- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Perhaps, I’m thinking, this is a pre-release Palm Pre I have in my hands. That has to be it. Why else would Palm and Sprint ask us to fork over $300 for the new phone, with a promise to refund $100 when you mail in a form, and commit to a two-year service contract worth about $2,400? Surely this thing isn’t the final, shipping, product, right?

Sad to say, that appears to be the case. And, on that basis, I’d have to say: You’ll probably want to wait a while before lighting this candle.

It’s not that the Pre, which formally debuted Saturday, doesn’t have some nice features. Its 3.2-megapixel camera is very nice, even if the photos it creates, like those of Apple Inc.’s iPhone, come across at a resolution of 72 dots per inch. The interface is finger-friendly and has some nice tricks the iPhone could do well to emulate: The “flick” gesture to delete e-mails, move program windows, even close programs altogether is nice. The screen, smaller than the iPhone’s, features a sharp display, one that slides up to reveal a small, QWERTY-style physical keyboard. That keyboard, something Palm reportedly insisted on having, is different from the “virtual” ones found on the iPhone and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry Storm.

But there were many things I couldn’t do out of the box — and here I should note that Palm’s schedule and my print deadline gave me about 36 useful hours with the device. One problem was getting the supplied car charger to work, even though I have a new car and the outlet demonstrably powers a portable GPS. Another was syncing music from my desktop computer to the Pre using Apple’s iTunes; non-copy-protected songs should slide over. (Other reviewers reportedly have had better luck here.)

Nor could I easily remove the back cover to attach a “Touchstone” cover that would let the Pre sit on a charger/display base, supposedly keeping the unit charged and handy for viewing data, videos or even a “digital clock” that looks like the old flip-over model most famous from the film “Groundhog Day.”

Worst of all, transferring PDF files to the device for use with a built-in PDF reader batted .500: one file worked, another didn’t.

And while the Palm Pre has an elegant package, even elements of its design cause me concern. Unlike the iPhone, which has a dock connector at the bottom, a tiny cover on the Pre’s right side hides its micro-USB port. Prying it open requires extending the unit to reveal the keyboard; I worry the cover might snap off.

The lack of a docking “port” on the Pre suggests a potentially crippling lack of accessories: no clock radios, no audio-output docking stations, no plug-in monitors that can replay videos. Then again, the 8 gigabytes of storage, though substantial, isn’t really a match for the 16-GB iPhone model, which lists for the same $299 that the Pre does. (There’s no rebate on the iPhone, however.)

Unlike the iPhone, the Pre shipped with a small quiver of applications available from Palm that you can select and download. But so many basic categories are, well, empty, from banking to word processing to reference books, that I’m again tempted to think this is a Beta version without the caveat. If Sprint and Palm really believe this product is “ready for prime time,” they’re in a realm of consciousness I can’t even approach.

To its credit, the Pre does play back music pretty well, handles e-mail and contacts from my Google account without breaking a sweat, and, as mentioned, has a very nice interface. But being nice, as a preacher friend once said, isn’t enough to get you to heaven, and a nice interface isn’t enough to knock over the iPhone.

Unless you are wedded to Sprint’s network, whose CDMA technology isn’t supported much outside of North America, I can see little value in being an “early adopter” of this device. It’s promising, but it needs time and attention to mature into a viable competitor to BlackBerry and the aforementioned iPhone.

I have two more days with the Pre after this article appears. Watch for further impressions.

• E-mail mkellner@ washingtontimes.com

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