It looked as if Palm had struck smartphone gold when it showcased the Palm Pre for the first time at CES in January. Here was a phone, complete with what appeared to be an iPhone-rivalling OS, but with proper, grown-up multitasking and no iTunes lock-in.
The anticipation was at fever pitch. But months went by and all was quiet. It looks now as though Australia may miss out altogether, but we got our hands on an unlocked Pre to test, regardless.
But with the Pre in our hands, do we mind that we miss out? The short answer is no. WebOS may look slick in the demos, but in use we encountered frequent stuttering and plenty of pauses. And note these aren't early glitches, soon to be ironed out; the Pre has been out for some time in the US and any problems should have been sorted by now.
It's a shame, because the UI has much to recommend it. The multitasking means you can play music and browse the web at the same time, or swap between applications, cutting and pasting text as you go. Palm also places this multitasking front and centre.
Rather than hiding away running tasks in a pokey dialog box, in webOS all your running applications are represented as a series of thumbnails. To see them, just hit the single button below the screen and the view pulls back, allowing you
to scroll through active tasks, and terminate unwanted apps with a dismissive flick upwards.
It's a clever system, but not without its annoyances. It can be a little confusing, for instance, that emails open in a separate card to the message browse view. And Palm's approach also ensures that launching new instances of applications takes a back seat.
You can launch frequently used apps from a five-icon shortcut bar, but for everything else, you have to tap another button to fire
up the application launch screen.
Another hindrance is the context-sensitive dropdown menu and status area, which runs along the top of the screen. It's simply too small to be able to press with consistent accuracy, and there's no stylus to help out.
Fortunately, the core applications themselves all work fantastically well. The device supports Microsoft Exchange email accounts, the usual POP3 and IMAP, as well as specific email services such as Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail, and adding accounts is as easy as pie.
We particularly like the integration between social networking, email and contacts apps. Despite the fact that these are accessed separately, they're able to share information: pictures of people you're friends with on Facebook will turn up in your contacts list, for instance.
Contacts from different sources (Google, Facebook, Outlook and LinkedIn) are cleverly combined. Text messages, email and social-networking communications can all be grouped under the contact they pertain to. And the calendar combines appointments from Facebook, Outlook and Google too.
Browsing the web - that all-important activity - is another joy. The browser is webkit-based, just like that of the iPhone, and in conjunction with the Pre's multitouch screen, web pages can be manipulated instinctively with a few well-chosen gestures. Most impressive is that clicking links rarely requires more than a single tap.
Palm's rival to the iPhone App Store - the Appcatalog - again works well, but it's early days and it lags behind when it comes to choice. Elsewhere, there's a scattering of useful apps: including a YouTube viewer, Dataviz Documents To Go, Google Maps, and - naturally - a music and video player.
The touchscreen that gives access to all of this wizardry is fantastic. It's 3.2in across with rounded corners, and since it's capacitive you only need lightly caress its surface to click buttons. The Pre's accelerometer works well too, re-orientating the screen in a snap. The resolution - 320 x 480 - keeps things looking crisp, and it's also vibrant.
Elsewhere, the Pre boasts all the hardware you'd expect, with quad-band GSM, HSDPA, GPS, 802.11bg Wi-Fi, 8GB of storage, a 3.5mm headphone socket, plus a decent 3.1-megapixel camera with an LED flash; although there's no ability to shoot video.
We're lukewarm about the rest of the package. The sliding keyboard hidden under the screen means it's pretty thick, and at first sight it looks more like a small soap caddy than an alluring piece of tech.
Build quality feels a little rattly too, despite a solid sliding action. But the biggest irritation is the sharp lip that surrounds the keyboard. Despite a usable keyboard - the Pre's small rubbery keys are surprisingly responsive - it isn't comfortable to type on.
And battery life from the 1150mAh cell is underwhelming, with the Pre coming up short of the iPhone 3GS. We ran it dry with only light use in just over two days' use.
So we're unconvinced by the Palm Pre. It has its strengths, and these lie in its ability to combine contacts, messages and calendar information from multiple sources, its fantastic web browsing ability and its treatment of multitasking.
But it has weaknesses: stuttering speeds, less-than-alluring hardware, a sometimes confusing OS, and poor battery life. As a result, it fails to topple Apple's finest.