Palm Pre and Apple iPhone 3GS: side by side

Introduction, Form factor and Display

For the past two years, the iPhone - that revolutionary monolithic slab of Apple goodness - has been the king of the smartphone world, reaching an incredibly broad customer base with its intuitive, user-friendly interface and wealth of features. No one could touch Apple and it seemed like everyone else would be destined to play catch-up. Then, Palm announced in January that their new device, the Palm Pre, would be coming soon to a Sprint store near you running on a new, innovative Linux-based operating system called webOS.

The Palm Pre was launched on June 6th, and Apple was hot on its heels with an incremental upgrade to the iPhone 3G – the iPhone 3GS (“S” for “speed”) – released with much fanfare on June 19th. The Pre is touted as a worthy competitor to the iPhone and even an “iPhone killer” by some but that is surely debatable.

Ultimately, whether you choose an iPhone 3GS or a Pre as your main go-to smartphone, they both are exceptional devices with their respective strengths and weaknesses. We will now compare the Pre and the iPhone 3GS head-to-head so you can get a good idea of their similarities and differences, and in the end, hopefully you will have a better feel for which one is right for you, assuming you haven’t committed yet to one or the other. Either one is a winner, in our opinion. So without further ado, let’s dive in and compare!

Form Factor – beauty begins on the outside

Both the Pre and iPhone have a beautiful, elegant design that makes it hard to put the devices down. As designed, the Pre looks like a black polished stone and resembles the feel of one in the hand.  It has a nice weight to it – objects that feel heavy seem to convey a sense of quality.  The display is flush with the phone’s edges and blends seamlessly with the phone, which looks attractive. 

The front of the Pre is very simple-looking with only the phone’s display and a single button at the bottom middle of the front of the phone.  The power button is on the top right corner of the phone, the ringer switch is located at the top right next to the power button, and the volume rocker buttons are on the left side.  Along the right side of the Pre is a small door that opens to reveal the charging port. The headphone jack is standard 3.5mm and is located at the top middle of the phone. Looking at the back of the Pre, a 3.2MP camera and flash are on the top left and the speaker is on the top right.

The Pre has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, which is one of the big differences from the iPhone. When closed, the Pre is very compact at 2.3 inches wide, 3.9 inches high, .67 inches thick, and weighs in at 4.76 ounces.

The iPhone is 4.5 inches high, 2.4 inches wide, .48 inches thick, and weighs in at 4.8 ounces. It’s thinner and slightly heavier than the Pre, slightly wider, and over half an inch taller. It has a single button on the front, the “home” button located at the bottom center. It has a connector at the bottom for syncing and charging, a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top left, power button top right, and a volume rocker button and ringer switch on the top left side of the phone.  On the back, an autofocus 3MP camera is on the upper left. The iPhone 3GS is available in white or black and is curved along the back to fit comfortably in your hand. The iPhone does not have a physical keyboard. Instead, a virtual keyboard pops up whenever text needs to be entered, one of the stark contrasts between the iPhone and Pre.

Screen – let the touching begin

Both the iPhone 3GS and the Palm Pre have capacitive, multi-touch displays.  The iPhone display is a 3.5-inch diagonal glass widescreen with 320 x 480 pixel resolution.  Unlike the iPhone 2G and 3G, the 3GS has a fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating on the screen, so it’s far less a fingerprint-magnet than the previous iPhone iterations.

The Palm Pre has a 3.1-inch diagonal plastic multi-touch screen, also with 320 x 480 pixel resolutions, but due to its smaller physical size, the pixels are closer together and the resolution is more crisp and vibrant. The iPhone’s display is no slouch, but the Pre’s is just downright gorgeous.  Since the Pre screen is plastic, it is more susceptible to scratching if you aren’t careful.  The iPhone’s glass surface is far less likely to scratch.

