The scoop: Palm Pre, by Palm.
What it is: The touchscreen Pre is Palm's latest entrant into the smartphone market, and includes all of the features users would expect from today's smartphones: a compact size, e-mail access (including Exchange), Web browser, multimedia (music and videos) player, digital camera, embedded GPS and the ability to download new applications directly through an app store. Differences from the iPhone include a physical slide-out QWERTY keyboard, and the ability to keep multiple applications open simultaneously.
Why it's cool: A bit of a disclaimer -- I'm a huge fan of the Apple iPhone 3G, both for personal use (iPod player, camera, entertainment apps) as well as business use (e-mail access, social network access, document access, GPS search). Palm has a tough hill to climb to take on Apple, considering that a lot of users who flocked to the iPhone were likely Palm users back in the day. Convincing them to switch back could be a tough chore. Fortunately, the Palm Pre is a good start, as it added features that the iPhone doesn't have, and also retains features that iPhone users love. The Pre comes closer to emulating the iPhone experience with its touchscreen, gestures and application activation methods than any other "iPhone clone" I've tried. The browser, which has brought down many a smartphone, is just as good as the Safari browser on the iPhone. The Pre's digital camera (with auto-focus/flash) is hands-down better than the iPhone (at least until the 3GS comes out).
Some other little things I enjoyed: The Touchstone magnetic induction-based charging kit (sold separately; it should be bundled with the device) made recharging the Pre simple, and the tiny envelope icon e-mail alert on the bottom of the screen was a nice touch.
Some caveats: I understand why Palm wants a physical keyboard, as many iPhone owners have complained about their on-screen keyboard. As an iPhone user, I'm satisfied with the on-screen keyboard, so I'm not aching for a physical keyboard. The keys are small, making the preferred two-handed ("BlackBerry style") method of typing difficult. It was more comfortable to hold the Pre in my left hand and type with my right index finger. High-volume e-mail users are likely to feel cramped with this keyboard.
Adjusting to some of the new gestures and features took some practice. The system has a weird way of getting users to go back on a page -- where the iPhone and other phones use a "back arrow" or button, the Pre makes users do a finger-slide "back gesture" (moving from right to left below the screen). I'd rather see a back button or other method to move back and forth among an application's windows.
Will it dethrone the iPhone? If you tell people you like the Pre, they usually say, "Oh, but it's on Sprint" - the only choice for U.S. owners. But reports say Verizon Wireless will offer the Pre in January 2010, so if you can wait that long, you'll have another option. But with a new iPhone (the 3GS) also available, it's unlikely that this version of the Pre will topple the iPhone. But Palm has a good device here, and I'm encouraged to see what other WebOS devices come out in the future.
Grade: 4 stars (out of five).