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.
Apple isn't exactly standing pat. Speculation abounds that it will unwrap a brand-new iPhone next week at its Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. That's just two days after the Pre starts selling at Sprint stores as well as Best Buy and select RadioShack and Walmart locations.
Sprint says it anticipates shortages and will collect names on a waiting list if its own stores sell out. Even so, it's hard to imagine a repeat of the frenzy surrounding the original iPhone launch in June 2007.
A storm of smartphones
These are interesting times for smartphones. Research In Motion is believed to be preparing the successor to the BlackBerry Storm, among other models. The Storm was another much-hyped smartphone. It received mixed reviews when it came out in the fall.
Nokia piled impressive features into its new touch-screen-plus-keyboard N97, including a 5-megapixel digital camera and 32 gigabytes of internal storage. But it costs an unseemly $699 without a U.S. carrier (so far) to subsidize part of the bill.
Google continues to push advances on its Android mobile operating system. Same goes for Microsoft and Windows Mobile.
"We've got a lot of work to do (in mobile)," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged during an interview last week. "I mean, Apple has done a nice job. RIM has done a nice job. Nokia is coming out … but it's such a nascent category."
Palm and Sprint also had work to do. That was the prevailing wisdom in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, right before Palm CEO Ed Colligan and Executive Chairman Jon Rubinstein (late of Apple) unveiled the Pre. The Treo was past its prime. Palm was on the ropes. This would be a make-or-break product.
"This is the thing that will define us," Elevation Partners co-founder Roger McNamee said last week at D7. Elevation has pumped $425 million into Palm.
Based on my tests, Elevation's investment seems justified. With the Pre, Palm got a lot more right than it got wrong, and over time, you can expect to see WebOS on other devices.
Pre is 3.9 inches high by 2.3 inches wide and two-thirds of an inch thick — shorter but thicker than the iPhone. The compact, slightly curvy design results in a screen that's a tad smaller than the iPhone's. It is by no means obvious that there is also a hidden, slide-out physical keyboard, a nod to consumers who don't fancy the iPhone's touch-screen keyboard. The Pre has a virtual dialing pad for tapping out phone calls, but there's no virtual keyboard to complement its physical equivalent. At times, I would have liked the option: You don't always want to slide out the keyboard.
You can search for people or applications on the Pre by typing just a few keystrokes. If it cannot find any matches on the phone through this "universal search" feature, it gives you the option to expand your search to Google, Google Maps, Wikipedia or Twitter. The keyboard isn't as comfy as ones you'll find on a BlackBerry. I sometimes hit the bottom edge of the slide-up screen when I pressed some upper-row keys.
As with the iPhone, the Pre has sensors that change the orientation of the screen when you turn it to its side. Another sensor makes the screen go dark when you hold the phone to your ear during a call. That way your cheekbone won't inadvertently press keys.
Music and video
You can sync Pre with iTunes, just as if it were an iPhone or iPod. Well, there's at least one difference. You can't sync music or video saddled with digital copy restrictions. Nor can you buy iTunes music directly from the Pre. There's a nice alternative, at least for music: The Pre is integrated with the Amazon MP3 store, so you can sample and purchase songs on the fly. You need Wi-Fi to download music, though you can preview songs over Sprint's network.
Skipping songs during playback is as easy as flicking one album cover aside for another. While listening to music, you can search for related content through Amazon or YouTube. The Pre also supports Bluetooth stereo, if you happen to own those wireless headphones.
Like the iPhone, Pre has an excellent browser that displays Web pages in their real layouts. Sprint's 3G network was pretty snappy in decent coverage, though Wi-Fi when available is obviously faster. The browser doesn't support the Adobe Flash video standard. Palm and Adobe hope to deliver the capability in the future.
The Pre has a better camera than the iPhone, though that's not saying much. It's a 3-megapixel model with an automatic flash. You can share pictures via MMS picture messaging or upload them directly to Facebook or Photobucket. Too bad, as with the iPhone, there's no video camera.
Where are the apps?
Pre poses no immediate challenge to the iPhone when it comes to robust apps. Only a dozen or so are available at launch, including Pandora Internet radio, Citysearch, The New York Times and Classic, an emulator that lets you run old Palm (Treo) programs. Palm's new App Catalog for the Pre is still in beta, or test mode. It worked fine in my tests. Apple's App Store for the iPhone (and iPod Touch) has more than 35,000 applications.
Palm has a long history with third-party developers but is moving slowly in opening up the Pre platform to them. It's unfortunate, because there are great possibilities in the way apps work together. For instance, if you buy movie tickets through Fandango, you can easily add the time to your calendar.
Of course, Apple waited a year before opening an App Store for the iPhone.
Palm says talk time for the Pre is five hours, and standby time is 300 hours. Video will play for five hours, the company says, and you can browse the Web (via Wi-Fi) for about 5½ hours.
Doing a combination of those things, I got through most days without having to charge the Pre. And the Pre, unlike the iPhone, comes with an easily removable battery.
Though a splurge at $70, Palm has come up with a nifty accessory called Touchstone that lets you charge the Pre without a cable, by putting it on top of the dock.
The first Palm Pre will certainly give the iPhone and other rivals a run for their money. To be sure, there are areas where it could improve: Bring on the apps.
But Palm has delivered a device that will keep it in the game and give it a chance to star in it.