The pinching and stretching of multi-touch is implemented well on both devices, but it seems to be more smooth on the iPhone.  On the Pre, multi-touch animations can be a little jumpy, much like a film missing a few frames every few seconds.  On the iPhone 3GS, pinching to zoom out and stretching to zoom in is smooth and more polished.

Interface – the same, but very different

Interfacing with the iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre is both similar and very different at the same time.  Both devices have a contemporary, user-friendly interface with large icons easily tapped with the fingertips and a similarly placed “home” button.  Both phones also have a multi-touch user interface.  The Pre has a “gesture” area below the touchscreen that can be used as a “back” button, something the iPhone lacks.  With the Pre, you can use the gesture area to return to a previous screen, where on the iiPhone, if you navigate away from an application (i.e., a web link), you have to press the “home” button and then return to the app.  Sometimes Phone apps have a software “back” button on the upper left corner of the screen, but this is not always the case.

On both platforms, pressing and holding app icons enables customized arrangement of them.  Moving an icon to the edge of the display will bring the next screen into view and you can then drop the app into position.  On both devices, there are a limited number of screens.  With the 3.0 update, the iPhone gives you 11 of them to load up with apps.  On the Pre, you only have 3, but the Pre allows for dynamically scrolling up and down to access additional apps where the iPhone screens are static. 

Both the iPhone and Pre have universal search for finding just about anything on your phone, apps included.  On the Pre, universal search is more significant to the user experience than the iPhone.  Since the Pre is designed to give the user constant access to information on the web, entering terms into search not only displays matches found on the phone itself, but also matches found on the web.

When tapping on an application on the Pre, the app will open and when you are finished with it, just swipe upward to activate the “card view.”  Card view is one of the stark differences between the Pre and iPhone and is possible on the Pre due to its multitasking ability.  The iPhone 3GS (and any iPhone, for that matter) lacks true multitasking.  If you need to get into another app or look up something on the web, you must first press the “home” button to return to the springboard, then select the app you want.  The Pre allows you to run several apps at once and move back and forth between them.  Closing an app on the Pre is as simple as swiping it up and off the screen.

Notifications on the Pre and iPhone 3GS are handled very differently.  Apple has finally implemented push notification for the iPhone that allows developers to send sound, text and badge notifications to a user’s iPhone.  This is an important business tool for developers of iPhone apps and is a benefit to the user experience.  The downside to these notifications on the iPhone is that they can be interruptive and distracting while using an app, for instance.

On the Pre, notifications mean something very different.  The idea of the Pre user experience is giving the user new information – like a new email, calendar event or text message - without interrupting a train of thought or the task at hand.  In this way, a Pre user always knows what’s going on but can decide if the notification requires an immediate response.

Phonebook and Organizer

The Pre and iPhone 3GS have phonebooks and organizers with very user-friendly interfaces.  It is simple to add new contacts to both phonebooks and with just a tap you can engage a phone call and send an email or text message right from the contact screen. There are some key differences in how contacts on each platform are implemented and synced.  The Pre relies on Synergy to pull in your address book from Outlook, Google and Facebook.  If you have a big phonebook, scrolling through them on the Pre can be laborious, so the best way to look someone up is with universal search. 

Synergy also does a great job of sorting your contacts automatically to avoid repetition when you have the same entries in different locations.  When viewing a contact on the Pre, you can see where it is synced from in the upper right corner – whether it’s from Google, Facebook, Outlook, or even Exchange.  This feature is also handy when creating a new phonebook entry because you can specify which service you want the contact to sync with on your Pre. Another unique feature to the Pre is a “reminder” field in the extra fields section in contacts.  Whenever you enter any information in the reminder field, this information will be displayed when the person calls or texts you.

The iPhone 3GS can sync contacts from MobileMe (requiring a yearly fee), Microsoft Exchange, Google, and Yahoo.  The iPhone 3GS lacks the duplicate contact safeguard that the Pre’s Synergy features.  You sync with one contacts source on the iPhone instead of the multiple sources on the Pre. 

