Hands on: Should you put a Pre in your pocket?

The Palm Pre is a better iPhone in many ways, but lacks the apps and the speed.

I have a confession to make: About two years ago I made a big mistake and bought a phone designed for mere mortals when what I really wanted was an Apple iPhone. Don't get me wrong -- my Sony Ericsson W580i has served me well -- but I'm ready to move up to a super-phone.

The problem is that with the arrival of Palm's Pre and a new generation of iPhones on the way, it's now a much more complicated world of smartphone buying. I've now had a chance to test the new Pre, comparing it to a friend's iPhone 3G running the iPhone OS 2.0 and examining the spec sheet of the upcoming iPhone 3G S, trying to figure out what to get.

Size matters

For me, size matters, and at 3.9 by 2.3 by 0.7 inches and 4.8 ounces, the Pre is a little smaller but thicker than the iPhone. I prefer the Pre's rounded organic shape to the rectangular iPhone, and the Pre feels more comfortable in my hand. On the downside, its case is a bit too slippery for my clumsy fingers.

Palm Pre
Palm Pre

The Pre's 3.1-inch display is smaller than that of the iPhone, but it's still a step up from my previous phone and just big enough for comfortable Web cruising, reading e-mails and viewing videos. The good news is that the display is mounted flush with the case's surface, making tapping and sliding my finger on the screen easy to accomplish.

Without a doubt, it's also the brightest, richest phone display I've seen. But like so many other phones (including the iPhone), the screen picks up stray smudges easier than a first grader's face at a birthday party.

I really want a phone with a touch screen, and the Pre's capacitive technology is accurate and reliable for tapping, pressing and moving things around. I particularly like the two-finger gestures: Spread your fingers apart to zoom out or bring them together to zoom in, for instance. As with the iPhone, there's also a built-in accelerometer that automatically switches from a landscape to portrait view when it senses that the device has been turned on its side; it takes a couple of seconds, but it works like magic.

Keying in

My personal and business lives revolve around e-mail, and the Pre's slide-out mechanical keyboard makes typing easier on the go than the iPhone's onscreen keyboard. It's not quite as comfortable as a BlackBerry, but the 34 keys are arranged in the familiar QWERTY format. At 4.75mm wide, the keys make my fingers feel fat and stubby (and probably will have the same effect on you).

Even though they're small, the keys provide enough feedback to make typing more accurate than tapping on the iPhone's screen. The text appears on screen immediately, with no annoying lag to throw off my typing rhythm. There's even a dedicated "@" key that makes addressing e-mails much easier, but all the same, typing on the Pre takes practice and concentration to master. I had to purposely slow myself down to become more accurate.


With a grid of program icons (3 across, 4 down), the Pre's main screen doesn't show as many items as the iPhone's does, but the colors are more vivid and it's easier to find the right one. All the info I need is there at a glance. There's also a bar on top of the screen that shows the time, network status and a battery gauge, and another at the bottom that give access to the phone app, contacts, e-mail and calendar. There's also an onscreen button for switching between the program list and the active item.

To my surprise, the Pre also does a couple of tricks that make using it easier. I love that sliding my finger just below the screen from the middle to the edge makes the system go back one screen. I can close any app by literally flicking it away.

I like that any of the apps can run full-screen vertically or horizontally, but the Pre goes further. When an application is up but not active, a thumbnail of it, which Palm calls a card, appears onscreen. These cards appear to float above the background; with the flick of a finger I am able to shuffle my programs to, say, read headlines on a Web site while listening to music and then change tracks quickly or go to a different site.

The Pre comes with more than enough software to get started, including the expected (e-mail, Web browsing and music player) and unexpected (links to YouTube and Google maps). Of course, with only 18 downloadable programs available, it can't compare to the tens of thousands available for the iPhone. As of this writing, the Pre had add-ons for Pandora (for downloadable music), AP News (for the latest headlines) and MotionApps (for using PalmPilot apps). Palm promises to have 1,000 third-party programs available within a month. Ambitious, but it will take a long time to catch up with Apple.

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