Pre could pilot Palm to smartphone glory again

The most-lusted-after pocket computer in months is about to go on sale — and it's not even an iPhone. On Saturday, Palmpalm and Sprint s start selling the Palm Pre, a smartphone that stacks up well against Apple's blockbuster device, and in some ways even surpasses it.

I've been testing the Pre for more than two weeks and like it a lot. Pre is easy on the eyes. I can't think of a more comfortable cellphone in my hand. It has a lovely screen for taking in YouTube videos or browsing the Web. The "always-connected" software foundation at its core, which Palm designed from scratch and calls WebOS, is slick and rife with possibilities.

Palm, struggling in recent years, is looking to the Pre for salvation. Its iconic Palm Pilot personal digital assistant is a fond, long-faded memory. And Palm's Treo smartphone franchise has lost shine to iPhones and BlackBerrys. Sprint, too, is counting heavily on the Pre: The nation's third-largest wireless carrier has been bleeding customers.

But there's reason for optimism: The companies are teaming up at a time of ripe innovations in a still-burgeoning smartphone market.

Pre is built around the idea that your information should follow you, whether it lives on your phone, a computer at home or the office, or on the Internet. You can automatically bring in phone numbers, calendar entries and e-mail accounts from Google, Facebook and Microsoft Exchange (Outlook) and consolidate them in one place, through a feature dubbed Palm Synergy.

Like the iPhone, the Pre has a "multitouch" screen built around clever finger navigation, or "gestures." You can pinch or spread your fingers to zoom in and out of Web pages or flick to rapidly scroll through lists. What sets Pre apart is the way it lets you keep multiple live applications open at once in small windows, or activity cards. You can switch among them with a swipe of your finger. When you're finished with an application, you can flick its card off the top of the screen to get rid of it.

Still, I encountered occasional sluggishness and bugs. At one point, the clock was out of whack. At another, I had to shut down the Pre because the onscreen icons kept dancing around. I also longed for the visual voice mail feature of the iPhone — Pre's unobtrusive "notifications" dashboard flagging incoming messages, system alerts and such is no substitute. And I wish Pre had more third-party applications at launch.

It isn't lost on Palm that the first of the two-year iPhone contracts will soon expire. Pre matches the iPhone's $200 price (for the 8-gigabyte model), after a rebate and a two-year wireless contract. Palm's exclusive partner, Sprint, has priced its voice and data plans aggressively. A monthly voice/data plan with 450 "anytime" minutes goes for $69.99. An unlimited voice and data plan fetches $99.99 a month. Plans include unlimited text, picture and video messaging, plus Sprint GPS navigation and Sprint TV.

Verizon Wireless has said it intends to sell the Pre once Sprint's exclusivity runs out around the end of the year. AT&T, which carries the iPhone, has also expressed interest. "Would I like to see the Pre on our network some day? Of course," AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said at the All Things Digital (D7) confab in Carlsbad, Calif., last week.

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