Ailing smartphone maker Palm is trying to get back on top with a new smartphone announced at CES in Las Vegas called the Palm Pre, but can the new model really turn around the fortunes of the company? We managed to get a play with the new handset to find out.

Due for a July release in the US, with the UK coming in the second half of the 2009, the phone is a long way from finished. It's probably also worth saying at this point that we were unable to physically touch the device (well not when Palm were looking), instead Palm walked us through a number of the new features, both at the official unveiling of the device and then for a second time in a private room only open to a select few. It might have been launched at CES, but the general crowd at CES aren't allowed to see it.

Therefore it is still very early days and may likely change somewhat as the months draw on towards launch. That said, and we'll get this out of the way first, we were very impressed with what we saw. If this is what is in store, and the Palm CEO has said that the new phone powered by a new OS is just the start of things, then this could just be the lifeline Palm was hoping for. Here is why.

Starting with the design is probably a good start. The Pre is small 59.57mm (W) x 100.53mm (L, closed) x 16.95mm (D), weighs 135 grams and is very curvy with a glossy front and a matt black finish. The 3.1-inch touch screen with a vibrant 24-bit colour 320 x 480 resolution HVGA display screen dominates the front. When we say dominates we mean it. Like the iPhone there is just one home button at the bottom and no other buttons, well not at first glance.

Although the screen doesn't appear to take up the whole of the front of the phone, it actually does because of the hidden "gesture" area that means you can scroll through menus and pages without having to cover the screen with your finger. A nice touch. Another nice touch is that it's multi-touch so you get the same pinching movement to zoom in as the Apple iPhone. In our demo the zooming seemed incredibly smooth and the response even smoother. It seems Palm has cracked it in the same way Apple has.

It might have a touchscreen, but Palm clearly isn't happy with the notion of having to fiddle around with an on-screen keyboard. The answer, a slide out QWERTY offering that curves its way out the bottom of the phone. Big enough to type on, our demo girl seemed to have no problem typing stuff, but then again it would be interesting to see what it's like with bigger thumbs.

Elsewhere the design features Palm's standard ringer off button so you can silent calls at the press of a button, a 3.5mm headphone jack and even a speaker so you can share the music love. For the photographer or video conference dude in you there is a 3-megapixel camera on the back with an LED flash and a smaller camera on the front for video calling. Unfortunately we weren’t shown the camera working.

On the whole the design is very good, it's small, a lot smaller than the BlackBerry Storm and the Apple iPhone and as for the T-Mobile G1, well it makes it look like something from the dark ages, or maybe just the late 80s.

Inside, the US launch device will get EVDO connectivity on Sprint, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g, integrated GPS and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR with A2DP stereo Bluetooth support. You'll also get 8GB of on board storage, however no microSD slot to expand it even further and, with SanDisk announcing a 16GB card at CES, that's an impressive 24GB available in total.

Powered by a Texas Instruments chip the company has yet to confirm whether or not a UK version would be 3G or not; let's hope so.

It's also full of sensors; there is a proximity sensor, which automatically disables the touchscreen and turns off the display whenever you put the phone up to your ear, a light sensor that dims the display if the ambient light is low and an accelerometer that automatically orients web pages and photos to your perspective.

A direct dig at Apple - the battery is removable - although Palm has yet to state a promised battery time.

But it's not just a new handset that the company has launched before bunging on Windows Mobile 6, oh no. Palm has developed an entirely new OS for the device called webOS that places the Internet and social interaction at the forefront of what it does and how it works.

Keen, like every other manufacturer to get developers involved, the system will be open to all to develop for and according to Palm will be as easy as building a page on the Internet. If you can code HTML we are told you can code an app for the Palm webOS.

With that in mind Palm already has a stack of players on board including Facebook, but the OS does seem like a breath of fresh air.

There are no close buttons, no save buttons, no dragging and dropping, everything just works automatically saving as you go. It's a brave move and one that is likely to appeal to the masses who are not sure about the intricacies of mobile phones, but still want something powerful enough to stay in touch.

So what you get is a homepage that looks like the iPhone Safari browser application.

Pages float on a virtual desktop running your favourite programmes, be it your contacts list or your web browser. These can then be shuffled through like a deck of cards, worked on and then tossed back into the pile all still while being live.

It's a very neat trick, but our main concern is what this will do to battery life, especially if those apps are continuously requesting information from the Internet.

Interaction in our demo between the apps seemed very good. The interface is clean, easy to understand and borrows a number of features from a number of different devices and programmes.

Taking BlackBerry's ability to start typing your number straight from the keypad, Palm has taken this one step further and allowed you to search the device by typing. Typing blue for example will bring up your contacts, emails and even applications with the word blue in it making access to your data incredibly easy.

Then there is the idea that because everything is running at the same time you can be notified rather like a news channel ticker tape as to what is going on elsewhere in your phone, what messages you've received etc. The beauty is that you can either choose to interact with this information or continue to work in the application you are already in.

Although heavily focused towards the consumer, the business folk aren't being left out either and when it comes to messaging it's got all the usual support; email, including Outlook EAS (for access to corporate Microsoft Exchange servers), as well as personal email support, (POP3, IMAP) IM, SMS and MMS capabilities. All are done from a central bucket so you can monitor and follow everything at the same time in the same place.

And all these functions are before you get on to the social interaction element of the phone that, like the recently launched INQ1 in the UK, synchronises your contacts and their multiple email accounts across the likes of Google, Facebook, Yahoo and so on.

And this is also before you get to the neat features like the calendar squashing the deadspace so you can see what your diary looks like on one page, even if you have a four hour block of nothing in the middle. Palm has really thought about the details.

First Impressions

So what are our first impressions? Well from our brief time with the device we are passively impressed, it's the best thing to come out of Palm since the first Treo and probably like a lot of people are amazed that they've managed, if they do, to have pulled off something so stunning.

It's like a student that was once really good then got in with a bad group only to see the light and buck up his ideas.

Of course it's early days, the demo people where reluctant to stray from the pre-selected demo and when we did convince them to do it you could see that things might still be a little buggy, but this is a phone that isn't due out for another 6 months not one that's already out (hint hint RIM).

Should you be excited? If it can live up to the promise that it's set out, then yes. Palm, it seems is back.

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