Palm Pre

In the lightning-fast world of mobile tech, few manufacturers ever recover from a run of poor devices. They might get swallowed up (like Ericsson or Siemens) or simply fade away (like Motorola?) but it’s the rare company that makes a Rocky-style comeback and gets to duke it out with the big boys again.

With the Pre, Palm might just be that contender. For a start, the 3G EVDO Pre is utterly beautiful. Nestling in the hand like a shiny black egg, the Pre looks and (despite a slightly plasticky housing) feels like a class act. The sliding mechanism is rock-solid, revealing a QWERTY keyboard that might not impress BlackBerry users but is well up to the job of tapping out URLs and emails.

What really catapults the Pre into the Premier League, though, is its multi-tasking, baby oil-smooth capacitive touchscreen. Like the iPhone, you can effortlessly swipe, flick and pinch your way through applications. Unlike the iPhone, though, the Pre can have multiple apps running at the same time.

So if you really want to check your email while you’re downloading a video, or stream some fine Pandora tunes while you’re browsing the web, you can. That might sound like a luxury but it’s incredible how quickly you get used to it - going back to the iPhone’s in-and-out, one-at-a-time apps can be a bit of a shock.

By showing each app as a separate card, it’s easy to either zoom in to one app or throw it into oblivion. Loading times are generally excellent although things slow down significantly if you have more than a handful of apps open - also if you’re working on processor-intensive tasks like the functional but sluggish PDF viewer.

Web surfing and Google Maps are almost exactly the same as the iPhone, which should come as no surprise as they both use the WebKit engine. That means speedy rendering but a distinct lack of Flash browsing (although there is a dedicated YouTube viewer on board).

Don’t get excited by the much-hyped cut and paste. It only works on live text fields (you can’t grab info from incoming texts or emails) and is virtually useless compared to the iPhone’s 3.0 cut and paste. The 3-megapixel camera will also come as a disappointment if you’re used to crystal-clear Nokia or Sony Ericsson optics. The LED flash is great and auto geotagging works but detail is extremely smeary. There’s no video capture.

Palm’s PDA heritage shines through on the organiser side. Within minutes, the Pre will import, process and integrate hundreds of contacts and diary entries from Facebook, Google, Outlook and more. When you just start typing on the keyboard and see all your friends’ details gathered together, plus birthdays and profile pictures from Facebook, you realise that this is the way all address books should work.

Texting, emailing and phone calls are straightforward, and media playback is first rate (if you dump the supplied headphones, naturally). I managed to synch music and photos from iTunes but, be warned, by the time the Pre arrives in the UK, Apple is likely to have restricted this feature.

We can tell a product’s battery life is going to be weak when the "reviewer notes" recommend turning off wireless, switching into flight mode, checking email less frequently and "avoiding excessive use of IM". The Pre is dutifully dreadful, lasting at most for a day and occasionally needing a top-up around teatime. However, you can swap batteries ($50) yourself and the optional Touchstone wireless charging dock ($70) is extremely cool.

Verdict

Palm’s near death experience has had an impressive effect. The revitalised company hasn’t just updated its PDA for the twenty-first century, it has crafted a fun, practical and drop-dead gorgeous smartphone that stands close comparison with Apple’s iPhone. It could do with a speed boost, some interface tweaks and way more apps to download, but even as it stands, this is one fine touch-phone.

The Palm Pre is currently available in USA and should be coming to the UK later in 2009.