Walt Mossberg

Palm’s New Pre Takes On iPhone

In the new era of hand-held computers — super-smart touch-screen phones that run sleek, compelling software — Apple’s iPhone has been king. A new, improved iPhone is expected to be announced on June 8.

But on June 6, Apple will get a powerful competitor in this category. It’s a beautiful, innovative and versatile hand-held computer that’s fully in the iPhone’s class. It’s called the Pre, and it comes from Palm, the company that pioneered the hand-held computer in the 1990s.

I’ve been testing the Pre for a couple of weeks, and I like it a lot, despite some important drawbacks that will have to be remedied.

Pre sports an all-new operating system called webOS. Like the iPhone, Google’s new Android phone operating system, and the modern BlackBerry models from Research in Motion, the Pre is meant to do much more than make phone calls, send and receive messages, and browse the Web. It’s a platform, like a PC, that’s designed to run a wide variety of sophisticated third-party programs, or apps, from social-networking gateways to games to business tools. Palm plans to build a whole line of devices based on webOS.

The Pre is launching on the Sprint network in the U.S., though it will be offered by other carriers later. It includes Wi-Fi connectivity. Like the iPhone, it costs $200 — but there’s a catch. At most stores, you get that price only after a $100 mail-in rebate. And there’s another catch. Production of the Pre will be limited at first, so they’ll be hard to come by for a while.

I consider the Pre to be potentially the strongest rival to the iPhone to date, provided it attracts lots of third-party apps, which it sorely lacks at launch. Its design is much better than that of the two other main iPhone-class competitors: the T-Mobile G1, which uses Android, and RIM’s touch-screen BlackBerry Storm.

Whether the Pre is better than the iPhone depends on your personal preferences, though I’d note that the new iPhone to be unveiled next week will have lots of added features that could alter those calculations.

The Pre’s biggest advantage over the iPhone is that, in addition to sporting an elegant touch-screen interface that matches or exceeds Apple’s, the new Palm device has a real physical keyboard that slides out from its curved body. While I like the iPhone’s virtual on-screen keyboard, others hate it, and yearn for a device with both a great touch interface and a physical keyboard. The Pre delivers.

Many other iPhone wannabes have physical keyboards, including the G1. But none combine that keyboard with the stylish software of the Pre and its beautiful industrial design, which makes the new Palm feel great in the hand. The phone is relatively small — though pretty thick — and has a gently curved back.

The Pre also features an elegant new take on the multitouch user interface. It uses a card metaphor. Each program, or window, appears in virtual cards on the screen, and you can flip through them and zoom in to use one, or quickly dismiss one by flicking it up and off the screen. An individual email, or contact, can occupy its own card. And, unlike on the iPhone, the Pre can simultaneously run any programs you choose.

Also, some gestures — like a quick sideways swipe to go to the previous screen — are performed in a black area below the display, which also has a button that zooms in and out of card view.

The other big, new idea in this phone is called Synergy. It automatically can merge similar contacts from disparate sources, like Google and Facebook, and can display multiple calendars from different sources as well.

Palm stresses wireless capability. It automatically syncs over the air with Google’s calendar and contacts, and with Microsoft Exchange. This worked pretty well in my tests, though syncing some items wasn’t instant. It also can connect with numerous email services and performs BlackBerry-style push email.

Going further, the Pre features a wireless backup service that automatically stores a copy of your data — email, contacts and calendar — on remote servers, so you can recover your stuff if need be.

For syncing big files, like photos, videos and music, Palm has taken an audacious approach: It simply uses its rival’s software, Apple’s iTunes. The Pre team, headed by a former top engineer at Apple, figured how to make iTunes think a Pre is an iPhone or iPod, and the software acts accordingly. Of course, Apple can alter iTunes to block this, but in my tests, it worked perfectly.

The Pre’s biggest disadvantage is its app store, the App Catalog. At launch, it has only about a dozen apps, compared with over 40,000 for the iPhone, and thousands each for the G1 and the modern BlackBerry models. Even worse, the Pre App Catalog isn’t finished. It’s immature, it’s labeled a beta, and Palm has yet to release the tools for making Pre apps available to more than a small group of developers.

In fact, during my testing, one of my downloads from the App Catalog caused my Pre to crash disastrously — all my email, contacts and other data were wiped out, and the phone was unable to connect to the Sprint network or Wi-Fi. Palm conceded the catastrophe was due to problems it still has getting the App Catalog to work with the phone’s internal memory, and explained that this is one reason it hasn’t widely distributed the developer tools.

The good news is that the Pre’s impressive backup system allowed me to quickly and easily get back almost all my data and to restore the phone’s connectivity.

