I’ve been following the news of the release of Palm Pre since its public demo in January 2009. It is the latest in the series of iPhone “killers”. Likewise I tried out the Android G1 at T-Mobile and the RIM Blackberry Storm.
This latest iPhone killer seems the most promising. It has blatantly copied many of iPhone’s basic UI. Gestures, multi-touch. I was frankly surprised at the ooos and aaahs during the January demo when they showed off the same UI that the iPhone has had for 18 months (at the time).
The Pre adds a physical keyboard, real uninterrupted multi-tasking, higher resolution camera. Most importantly it is a CDMA phone available on Sprint today, but Verizon tomorrow (early 2010).
So I was eager to check out the Palm Pre on its launch day. You can tell that I am somewhat biased against it, but I’ve also read lots about it and had high expectations.
In general, the phone seems like the best competitor yet, but doesn’t seem to me to deal any mortal blows to the iPhone. In fact, I am surprised at how positive the reviews have been so far. Several of the items in reviews seem a stretch at best or downright incorrect.
Keyboard: With some difficulty, it has been explained to me how some people really want a physical keyboard. I can imagine that they become accustomed to feeling the key under their fingers before pressing. You can move your finger around to figure out where the proper key is. But then the effort to actually press the key can often cause 4 or more keys to press on such a small keyboard as the Pre.
The iPhone’s virtual keyboard is much larger, wider spaced, tells you clearly which key you pressed. Part of the trick is not to touch the screen until you want to hit a key, and to press very lightly. With this technique I can type remarkably fast. Many errors, but it has excellent correction that fixes most errors.
Verdict: If you must have a physical keyboard, the Pre has one. But I’d strongly suggest really giving the benefit of the doubt to the iPhone keyboard. The Pre keyboard is passable, but an experienced typer can type faster on the iPhone.
Screen: This was most surprising to me. The Palm Pre sports a 3.1″ screen vs. the iPhone’s 3.5″. Reviews had said it is not that noticeable. I strongly disagree. The iPhone walks a very fine line between being compact enough to fit in a pocket and be used as a phone, yet big enough to just barely be able to surf the web as if you were really on the PC. The Pre’s screen is much smaller than the iPhone and crosses that line towards being more of a phone than a personal web communicator.
Verdict: Its hard enough surfing on the iPhone. The Pre is a worse experience because of the smaller screen.
Misc: I’d heard comments about the keyboard edge being sharp. I agree, it is sharp.
Build quality: Reviews had said it has a cheap feel to it. I think the iPhone seems sturdier because it has no moving parts and has a very strong rigid glass face. However I didn’t think the Pre felt cheap at all. The build quality of the unit I tested seemed good.
WebOS: I didn’t see anything dramatically good or bad vs. the iPhone. Multitasking is a definite plus, although I was struck with how hard it was to test. The phone doesn’t come with anything you’d want to multi-task that you can’t do similarly with the iPhone. The iPhone ends programs when you switch, but when you get back to them they are where they left off. For most things like web pages, google maps, etc. that is sufficient. Playing music continues on either phone uninterrupted. On the iPhone you can even maintain a conversation on speaker while surfing the web. It is very useful for looking up directions and telling the other party. You cannot do that with the Pre because EVDO does not allow simultaneous voice and data communications.
The two most useful applications to run in the background would be Pandora for internet music, and an instant message client.
Verdict: Multitasking is surprisingly not useful in the phone out of the box, but can be very useful with a few add on apps.
App store: As a developer, the biggest problem with the iPhone app store is that there is no way to try an application before having to commit money to buy it. This inevitably drives prices down towards zero. If its a $10 application, you’re reluctant to buy it without trying it. But for $1, what the heck, its only a buck.
The Palm Pre app store has a button to try the application. This is a huge plus for the platform, for Palm and especially for developers.
Meanwhile, Apple is rumored to be launching an update to the iPhone within a few hours that will likely double the amount of memory in the base model to 16GB, increase the processor speed by 50% while doubling RAM (big speed boost), upping the camera to a 3MP autofocus, still for $199.
This will make the Pre look expensive at $299 before a $100 mail in rebate. Who would want to pay as much after the hassle of a rebate for a copy cat phone with 1/2 the memory and no applications vs. the 40,000 applications available for the iPhone.
The only folks I can see buying it are those already at Sprint who don’t want to leave because of a SERO plan or other heavy discount, or folks that dislike AT&T and/or Apple.
The real interest in Palm will be if the Pre is good enough to make them a takeover target by Nokia. They would be smart to buy them. Otherwise Nokia seems doomed with no serious iPhone killer in the works.
A few hours until the new iPhone. Then we’ll see how the competition really stacks up.