Apple iPhone 3GS vs. Palm Pre: In Real Life

My Palm Pre dialed 911 without my knowing it. "How did you find out," you ask? The dispatcher called me back to make sure I was all right. You don't see that in many product reviews, do you?

Well, forget about being first--I'm perfectly happy to write the last few words on the iPhone 3GS and the Palm Pre. I spent two weeks with each, using them as a normal human would--not as a reviewer sprinting to get first-posting bragging rights would. Which smartphone is really better (for me, anyway)? I'll tell you. But first, let me explain where I'm coming from.

By the day the Palm Pre launched, I counted no fewer than four reviews already up. Same story when Apple released the 3GS a couple of weeks later. We poor editorial saps maybe clock a few hours--one or two days, if we're lucky--using each phone at a breakneck pace before penning reviews. And you know what? I'm guilty of that with laptops.

Palm Pre, Apple iPhone 3GS
That's the curse of journalism in this instant-gratification, feed-the-beast, Internutty world in which we live. People want a review yesterday! Well, Internet, today I'm pushing back. I needed a new smartphone, and I couldn't decide between the Pre and the iPhone. Reviews from the usual suspects (you always read our cell phone reviews, right?) hit all the major features--but in some cases, focused on finding new and exciting ways to be snarky. (Hint number one: If you're slicing cheese with a phone or slathering BBQ sauce all over a phone, you're not coming to my next party!)

So I put my money on the line and loaded up my dork holster with an iPhone 3GS and a Palm Pre (Nokia's N97 and the Android-loving G1 were not options, sorry). My plan: Spend a full two weeks using both phones simultaneously. The winner brandishes my personal number and stays in my pocket (if you call that winning). The other gets put on hold. The following are some of the knuckleheaded notes and observations that I made to myself--and on Twitter--in stream-of-consciousness order.

"Nerd rage: Double-fisting the Pre and 3GS ( http://twitpic.com/7u0zz )."

Outside the Apple store, my adventure began. Surprisingly, I didn't get mugged by the long line of folks waiting for the 3GS.

"It's nice to have a real, physical keyboard again. Didn't realize how much I missed it. (Sorry, 3GS.)"

The Pre's keyboard is one of the biggest things in Palm's favor right now. The 3GS's speed makes typing on the screen a whole lot quicker and easier than it has been on past iPhones, but my thumbs need more physical feedback.

Here's what really surprised me: I'm always complaining about how I hate small laptop keyboards, which would make the Pre's tiny pad seem like a prime hate target--but there I was, banging out texts and e-mail a whole lot faster than I could on screen with an iPhone. It took me a couple days to get used to daintily using the pad of my thumbs, but it worked. And I have goony sausage stumps for fingers.

While I'm on the subject, I found a bunch of neat little shortcuts for the Pre to keep your digits dancing.

"The 'S' is for speed? Try 'spensive!"

Have you looked at the data rates for AT&T's iPhone lately? It would cost me $50 for unlimited texting and data alone. And that's assuming I don't make any actual phone calls on my phone. Total max cost: $150 a month. Sprint's Pre plan--including voice and data--tops out at $100.

But since we're talking speeds, yes, the 3GS is faster than the Pre. The most painful example was when I tried to get some unoptimized Web sites to load on the Pre. (I typed 'www.msn.com' into both, and the iPhone popped up the mobile page. The Pre, on the other hand, opened the full MSN home page, a few seconds later.) The second biggest slowdown occurred when I tried opening the Pre's calendar. Was it because the Pre was looking to the WebOS cloud for my Google info syncing? Whatever the case, I needed to make an appointment just to see my appointments.

The iPhone booted my beefy 1500-plus-person contact list a second quicker than the Pre. Not a huge difference. Then came the Google Maps test (since both have an app for it), in which it loaded 2 seconds faster on the 3GS during my few on-the-street trials. I guess that's good if I'm sprinting down the street in a hurry, but that leads me to another point...

"Well I'll be--the 3GS compass feature is handy. Now I can get dropped off in SF's Hunter's Point and see if I can find my way out. Alive."

Google Maps on Apple iPhone 3GS, Palm Pre
At first I thought that the 3GS compass was incredibly goofy--and it is--but when I got all turned around looking for a train station recently, it was a huge help. I opened Google Maps and then clicked the locate button in the corner for the map to reorient to the way I was facing. Only problem: The iPhone kept thinking I was a couple blocks from where I was actually standing (not so helpful). That wasn't a one-off problem at a single location, either. Meanwhile, the Palm Pre consistently located me within a half-block of where I was--in other words, it may be slower, but at least it's accurate. Guess it's a good thing I didn't try that little Hunter's Point experiment, after all.

"I'm digging Amazon MP3 integration on the Pre."

No way around it: If you're using a phone for tunage, the iPhone just sounds better. Whether it's the ear-blasting volume or the ability to set a simple equalizer, it beats the Pre's basic functions. Still, as much as I love the iPhone's iPod heritage, I hate the DRM lockdown on these things. It's authorized to plug into only certain computers. You need a written permission slip from the RIAA if you want to transfer songs. I want full control over my music. If I download a paid-for song onto my phone, I want to be able to transfer it wherever I please, with no strings attached. I want to plug the phone into any PC and grab my files.

Thanks to the Amazon.com hookup on the Pre, I can do that. The Pre reads as a hard drive--no jailbreaking required. (Okay, sticklers, I know that iPhone users can download WiFi HD Free as a workaround, but I'm still gonna run into the same music-extraction issues.) Now if only Palm could do something about the measly 8GB of storage space--would a MicroSD card slot have killed you guys?

Oh, and for all the multimedia fiends who need to take their video to go, check out the Leawo Free MP4 Converter for creating watchable, iPod-friendly or Pre-friendly videos. The default (and only) setting is perfect, considering its free status.

"Am I the only one annoyed by the Pre's USB port?"

Because the Pre has moving parts, a replaceable battery, and a flap to open, it feels flimsier than the unibody iPhone. Oh, and a note to Palm: Real smart move putting the data (and charging) port on the side underneath a dangling plastic cap. Like that's not going to be the first thing to get accidentally ripped out when someone's using it.

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