BlackBerry Maximus - Pre Edition

"To Pre or not to Pre" - that seems to be the big question in the Smartphone world this week. Here, I will give you a diehard "CrackBerry" user perspective of this new device - does it live up to the hype? Can it every replace your "beloved Berry?" Let's take a look.

So, there I was again - standing in line - waiting for the newest, coolest Smartphone on a cold, rainy day on Cape Cod. Now, I should have learned my lesson at the Storm launch - but, being who I am and doing what I do - it was unavoidable.

I have found that these highly anticipated phone "launches" really bring people together. I had been using the Pre Simulator for a few weeks, so I was actually able to talk about the device and answer peoples' questions while standing in line. Folks were very excited about this new device - some were Sprint customers, but many were standing there with BlackBerrys and iPhones in hand ready to make a "switch" - or at least take a 30 day test drive and see.

Well, everything that Verizon (which is not my favorite carrier to deal with) did right during their launch of the Storm - Sprint botched. Now, remember, here we have a company on the brink of extinction (Palm) forming an exclusive alliance with the company that is dead last in user happiness (Sprint.) You would think these guys would get it right for something this big!

For the Storm launch, Verizon also had about 20 units on hand - the same as my local Sprint Store. Verizon also gave one Storm per user in line - no exceptions. You got a number and then you took your number inside, waited and got your phone. If you were not in the "top 20" - they took your name, you could order your phone and you went home.

Oh, Sprint - this isn't rocket science, is it? Nope, but Sprint gave out no numbers, had no coffee or donuts on hand and had no limitations of one device per customer. So, when I got in to the store I was told I was number 13 - but somehow all 20 phones were gone before they got to number 10. Why is that? Well, they "were told" to give no more than 5 phones per customer in line. So, this one took 3 and this one took 4 and that was it. Of course, they didn't tell us this until they ran out, then they wanted us to pay in full and order our phone - very frustrating.

I ordered my Pre and paid for Overnight shipping. I was told it would come on Sunday as were the folks before me - well, realizing that the "next day" was Sunday - I asked "does UPS deliver here on Sundays?' Then, they corrected it to a Monday delivery. Monday came and went - no Pre. I called again and was told "they didn't ship until today." Tuesday came, I tracked it online and eagerly went to my local Sprint store - I was told it was not there, so I went home. I then went back online and saw it was delivered and signed for before I had arrived at the store earlier - so went back and finally got my phone.

To be fair, the people at my local store are great and very understanding and helpful - but it was clear that Sprint just did not prepare for this (which is unbelievable to me) given the importance of this phone to their future.

Well, now I have had the Pre for a few days and I am willing to make some assessments, share some thoughts and even make some predictions.

I was a loyal Palm user for years - I always liked the company and the first Palm Pilot was my entrance into the world of convergence. I had every Palm, all the Treos and eventually left when I needed the added functionality and power of my beloved BlackBerry - and I never looked back....until now.

This device is slick - really slick. The size is perfect. It fits great in the hand - arguably better than any of the BlackBerrys or iPhones I have used as of late. I like the rounded feel, I like talking on the phone. It does feel a little "plasticy" around the edges - but I can live with that.

The only buttons are a front "center button" that looks like a trackball but doesn't really do much except minimize or maximize the application "cards" (more on that later. There are volume buttons on the side, a ringer "on/off" switch and headset jack on top and a sleep/wake power button. Charging is done in a very poorly designed charging port on the side that is pretty much impossible to open.

The keyboard will initially be a disappointment to most BlackBerry users - the keys are small and "sticky" and might be trouble for big-fingered typists. That being said, I kind of liked it. I have always found that my BlackBerry keyboards had some "movement" to them - the Pre has a "rock solid" keyboard. There is no automatic period by hitting the space bar twice and no automatic @ sign when typing emails, but there are dedicated "." and "@" keys that worked fine for me.

The slide out keyboard is well executed and useful - there when you need it, gone when you don't - it makes for a much more "manageable" device though maybe not as efficient as a traditional BlackBerry. But what the slide out keyboard loses in terms of causing an additional step in workflow, it provides an added satisfaction of completing your tasks - when finished using the Pre the keyboard gets slammed shut and the device pocketed.

The Camera is 3.0 MP but it worked great - shutter speed was faster than any BlackBerry or iPhone camera and the image quality looked better than most Smartphones I have used before.

So far, so good - another Smartphone, but nothing to write home about....until you experience WebOS - WOW!

Folks, this is when you realize that our buddies at RIM have been sleeping for the last two years. How did they not develop something this slick and cool for the Storm - the first touch screen BlackBerry?

