With The Pre, Palm Reboots Itself
My first hint that Palm might be up to something that would rescue itself from a deserved oblivion came during a chat with an Apple developer at Macworld Expo in 2007; my source mentioned that Palm had hired away a bunch of smart people from Apple who probably hadn't left for the money.
Even with that clue, however, I almost skipped Palm's unveiling of the Pre at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. I had a busy schedule, I'd have to wander away from the convention center, Palm hadn't shipped anything praiseworthy in years and seemed lost... but I relented and was surprised by the company's presentation and a subsequent close-up look at the phone.
But could Palm deliver more than a promising demo? As I write in today's column: yes, it can. The Pre has its share of version-1.0 issues, but it gets enough of the core concepts of smartphone computing right to give the company a solid foundation to build on. When's the last time Palm could have said that: 1999?
You can see some of the Pre's features in action in the video tour I did of the device. Read here for more details about the Pre:
* What if you're a Sprint customer in the middle of a contract? You won't get that advertised $299.99-before-$100-rebate price (which itself requires signing a new two-year agreement), but you won't necessarily have to pay full fare either. If you're 22 months into a contract, you get the regular discount; if you're 12 months in, you pay $474.99, and if you're less than a year in, you pay $549.99. But if you spend more than $69 on a single line or $99 on a shared plan each month and are halfway through your contract, you can also qualify for the discounted price.
* What comes in the box besides the Pre itself: a nifty little round charger that plugs into a separate USB cable that can also connect the Pre to a computer; a thinly padded carrying case; a set of headphones that magnetically cling together, like the Microsoft Zune's; a bag to mail in your old phone for recycling.
* The Pre's music-player program supports MP3 and AAC files without "digital rights management" copy controls, but not Windows Media Audio files. A separate video program can play MPEG-4, H.263 and H.264 video clips; it played one movie I'd ripped from a DVD using the free program HandBrake, but not another. Not that you'd want to put too many videos on it -- the Pre, unlike earlier Palm devices, doesn't have an SD or microSD card slot to expand its storage.
* Yes, you can copy and paste text. Hold down the Shift key, then select with your fingertip.
* The Pre's Bluetooth worked correctly with the built-in hands-free kit on a Toyota Prius (which doesn't appear on Palm's list of supported Bluetooth devices), but a Mac didn't find any usable services on the phone. There's also no support for Bluetooth "tethering" that would let you use a Pre as an external modem. Note that this limited Bluetooth utility contradicts what I heard in January.
* In addition to my talk-time test (the phone lasted just over four hours), I also tried tuning the Pre into a Web radio station and got the same four-hour result. Yes, you can remove and replace the battery.
* Although the Pre includes capable PDF and document-viewer programs (the latter displayed a set of documents saved in Microsoft's Office 2007 formats, in addition to three saved in its older, more widely used Office formats), those applications only work with files that arrive in e-mail or that you copy directly to the Pre. If you run into a PDF on the Web, the Pre's browser will lamely report that it "Cannot find an application which can open this file."
* I installed a few different applications from the Pre's App Catalog -- strong>Pandora's eponymous Web-radio program, which suffered from some mysterious bouts of sluggishness; AccuWeather's GPS-enabled weather-forecast tool; and MotionApps' Classic, a $29.99 emulator that lets you run vintage Palm OS programs and, after a long bootup time, satisfactorily ran a copy of HandyShopper.
So would I buy this? I could see doing that -- for one thing, the Pre, unlike the iPhone and the T-Mobile G1, works in the subway parts of Metro today. But I'd also like to see what Palm's next steps are, in terms of software updates. Consider how the G1 itself has evolved since its debut last fall. It had a lot going for it back then, but Google has since released a 1.5 update to the G1's Android software that vastly improves its capability and makes it a much stronger contender (though that release can't do anything about T-Mobile's limited coverage).
Normally, I'd say you could ask me all you want about this gadget in my Web chat -- but today's edition, starting at noon, is focused on the digital-TV transition. So post your questions below, and I'll answer them as I can.
June 12, 2009; 10:41 AM ET
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