Hands on with Palm Pre

palm-pre-1In my hand, the Palm Pre feels like a river-smoothed stone.  There’s not a rough edge anywhere on the device.  With a small on/off button next to a ringer/vibrate switch at the top right, and a two-button volume control on the left, it’s the picture of minimalism.

A round selection button is the only other thing disturbing the Pre’s marble-like surface, with the screen seeming to disappear into blackness when turned off.

It looks like a chunk of Darth Vader’s helmet, and I mean that in a good way.

Closed, it measures four inches high by two and a quarter across.  With the keyboard slid open, the Pre has a gentle curve.  Because it’s a multitasking device, this helps when sending an email during a phone call.

Switching between modes – text to email to call, for example, is a breeze.

The user interface is very intuitive, and I was able to set up my Google, Facebook, Twitter and personal email accounts in minutes. The first Google import was a bit messy, so I used my desktop computer to clean things up on the web, and within minutes, synched my changes to the Pre.

Web OS uses a playing card metaphor for its desktop. I had the basic moves memorized quickly:   Open an application, a card fills the screen; opening a second minimizes the first.  To close an application, grab the minimized card and sweep it upwards to the top of the screen.  To move between applications, sweep cards to the right or left.

There’s a gesture bar located between the selection button and screen, which allows for moving around inside an application.  I found the whole experience very … Apple-like.

Not a surprise when considering the Pre’s lineage.

But the Pre isn’t an iPhone wannabe – even if Palm (and Sprint) would love Apple’s market share, and the UI suggests it (how Palm avoided a lawsuit for clearly lifting the iPhone’s three-finger “multi-touch” feature is a mystery).

Of course, talking about the Pre without mentioning the iPhone is sort of like discussing the Dixie Chicks without mentioning George W. Bush.

But it’s Research In Motion, makers of the Blackberry smart phone, who ought to be most worried about the Palm Pre, not Apple.  I’ve never owned one, but the moment the Pre began throbbing to signal each incoming email and text message, I knew why people call it a “Crack-berry” – it’s addictive.

But the Palm Pre is also a smart phone for people who need a Blackberry, but want an iPhone.  The Pre’s “App Catalog” store is small, but growing, and it’s filled with stuff for grown-ups like
LinkedIn, the New York Times and Intuit’s GoPayment, a mobile credit card processing app just released Wednesday.

There’s music, too – tight integration with Amazon, and plug-in compatibility with iTunes on Macs and PCs.

But the best thing about the Pre is how it organizes disparate information.  I was amazed at how it gathered the threads of one of my contacts – email address and phone number from Facebook, home phone and a second email number from Google, instant message account from
AIM, Twitter account – into a single view – and sent a picture of the contact’s choosing as well.

So while I can’t yet play Labyrinth or re-create the sounds of flatulence of my Palm Pre, it gets a lot of important stuff done.

Definitely worth a long wait in line.

Pre flight – getting my Palm Pre

Picture 1There’s a good reason why I was sitting in front of Best Buy at 6 AM last Saturday morning, watching a street sweeper noisily brush the pavement, waiting for the doors to open in four hours.

The only Palm Pre within 70 miles was inside, and I was determined to make it mine.

Let’s back up a bit.

Within days of upgrading my Sprint phone two years ago, I had buyer’s remorse.  The new HTC Mogul was sexy, with a sliding keyboard, landscape view web pages and GPS.  But sometimes I missed my old Palm Treo.

Sure, the stub antennaed device was a bit dowdy, and boxy as a Volvo, but in hindsight it was more reliable than the Windows Mobile device that replaced it.  The afflicted Mogul was given to sporadic battery losses and system lockups.

Two years later, I was due for a trade-in and ripe to be won back.

When Palm unveiled the Pre in January, it pulled at my heartstrings like an old lover who’d spent two years at the gym, emerging with trim, sleek lines.

An engineering team led by ex-Apple iPod honcho Jon Rubenstein built the Palm Pre.  It features a gesture-driven touch screen (similar enough to Apple’s to fuel lawsuit speculation), a new multitasking operating system called WebOS, and something the iPhone doesn’t have – a sliding keyboard.

As the June 6 launch approached, I hung on every YouTube video, added the Everything Pre blog to my Twitter feed, and tried every trick I could muster to get an early hands-on demo, to no avail.

I soon learned that winning the object of my desire would take more than ordinary efforts.  Sprint CEO Dan Hesse warned of shortages, and when I asked about local availability of the device, company spokesman told me “inventory questions are proprietary.”

Late last week, I found out why.   Best Buy’s allocation, according to a leaked company document, was a paltry 4,200 units – for the entire chain.   My local store, it turned out, received just one.


After signing the paperwork and swiping my MasterCard, I left with my new electronic jewel.  Was it worth the wait?

In a word, yes.

Tomorrow: Hands on with the Palm Pre.