Wading into the smartphone world with a Palm Pre

I severed my last land line about a decade ago, so I probably count as a reasonably early cell-phone adopter. Was I driven by a desire to carry my telephone everywhere? No. I was a student stuck moving between university residences and summer basement suites a couple of times a year, and having my phone line transferred each time was getting to be a pain.

Student life also prompted me to become a heavy PDA user. A Palm-based Handspring Visor rarely left my side, providing an invaluable note-taking platform for class, the ability to organize easily my increasingly busy schedule, and hours distraction thanks to Tetris. Nothing impresses the ladies like scrawling their name and phone number in graffiti. Uh, yeah.

Given this history, you might be surprised to learn that I've only recently dipped into smartphone territory. The truth is I've never really used my phone much. Since my days are spent in front of a nicely equipped desktop PC or within arm's reach of an ultraportable notebook, it's been easy to pass on the growing trend. Besides, I'm cheap. Years of long cellular contracts have me accustomed to getting my phones for free, and I've never had to shell out extra for a data plan.

Unfortunately, the more time I spend with my desktop and notebook, the more dependent I become on email, the web, and, well, Google. I can live without these conveniences at my beck and call, but having them at my fingertips sure makes life a lot easier. So I resigned myself to a smartphone upgrade the next time my contract came due, in part because I was beginning to feel a half-hearted need for such a device, but also because I was curious to see what I'd actually do with one.

Fate intervened a few weeks ago when my LG Flip Shine finally noticed that it was long out of warranty. The phone bit worked just fine, but both screens were dead, making texting and screening calls rather difficult. At long last, it was time for a smartphone. But which one?

The iPhone 4 isn't available up here yet, and while it's arguably the best smartphone around, I'm too principled—or stubborn—to hand my money over to a company whose behavior and attitude I largely abhor. I checked out a few BlackBerry handsets, but nothing really caught my eye. Ditto for the incredibly weak selection of Android phones available through Canadian carriers. We seem to get all the leftover scraps from the US market, and there's enough demand south of the border to delay the arrival of fresh droids up north.

New models were coming, I was told, but the not-so-helpful carrier reps didn't know when. Since I didn't have the option of waiting, I browsed further and found myself facing a Palm Pre. Thanks to a special promotion, the Pre was free on a three-year contract and came with a data plan that was $15/month cheaper than equivalent smartphone plans. Sold.

Well, my mind wasn't made up quite that quickly. Only after a little online research and a harrowing trip through my tweener-infested local mall to test drive various other devices did I end up with the Palm in my grasp.

I've only had the Pre for a couple of weeks now, and while it hasn't changed my life, I have to admit that it's been a positive addition overall. Well, except for the glossy plastic casing, which is just wrong for a device that's meant to be handled constantly. Nothing makes a piece of high technology look cheap like a greasy thumbprint, and I yearn for the brushed aluminum finish of my old LG. I also miss how the Shine disappeared in my pocket. The Pre is hardly huge, but it's noticeably bigger than my old flip phone. So is every other smartphone.

Two weeks in, I'm still not used to the extra bulk in my pocket. I do prefer the Pre's compact dimensions to slimmer designs with larger footprints, though.

You give up some screen size to the latest smartphones with the Pre, whose 320x480 pixels are spread across 3.1 inches. That's been plenty of real estate for my needs thus far, and screen's image quality is pretty good. The colors are vibrant and fonts are rendered smoothly.

I had initially suspected the slide-out keyboard would be entirely too small to be useful, but it works surprisingly well with my fat, stubby thumbs. There's just enough curvature to the keys and separation between them to allow this thumb-typing noob to bang out text messages quickly. I've also been able to craft long, perfectly punctuated emails with reasonable speed, little effort, and almost zero frustration. Glossy key caps, though. Ugh.

The Pre's combination of a decent hardware keyboard and a multi-touch-infused display strikes a nice balance, I think. I've been even more impressed with the device's webOS operating system, whose interface feels familiar, intuitive, and mostly snappy. The UI was painfully choppy out of the box, but that was before I installed the latest 1.4.5 version of webOS. With the new release, the interface is nice and responsive as long as I stay away from heavy multitasking, which I've only flirted with out of curiosity rather than actual need. Multitasking support is certainly nice to have. However, I suspect that few folks really need to run a lot of applications at once on a device of this nature.

My Pre is the standard model. Its 8GB of storage capacity will probably be sufficient, but the absence of a microSD card slot is disappointing. If my old flip phone had one, why doesn't my supposedly more advanced smartphone? Speaking of my old flip phone, it required charging a lot less frequently than the Pre, which I have to plug in every few days. That's reasonable for a this sort of device, I guess, but it's been a definite adjustment from the week or so that my old phone would last between charges.

If my day-to-day life called for a smartphone more often, I'd probably have to charge the Pre daily. I'm still using it more than I'd anticipated, though. The keyboard has proved effective for hammering out notes wherever inspiration strikes, be it out walking the dog, waiting in line at the little Thai place down the street, or while making my regularly scheduled morning deposit. I have to admit that I've done some web surfing from the throne, as well. Not that much from elsewhere in the house, but more at the pub across the street, which conveniently has free Wi-Fi. The Pre's built-in Wi-Fi also came in handy on a recent trip south to ride the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic. Not wanting to be raped by roaming data charges, I was able to keep tabs on Tour de France results at various unsecured hotspots along the route.

Browsing standard websites on a 3" display is just as unsatisfying as one might expect, but it works in a pinch. Ha! The Pre's Gmail integration is pretty good, too, and I've already found myself responding more quickly to personal emails during brief moments of downtime when I'm out and about. By far the biggest surprise has been the Pre's ability to get me out of bed faster than my previous flip phone. The few seconds that it takes to input my password and unlock the phone seems to shake free a couple of extra cobwebs, and I'm actually hitting snooze less often as a result.

I'm sure I'll be using the Pre more in the coming weeks and months. Apps will be downloaded. Games will be played. Google Maps will save me the embarrassment of asking for directions. And all for much less than I thought it would cost, thanks to a lucky discount. I suspect the Pre was the subject of such an aggressive promotion due to poor sales. iPhones and BlackBerries are everywhere in Vancouver, and I can't recall ever actually seeing a Pre out in the wild. That's a shame, because as far as smartphones go, the Pre seems to be a pretty good one.

Tip: You can use the A/Z keys to walk threads.
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