who was developing wireless applications on the RIM pager (yes, the predecessor to the Blackberry) and the Palm VII.  The Palm VII was one of the world's first mobile internet devices.  It had an embedded radio, and could run specialized internet applications.  Although the device was huge, and ate up batteries, it was very innovative, and even supported an early class of location based applications.  A handful of us cranked out some applications for these two devices, and got Amazon's attention.  Within a few short months, they bought the company, and moved us out to Seattle.

About a year and a half later, my former CEO arranged for a former Palm executive to give a talk at an entrepreneurial forum.  When my Palm VII alerted me it was time, I took off to the presentation.  Apparently, the speaker had left Palm and formed a new company.  They had access to PalmOS, and had combined it with a cell phone.  And the phone had a keyboard!  The Handspring Treo 300 was born!  At the end of the talk, he mentioned that the device would ship soon, but that he had promo codes if anyone wanted to get a pre-release device.  I jumped at the opportunity.

The Treo 300 was a dream.  It was a flip phone.  It had a keyboard.  It also had a cool rocker/selection switch which violated a RIM patent.  It added such cool things as "floating calendar events" -- events that would show up every day on your calendar at a certain recurring/scheduled time until you clicked that you had completed the task.  The phone and personal information manager (PIM) integrated flawlessly.  On the phone, you could just start typing, a name, a number, whatever.  it would show you options, and then you could dial the person.  You didn't have to tell it if you were entering a phone number or letters of a name -- even though numbers shared the letter keys! It just did the right thing.  It even had a web browser capable of showing both WAP and non-WAP pages (albeit not very well).

For me, the 600, 650, and 700p were generally upgrades, with the occasional loss of a minor feature.  You now had to tap a special key if you wanted to enter a number in to the phone, the smarts ostensibly confused users.  For some reason, those floating events also went away, as did the rocker switch.  But the browser continued to improve, as did the launcher.  You could even use the phone as a teathered bluetooth modem!  In addition to the PIM functions, I also used these devices as a web browser, SMS messenger, sketchpad, voice memo recorder, streaming music player, MP3 player, journal, task manager, IM client, camera, camcorder, calculator, and stopwatch, as well as occasionally for games and other applications.  I even loved the fact that I had more than a half-dozen years of call logs, SMS messages, events and notes on my phone!

Sadly, PalmOS was going away.  I figured eventually I'd have to move to iPhone, give up my keyboard, and lose a lot of my historical data.  In the 11th hour, I heard about the Pre.  Manna, it was a gift from heaven!  A modern, web centric OS with multitasking, and will even import my old Palm data!

The morning of June 6th, my wife and I ran to the store.  There was a buzz around the kiosk, and the employees were excited about the double-sale.  I was confused as to why the phone needed my email address just to get started (do I give it my real one because I can never change it and want a real ID, or do I give it a spam account?).  It also wasn't clear about the whole Palm Profile vs. Google online sync option.  I didn't really fret -- I knew I'd be able to figure this out at home.  And, boy was the device sexy!  The screen was amazing, the sound loud and clear, the swipey area below the screen was super cool.  It was much smaller and lighter than the Treos, and had a slide-out keyboard!  The phone launched a welcome video, and an interactive tutorial taught you just enough to get started and explore.  I was beaming.

We went home, and I started to play.  The packaging was very well done, and it was clear they were paying attention to details.  With one little button on the face of the phone, it seemed like the Pre was taking some serious lessons from Apple's playbook.  I didn't get to play long, because my battery started to die.  That was ok, the guy from the phone store told me to let the battery die and then charge it fully.  I had not been advised to do that since the days of NiMH batteries, but I obliged.

The next day, our land line phone rings.  It is the Sprint kiosk.  They warned that the car charger had caused some other users phones to heat up and lock up.  They said we could return the chargers, and they would replace them in about a week.  Odd...

Finally, my phone was charged.  I decided to sync my old phone data.  The documentation for the sync tool was sparse, but it seemed that I could sync my notes and tasks only if I used a PC.  I would lose them from my PowerBook.  Fortunately, I'm a computer geek, and fired up my PC.  I updated my hotsync manager to the latest from Access, synched my 700, and then ran the sync migration tool.  I selected to sync with Google.  The sync happened very quickly, and I disconnected the Pre.  I now had to wait for the cloud to finish importing the information.

