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The Practically Perfect PEBL

Motorola's latest handset is so appealing and smartly designed, it's no mere electronic gadget -- it's a work of art

Motorola's (MOT) new PEBL handset is a pleasure to touch. It's smooth and rounded, and wrapped in metal that seems to be covered in a fine coating of down. Pick up the PEBL, and it has a certain heft that communicates quality. I took it home a few weeks ago, and my kids grabbed for it as though drawn by a powerful force. It's the force of great design.

Here's the funny part. The youngsters were so taken with the physical design of the phone, they barely bothered with the electronics. They opened and shut the clamshell lid, rubbed the metal against their cheeks (I'm not kidding), and listened to the distinctive click as it closed, which is as easy on the ears as the shutting of a Zippo lighter. This was the phone not as a gadget, but as an object of desire.

Oh sure, the PEBL handles its electronic chores just fine. The sound quality is solid, the camera is easy to use and includes a digital zoom. It features Bluetooth technology that lets it communicate wirelessly with other electronic devices. The Internet connection -- standard for American phones, circa 2005 -- is no more sluggish and maddening than competitors' offerings. My favorite electronic feature, though, is the blue clock on the phone's outside face. It stands vertically like a digital Big Ben, beaming the time as clearly and distinctively as a 21st century pocket watch.


While the phone's outside is smooth and matte, when you open it up, it shines. It took me a quite a while to figure out how to do this. Finally, I saw that you put a thumb on the outside clock, slide it toward yourself, and then the phone gently springs open. The screen glows in sharp color. The keypad is flat and metallic, like the best-selling RAZR. The numbers are divided by curving ridges. At first it appears ease of use may have been sacrificed to create an eye-pleasing design. But no, typing on it is a cinch.

Every phone has its shortcomings. The PEBL screen attracts fingerprints. While the phone has plenty of room for photo storage, it takes too long to open the library and scan the images. And for anyone past the prime of youth, the library images are too tiny to see, each one about the size of a new pencil eraser on its side. The video clips, which go on for only seven seconds, are useless.

Still, this is the first tester in years that I'll regret sending back. T-Mobile is launching PEBL in December. Pricing starts at $299 with no rebates. Not a bad price for a handset that one day soon, I'm betting, will be featured in the design section of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

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