Reviews

Sony NEX-3 Review

Posted on Oct 14, 2010 in Photography, Reviews

Earlier this Summer, I posted a first look at Sony’s upcoming Alpha NEX-3 and NEX-5 series, that looked poised to challenge the Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four-Thirds cameras. The stunning design, more reminiscent of a compact camera than a DSLR, paired with an APS-C sensor looked like a winning combination.

Sony were kind enough to loan me a NEX-3 for a fortnight recently, so I’ve put this intriguing new camera through its paces.

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GrabBox: Screenshot sharing with Dropbox

Posted on Sep 30, 2010 in Mac, Reviews, The web

Okay – by now I think you’ve all heard me rave about Dropbox enough.. but one of the things that is really making Dropbox super useful for me is the number of third party applications that are starting to use Dropbox for fast & easy cloud storage.

I often find myself sharing screenshots with colleagues and friends. There are a ton of applications out there that will help you do this, but most of them rely on you taking a screenshot and dragging it to another application.

GrabBox is a free app that lets you share a screenshot whilst skipping that second step: just take a screenshot and it will automatically add it to your public Dropbox folder and creates a short url for you to share with friends. It puts that url on your clipboard so you can paste it right away.

Here’s a clip of GrabBox in action:

movies/GrabBox.mov

What I love most is that I don’t need to change my workflow: I just hit the regular OS X keyboard shortcut to take a screenshot and GrabBox does the rest: snap, paste, done.

The ugly icon, and the fact that it runs in your Dock instead of your menubar are two minor gripes, but overall it’s highly recommended!

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Transmit 4 Review

Posted on Apr 27, 2010 in Mac, Opinions, Reviews, UI Design

For years, one of the most popular OS X FTP applications has been Transmit. Panic’s FTP workhorse is so well regarded and robust, it’s engine was even chosen by Apple to power the FTP upload feature built-in to iWeb.

But OS X has gone through a lot of changes since Transmit 3 was first introduced and the app is starting to show its age. Enter Transmit 4!

This latest update adds a completely new user interface, innovative new features like Transmit Disk as well as a slew of customisation options. I was fortunate enough to be a beta tester for version 4, so I’ve had a few weeks to play with the new version – here are some of my thoughts.

New UI

Panic is know for their sleek user interface design and attention to detail and Transmit 4 is no exception. First off, the biggest change of them all: A NEW TRUCK!

But the logo isn’t all that has been refreshed: The entire app feels brand new. Most UI elements have been given a 2010 update and the interface feels a lot tidier.

You start off with a list of your configured servers that uses a sleek black look that was made popular by apps such as PixelmatorCoverScout 3 and SongGenie (disclaimer – I work for equinux).

You can choose an icon for your servers, or use the server favicon

Selecting a server puts you into a familiar file browsing mode – more on that below:

Buttons and features are usually exactly where you would expect to find them and unobtrusive animations and pretty icons round out the package and give the app a nice touch of Panic personality. Here are a few bits of eye candy I noticed during testing:

Progress indicator

Breadcrumb navigation

Nice use of icons in the replace dialog makes it clear which file you need to replace

File Browsing, Places & Quick Look

An FTP client fundamentally has two jobs: show me my remote files and allow me to move files between my local and remote storage. To accomplish that, an FTP application has to replicate a lot of the functionality of a regular file browser, so users can browser their local files as well as their remote files.

Transmit 4 offers single and dual file-browser layouts, (rearrangable!) tabs and the icon, llist, column and cover flow viewing styles you are familiar with from the Finder. But it also has a few additional tricks up its sleeve, that you won’t find in the Finder.

Here are some of the more interesting file browsing options:

  • Folders above Files changes the sort order, so that folders are always displayed before your files in a view
  • Quick Look makes it easy to see a file’s content and even works with remote files stored on your FTP server
  • Places can store shortcuts to your most frequently used folders, so they are just a click away. You can also drag files to a Place shortcut.

Places give you quick access to commonly used folders.

Places is really useful, but the way you add locations by dragging them to the breadcrumb area is a bit unconventional. Once you’ve figured it out though, it quickly became one of my favourite Transmit 4 features.

Transmit 4 offers enough view options to suit almost anyone’s preferred file browsing style. Whether you perfer to work with multiple windows, tabs, split layouts, column view etc – Transmit 4 has got you covered. While it’s debatable whether most users need so many options, file browsing habits are usually so ingrained that it was probably a good idea for Panic to include as many options as they could.

DockSend, Droplets, TransmitDisk and more…

Most of the time, I find myself uploading files to the same place over and over again. Transmit has a number of ways that give you an easy way to send a file to your FTP server straight from the finder:

  • Drag it to a custom droplet you can create in Transmit 4
  • Enable Docksend and you can drag it directly to the Transmit 4 icon in your Dock
  • Turn on TransmitDisk…

TransmitDisk is a nifty new feature, that uses MacFUSE to allow you to mount your FTP server as a volume that the Finder can see. Once mounted, you can interact with your FTP folders like you would with a drive on your local network.

In my experience this worked fairly well, but occasionally felt a little bit more sluggish than using Transmit’s own file browser – but your mileage may vary.

Conclusion

Overall this is a great upgrade to an already very useful application. The new features are well thought out and make working with your FTP server a lot easier and faster. While this isn’t a revolutionary upgrade, it is solid enough to make it worth your while.

You can buy or upgrade to Transmit 4 in the Panic Online Store.

