Clash of the Touch Titans; iPhone 3G 3.0 vs. Palm Pre

As a service to my readers and as a way for me to lay out and figure out what may be the best of the touch-focused devices either available or coming soon from each of the major mobile operating systems I will be presenting you with five Clash of the Touch Titans articles that looks at the operating system, hardware, carriers, 3rd party applications, and overall functionality. The selected touch screen devices will each be pitted against the new iPhone 3.0 operating system update running on an iPhone 3G because it is currently the hottest device available at the moment. Those devices include the Palm Pre, HTC Magic, BlackBerry Storm, Samsung OMNIA HD, and HTC Touch Diamond2.

The big news of the past week for mobile phone fans was obviously the iPhone 3.0 software update and I posted that this update would have me running to buy the iPhone 3G to use with my AT&T SIM. It turns out that is not as simple if you upgraded in the last few months (I tried the Bold and then went with the HTC Fuze) where AT&T won't even give me an option to buy one at full price. I could resort to eBay and pick it up for a lower price than what AT&T will soon charge for a no-committment iPhone ($599/$699), but this bump in the road of picking one up has given me a chance to pause and further think about what device deserves my hard earned cash in these uncertain economic times. As a service to my readers and as a way for me to lay out and figure out what may be the best of the touch-focused devices either available or coming soon from each of the major mobile operating systems I will be presenting you with five Clash of the Touch Titans articles that looks at the operating system, hardware, carriers, 3rd party applications, and overall functionality. The selected touch screen devices will each be pitted against the new iPhone 3.0 operating system update running on an iPhone 3G because it is currently the hottest device available at the moment. Those devices include the Palm Pre, HTC Magic, BlackBerry Storm, Samsung OMNIA HD, and HTC Touch Diamond2.

A couple of these devices can be hacked and jailbroken to add functionality and features not seen in the original device. I will not be considering these methods since the majority of the buyers and readers will not be risking their expensive devices to obtain a few more features using means that are debatable. I also understand that there may be higher end devices, like the N97 and Touch Pro2, but I wanted to stick with touchscreen only devices if possible. That is also why I have the HTC Magic in the lineup instead of the currently available T-Mobile G1/HTC Dream. There is no Palm WebOS device without a keyboard so the Palm Pre is included in the lineup.

Let's kick off this series with the iPhone 3G with 3.0 OS compared to the Palm Pre running the Palm WebOS. This first article will be focused on what we know about each of these upcoming devices/operating systems, but there are still a few aspects of both that have not clearly been defined and neither is available for any hands-on trials.

Operating System

Mac iPhone OS X: The Mac iPhone OS X operating system found in the iPhone has gone through a few updates since its launch in June 2007 and has gotten better every time. One great aspect of the OS is that Apple has been able to upgrade both the iPhone 3G and original iPhone devices to the latest and greatest version. It reminds me of why I kept an Apple computer for so long back in the 90s and 00s when I could continue to upgrade my computer with operating system updates and didn't have to go out and buy new hardware all the time to enjoy the benefits of the OS. I still have an original iPhone (with an iPhone 3G being purchased soon) and think that my buddy Sascha Segan wrote a great article on how Apple's OS upgrade strategy is key to the iPhone's success compared to other mobile operating systems.

I remember the day I first turned on my new iPhone (after waiting all night in line) and asking myself immediately "How can a mobile phone have this slick of an interface?" It still amazes me how fluid everything seems to be on the iPhone, especially when it comes to navigating the Internet, browsing through photos, viewing email, playing games, and just jumping through all the applications. We have had modern smartphone devices for something like 4 years before the iPhone and it took Apple to show us how smooth an interface could really be if done right.

For the most part, the Mac iPhone OS X operating system is fairly consistent throughout the device and with the iPhone 3.0 OS update it will be even more so (landscape keyboard in all key default apps, MMS support, cut/copy/paste). It is an attractive, icon heavy operating system that is dead simple to pick up and start using. Finger gestures, swipes, pinches, and more are used to enhance the user experience and it really is a fun device to use. This is especially true if you are coming from another smartphone OS that isn't quite as seamless and zippy.

The lack of multitasking is one area of the operating system that lags behind other smartphone platforms. I could deal with the lack of multitasking for many things, but it sure would be nice to be able to stream Pandora and work with email or surf the web as well as have IM apps running in the background. With the major improvements in the API and the server side push notifications we may see some interesting ways of dealing with lack of true multitasking in iPhone 3.0.

Another area that can use significant improvement in the Mac iPhone OS X iPhone operating system is notifications. Google nailed notifications on the Android platform and Apple should look to them for a way to improve. Currently, iPhone notifications are quite disruptive and pop up on your device no matter what you may be doing. They are also associated with apps and there is no central notification area. The Palm Pre looks to take a cue from Android and appears to get it right so I hope this is one feature that is coming, but was not detailed in the iPhone 3.0 announcement.