I will go out on a short limb here and say that this is, "hands down," the best smartphone OS currently on the market, albeit has some growing pains to work through. It combines the ease of use of the iPhone, but has menu functionality and multi-tasking found in the BlackBerry and it builds on both.

You have undoubtedly seen the pictures, but you open a program and then either push the center button or swipe upwards and the program gets minimized to a "card" on the home screen. Just launch another "App" and minimize it to a card and so on. I easily had 8-10 cards on my screen and just swiped between them. Touch a card to go back to the program, flick it off the screen (upwards) and it closes it.

This is also the nicest and most responsive "Touch screen" I have used. It is a capacitive screen (like the iPhone and Storm) with no push to click (thank God) and it supports more "gestures" than the iPhone or Storm. You can swipe through days on the calendar, you can "half swipe" to bring up icons from the bottom dock, you can pinch and double tap - all that cool stuff - but you still have a keyboard! It is the best of both worlds combined.

This is what OS 5.0 should have been - hopefully, RIM is taking notes and designing a totally revamped OS for us all because this is a game changer.

So, it is the right size, it has a keyboard (which I found OK and my wife, who types with her fingernails instead of the finger itself, actually preferred) it has a beautiful screen, a great OS, great multi-tasking capabilities and more.

I should also say that Sprint coverage was hit or miss where I live - but the Web (which renders beautifully) is fast - very fast - way faster than the web on my 8900 or iPhone - even on Wi-Fi it was faster. Sprint also throws in to their one price data plan unlimited messaging, Sprint TV, lots of radio and video options and an App Store (which, needs tons more apps, but is well designed.)

One of the coolest things we have all read about is that when you plug this in to your PC or Mac, and choose "Media Sync" (you can also choose "USB mode" or "Just Charge" - which is a great feature - your computer thinks it is an iPhone. No joke, I plugged it in and iTunes said "set up your new iPod" and "Palm Pre" showed up with a picture of an old iPod. I just dragged playlists, movies and more into my pre - very cool indeed!

Syncing this baby was also easy and cool. When you first set up the device, you make a "Palm Profile" which is a "Cloud Sync" service that lets you import data from Outlook, iCal, Entourage or wherever, send it to the clouds and use it to keep your device in Sync or you can use Google contacts and Calendar which worked flawlessly. You can also sync with your Exchange server, which is great for Enterprise users.

So, what's not to like? Well, aside from carrier issues, there are some design issues with the phone. The slide out keyboard is very sharp at the bottom when opened - some guy on the web actually used it to cut cheese - it is that sharp.

It is a "finger print magnet," but, then again, so is pretty much every "touch screen device out there. It is slippery - I can definitely see dropping this little guy and with the slide out keyboard, that makes using a case kind of tricky.

It does support "Push Email" if your email server supports it. It was interesting; I could set "Gmail" accounts to "push" but my Comcast email had to be pulled every five minutes.

The biggest "Achilles heel" for this device is the battery. I use my device a lot. I like to stream Pandora, use my calendar and contacts, go on line and email - a lot. I can do all of that on the Pre and, I must say, it is more fun and slick to do those things on this device than any other I have used. BUT, the battery SUCKS! I cannot get more than half a day of "heavy use" and have yet to make a full day of what is "normal use" for me. It is certainly possible that because there is lousy Sprint service here that the device is constantly looking for a 3G signal and that drains the device.
I have read the battery saving tips on Pre-Central - and they do help - but the battery is nowhere what we are used to on our BlackBerrys.

So, the keyboard is iffy, the battery is crappy but the screen is gorgeous, the OS experience is the best in the business right now, the call quality is good, the camera is great, email notifications are very cool and you can do a million things at the same time.

Is this "CrackBerry user" ready to make this my "primary" device and ditch my "Berry?" Not yet. But, this is the first non-BlackBerry device to really tempt me. This could be a great "second" device for me and could easily become my favorite phone to use - but the battery issue is a "deal breaker" right now. It also needs more "Apps" in its catalog, which understandably is thin for a new device and OS.

RIM - please take a good look at this phone. Look at how easy and fun it is to do multiple tasks on this. PLEASE give us an OS that is as functional as this with a screen as nice and a "form factor" as pocketable. Give us your famous keyboard and email functionality and while you are at it, please toss in some of the cool features. And, if you don't mind, could you talk to the carriers and ask them all to throw in unlimited web, data, messaging, TV and media for a price as low as Sprint does? Thanks.

Until then, BlackBerrius Maximus...Over and Out.

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