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First Impression: Palm Pre shows polish and promise

Prior to the first reviews hitting the Web, there had already been some backlash against Palm and the Pre with Mike Elgan presuming that the Pre wouldn’t be able to top the iPhone with consumers and David Coursey offering five reasons the Palm Pre would not prevail. (While I share some of David’s concerns about the long-term high competitive stakes, though, I don’t think it would be realistic for any true “startup” to land a coveted hero smartphone slot at a major US carrier).

Palm was also somewhat notorious throughout the Pre’s development cycle about not letting people get much hands-on time with the device, leading some to suspect that it had something to hide.

Well, if it did, it has sure fixed it by now. The Palm Pre is a compelling handset, and easily the strongest competitor to the iPhone to date. It is good enough to attract consumers to Sprint based on its merits, but may not be as successful in that as the iPhone has been for AT&T due to Palm’s lack of brand cachet relative to Apple and the relatively limited exclusivity window that was revealed by Verizon Wireless recently.

From a hardware standpoint, the Pre is good if not outstanding when comparing it to other smartphones. It’s not going to impress you with its solid feel or materials like the iPhone or Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1. Sliders allow a good mix of keyboard accessibility and screen real estate, and the Pre’s arc opening, complete with the (somewhat funhouse-like) mirror backing is elegant. And while the overall impression of the Pre is more compact than the iPhone when closed, it is not much smaller than the boxier Propel Pro, the other vertical QWERTY slider smartphone currently on the market. I find both devices a little awkward when extended, but preferred the matte back that Palm includes with its Touchstone charger which makes opening the Pre easier..

The Pre’s keyboard has attracted much consternation and, while I have never been very fond of Palm’s keyboards, the Pre’s surpassed my expectations. Palm crowded the middle keys to free up more room for those hit by the left or right thumb. I still prefer the larger rubbery keys like those on Motorola’s Q9 or the forthcoming HTC Snap, though. Let’s face it. None of the four signature smartphones on the market today has a great story to tell in terms of text input. The Pre’s keyboard may be small, but it has a lower learning curve than a soft keyboard.

As with the Storm, placing the insertion point exactly where you want can be a bit of a hit-and-miss. I found the Pre to be about as good as the Storm with RIM’s latest firmware. Apple uses the clever loupe UI element to improve accuracy here, but the user must press and hold for it to appear, causing a delay. The G1 handles this best, using a scroll ball for more precise movements, and I think Palm missed an opportunity by not including one in place of the simple button on the bottom of the device.

Although advocates of one-handed operation would defend the smaller keyboard size of vertical orientation, both Palm and RIM, longtime rivals in the QWERTY candy bar format, should look to the onslaught of popular messaging devices and release a horizontal slider that would allow for a better typing experience and perhaps even bestow cursor keys upon us. There’s more chance of either doing that than Apple.

If the Pre’s physical keyboard provides better approachability than the iPhone’s soft keyboard,, the gesture area is an abstract concept that must be mastered. You are sunk if you don’t understand the Back gesture. However, it certainly has its benefits, eliminating the need for real estate-consuming and often unattractive Back buttons that are strewn throughout the iPhone’s user interface. This is especially true when navigating multiple mail accounts on the iPhone, which the Pre avoids anyway with a universal inbox.

Indeed, if the Pre’s hardware is merely solid, It is in the software and user interface where Palm has really excelled, showing a somewhat more progressive – or at least mobile-centric —  approach than Apple, which is clearly focused on turning the iPhone and iPod touch into powerful and context-aware pocket tablet computers.. Yes, lots of other smartphone operating systems have done multitasking for a while, but none like the Pre, which puts applications right in front of the user with its card metaphor, and makes it easy to launch, switch and quit applications without dealing with cramped task manager dialog boxes. Isn’t it better to use the screen real estate for open applications rather than pages and pages of icons?

The multitasking and Synergy architecture gives webOS the most fluid user interface of any smartphone on the market. It is more focused on swiping than buttons, which makes for a cleaner appearance. For example, in the iPhone’s calendar, one must press buttons to advance from day to day. On the Pre, it’s just a swipe. I also liked the application menu that sits in the upper left corner of the screen, which provides easy access to editing functions and preferences. That said, panning and zooming in the webOS browser is more constrained and jerky than in mobile Safari, and the performance sometimes gets bogged down like on every other smartphone.

Of course, Apple has hammered home that multitasking diminishes battery life and adds complexity, and I am actually optimistic about its push notification service that will relaunch with iPhone OS 3.0, but it’s still not a perfect substitute.

The application selection is sparse, but let’s remember that the iPhone’s was nonexistent at its launch. I don’t see this as a major stumbling block. Apple, of course, has been promoting apps heavily on television, and has claimed a billion downloads. But frankly we are still in the early days of consumer smartphone apps. Other than games, though, a lot of these will be driven by entities that already have a Web presence and so I am sure we will see a lot of useful programs appear for the Pre. Dredge up the Palm Classic emulator if you must, but most consumers won’t care.

At least for now, the Pre’s integrated apps go toe-to-toe with Apple’s and in some areas, like e-mail, beat Apple’s apps for now. I also preferred Palm’s dialer app to the iPhone dialer, which can get bogged down in showing and hiding interface elements.

The Touchstone charging device, a modern take on the old charging cradle, is slick. It adheres well to a desk surface and the magnetic bond is so strong that you can open and close the Pre while it is resting on the device without it slipping off. It’s not cheap, but I think it will have an excellent attach rate to the Pre and enhances the overall user experience of the device, which is what good accessories should do. However, after the Pre has been on the Touchstone, and indeed after just some heavy use, it gets quite warm – warmer than the iPhone, BlackBerry Storm or T-Mobile G1 gets.

So, as with the G1, the Palm Pre impresses more with its software than hardware.. But the Pre handily trumps the G1 on both, which is what one would expect from a product that has its hardware and software optimized for each other..The iPhone still retains a litany of marketplace  advantages over the Pre – brand, simplicity, screen size, slimness, better iTunes support, a robust app catalog, and game sophistication.

Yet, Palm has created a delightful user experience that gives Apple a run for its money. Unfortunately for Palm, Apple has a lot more of it, but so do other competitors that are now clearly playing catch-up. The Pre is neither an iPhone wannabe nor an iPhone killer and, unlike Android, it doesn’t try to democratize and water down the iPhone experience. It is blazing its own own trail, one that will lead into the palms of millions of happy customers across a broad group of wireless operators.