Palm Pre, an elegant contender

If not, you’re about to. It’s called “Palm Pre vs iPhone.”

The star of this summer blockbuster is Palm. Over the years, this once-great company lost its talent for everything but making business blunders. Pundits were predicting Palm’s passing — but then the new Palm Pre appeared.

The Pre, which goes on sale from Saturday, is an elegant, joyous, multitouch smartphone; it’s the iPhone remixed. That’s no surprise, really; its primary mastermind was Jon Rubinstein, who joined Palm after working with Steve Jobs of Apple, on and off, for 16 years. Once at Palm, he hired 250 engineers from Apple and elsewhere, and challenged them to out-iPhone the iPhone.

That the Pre even comes close to succeeding is astonishing. As so many awful “iPhone killers” have demonstrated, most efforts to replicate the iPhone result in hideous designed-by-committee messes.

The Pre has the usual feature checklist: Wi-Fi, GPS, 3G (high-speed Internet), Bluetooth (including wireless audio), good camera with tiny flash, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, tilt sensor, standard headphone jack, 3.1-inch touch screen (the same 320 x 480 pixels as the iPhone, packed into less space). The hard part is making it all feel simple and unified — over all, Palm nailed it.

Hardware: The Pre is a shiny, flattened black plastic capsule, coated with a hard, glossy, scratch-resistant finish. When it’s turned off, the screen disappears into the smoky finish, leaving a stunning, featureless talisman. It’s exactly the right size.

Price: The Pre costs $200 after rebate, with a two-year contract. (If you buy it from Best Buy instead of a Sprint store, you get the rebate instantly, without having to mail anything.)

Sprint, Palm’s equally downtrodden co-star, offers a better deal than AT&T does for iPhone. For example, the $70-a-month plan (450 talk minutes) includes unlimited Internet and text messages; the equivalent iPhone AT&T plan includes no text messages at all. Sprint’s unlimited-everything plan costs $100 a month — $240 a year less than AT&T.
And these plans include the excellent Sprint Navigation (turn-by-turn GPS, spoken street names and all) and streaming TV shows and radio (pretty neat if you have a strong cell signal). Still, I know what you’re thinking: Sprint? Like that’s a huge improvement over AT&T, which iPhone owners love to hate? But read on.

Typing: Unlike the iPhone, the Pre has a real keyboard. The screen slides up, revealing four rows of Thumbelina-size keys. They’re really tiny; a BlackBerry’s keyboard is Texas by comparison. Even so, the domed key shapes and sticky rubber key surfaces make it faster and less frustrating than typing on glass.

Phone: To make a call on Pre, just pop open the keyboard and start dialing. Or just start typing — matches from your address book come up immediately.
Call audio quality is about average. The ringer, however, is too quiet; expect a lot of complaints about that.

Software: The Pre’s all-new operating system, called Web OS, is attractive and exciting. It borrows plenty from the iPhone — pinch or spread two fingers on the screen to zoom in or out, for example, or flick a list item sideways to delete it — but has its own personality. Once the gorgeous screen comes to life, the black plastic strip beneath it is also touch-sensitive. Pre can keep multiple programs open simultaneously.

Battery: Everyone griped about the iPhone’s permanently sealed battery. The Pre’s battery, however, is easy to swap.

Palm rates the battery at five hours of talk time or 12 hours of music playback, however, concedes that one full day is about the best you’ll get.

Music: Most phones do a feeble job as music players. Especially compared with the iPhone itself, which, after all, is an actual iPod. But so, apparently, is the Pre.

App store: A big part of the iPhone’s appeal is the app store: 35,000 free or dirt-cheap downloadable programs. The Pre’s app store is starting small — there’s a New York Times reader, Pandora Internet radio, Fandango movie listings and so on.

Palm intends to approve thousands more in the coming weeks, but they won’t be as diverse or powerful as the iPhone’s.

But is it an iPhone killer, as some gadget bloggers have been asking?

The Pre will be a hit, but the iPhone isn’t going away. First of all, Apple’s lead of 20 million phones will only grow when the new iPhone 3.0 software (and, presumably, a third iPhone model) comes out shortly. Second, Palm’s audience for this model is limited to the United States. It requires a CDMA network, so it works in few other countries. Finally, the Pre is not quite as simple as the iPhone.

All those extra features, by definition, mean that there’s more to learn. So do the Pre’s perks (beautiful hardware and software, compact size, keyboard, swappable battery, flash, multitasking, calendar consolidation) outweigh its weak spots (battery life, occasional sluggishness, ringer volume)?

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