How Failtastic Can One Phone Be? Just Ask Palm About the Prē!

Posted Sunday, March 28th, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Here are a few things that I consider to be basic requirements for functionality in a smartphone, along with notes on how my Palm Prē fails to deliver:

When I press the power switch, the phone should turn on.
(Assuming the battery is charged, of course. And I’m willing to accept that a modern smartphone needs to be charged every night. No problem there.) But given that, when I press the “on” switch, I should see the screen light up within, say, one second. It should not take ten seconds. By the time ten seconds go by, I’ll assume that I must not have pressed the power switch hard enough, and I’ll try pressing it a second time.

Did you know that the Palm Prē stores power-switch presses in its input buffer? That means that when the phone finally does get around to waking up, it processes the first impulse, lights up the screen… and then immediately blanks it again as it processes the second impulse. This is extremely frustrating.

When the screen lights up and shows me an “unlock” icon, it should actually let me unlock the unit.
I’m not complaining about the fact that it shows me that icon. I recognize that it’s there to conserve my battery life by making me prove that I’m a human being, and not an inanimate object that jostled the phone in a crowded purse or backpack. I’m fine with that.

What I’m not fine with is having to try three-to-five times to get the icon to recognize my input. And it’s not like the Prē stores this stimulus in its input buffer, so if I just wait for it to catch up… it blanks out the screen and I have to try again.

When a call comes in, I should be able to answer it.
I’ve lost track of how many incoming calls I’ve missed because I couldn’t get the phone to turn on in time to catch the call before it went to voice-mail. The screen was showing me the name and photo of the friend who was calling me — sometimes a friend who I’d explicitly asked to call me, and whose call I was anticipating — and yet I couldn’t actually pick up the phone and say hello to them.

This is what we in the user interface biz call a total, ignominious failure.

(Most of the time, the failure is because the damned “unlock” icon wasn’t taking input yet, so this is really just a special case of the problem above — but it happens in such a different context, and it has such different consequences, that it counts as a separate item.)

When I type on the keyboard, the characters should show up within 5 seconds of the keypresses.
This has the benefit of allowing me to realize that the keypresses have triggered, as well as letting me see what the hell I’ve already succeeded in inputting. It lets me see if I need to go back and fix a typo. It gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling that the phone might actually respond to my input, instead of just sitting there imitating a sleek, shiny, black, sexy rock.

Waiting a full ten seconds (as has happened to me on occasion) is even worse. I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that 5 seconds is the worst delay I’ve ever seen on the Prē; it’s just the limit of what I’ll accept as “basic minimum functionality” (and I think even that is being incredibly generous).

At least once per day, the Palm Prē fails me on at least one of these completely basic requirements. When it works, it’s kind of nice, and even manages to be useful some of the time. But there are just too many occasions when it flat-out fails to function. I’m sick and tired of being out on the town with friends and having someone say, “Can we look up such-and-so on Yelp?” and then struggling with my phone for five minutes before giving up and saying, “No. I can’t look that up for you”. At which point some kind soul with a working smartphone takes pity on me and finishes the job in about a minute.

This is also not meant to be an exhaustive list of the Palm Prē’s failings, or those of webOS. There are all sorts of UI and UX decisions I could rail against, but I don’t want this blog to become a full-time anti-Prē and anti-webOS blog. I have wider interests than that. This post is just meant to be a list of the basic, core usability failures that have driven me to distraction.

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