Early Word On Pre: Astonishingly Good (But Where's The App Store?)

Palm Pre First, Microsoft launches a cool search engine. Now, by all accounts, Palm has come out with a hot phone. What's next -- Yahoo unleashing a Facebook-killer?

Although the Palm Pre doesn't officially launch until Saturday, initial reviews Thursday in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and top tech blogs were almost uniformly positive about the long-awaited device. If the Pre doesn't necessarily outclass the iPhone, the consensus is that the new smartphone is the popular Apple device's strongest contender to date.

Times tech pundit David Pogue hailed the Palm as "an elegant, joyous, multi-touch smartphone; it's the iPhone remixed." His opposite number at the Journal, Walt Mossberg, called it "a beautiful, innovative and versatile hand-held computer that's fully in the iPhone's class."

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The strong early notices for the Pre can't come too soon for Palm, as Apple is poised to unveil a revamped iPhone on Monday at its Worldwide Developers Conference. For a few days at least, also-ran Palm (and exclusive carrier Sprint) get to hold center stage in the smartphone world before being upstaged by a (possible) Steve Jobs appearance next week.

In appraising the Pre, reviewers especially lauded its new webOS operating system, which allows users to run multiple programs simultaneously like a PC.

"Some of the ideas and concepts at play in webOS are truly revolutionary for the mobile space, breaking down lots of the walls that separate the experience of using a dedicated PC versus using a handheld device," opined AOL's Engadget blog.

On a practical level, that means being able to listen to Internet radio while reading a PDF document or comparing two open emails --things you can't do an iPhone, noted Pogue. On the hardware side, critics pointed out the Pre's sliding QWERTY keyboard as its biggest advantage over the iPhone. While other similar phones sport a physical keyboard, such as the G1, "none combine that keyboard with the stylish software of the Pre and its beautiful industrial design," wrote Mossberg.

palm pre cuts cheese Not everyone was in sync on the handset, however. CNet found the keyboard "cramped," while Gizmodo went so far as to describe the phone as "dangerous" because of a sharp edge when pushing up its screen from the bottom. The review even includes a video of the Pre being used to slice cheese like a Ginsu knife.

The biggest deficiency cited in the Pre is its lack of any storefront so far to compete with Apple's App Store, which now boasts close to 50,000 apps. The Pre App Catalog is still in beta, offering only a small number of titles. Mossberg argued that the Pre can be a strong competitor to the iPhone and the BlackBerry, "but only if it fixes its app store and can attract third-party developers."

Partly because of the app gap, others pronounced Palm's comeback effort with the Pre stillborn. "The smartphone game has become a waltz of elephants, and Palm is just a Jack Russell terrier," wrote Silicon Alley Insider's Henry Blodget, in a Thursday post predicting the Pre will bomb. "Palm can yip a bit and run around nipping at the others' feet, but it's too late to become one of the big dogs."

In that view, the Pre -- for all its luster -- won't help Palm to tackle the smartphone market any more than Bing will help Microsoft wrest search from Google's dominant hold. For now, at least, the smartphone market is still expanding -- which weighs in favor of the Pre carving out its own space. Especially if the phone is paired with the Verizon Wireless network, as expected early next year.

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