The iPhone makes the phone experience a breeze too with the very simple way of letting you choose speakerphone, Bluetooth headset, or handset speaker to listen to your callers. Calling is easy with your favorites or the on-screen large dial pad. Voicemail is a pleasure thanks to the visual voicemail system. The proximity sensor also avoids those unintended display presses and works like a champ.

There is no physical keyboard, but there are on-screen keyboards in both portrait and landscape orientations. The key to entering data successfully is to let the operating system predict your intended input and keep pressing on. If you go back and make lots of corrections then typing will be slow so let the software handle it and push forward to get the fastest text experience.

Palm WebOS: Palm needed something big to keep them relevant in the mobile space and the announcements of the Palm WebOS and Palm Pre may have just done that, at least for a short while. However, with a current vague launch date of the 1st half of 2009, they need to work hard to get a solid product released in the next 3 months as people hold off buying any Palm device during this period. The Palm WebOS has some amazing features that appear to exceed what we see in the iPhone and Android OS, in particular their Synergy functionality. Then again, it is very important to remember that we are seeing features and straight specifications are not what drives people to the iPhone. It is the overall user experience combined with features.

The Palm Pre has been shown with the same cool finger gestures and dynamic responsiveness we see in the iPhone. The Pre uses a capacitive display like the iPhone and Google Android devices so no stylus is supported.

The Palm Synergy feature brings together your calendars and contacts from multiple sources so you don't have to worry about maintaining or finding things in different applications such as Outlook, Google, and Facebook. Synergy also aggregates your communication so you can start in an IM chat with someone and then switch to sending text messages through a seamless interface and experience.

Universal search is a major focus of the WebOS, but Apple also just announced that this will be coming in iPhone 3.0.

Everything we have seen so far shows the Palm Pre running multiple applications (called multiple activities by Palm) that can easily be switched through finger gestures and even quickly closed with a finger swipe while maintaining saved states.

Palm looks to have also gotten notifications right with a bottom notifications area that lets you see a small summary and then quickly jump into the applicable application. The notifications look more refined than what we see on the Google Android, but designed along the same idea.

The Palm Pre has a physical keyboard (discussed in the next section) and I am not sure if there is an option for an on-screen keyboard as this has never yet been shown on the Pre. This would mean that text entry must always be made in the portrait orientation with the keyboard.

Let's check out the Hardware »


Apple iPhone 3G: At this time there are only vague rumors of new hardware coming from Apple this summer, but the iPhone 3G and original iPhone (along with the iPod touch) will be upgradeable to the new 3.0 OS. It seems that the original iPhone will not get MMS or Bluetooth A2DP, but everything else should be supported. I believe we will at least see a 32GB iPhone 3G device, if not something more substantial. I would love to see a 3.2 megapixel or better camera and maybe another button to quickly launch a wireless communications manager for quick wireless radio toggling.

The iPhone 3G has a 3.5 inch 480x320 resolution display. It weighs 4.7 ounces and is 4.5 inches x 2.4 inches x 0.48 inch deep. There is a single button on the front that works with a press and hold mode too. There is a volume button, ringer switch, and sleep/wake button. There are integrated stereo speakers is an integrated mono speaker (thanks for the correction by one of my readers) and a 3.5mm headset jack.

Quad-band GSM and tri-band HSDPA are supported, along with 802.11 b/g WiFi, Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR, and GPS. You will also find a proximity sensor and accelerometer in the device.

The iPhone 3G comes in 8GB and 16GB capacities in white and black colors. There is only a 2 megapixel camera on the iPhone with no flash or video recording support. It is a decent enough camera for a mobile phone camera, but I would prefer to see a 3.2 version with video capability.

The iPhone 3G feels great in your hand and the glass display appears to be quite durable and a pleasure to use with no "squishy" feel seen on other mobile devices. It is a solid device, but is a bit big for a shirt pocketable cell phone.

Palm Pre: The Palm Pre is the first device running the WebOS and it has been shown at CES and then on a webcast so far. I should get a chance to see it up close and personal next week at CTIA in Vegas so I should get a much better feel for the device size and build quality.

The Palm Pre has a 3.1 inch 320x480 resolution display. It is also a capacitive display like the iPhone and works with touch. It weighs 4.76 ounces and is 3.9 inches x 2.3 inches x 0.67 inch deep. There is a single button on the lower middle front of the device. There is a top button that serves as a ringer switch and can be used for airplane mode. A 3.5mm headset jack is also present.

The Palm Pre differs from the iPhone with the removable back cover and battery.

The Pre will run on Sprint's EV-DO network with a 3G GSM version most likely coming to Europe soon after the Sprint launch. The Pre also has 802.11 b/g WiFi, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, and integrated GPS receiver. A proximity sensor and accelerometer are also present in the Pre.

The Pre is limited to the 8GB memory (7 GB for the user) and there is no larger capacity model or one with a microSD card slot.

A 3 megapixel camera with LED flash is provided, but video capture has not been mentioned in any materials so far.