I waited... and waited.  My Google calendar was updated with all my old stuff from my 700.  But, all-day events and repeating events showed up on the wrong dates.  I had a Thanksgiving event show up in May!  My contacts came across just fine, and the Synergy feature linking my contacts from various sources (gmail, exchange, AIM, phonebook) is very cool.  Synergy does a great job solving a problem I've had forever.  I continued waiting for my tasks and notes.  They never showed up.  UGH!

So now my Google calendar is all messed up, and my phone doesn't even have my notes.  Fortunately, I think to back up my Google calendar (I copied it to another calendar on my profile).  I did a hard reset on my phone, deleted all the data, and then deleted all data in my PalmProfile.

This time, I decided to try to sync to my Palm Profile.  It seemed like maybe this was the way to get all my stuff across.  Again, the cabled data transfer was a snap, and now I had to wait for the over the air update.  But my phone died!  So I plugged it in and waited another day.

The next morning, I did another hard reset on my phone, and deleted my online Palm profile.  I did another sync, again to my Palm profile.  As suggested in the documentation, I left the contacts app open, as well as the calendar, notes, and tasks.  I saw the contacts quickly fill up.  Then the calendar.  Eventually, the task app indicated it had some tasks.  But where were my notes?  I couldn't see any.  UGH!  I decided to open the notes application anyway.  And suddenly they showed up.  Ok, what a relief!

So I hop on the train and head to work.  I'm downloading apps from the app store, looking at Twitter, streaming music, IMing my wife, and having fun!  At one point, the phone crashes when I'm playing with the calendar, but I was able to get it to boot.  I figured I was running too many things at once.  I'm almost to Manhattan when the phone indicates it is very low on batteries.

I get to work, and find a charger.  I keep the phone plugged in almost all day.  On the way home, I play with SprintTV, download some more applications, and continue to communicate with people.  For some reason, my contacts all showed up twice.  Now, this would not normally be a big deal, because the Synergy feature links them and you only see the name once.  But the numbers will show up twice, so I go through and erase the second profile for each contact.  I guess this is due to that sync when the phone died, but I cleared the phone and my online profile (even my Google contacts), so I'm not quite sure.  Through the course of the day, parts of the phone repeatedly locked up, and the phone completely died.

The next morning, I decide to try to fix my calendar.  Recurring events, and all-day events are all messed up.  Fortunately, I had my trusty old Treo, which has all the right information.  I decide to see if there are any updates available -- hopefully they've fixed all the bugs, or at least the ones on the calendar.  There is an update!  I set it to immediately update.  When the update is complete (10 minutes to download, and then 10 minutes with the phone out of commission), things are looking better.  While not snappy, the calendar seems to not hang.  At work, I get a call from my wife, from our house phone.  She said that her phone locked up, and was hot.  I said it sounded like what the store mentioned.  But, at this point, I had been charging my phone at work using a Nokia miniUSB charger, and didn't think the symptoms were due to the charger.  Her phone needed to be updated.  She figured how to remove and replace the battery, and once the phone booted, she updated her phone.  The update even had an additional application -- an alarm clock.

OK.  Off to a rocky start, but hopefully things should get better.  At work, I enter my exchange server information.  The email integration works pretty well, and even seems to be able to look up emails on our address server.  The calendar, however, doesn't show all my appointments.  I decided that it would be worse to think the calendar worked and miss a meeting than to have to continue to use my computer.

Over the next few days, I laboriously removed the duplicate contacts, fixed my calendar events, and used the device.  I continued to find minor points of frustration.  For example, the sync didn't import my web bookmarks, so I have to type them in myself, and things don't have categories.

On the one hand, all this represented points of frustration.  On the other hand, however, these could be considered fixed up-front costs that I would have had to bear had I switched to the iPhone.  The real question is, how does the phone work day-to-day?

The battery life remains a problem.  Even if I hardly use the phone, unless I keep it plugged in during the day, it doesn't last until I get home.  Fail!