PIM functionality on the Pre has both strengths and weaknesses.  It has one of the better Calendar apps available on a smartphone.  Synergy brings in calendar events from multiple sources, each one represented by a different color.  Periods of free time between events are displayed in a collapsible view so you can see more on the Pre’s small screen.  The Pre has a day, week, and month view, but no list view.  You can also filter your calendar view and display just one set of events at a time, all other calendar sources displayed as grayed-out areas.

The calendar on the iPhone displays list, day, and month views.  Like the Pre, multiple calendar sources can be displayed on the iPhone. The iPhone’s calendar is easy to use but is definitely no-frills. 

With the Pre, you can create notes with the Memos app.  The iPhone 3GS has a similar Notes app and both of them offer no category organization, which is a disappointment. The Pre offers a nice native Tasks app that supports multiple task lists and due dates.  The iPhone, however, has no task app and users must rely on downloading 3rd party solutions.


The Pre has integrated messaging for SMS, MMS, AIM, and Google Talk, all of which can be displayed in the same place so the user has a messaging experience without concern about which messaging app is being used.  This integration is very user-friendly and makes messaging a breeze.

The iPhone has finally added MMS to go along with its SMS feature in messaging.  It’s important to note, however, that AT&T has not enabled MMS yet.  In order to use other messaging clients, like Yahoo or AOL, a 3rd party app must be installed.  Otherwise, messaging is limited to either email or SMS (with MMS in the future).

The keyboard on the Pre slides out from the bottom.  It is a full QWERTY keyboard and is like a cross between the keyboards on the Treo Pro and the Centro. It is not as nice as a BlackBerry keyboard, for instance, but is a good compromise for the small size of the Pre.  Even those with large hands should find typing to be somewhat easy even thought the keyboard is cramped.  Many people are more comfortable with a physical keyboard, but since the Pre has a fantastic multi-touch screen, it would be nice to have the option of both a physical keyboard and virtual keyboard.

The keys on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard are spaced apart enough to make typing comfortable, and if it feels too cramped, the recent 3.0 update makes landscape keyboard use possible.  The iPhone’s dictionary for spelling help and correction is very large compared to the Pre.  Typing on the iPhone keyboard allows for a large margin of error and the predictive text helps to compensate for the lack of tactile feedback.  The iPhone has one of the best on-screen keyboards we’ve used.

Whether it is a virtual or physical QWERTY keyboard is definitely a user preference.

Both the Palm Pre and the iPhone 3GS have copy/paste.  This feature is hardly worthy of mention for the Pre because Palm has offered this feature since the very first Palm PDA rolled off the assembly line, but this is a new feature for the iPhone and it’s about time.


Both the iPhone 3GS and the Pre can access the Internet via 3G data connection or via Wi-Fi.  Also, both phones have GPS capabilities for location-based software, maps and directions.  The browsers on both phones are exceptional, with multi-touch providing an excellent user experience on both platforms.  The larger screen on the iPhone provides a viewing advantage, but the Pre’s more vibrant screen is a good counterpoint.

The Pre and iPhone 3GS have a very similar browsing experience.  The Pre uses the Card feature for opening up and moving between different browser windows, and the iPhone is similar in this aspect with the ability to open multiple web sites via separate tabs on the browser.  Web site load times on both platforms are fast and almost identical.  Both phones do not support Flash at this time, but this will hopefully come in the future.   

The Pre syncs with Exchange, but also with contacts and calendar events in GMail and Facebook and is intelligent enough to manage duplicate contacts and events.  The Pre uses push notification for syncing calendar events and email.

The iPhone is synced by connecting it via USB cable to your computer, while the Pre syncs with the “cloud” and does not require a physical connection to a computer.

When receiving firmware updates, the Pre can receive these updates over the air (OTA) whereas the iPhone requires downloading the update to iTunes first, then syncing with the iPhone using the USB cable.  Wireless updates on the Pre is definitely an advantage of convenience for Pre owners.


