Palms-on with the Pre

Banner: Hands On Review

A little quality time with the Palm Pre (and some very happy, very tired Palm folk) reveals more of the details...but one crucial one goes unanswered.

It's still not released, which seems astonishing considering the amount of uproar the Palm Pre has caused since its unveiling Thursday morning.

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A lot of people have put a lot of effort into the Pre, and those who were showing off the smartphone at the Palm Lounge on Friday looked like most of us felt when we got back that last set of grades in college and realized that good heavens, I may be graduated yet. And they may well: On closer examination, the Pre is still worth getting pretty excited about.

I walked in with a list of questions, but to be honest I also walked in wanting to paw the gear, which (multiplied by hundreds of journalists and invited guests) would explain the very obvious security presence around the lounge. The presenters were even, according to one of the presenters, instructed not to take both hands off the Pre at any moment. (I'm pretty sure Tom Hanks' security wasn't as tight as that phone's this week.)

So there are some things I don't know about -- how sturdy the Pre is when you toss it from hand to hand, whether the keyboard slide (a tricky little piece of engineering, with that cheek-fitting curve) feels smooth and properly springy; whether it's easier to carry in my front or my back pocket. More seriously, I don't know what sound quality is like -- the elephant in the Zen garden-themed room.

But I do know that the questions that could be answered were answered much to my satisfaction on Friday. Scenes from an exhibition:

  • Texture is key. Certain handset manufacturers have learned the hard way that the physical texture of the keys is important to those of us who spend a lot of time typing. Palm's gone with the "jelly key" feel for the Pre; the keys have just a touch of squish to them, easing the impact on fingertips. Typing on this thing feels nice.
  • Screening for visibility. Some at our table wanted visual comparisons, so we all threw our phones on the table to provide points of reference. (In our photo: Top row: BlackBerry Pearl 8130. Center row: Palm Treo 700w; Palm Pre with keyboard extended; Apple iPhone; unknown Nokia, perhaps the E71. Bottom row: Sidekick LX.) The 320x480 Pre screen measures up larger than all but the iPhone and Sidekick screens, nearly doubling the screen area of the Pearl. With the keyboard extended, it's quite a long phone, comparable to the Sidekick; closed, it's smaller than the relatively petite Pearl. Screen quality is nice; photo colors were rich and true, and video playback was smooth. I found the type crisp too, though it'll be interesting to see how that goes in brighter light.
  • Hey-ho, Treo. Our impromptu comparison of handy smartphones shows that the Pre's keyboard is close in size to that of the Treo 700w, seen in our photo to the far left of the middle row of phones. (The Pre, with the keyboard out, is immediately to the right of the Treo.) A representative confirms that though the keyboards are not identical, there's a family resemblance. The Treo also was the genesis for the Pre's threading sensibility, though the newer phone also includes IM, texts and so forth in discussion threads.
  • More than one way to... The interface offers alternative ways to perform various functions. For instance, you can dial by tapping the contacts icon and touching the screen, by opening the keyboard and starting to type a name (the search will narrow it down for you), or by dialing in the traditional manner. On the other hand, what I thought was a trackball below the screen turns out to be a button, and it does just one thing -- takes you back to the main card screen. In a different vein, users can customize labels in their address books, which is a small thing until you or your friends start to carry multiple mobile phones.
  • Touchy, touchy. As for the multitouch, it seems to work well, and the close-card gesture -- flinging the card off the top of the screen -- makes me smile. The black "gesture area" under the screen works appropriately and includes a tiny discreet light behind the tint to signal when you've gestured.
  • Curves and angles. That chassis curve is no joke; laying on a table, the Pre will wiggle a bit if the surface jiggles. One can only imagine how it'll behave on vibrate. The Touchstone magnetic-induction charger also has some interesting stuff happening with surfaces; for instance, if you put the phone on it while you're talking, the call switches to speakerphone. Palm also envisions the Touchstone as a viewing stand; if the phone's on it, the screen tilts up at a video-friendly angle.
  • Snip, plop, yay. The iPhone user at our table asked about the two features most desired by that platform's owners: MMS and cut-and-paste. Yes and yes. The demonstration of the latter showed it to be very clear-cut and intuitive to execute. Also? Removable battery. Just saying.
  • Smart with sloppiness. Just as the phone can compile conversations from text, IM and such into a single thread, it can figure out when one person in your address book has multiple listings. The rep told us that the software compares 4-5 data points (phone number, name, etc.) and can fold listings together if there's a match; if the software sees a few similarities but isn't sure, it'll flag you to check for yourself.
  • About exclusivity. Palm reps clarified that though any developer competent in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript can write an app for the phone, and they're fine too with third-party sites hosting such apps (within reason), there will indeed be a Palm Pre apps store. It'll be somewhat curated, too -- no $1000 rubies. The Sprint deal, on the other hand, is not a permanent exclusive. A Palm rep told me that the company has demonstrated the Pre to other providers, and they expect to release versions for other services down the road. (Eventual GSM support was broadly hinted but not confirmed.)
  • It's not ready yet. A partial list of things that remain undone on the Pre: There's no voice dialing yet. There's no VPN support. A list of native apps has not been finalized. They're working on extending the battery life to at least a day. The handset plays back video, but it's not able to shoot video yet -- though that could be something that can simply updated over-the-air. There are accessories -- I noticed a nice zippered case passing from hand to hand among the Palm folk -- but no one's telling yet what they are. And there's no price set. The company is still saying it'll ship during the first half of 2009 and, as multiple reps said, they'd prefer sooner to later.

Overall? I'm still crushed out -- concerned about sound quality, but quite certain that unless the phone is far more expensive than Sprint currently expects (a shout of "$599?" for one visitor elicited incredulity from Palm reps), I'm still looking forward to this like no other gadget I've seen this week.

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