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

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

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.

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 ( )."

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 '' 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."

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 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.

"Here's what matters: Which screen makes my face sweat less?"

Walking around outdoors, I found the Pre's screen a little easier to make out, while with the iPhone I occasionally had to slip into a shadowy doorway. Indoors, though, it was a little harder to decide. Obviously the iPhone's screen is bigger and pretty crisp--but the tightly packed pixels on the Pre's small screen are pretty appealing. Side by side, YouTube video playback loaded a hair faster and looked a little better to me on the Pre.

What I didn't like about the Pre is that it gave me face sweats. You might know what I'm talking about: You hold a phone next to your noggin for too long, and it can get uncomfortably damp. It was a hot day, the phone heated up--whatever--my Pre was forming puddles. Thanks to its new coating, the iPhone 3GS wasn't nearly as gooey after extended gab sessions. Then again, maybe I should just invest in a Bluetooth headset.

"Who needs apps when I've got NASCAR?!?"

If the Pre had come out earlier, this call would be a lot closer. After all, the iPhone's App Store is only a year old and here we are, a bajillion apps later, with the Pre lagging behind in sheer quantity. You know, like an iFart app. I will give Palm this: It is coming out of the gate with a few incredibly handy little programs already. It has a couple Twitter apps (they need better ones), LinkedIn, movie information, flight tracking, Pandora, eBooks, AP News. And here's where I'm loving the Pre--try listening to Pandora while using a Twitter app. And surfing the Web. You get the idea.

But then there's the NASCAR app permanently burned into the Pre. Really? Thanks, Sprint, you not only stick me with this dopey bloatware, but you also won't let me remove it? It may be time for me to do things the hard way. I'm ready to run the risk of bricking my phone just to ditch this app. If you're feeling equally foolhardy, follow the steps at the Pre Dev Wiki.

"I like how the 3GS's cut and paste is a 'feature' as opposed to what should've been there all along."

I've always complained that the iPhone's lack of cut and paste was a dealbreaker. Thanks for killing one of my main arguments, Apple.

"I took the Pre off its charger 2 hours ago. I haven't done anything crazy with it yet the battery is now at 80 percent. Is that normal?"

I always knew that the iPhone burned through juice, but I was surprised to see how quickly the Pre crapped out. Halfway through my day, and I had less than 50 percent power. It's not as if I hammered the Web with the thing. I did the occasional e-mail, read the news on the bus, and listened to some music. That's when it dawned on me: The Pre has a GPS feature. 'Improves accuracy but can impact battery life,' says the label by the toggle. Understatement of the year! Turning off GPS bought me a full day's worth of normal use. (And, by the way, with the GPS off, the Pre was still more accurate than the iPhone's locator.)

"When smartphones get too smart: Apparently, my Pre dialed 911 without my knowing. 911 then called me back. They know something I don't?"

I wasn't joking when I mentioned this at the beginning. Let me explain it a little better, though. I always PIN-lock my cell phones. When you do that, the phone offers a quick-dial button for emergencies. In the case of the panicky Pre, you're potentially just two button clicks away from calling 911. As I did. It was late at night, and an alarm was going off. In my sleep, I tried slapping my phone to turn it off. What I didn't realize is that my motions had hit the Emergency Call button and then grazed the call button. A couple of seconds later, the 911 dispatcher was hearing my snores. Or maybe the Pre was worried I'd go with the 3GS, and the Pre decided to call for help.

(The iPhone requires you to physically type 911. Emergency dispatchers all over can breathe a sigh of relief.)

"Caught in NYC storm & some drops got in my dork holster/phone pocket. 3GS shook it off, but the Pre...ruh-roh. Praying 2 tech gods now."

You've probably heard a lot of electronics wives' tales about what to do when your devices get soaked. While I was on the road, buckets of rain dropped and doused my phones--I was screwed, right? Actually, no--you just need to act quickly and intelligently.

I ducked into a drug store and bought Ziploc bags and a small box of dry rice. What kind of goofy MacGyver trick was this? Well, dry rice absorbs moisture. So I found a dry spot, turned off the phones, dabbed both to clean the spills off the surfaces, and put each one in a bag with some rice. I was back in business with two working phones a little later that day.

"Voice control? I don't need no stinkin' voice control..."

Congrats, Apple, on adding a neato feature that can cut through my faux Lawnguyland accent and thick Brooklynese. But honestly, how many people actually use voice-command features? Maybe I'm crazy, but I don't mind the extra 2 seconds to sift through my music manually.

And the Winner Is...

Okay, so Apple's iPhone 3GS is faster and more refined, has more apps and games, functions better as an MP3 player, and apparently walks on water. So of course that means I'm going with...the Pre? Yep, I'm stubbornly sticking with the Pre, for a handful of reasons. First, I like the physical keyboard. Second, I need my phone to plug into any PC and read as a normal hard drive so that I can drag and drop anything I want (even though it has only a lousy 8GB). Third, AT&T's monthly rates would kill me.

Don't think I'm ditching the dork holster just yet, though. I'm actually considering getting an iPod Touch just for the apps (Rolando 2!). Besides, that holster makes me look like a nebbishy Starsky (or) Hutch.

Need even more nerdity? Follow Casual Friday columnist and PC World Senior Writer Darren Gladstone on Twitter (gizmogladstone) for game-swag giveaways, odd links, and time-wasting tips.

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Darren Gladstone

PC World (US online)
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