The cameras on the Pre and iPhone 3GS are both 3-megapixel and have autofocus.  The Pre camera has the benefit of a built-in flash and the iPhone 3GS does not.  The iPhone 3GS has more specific focusing abilities by touching the part of the screen where you want the subject matter in more focus.  Also, the iPhone 3GS boasts video capability with rudimentary editing.  Both take decent pictures for a phone camera, but as may be expected, if you want really high-quality photos, then trust a stand alone camera.


The music and video interface and quality are good on both the iPhone 3GS and Pre.  Both platforms provide access to YouTube videos for easy viewing.  The iPhone multimedia experience has the advantage with a larger display and iPod interface.  The iPhone connects to iTunes for music and video syncing, which is very user-friendly.

The Pre uses the Amazon MP3 store for music downloads where music pricing is very similar to pricing found in iTunes.

Apps – worlds apart

Both the iPhone 3GS and Pre have similar native apps, like Google Maps, Camera, Photos, Clock, Notes, Messages, Internet Browser, and YouTube. On the Pre, Sprint Navigation is part of the data plan and provides voice directions.

The reason why the iPhone and Pre are worlds apart with respect to apps is 3rd-party app availability.  Since the advent of the iTunes App Store, the number of apps available to iPhone users has ballooned to over 50,000 apps.  Palm’s App Catalog has only a few dozen apps at the present time and there likely won’t be more until the SDK is released and developers can make apps for the Pre to be approved by Palm.

Both stores have free and inexpensive apps for purchase and download.  They can be downloaded directly to the Pre, and the iPhone has an App Store icon for direct access to apps or they can be purchased on iTunes and synced via USB cable.

Performance – everything under the hood

The Palm Pre has the T.I. OMAP3430 processor and the iPhone 3GS has the ARM Cortex A8. Both phones have 256MB of RAM and the Pre maxes out at 8GB of storage and the iPhone 3GS has a top end of 32GB. Neither phone allows for user memory expansion. The new iPhone 3GS and the Pre have very comparable speeds for accessing applications, retrieving email, and loading web pages.

One big difference between the Pre and iPhone is a user-replaceable battery. The Palm Pre’s battery can be replaced so that if you are a heavy user, a spare battery can be just the thing you need to get you through the workday and night. The iPhone 3GS, like the previous iPhone models before it, has an internal battery and can only be replaced by the factory. With moderate use, the iPhone 3GS, which sports an improved battery, can get you through the whole day with power to spare. The Pre, with moderate use, is less power-friendly and needs either recharging or a fresh battery by the end of the workday.

Charging the Pre with the Touchstone accessory (not included) is a delight. Just place the Pre on the Touchstone and it is charged inductively and wirelessly while being held in place magnetically.

The sound quality and reception during calls is rather average on the iPhone 3GS. Reception quality will vary depending on your coverage area, but the sound quality itself is a little better with the Pre on the Sprint network, but not by much. Both have decent call volume, but the iPhone is a little weaker in this area.


Both the Palm Pre and iPhone 3GS are on the cutting edge in the smartphone market and offer innovative technologies and features that have raised the bar and caused other platforms to stand up and take notice. They share many similarities and have some distinct differences. The iPhone has the benefit of raising the bar a couple of generation ago with the first iPhone 2G, and each subsequent iPhone and firmware update has added more features and improvements.

The Palm Pre is a good start. Palm has learned a great deal from their past and from the success of the iPhone and has a great opportunity to build on the Pre’s early success and offer future firmware updates and device upgrades. Either device is a winner in our book, so it’s best to research and compare all features and what Sprint and AT&T networks have to offer as far as capability and calling plans and see which suits you better.

See also:
Palm Pre Review and Specifications
Apple iPhone 3GS Review and Specifications

Palm Pre and Apple iPhone 3GS: side by side Video comparison:

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