By Harry McCracken | Thursday, June 4, 2009 at 5:00 am
Is it possible to out-iPhone the iPhone? Again and again, we’ve seen other manufacturers come up with phones that try so very hard to look and work like Apple’s blockbuster, such as this one, this one, and this one. Some beat the iPhone on specs; none has come close to matching its appeal, imagination, or sales. For all the poseurs out there, the iPhone still feels like a product in a category of one, nearly two years after it first shipped.
But maybe the way to truly rival the iPhone is to counterpunch. What if a phone ignored some of the iPhone’s most obvious virtues, choosing to zig where Apple zagged? What if it aimed to rival not the iPhone’s look and feel but its spectacular record of innovation? What if the overarching goal was to be a really good, really inventive next-generation smartphone?
What, in other words, if it were Palm’s new Pre?
Back at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Palm unveiled the Pre with one of the most startling, sexy demos in tech history. Judging from the time I spent with a Pre this week, the phone lives up to most of its considerable promise. The hardware is quite good, but it’s the software–in the form of Palm’s webOS, the long-awaited successor to the groundbreaking-but-obsolete Palm OS–that makes the Pre so special. And the combination of the two is enough to catapult the Pre into a two-phone race with the iPhone 3G. (I suspect that one or more Google Android phones will be in serious competition before long, but the only Android phone to ship in the U.S., T-Mobile’s G1, is behind the iPhone and Pre by a furlong or two.)
Many people will find reasons to avoid the Pre, from its price ($299, or $199 after $100 rebate with two-year contract) to the fact it launches only on the Sprint network (a Verizon version is supposedly about six months away). Still, even if you never buy one, it’s a significant product. The Pre is so solid in so many areas that I expect multiple aspects of its hardware and software niceties to influence and improve competitive products. Maybe even ones from a company in Cupertino named after a piece of fruit.
Until now, it’s been a given that any smartphone with its eyes on the iPhone would adopt a somewhat similar slablike shape. The Pre doesn’t. It’s smaller, more sculpted, and more pocketable–less like a tiny tablet computer, and more like a phone. (The form factor feels like a modernization of the one sported by Palm’s Treos; it’s that, as much or more than the software, that hints at the Pre’s distinguished lineage.)
Here’s the Pre flanked by the iPhone 3G and the Google Ion (the phone Google distributed to developers at its conference last week, a twin of T-Mobile’s upcoming G2):
The Pre is chunky, too–mostly because a slide-out QWERTY keyboard is concealed beneath the screen. The most elegant thing about the phone from a hardware standpoint is its graceful curve when the keyboard is extended; it feels equally good against your face in either configuration.
Many will be drawn to the Pre because it has the physical keyboard that the iPhone lacks. In person, it’s strikingly cramped compared to those on RIM’s BlackBerrys, and it sits within a recessed area so that it can tuck away safely when not in use.
The Pre’s keys have an oddly soft, slick feel, like a painkiller in gelcap form; I assumed I wouldn’t like them. But with tiny keyboards, the proof is in the typing–and I was able to type at an adequate clip on them without making a single typo. And unlike the iPhone’s onscreen keyboard, which can seem hopelessly impossible until you get the knack, the Pre’s keyboard is immediately useful.
Then there’s the screen, which packs the same number of pixels (320-by-480) into considerably less physical real estate (3.1″ compared to 3.5″). The extra density makes it particularly gorgeous; it looks less like a piece of electronics and more like a colorful image that happens to be able to change when you touch it. Compared to the iPhone’s screen, though, it’s on the puny side when it comes to text-heavy items such as Web pages. I suspect a Pre e-book reader would be far harder on the eyeballs than Kindle for the iPhone.
The area beneath the screen is also touchable: For instance, if you swipe your finger to the left, you move back one level in whatever application you’re in. There’s a button that’s akin to the iPhone home one, plus ones for power, volume, and vibrate mode.
Some early reviews of the Pre have griped that the case is plasticky and chintzy. I found that it fell short of the iPhone’s solidity, but was as good or better than those of most of the phones I’ve owned. On the other hand, I wish that the USB connector wasn’t concealed behind a tiny door: It’s tough to flick open with your finger, and looks like it’s just begging to be accidentally snapped off.
The Pre’s storage situation–8GB of flash memory and no slot for more–is likely to be a flaw only if you plan to load up the device with a ton of music and movies. Its battery, unlike the iPhone’s, is removable; I didn’t attempt to test its life, but most reviews published so far say it’s adequate at best. (My pals at PC World rate talk time at five hours and 17 minutes in their review.) The camera has three megapixels of resolution and an LED flash, and takes somewhat better stills than an iPhone, bur doesn’t do video.
All in all, the Pre is a pleasing hunk of hardware. It’s not going to render the iPhone’s more screen-centric design obsolete, but it’s nice to Palm try something new.