The Palm Pre has a physical QWERTY keyboard that is revealed when you slide the display upwards. It appears that this is the only text entry method for the device so you need to be a QWERTY keyboard fan to enjoy the Pre. It will be a bit cumbersome to have to rotate back and forth between portrait and landscape to enter URLs if you are surfing in landscape mode and it will be interesting to see what people think of this design.

Does the carrier matter? »


Apple iPhone 3G: The iPhone is available only from AT&T in the US with support for over 70 other countries. AT&T is the largest GSM carrier in the US, but their 3G coverage still has some issues. I personally have gotten excellent coverage from AT&T in the Puget Sound region and have been pleased with lack of dropped calls and my good quality of customer service so I can't complain about AT&T.

The lowest price for an iPhone 3G plan is $39.99 for 450 minutes, $30 for unlimited data, and $5 for 200 text messages for a minimum total of $74.99. You could go a bit cheaper with no text messages and MUCH more expensive with other plans. Unlimited minutes, data, and text messaging would cost you $149.99 per month for one iPhone.

Palm Pre: In the latest Sprint and Palm webcast Sprint stated what the plans will be for the Pre. The lowest cost individual plan will be the Everything Data 450 plan for $69.99 per month. This includes text messaging, GPS navigation, other Sprint services and unlimited mobile to mobile calls. This is actually a good price and for unlimited minutes you can choose to pay $99.99 per month, which is a fantastic deal if you make lots of calls.

Sprint uses EV-DO Rev. A for its 3G data network and this is actually quite fast. Coverage is dependent on where you live, but every Sprint device I have reviewed has had rather poor coverage in my home area. I do think it is getting better though as my Kindle 2 now works throughout the house, except in my office space.

Sprint is smaller than AT&T and Verizon Wireless and the latest figures had them losing people to the other carriers in the US. Sprint and Palm have worked together in the past so Sprint scored the exclusive on the Palm Pre. I am pretty sure I won't be adding a new carrier to get the Pre, but would consider dropping AT&T if the Pre turns out to be compelling enough. We don't know how long the exclusivity deal runs, but it is probably at least 90 days. After that, we may see the Pre on AT&T and Verizon and if that is the case then I think the iPhone has a bit more to worry about.

3rd Party Applications rock the iPhone »

3rd Party Applications

Apple iPhone 3G: The Apple App Store has been a booming success and was the real story when the iPhone 3G and iPhone 2.0 OS update was announced last Summer. The applications are fantastic and I could spend all of my time browsing around and trying out applications. It is quite amazing that some of the best applications, in particular social media apps, are found on the youngest mobile platform.

With the iPhone 3.0 and the over 1,000 new APIs that were announced I think we are going to see even more amazing stuff from Apple and developers.

Apple has also done an amazing job of promoting 3rd party applications with all of their TV commercials showing you just how easy it is to play games or use apps on the device. The momentum is definitely behind the Apple App Store and I don't see much slowing it down anytime soon.

Palm Pre: The Palm Pre runs the new WebOS and they have clearly stated that no current Palm OS applications will run on this new operating system. The new Palm WebOS has the Mojo application framework that helps developers build apps on HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript standards used in the new OS. There were some partners announced at CES when the device and OS were announced, but I have yet to see a single 3rd party application being demonstrated on the Palm Pre. I think Palm should broadcast another web conference showing some of their 3rd party applications to generate some buzz for the device and platform.

There has also been some mention of an on-device application store, but no details or even a store name have been discussed yet. I am a bit hesitant to jump on the Pre bandwagon until I see some applications running and am surprised we haven't seen more by this time.

Which device appeals most to me? »

My Personal Choice and Final Thoughts

I have an original iPhone and my own iPhone 3G should be here later this week. At this time it is too early for me to say if I will pick up the Sprint version of the Palm Pre and I think this decision will be much easier to make after I get a chance to see the Pre in person and find out more about it at CTIA. My hesitations for the Pre include the 3rd party application and application store, text entry in landscape mode, and overall performance and battery life. I am quite excited to see the Synergy implementation and also believe we may see a bit more from Apple on this when the iPhone 3.0 OS is released.

Either way, it is an exciting time in the mobile space. I have phones from every mobile operating system because I write about them here and test all of them out. If I was a "normal" person with a single phone I would most likely have an iPhone 3G and understand why so many people are embracing such an enjoyable device, even if it doesn't have all the "features" you can find in competing products. Then again, if you are a Sprint customer it looks like the Pre will be a very cool device as well. It is great to see different carriers getting these high end touch screen devices since it gives customers a reason to stick with their preferred carrier.

Purchasing a mobile device is a highly personal choice and IMHO there is not any single BEST device or operating system for everyone because we all have such varied needs. I go crazy every single day switching my two SIM cards between BlackBerry, Google Android, Windows Mobile, iPhone and Nokia S60 devices.

Go back to the beginning »