CES 2009: Hands on with the Palm Pre - the real iPhone killer

Regular readers might remember just how giddy I was when, two years ago to the day, I first got my hands on a prototype Apple iPhone ("The Best Thing

Regular readers might remember just how giddy I was when, two years ago to the day, I first got my hands on a prototype Apple iPhone ("The Best Thing Ever"). Not only was this a brilliant product, but it heralded the arrival of a golden age of smartphones. Or so I thought.

I still believe the iPhone is a work of brilliance, but I've been surprised at how long its taken the others to catch up. Nokia's Tube, for example, is a long way from being a true iPhone rival; the T-Mobile G1 is a great operating system stuck in an overweight body; and even the cool Blackberry Storm falls noticeably short when it comes to multimedia (not to mention the shocking omission of Wi-Fi).

But when I managed to get hands on with the Palm Pre earlier today, I realised that I was holding in my hand a device that was a true match for the iPhone. Perhaps even an iPhone beater...

I need to be careful. I didn't get long with the Pre, and the software is unfinished and still a little buggy. The final phone isn't due out until later this year (first half in the US; soon after in Europe). But assuming Palm can iron these problems out, it's a handset that delivers all of the sizzle of the iPhone, and adds a bunch of new features on top.

Unlike the iPhone, the Pre has a 3MP camera with flash. It has a removeable battery. A slide-down QWERTY keyboard. And a copy-and-paste function. It's clear that Palm has been paying attention to the iPhone's critics.

But what's most wonderful is that Palm has found its mojo again after years in the wilderness. Back in the 1990s, before I joined Stuff, I was a proud owner of a  super-stylish Palm V PDA. I loved the design, and the simplicity of the software. The Pre feels like it has the V's DNA within it.

The Pre's software is totally new, however - dubbed Palm WebOS, it's specifically designed for smartphones but built around a solid Linux core (just as the iPhone's OS is built around a similar UNIX core). Backed by a new and powerful Texas Instruments processor, WebOS delivers all the eye-candy animations and transitions that make using the iPhone such a joy. It's built for multi-tasking, too, and you I saw it running a number of applications without slowing down - all of which can be minimised as 'cards' on the desktop, and flicked between like web pages on the iPhone.

The Palm Pre is packed with the same sensors as the iPhone, too - tilt it horizontally and the screen rotates, hold it to your face and the backlight dims. It has the same multi-touch controls, too. In fact, it's impossible to conceive that the Pre would exist without the iPhone - Palm has been taking more than design cues from Apple; Palm's chairman Jon Rubinstein is a former Apple exec, and his product development and PR people come from Apple too.

So far, so Apple; but aside from the hardware improvements listed above, the Pre seems to have the edge on the iPhone (for now) when it comes to integrating with online services - you can synchronise and combine address books, calendars and inboxes from Gmail, Outlook, Facebook and a huge variety of other services.

There's still a chance that Palm will get it wrong. The user interface seems slightly more complicated that the iPhone's, particularly as the area below the screen is touch-sensitive too. The keyboard is small and slightly recessed, which might make it hard to use over long periods. The 3.1in screen is noticeably smaller than the iPhones, and while the pebble shape is very appealling it's a little thicker than the iPhone. And battery life and browsing speeds are unconfirmed, though Palm is remarkably bullish on both.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Palm can ensure that none of the issues above become problems. Because when the HSDPA-enabled Pre arrives in the UK this summer (hopefully), it will be game on...

...and just about time for Apple to release a new, world-beating iPhone.

UPDATE: My 'Is the Palm Pre better than the Apple iPhone?' video is now live