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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.

palm_pre_and_ancestors.jpg

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.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 12, 2009; 10:41 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets  
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Next: Goodbye, Analog TV. Hello, Digital TV.

Comments

Rob--I'm very happy with the signal coverage I get with Verizon and I'm about halfway through my 2-yr contract. Any hope that Verizon will start to get cooler phones in the near future, and will unlock all of the features Bluetooth has to offer?

Posted by: ramgut | June 12, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Very nice review. Any opinion on the Ars Technica review that says the iPhone is the wrong device to be comparing the Pre with. They think the Palm Pre might be the first true Blackberry competitor.

Posted by: ilikeike | June 12, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I'm also curious about how the Pre stacks up against the other non-iPhone phones. I've been using the old PalmOS on a treo, and I've never been impressed with the Blackberries I'd seen. Maybe it's the lack of an app store and a enthusiastic developer community. The Pre and the iPhone are the only ones that seem like they are even in the smartphone category. But how do they stack up against the new blackberries and Android phones?

Posted by: tokrueger | June 12, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Rob,

Thanks for the review! Two questions: one, any indication of when a 1.5 release might be headed our way? Two, I'm troubled by the lack of "gatekeeping" that the Pre gives you when it comes to adding contacts from Facebook or Gmail. I understand there's no way to select specific contacts to migrate over to the phone, but is there a way to prevent ALL contacts from loading onto the Pre? Or is it an automatic dump once you've downloaded the Facebook or Gmail apps?

Posted by: cbr1 | June 15, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Dear Rob:

YES, we noticed that you never left the Concvention Center during CES. That is a shame as the Sands had some great innovation showing. CES noticed and this year the 2010 CES will have an eBook Pavilion. Astak is changing to the Central Hall next year because the Media continues to ignore anything but the Convention Center.

A LOT of the time, new companies, the most innovative really, cannot get into the Convention Center as spaces are assigned on a point system. It is up to media people to realize this, I guess.

Posted by: EZReader1 | June 15, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

I have been a Palm owner since 1996. I am with AT&T. Trying to stick with Palm, but get a better screen resolution. I bought an unlocked Palm Pro a year ago to replace my Treo, but couldn't get it to connect to the Bluetooth in my car. I returned it and kept using my Treo. I had been aching to get a phone with a bigger screen, and faster web access.

I saw that Palm was coming out with the Pre, and was very disapointed that AT&T was not going to get something comparable. I bought the iPhone last month... with the promise that the update due out this month will allow me to do some of the functions I miss by not having my Treo (cut and paste text, photos in text messages, etc...).

I would switch back to a Palm in NY second and give my iPhone to my son... if I could get one that worked with AT&T.

So here's my question... Have you heard any rumors that might make my dreams come true?

Posted by: idografx | June 15, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

ramgut: From what I've read, Verizon is anxious to start selling the Pre too--along with some Android devices.

ilikeike: Good writeup on Ars, although I'm skeptical of the Pre's immediate appeal as a business device--not because it couldn't do the job well, but because IT departments tend to resist change.

tokrueger: I think the Android comparison is the more interesting one to make, since it has both a good app store and a thriving developer community.

cbr1: No idea or insight about when a webOS 1.5 update might ship, but hopefully it's soon. Meanwhile, you're correct about the all-or-nothing aspect of Google and Facebook syncing.

EZReader1: If you "noticed" that I never left the LVCC at CES, you weren't paying much attention. I spent most of an afternoon wandering through the exhibit areas at the Sands.

idografx: There are reports saying that a GSM-compatible device running the Pre's WebOS is heading to AT&T.

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | June 15, 2009 7:02 PM | Report abuse

Your review was ok tech-wise, but you forgot to mention the most important part of Palm's re-emergence from tech caves....Rubenstein! Rubenstein was lured from his retirement with Apple to specifically head=up the Pre development effort. If for no other reason..I'd buy a Pre before anyother super phone. Was considering an I-phone..but I would really miss my Treo!

Posted by: ginsue | June 16, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Dear Rob:

Thanks for the reply. That is appreciated. Wished you woulda stopped by Astak. We were first booth at the front. We were the ones showing numerous eBook Readers. At least we know that you were around. We still would like to get samples in your hands. With two lines, Astak is making some great devices.

Many thanks.

Posted by: EZReader1 | June 16, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

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