Thursday, January 15, 2009

In a Nutshell: Palm Pre vs. iPhone vs. G1 by John Mahoney

CES 2009 brought us a new player in the smartphone upper-echelon. Let's drill down and see how the Palm Pre compares with the iPhone and Android's G1.

1. Multitouch touchscreen/gesture control: All three are capacitive, only the Pre and iPhone have multitouch. The Pre's glowy little "gesture area" has dropped the touchable real estate all the way down tto the bottom of the phone, which is great for being able to navigate with one hand and not interfere with the screen at all. The wavey dock you bring up from the bottom looks awesome, but can you use it out of the box without a second thought or page through the manual? That's my question. Advantage: iPhone/Pre tossup.

2. Multitasking: One of the beefiest of our beefs with the iPhone SDK is its insistence on Apps running one at a time. The G1's notifications drawer was definitely a step in the right direction, but the Pre's interface is the first smartphone OS that was built with multitasking as a core design element. Resembling the Xbox's old Blades, or a less-jarring OS X Expose even, the Pre's "Cards" interface always places you in the context of every app running for fast switching, and notifications from other apps don't pull you away completely from the task at hand. Multitasking is hugely important on a phone, and it's a good sign that Palm recognizes. Advantage: Pre

3. Hardware: Adrian says:

While the hardware is definitely high quality, I'm not entirely blown away by the design. It looks really nice, and original, but it's a little too cutesy in shape and kind of reminds me of an oversized pebble. A slightly larger screen could have definitely been put to good use, and I really don't like the black space on the sides of the screen.

A phone with a built-in QWERTY still hasn't touched the iPhone in terms of sleekness and pure sex. And it might still be a while. Advantage: iPhone

4. Development platform: The Pre's "Web OS" sure sounds nice—all developers need to know is JavaScript, HTML and CSS? Sounds good in theory, but building a mobile app will never be as easy as cranking out a new theme for your Tumblr. Palm's stressing ease of development, though, so it will be interesting to see how it stacks up against Apple's solid, familiar-to-devs OS X-based SDK and Android's fully open source approach. Advantage: Pre? If it's straight-up JavaScript, that's a lot of programmers ready to go. Note: we had iPhone here before, but we've switched with a qualification. Developer community still goes to iPhone for volume.

5. Web Integration: The Pre subtly integrates the internet into the phone at every opportunity, and it's awesome. Contacts get pulled in from Facebook, Gmail, IM and and scanned for dupes; the messaging app shows your last several emails, IMs and SMS with that contact in a single window. Really, really smart stuff. Advantage: Pre

6. App Store/developer community: A smartphone is only as good as the software it runs. On the Pre, Palm is still keeping application delivery details like pricing behind the curtain, but they did say the app delivery will be entirely handled by the phone (without a desktop app), which is a shame. They're saying that they're not going to duplicate Apple's Hobbesian app approval black box mistake, which Android has also hasn't fallen for, but there will be an approval process based on "security and stability." But as we know with Android, a dev community needs enough devices in the hands of consumers to reach critical mass, which the Pre will have to match. Advantage: iPhone, even with the black box, but Android and Pre's more open stances are reassuring.

7. Wireless charger: We've seen wireless charger tech for years at CES, but it's taken this long for a major consumer gadget to come bundled with its own wireless charger in the box. Whoops, it's not in the box, sold separately for unknown $$. But still: Bravo. Advantage: Pre

8. The Network: Dan Hesse, Sprint's CEO, gave our coast-to-coast 3G test a shout out in his press conference. Of course he did: Sprint won (in download speeds). Sprint was the only major carrier without a powerful, hype-catching smartphone choice, and now they have one. The Pre is a data-centric phone with a network we've proven to be strong in a large swatch of the country—that's a good combo. But would you switch to Sprint for the Pre? Ugh. Advantage: Not cut and dry for everyone, but we stand by our numbers: Sprint is the best 3G network in our tests.

9. Physical keyboard: It's preference, but one held by a large swathe of the gadget buying public: physical QWERTY keypads are still the mainstream input of choice. Touch is getting better all the time, but a lot of people still want physical keyboards. But better yet is the ability to choose; unfortunately, the Pre doesn't have a soft onscreen keyboard, and its slide-out is the same meh QWERTY from the Treo Pro. Advantage: It's preference, but on me, the iPhone's soft keyboard can't be beat.

10. Camera: The Pre has an LED Flash for its 3MP camera, something both the iPhone and G1 lack. Flash cellphone photos are ugly, but for a lot of people, they're good enough. So credit for throwing it in. Advantage: Pre

11. Battery: Apple's still an outlier with their non-removable battery; like the G1's, the Pre's comes out for a spare swap too. We've heard Apple's reasons for this a million times, we know the drill, but removable batteries will never stop being handy. Advantage: Pre

12. Copy & Paste: Yep, Pre's got it. iPhone still doesn't. Advantage: Pre/G1

13. Browser: All three use a browser based on WebKit, which has become the standard for the mobile web. We couldn't put it through our Mobile Browser Battlemodo ringer obviously, but what we saw looked great, and it's the only other mobile browser besides the iPhone that supports multitouch zooming. Advantage: iPhone/Pre

So there you have it. We're excited. Are you?

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