The calendar is almost unusable.  I already mentioned that I can't reliably use my Outlook/Exchange calendar.  But beyond that broken functionality, it also has serious usability issues.  Moving through time is always painful.  You have a few ways to do this, and none of them work well.  If I am looking at today, I can swipe my finger to one side or the other, and go forward or back a day.  This seems like it would be a great way to shuffle to next week when I want to set an appointment for Thursday.  On my Treo, I would just hit the forward key until i saw it was a week from Thursday.  The Treop calendar responded as fast as I could push.  Not so for the Pre.  I shuffle forward a day, and have to ... wait.  I go a few more, and the calendar screen stays grayed out.  It's presumably loading my calendar info.  Finally, the screen lights up.  My day looks fairly open.  I think that this might be a good time to set up my appointment -- why wait till next Thursday?  As I ruminate on this, the answer becomes clear, as my calendar starts to fill up with the rest of my events.  To shuffle forward a week and a half takes about 30 seconds.  There has to be a better way.  Fail!

I realize that the bar at the top showing the date I am currently viewing is tappable.  When I tap on it, I can go to Today, or jump to a date.  Aha!  This must be the way to do it.  I see the current date, and when I tap on the number, I see a list of numbers, with my current number in the middle.  I flick my finger, and the list scrolls.  Cool!  But, uh, which number is for next Thursday?  And which was today?  And today is Tuesday, right?  So I have to add how many days to today's number?  And how many days are in this month?  Ugh!  The simplest use case -- add an appointment next week -- is difficult and time consuming.  Fail!

In writing this post, I realized that perhaps there was a better way.  With all the frustrations of the calendar, I had hardly played around with the weekly or monthly view.  So let me see.  The monthly view shows promise -- it looks like a calendar, with grayed out areas above or below the number indicating busy times.  Today is clearly circled.  But I can't seem to flick forward or backward a month.  Perhaps it is still loading...  Fail!

The weekly view seemed more promising, as I could flick forward and back.  It even had colored bars indicating which calendar my appointments were pulled in from.  But then I notice something odd.  There are no hour markers on the side to show me when.  Ok, I assume that this must just be my full day.  But it isn't.  I flick down, and see that 12:05am, 12, and 11:55pm show up, but offscreen from my initial view.  Fail!

So the calendar is so awful so as to be almost unusable.  What about the MP3 player?  I have an iPod, the de-facto standard.  In the documentation (which I had to download from the website) it mentions how to get downloaded music off my phone (from downloads), but not how to get it on.  I figure I should just try.  I plug it in to my computer, and it asks me if I want to do Media Sync.  Aha!  I tap it, and iTunes launches.  So far, so good.  My phone shows up as an iPod!  OK, now we're talking.  I select a couple of playlists to sync -- some Jazz, some podcasts, and a set of audibooks I listen to on the train.  Cool!

The next morning, I listened to a new Jazz album I had gotten for my birthday.  It was great.  Then I decided to continue listening to my audiobook.  I knew I was on track 13.  I find the audiobook and tap on it.  The tracks appeared in a very bizarre order.  They were not arranged by disk, nor alphabetically by track.  I don't know how the were arranged, but I couldn't sort them, or get them in a usable order.  I'm still using my iPod.

Other issues:
 * PDF viewer can't go sideways.
 * Imported contacts lost "notes" fields from Treo.
 * Alarm doesn't work.  I can't figure out how to use this as an alarm clock.  Maybe I'm not smart enough.
 * Phone periodically loses data connection, and only way back is reboot phone.
 * IM/SMS messages don't vibrate phone -- I'm a fan of keeping it simple and making good choices for users, but not enough choices here.
 * I can't figure out how to bookmark music streams.
 * Answering phone is very hard when the password key lock is set, and I miss calls.
 * Phone didn't import old Treoncall logs.
 * Call logs show all calls (after a delay) or missed calls.  Can't sort by incoming or outgoing.

The first week, I was seriously considering going back to my Treo.  I think if my wife weren't so sold on the better form factor that I would have.  Since then, there have two additional software updates, and they seem to help.  My wife and I have swapped batteries a few times, and determined that my battery was borked, and when I use her battery I have a lot fewer problems.  I'm excited to experiment with The Missing Sync, as well as PocketMirror, and see if I can use Classic to resolve some of my old Treo data irregularities.