Review: Dazzling Palm software beats the iPhone

By Peter Svensson

NEW YORK — Move over, iPhone. You’ve had two years on top of the smart-phone world. Now there’s a touch-screen phone with better software: the Palm Pre.

In a remarkable achievement, Palm Inc., a company that was something of a has-been, has come up with a phone operating system that is more powerful, elegant and user-friendly. The Pre, which goes on sale Saturday for $200 (after a mail-in rebate) at Sprint stores, makes it easier to do more things on the go.

With webOS, Palm’s new operating system, you can keep multiple applications open at once. They’re organized like a row of cards that stretches off the screen, and you flick the screen to switch between them. For instance, if you need to quickly check your calendar while writing an e-mail, you can bring up the calendar application, then flick back to e-mail, then keep switching between them as you try to work out your schedule.

On Apple Inc.’s iPhone, you can run only one application at time. To switch between calendar and e-mail, you have to go back to the main menu every time.

Also unlike the iPhone, webOS will notify you of events that need your attention, no matter which application you’re in. Notification icons for e-mails, calls and over events appear at the bottom of the screen. If you tap on the e-mail notice, for instance, the message pops up.

So webOS makes the iPhone look clunky, which is stunning in itself. It also thoroughly shows up Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Mobile. That operating system has had multitasking for years, but few users have appreciated that. Rather, Windows Mobile has been blamed for making phones clumsy and slow. Now, webOS comes along and does multitasking right.

Also very cool is that webOS aggregates contacts and calendar items from multiple sources, such as Google, corporate Exchange servers and even Facebook. You know how lots of phones have space for a photo for each contact? The Pre automatically pulls your friends’ Facebook photos into your contacts list.

As far as the hardware goes, the Pre is well put together, but not exceptional. It’s slightly smaller and chubbier than an iPhone, with softly rounded corners that make it look like a black bar of soap.

The screen diagonal is 3.1 inches, noticeably smaller than the iPhone’s 3.5 inches. Less screen space means it’s harder to hit the right area with your finger, but the Pre makes up for this a bit by making the surface just below the screen touch-sensitive. For instance, to go back one level in a program, you swipe from right to left in this area.

A keyboard slides out from underneath the screen. It isn’t the best I’ve seen on a phone, but it does the job, and you’ll find it much easier to use than the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard.

When I first got the Pre, I was dismayed by its battery life. I got less than 24 hours of light use out of it, and it would lose nearly a third of its charge if left inactive overnight. It turns out there’s a bug that drains the battery if your Google instant-messaging account is connected to your AOL Instant Messenger account. Palm says it will fix that. When I logged Google out of AIM, I got much longer life.

I extended battery life even further by setting the Pre to receive my personal e-mail instantly rather than checking every 15 minutes. That’s counterintuitive — usually getting the e-mail automatically “pushed” to a device consumes more power.

I ended up with nearly two days of battery life, which I think is acceptable for a hardworking smart phone. But it would be great if Palm made it easier to manage power consumption.

That said, charging the Pre is almost half the fun, if you splurge on a $70 “Touchstone.” You place the Pre on this small charging station, and it uses magic to radiate power through the phone’s back. (The scientifically minded can replace “magic” with “electromagnetic induction.”) It’s a lot cooler than connecting a cable or a sliding the device into a dock, but it’s only marginally easier to use than a cable, so consider this a luxury purchase.

The Pre’s camera captures 3-megapixel images. That’s not an amazing resolution, but I prefer the Pre’s camera over the 8-megapixel one in the Sony Ericsson C905, and every other phone camera I’ve tried.

Uniquely for a non-Apple device, the Pre pretends it’s an iPod when you connect it to a Macintosh or Windows PC with iTunes, so you can easily transfer your music library and photos to it. It won’t play movies or TV shows bought from the iTunes Store, nor will it play songs that were purchased with usage restrictions.

So should you get a Pre? Despite the fantastic software, this isn’t a slam-dunk decision.

We don’t know how software developers will take to the Pre. There are a lot of different smart phone systems clamoring for their attention, and webOS may not be able to replicate the success of the iPhone App Store when it comes to providing a wide range of useful applications.

Whether you get a Pre or not, its brilliant software will leave its mark on the phones you buy in the future, just like the iPhone did after its debut.

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