Palm's Pre Plus: Your Pocket's a Hot Spot

No two ways about it: I am one hot guy. Not that way, though don't I wish. I'm generating heat because I'm carrying Palm's (PALM) new Pre Plus smartphone, which turns me into a walking, talking Wi-Fi hot spot; wherever I go, I can allow lesser mortals to share my phone's Internet connection. It's like having a superpower I choose to share for the good of the world.

The original Pre, which debuted last year on Sprint Nextel's (S) network in the U.S., featured a striking "smooth stone" design and an elegant operating system called webOS . Better yet, it didn't scream "iPhone wannabe"—unlike, say, Google's (GOOG) Nexus One . The Pre's one big drawback was its limited number of apps. The Pre Plus, now available on the much larger Verizon Wireless network, doesn't solve the app problem—and it costs a hefty $150 on a two-year contract after a $100 mail-in rebate. But the new Mobile HotSpot application very nearly makes up for these drawbacks.

The Pre Plus, while compact, is still chunkier than Apple's (AAPL) iPhone or the Nexus One, which is manufactured by HTC. In repose, the screen is all shiny blackness, since the function button has been replaced by a slender stripe across the bottom that is only visible when the screen is in use. Sliding the screen up reveals a tiny physical keyboard. Too tiny, in fact; if you're a thick-fingered typist like me, you'll keep hitting the wrong keys. My best advice is to try using the edge of your fingernail.

The app situation has improved somewhat. The number of programs has inched up to about 1,000—or 139,000 fewer than the number available for the iPhone and 19,000 fewer than those for Google's Android operating system, which drives the Nexus One and Motorola's (MOT) Droid. But with apps for Facebook and Twitter, plus games, including Need for Speed Undercover and The Sims 3, your hands will never be idle.

The real fun begins with Mobile HotSpot. It lets up to five Wi-Fi-capable devices share the Internet connection of a Pre Plus or $100 Pixi Plus, the Pre's lightweight sibling. Once you install it and establish a password, you will pop up on other people's Wi-Fi-equipped phones and laptops as a "webOS network." Anyone entering your password is then able to make use of the phone's 3G connection. You can imagine the advantages. In a carpool or on a family trip, passengers can all do their own thing. You're freed from the tether of Starbucks (SBUX) or other commercial Wi-Fi locations; any public space where you can get a 3G signal from Verizon becomes a hot spot.

The signal range is impressive. Placing the Pre Plus on a colleague's desk, I was still able to surf the Web on a laptop about 200 feet away. Speed was variable but I found it more than acceptable even with multiple devices attached.

Drawbacks? Price is one. Verizon charges $40 a month for up to five gigabytes of data. That's less than what it charges to use Novatel Wireless's (NVTL) MiFi, a standalone device that provides the same capability. But coming on top of your regular data plan, it's not a trivial expense. There's also a toll on your battery; the Mobile HotSpot app sucks power like a thirsty teenager slurps a soft drink. With two devices connected in addition to the phone itself, I plowed through most of a fully charged battery in about three hours. If you're using the feature for more than a quick Internet session, you'd better be near an outlet or a car cigarette lighter.

But what difference does all that make compared with 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 of my cloud.

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