Sprint has loaded the Pre with some of its own apps, including its turn-by-turn navigation and mobile TV services. But whether the Pre will be a powerful platform for third-party apps remains an open question.

The Palm Pre is a short and thick, black plastic device that easily fits in a pants pocket or small purse when the keyboard isn’t exposed. The screen, while smaller than the iPhone’s, is still vibrant and very readable. The keyboard has a slightly sticky feel, but worked pretty well for me, and has dedicated keys for typing periods and the @ symbol used so often online.

There are only a handful of buttons, and my only real criticism of the industrial design is that these were rubbery and protruded too little from the body, making them hard to press unseen. The power button is clumsy to use when the keyboard is open.

The Pre’s 3 megapixel camera has a flash and took decent pictures, but it can’t record video. The device has 8 gigabytes of built-in memory, but no slot for adding more.

In my tests in San Diego and Washington, phone calls on the Pre were clear on both ends, and conference calls worked fine. Calls even worked over Bluetooth in my car, though my address book failed to transfer to the car’s dashboard display.

The Pre was about as fast as my iPhone when using Wi-Fi, but, at least in the cities where I did my testing, its data speeds on Sprint’s network handily topped AT&T’s data speeds on the iPhone.

The Pre has some other nice advantages over the iPhone, at least for now. It includes MMS — the ability to send photos directly to other phones — copy and paste, and a universal search function that looks up terms not only on the phone, but also online, even in Twitter. In certain screens, you can just start typing and the search begins. Oddly, though, it can’t search email, though it does search the built-in Google Maps program.

Unfortunately for Palm, Apple has both a new iPhone operating system and new iPhone hardware coming, likely available within a month, that could obviate many of these advantages.

Apple already has announced it’s adding MMS, universal search, and copy and paste. And, although Apple hasn’t announced any new hardware features, I expect to see an iPhone with up to 32 gigabytes of memory, video recording, a higher-resolution camera, a compass, and greater operating speed. Plus, there are persistent rumors that Apple will announce at least one iPhone at a drastically lower price than $199.

However, Apple isn’t likely to match two of the Pre’s big advantages: multitasking and a physical keyboard.

Pre and iPhone

The Pre has two more nice features. One is its monthly calling plan from Sprint. While its minimum cost, with voice and data, is the same $70 as AT&T’s plan for the iPhone, Sprint includes unlimited text messaging, while AT&T charges extra for texting.

The other is Palm will offer a $70 Pre accessory, Touchstone, that charges the phone when you simply lay the Pre on top of it, and automatically puts the Pre into speakerphone mode when a call comes in during charging.

But the Pre has a few other important downsides. Battery life between charges is relatively weak. While it’s in line with competitors with a claimed five hours of talk time, and matches the iPhone’s claimed five hours of Web surfing time, it offers only half the iPhone’s 24 hours of continuous music playback and claims just five hours of video playback, versus seven for the iPhone.

In my testing, the Pre mostly made it through the day without running out of juice. But on at least one day, it died in midafternoon, even though I was using Wi-Fi most of that day and not the power-hungry cellphone network. Unlike the iPhone, the Pre does include a removable battery. Extras cost about $50.

Another downside: the Pre’s autocorrect system, for instantly fixing mistyped words, is puny. Even with a physical keyboard, people make typos, and Palm only fixes about 2,500 common words, like “the.” By contrast, both the BlackBerry and iPhone have tens of thousands of autocorrections built in, including fixes for long, complex words.

There are several smaller problems, too. There’s no easy way to get to the top of a long list or to quickly delete a large group of emails, no keyboard shortcuts, no voice control and no Facebook app. Palm says it plans to add most of these, and notes that the Pre was designed to be updated over the air, without requiring users to plug it into a PC.

All in all, I believe the Pre is a smart, sophisticated product that will have particular appeal for those who want a physical keyboard. It is thoughtfully designed, works well and could give the iPhone and BlackBerry strong competition — but only if it fixes its app store and can attract third-party developers.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

Top Products in Two Decades of Tech Reviews

December 17, 2013 at 6:04 pm PT

Diabetes Data Beamed to Your Phone

December 10, 2013 at 6:16 pm PT

Two Houses, One Cable TV Bill

December 10, 2013 at 6:14 pm PT

Calling Overseas on Wi-Fi

December 03, 2013 at 6:18 pm PT

Dell Tablets at Bargain Prices

December 03, 2013 at 6:12 pm PT

Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

Walt Mossberg’s Product Guides

Desktop PC’s and Laptops

The Laptops to Buy

Digital Cameras

Digital Cameras Improve Zooms, HD Function