Ever since the day it was shown at CES back in January, all eyes have been on the Palm Pre. The stakes are pretty high. Not only because many believe this smartphone to be the first serious contender to Apple’s iPhone in terms of design and usability, but because its success or failure will largely decide Palm’s fate. There’s been no shortage of hype and speculation around the web, but now, just a few days away from its launch on Saturday, the first Pre hands-on reviews are actually starting to trickle in.

Reviewers came out highly impressed with the device. The multitasking features, notification system, multi touch screen, and revamped webOS platform in general all received praise for actually bringing some innovations to the mobile space rather than just following the lead. In terms of basic industrial design, the Pre also received high marks in most reviews, though some believe the build quality is only so-so and that the device “feels plasticky.” Certainly, there is room for improvement here.

There were also some other gripes with the Pre, of course, but apparently none serious enough to be a deal-breaker. These included concerns about battery life, tiny keyboard and a thin supply of applications – which could change if Palm can attract third-party developers. Overall, it looks like Palm is finally back in the market with a solid contender that has nothing to envy its rivals – unless Apple comes up with a surprise next week.

Reviews: Engadget | Gizmodo | Wall Street Journal | New York Times