Palm Pre a hit at special event for top Sprint customers

The Palm Pre officially goes on sale via Sprint at 8am Saturday morning, but the carrier held special invite-only events in 10 cities Friday evening, giving selected Sprint Premier customers early access to the iPhone rival. Only those eligible to upgrade were invited, with around 120 RSVPs at Sprint's Washington, DC store we visited.

Sprint has prepared all of its nationwide stores for the Palm Pre launch tomorrow, with actual phones available for customers to play with and video screens detailing the features. Through its "Ready Now" program it launched last September, Sprint will make sure all buyers have their phones fully setup by the time they leave the store -- a marked difference from the iPhone launch.

At the Friday night event, traffic at the Washington DC store was brisk but not overwhelming (rain may have kept away some), and Sprint Chief Service Officer Bob Johnson didn't expect huge lines to form overnight. However, he acknowledged that the device could sell out over the weekend, and said stores will take names if that happens and contact customers as shipments arrive.

Sprint has stocked the majority of Pres at its retail stores (no specific numbers were given, but estimates are in the 100 per-store range), with smaller numbers going to Best Buy and Radio Shack. After the initial demand wanes, the Palm Pre will be available from Sprint resellers and other stores.

The cost of the Pre is $299 with 2-year service agreement, but customers receive a $100 mail-in rebate, bringing the total cost down to the same as the iPhone. Some expressed their displeasure about the rebate scheme, but it didn't seem like enough of a barrier to change the minds of potential buyers.

6 accessories are available for the Palm Pre at launch: a magnetic charging dock called the "Touchstone," vehicle charger, holster, travel charger, leather pouch, and phone covers. Sprint employees said that other micro-USB chargers will not work with the Pre, although we haven't tested that out.

So what did the invitees think of the Pre? After spending some time with the phone and learning how to use WebOS, most were impressed and went on to buy the device. Some were overwhelmed with the Pre's complexity, like loading the app launcher and dragging up to close apps. Others had problems manipulating the touch screen. But plenty of Sprint employees were on hand to walk customers through the functionality -- something that may lead to long wait times on Saturday.

Are you planning to pick up a Palm Pre this weekend? Let us know why or why not in the comments!

Click for more images from the Pre invite-only pre-launch

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