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First impressions of the UK Palm Pre: We like it!

Yesterday was the day of the pickup.

I’d been instructed to meet a PR called Greg at a secret location in London’s Soho. Once there I’d receive a short briefing and handover of Palm’s much anticipated smartphone, the Palm Pre. The device goes on sale in the UK today exclusive to O2 and priced to match the original iPhone 3G. It wasn’t enough to send a review loan by courier or recorded post as is the norm with these things. No, on Palm’s insistence, this had to be done in person to talk me through the Pre’s setup.

Paranoid I thought.

I wasn’t really all that surprised, however, remembering that back at January’s CES where the Pre was first unveiled, none of the invited journalists were allowed to hold the device. And perhaps even more bizarrely, at a London press event where I got my first brief hands-on with the Pre, we were told not to film or take any photos. This was nine months after the Pre had been announced and three months since the CDMA version had gone on sale in the US.

All of which did add to the mystery of Palm’s comeback smartphone, a device that, along with webOS, may well represent the beleaguered company’s second coming.

In other words, this seemingly paranoid press strategy was either that. Paranoid.

Or pure marketing GENIUS.

Either way, I was more than willing to jump through the necessary hoops. You see Palm and I have previous form. I grew up using the Palm Treo line of PalmOS smartphones (Treo 180, 600 and 650). And through nostalgia tinted glasses, I’ve openly declared that I’m rooting for the company’s renewed success. I also get the impression that I’m not alone in the wider tech press. Hell, the smartphone world needs a viable competitor on the UX front to keep Cupertino in check.

The handover was swift and painless. It was later explained that the reason for insisting on a face-to-face was so that I experienced something similar to customers who purchase a Pre in an O2 store, which is interesting in itself and mirrors the point of sale program that Palm and Sprint have designed for the US.

I setup a webOS profile, a registration process that undoubtedly enables Palm to own a large part of the customer relationship (a la Apple) and gives the user a place in the cloud to store their crucial data and settings, making life easier if they lose their Pre or upgrade to another webOS phone in the future (regardless of carrier). It’s a win-win proposition for both Palm and the customer, although where it leaves carrier O2 in the value chain, in the long term anyway, I’m not so sure. As phones get smarter, the pipes seemed destined to get dumber.

Next I was presented with a short interactive demo video that auto plays explaining crucial elements of the Pre’s UI, from basics like the multi-touch screen to the more subtle gesture area. All very nice, all very Palm. In fact the Pre’s setup and initial use felt so intuitive, the presence of an overlooking PR was a little awkward.

Finally, Greg suggested that I launch the contacts app and start entering in my Gmail and Facebook credentials so that Palm’s Synergy feature could start its work converging my various contacts into one unified and cloud-savvy address book. However, alert to the fact that the battery indicator was in the red – that’s how it was given to me – I declined and would get to that bit as soon as I was back home. Besides I didn’t want a dead battery otherwise I couldn’t continue playing with the Pre during my commute from Soho to north London (the Pre’s battery life is a potential sticking point based on most reviews).

And that was it. With a certain sense of satisfaction and excitement knowing that, finally, I have a Palm Pre, at least for the next ten days anyway, and after a brief conversation about the virtues of twitter (follow me @sohear) I bid farewell to the helpful PR and I was on my way…

Once back home, setting up Synergy was equally straight forward. After entering my Google credentials into the Pre, the phone’s email client sprang to life, as did calendar and contacts. In some ways the webOS-powered Pre is the Google phone I was always hoped Android would be. Google integration is more or less on a par with stock Android but has a far superior UI. The Pre’s calendar is one example, with multi-calendar support and a nifty accordion metaphor to utilise screen real estate when part of the day is empty.

Importing Facebook contacts, avatars included, also worked as expected, and merging any duplicate contacts between Google and Facebook, for the most part, happened automatically. Manually linking contacts that Synergy had missed was also trivial.

Anyway, you get the picture. I’m impressed so far.

Besides, I’ve already more than exceeded my self imposed word count for this debut MIR column and frankly I better get my skates on for a press event I’m attending tonight. Think gadgets and canapés, you know the deal. Talking of which, I’m really looking forward to goading all of my journo rivals with this shiny new Palm Pre in hand. Although perhaps not. Knowing my luck I’ll lose it.

Who’s paranoid now.

And just before I go, here is the device in all it’s glory:

– – – – –

Steve O’Hear is a tech journalist and consultant based in London. Steve writes the blog last100 and has written for numerous publications, including The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld. He also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. You can follow Steve on Twitter here.

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