Palm’s Pre Plus Makes Your Pocket a Hot Spot: Rich Jaroslovsky

No two ways about it: I am one hot guy.

Not that way, though don’t I wish. It’s because I’m carrying Palm Inc.’s new Pre Plus smartphone, which turns me into a walking, talking Wi-Fi hot spot, empowered to allow lesser mortals to bask in my geeky aura. Or at least, to share my phone’s Internet connection.

The original Pre, which debuted last year on Sprint Nextel Corp.’s network in the U.S., featured a striking “smooth stone” design, an elegant new operating system called webOS and -- unlike, say, Google Inc.’s more recent Nexus One -- didn’t scream “iPhone wannabe.” Its big drawback was the small number of applications available for it.

The new Pre Plus, now available on the much larger Verizon Wireless network, doesn’t solve the app problem, and at $150 on a two-year contract, after rebate, it isn’t cheap. But the new Mobile HotSpot application almost makes up for these drawbacks.

The Pre is more compact, but chunkier than, say, Apple Inc.’s iPhone or the Nexus One, which is manufactured by Taoyuan, Taiwan-based HTC Corp. In repose, the screen is all shiny blackness -- even more so than the original Pre, whose function button has been replaced by a horizontal stripe across the bottom that is only visible when the screen is in use.

Fingernail Typing

Sliding the screen up reveals a tiny physical keyboard. On the first Pre, I had a lot of trouble typing; the keys were so small I would constantly hit the wrong one. Things got better, but only a little, when I figured out one secret for thick-fingered typists like myself: Use the edge of your fingernail, rather than your finger itself. Palm has made some minimal changes in the keys, but my earlier advice still holds.

Things have gotten a little better on the app front as well. The number of programs available for the Pre and Pixi Plus, its lower-cost, lightweight sibling, has inched up to about 1,000. That’s still much less than the 140,000 available for Apple’s iPhone or even the 20,000 for Google’s Android operating system, which drives the Nexus One and Motorola Inc.’s Droid. But there are apps for key social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, plus games including “Need for Speed Undercover” and “The Sims 3” from Electronic Arts Inc.

But the coolest app by far is Mobile HotSpot, which lets as many as five Wi-Fi-capable devices share the phone’s Internet connection. Once you install it and establish a password, the phone becomes visible on any nearby Wi-Fi computer, phone or other device as a “webOS network.” Anyone entering your password is then able to make use of the phone’s 3G connection.

Your Own Thing

You can imagine the uses. In a carpool or on a family trip, everyone can do their own thing. You’re no longer tethered to Starbucks or other commercial Wi-Fi locations; any public space where you can get a 3G signal from Verizon becomes a hotspot.

The range is impressive, too. Placing the Pre Plus on a colleague’s desk, I was still able to surf the Web on a laptop computer about 200 feet (61 meters) away. Speed was variable but more than acceptable, even with multiple devices attached.

Drawbacks? Price is one. Verizon charges $40 a month for the hotspot service for as much as 5 gigabytes of data. That’s less than what it charges to use Novatel Wireless Inc.’s MiFi, a standalone device that provides the same ability. But it’s still a hefty chunk of extra change on top of the $30 you’re already paying for a data plan.

Then there’s the impact on your battery: The Mobile HotSpot app sucks power like a straw in a Coke on a hot summer’s day. With two devices connected in addition to the phone itself, I used most of a full charge in about three hours. If you’re using the feature for more than a quick Internet session, the best advice is to plug the phone into a wall outlet or your car’s cigarette lighter.

Offsetting those is the sense of power you get from controlling other people’s online access. If I like you, it’s my world and welcome to it. If I don’t, it’s hey, you -- get off my cloud.

Did I say I was hot? I’m smokin’.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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