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Intel X25 SSD: The ultimate MacBook Upgrade?

Posted on Apr 25, 2010 in Mac, Reviews

Let’s be honest: most of you reading this have wondered how to improve your Mac’s performance at some point or another, whether it was while waiting for an application to load, or just the last time you saw the spinning beachball of death. For years conventional wisdom has been that adding RAM to your Mac would give you the most noticeable performance improvement.

But nowadays, RAM is no longer the primary bottleneck on your Mac – it’s the aging, mechanical technology that powers your harddrive. But conventional mechanical harddrives are slowly but surely being replaced by solid state drives (abbreviated “SSD”). Whilst early SSD drives offered limited storage capacity and had a finite number of read /write cycles,  The current generation of Intel X25 SSD drives are very compelling alternatives indeed…

Pros & Cons

Although still pricy when compared against conventional harddrives with similar capacities, SSDs have steadily been dropping in price and now only cost about 100-200 dollars more than a conventional drive. So what are the benefits? Well, speed primarily: SSDs offer blazingly fast read and write speeds. And unlike conventional drives, that can be damaged if jostled or dropped whilst in use, SSDs are extremely sturdy, making them ideal for notebook computers.

Installing the X25-M

It took me about 10 minutes to swap the stock Fujitsu harddrive in my 13″ MacBook for the X25-M. You basically pop the battery lid, unscrew one screw and pull your old drive. Slot the X25 into its place, close everything back up again and you’re done!

As my previous harddrive was larger than the 80GB review unit I received, I opted for a clean Snow Leopard install, instead of trying to partially migrate my data and settings from my Time Machine backup. The entire OS X installation was very fast (~10 minutes) and after a quick Dropbox sync, I was up and running with my most important apps and documents.

Crunching the Numbers

Intel’s X25-M is currently considered to be one of the best SSD drives on the market and the raw numbers tend to agree:

So how do the numbers translate to your everyday, real-world experience? I mean, are you really going to notice if Safari loads 0.4 seconds faster? Probably not.
But in my experience, the big difference wasn’t that any single task felt much faster, it was the fact that everything felt faster. Whether copying a file, opening a DMG or launching an application – everything feels very responsive and snappy.

Here are two videos to give you an idea of what to expect:

Cost vs Benefit

All this performance doesn’t come cheap though: the 80GB review unit I tested currently retails for about €200 / $250. The larger capacity models can be several times as expensive. But if you use your Mac professionally, installing an SSD is an easy way to give your Mac a speed boost. The Intel X25 is ideal for professionals and performance junkies who need the highest possible performance. Enthusiasts and casual users might want to look at some of the cheaper alternatives on the market instead. They still trounce the performance of a traditional harddrive, without making too large of a dent in your wallet.

Conclusion

The Intel X25 is a fantastic upgrade for your MacBook and will boost the speed of even mundane things like opening an application. It’s ideal for performance fanatics and professionals, casual users may want to wait a while longer until the price / capacity ratio improves.

Support the site and pimp your Mac with an Intel X25 from Amazon.com:


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Review: Keyboard Maestro

Posted on Jan 25, 2010 in Featured, Mac, Reviews


If you use your Mac professionally, chances are you often find yourself typing out certain bits of text over and over again. Whether it’s a URL, a file path or email snippets, typing these snippets over and over again can waste a lot of time. That’s where utilities such as Keyboard Maestro come in handy: they allow you to define keyboard shortcuts that will type out phrases or execute commands for you.

Unlikea more general-use utilities such as LaunchBar or Quicksilver, Keyboard Maestro is designed primarily for text manipulation and keyboard shortcuts rather than general purpose file system actions and macros. Having said that, it can also replicate some of the functionality those programs offer as well, giving it a bit of an advantage over more basic text replacement tools such as Typinator or TextExpander.

Performance

If there’s one thing you need your text-replacement utility to do, it’s reliable text replacement. You want it to work immediately, regardless of which application you’re working in. If it causes any extra delay, it would interrupt your thought and you would probably be quicker off typing things out yourself.

Keyboard Maestro performed very well in this regard and worked instantly every time, regardless of which every application I tested it with.

Advanced Commands

Once you’ve become accustomed to basic text replacement, you start thinking about more advanced things.

I for instance use a number of text replacements that allow me to create URLs based on file paths I’ve copied. So by copying the path “/images/example.jpg”, I can simply type the shortcut “..imgloc” to turn that file path into the URL “http://jetplanejournal.com/posts/images/example.jpg“.

But Keyboard Maestro can also trigger non-text events, such as mouse movements, system events (e.g. volume, disk ejects etc.) open URLs etc. The Keyboard Maestro website has a number of ideas and suggestions to help you optimize your workflow.

But there’s more…

So Keyboard Maestro is a text replacement utility, a keyboard hotkey tool and a time saver. What other tricks does it have up its sleeve?
Well, it can also:

  • Store your clipboard history and manage multiple clipboards
  • Remote control your Mac from your iPhone using its built-in macro trigger webserver
  • Run regular scripts and jobs for you
  • Record GUI-based scripts

Gripes

Keyboard Maestro is a very powerful utility, but manages to be easy to use thanks to a fairly simple and straightforward interface. However, the UI could do with a little bit of extra polish here and there and one or two Macros that are enabled by default may be confusing:

  • Some of the icons could be more obvious, e.g. you enable and disable macros by clicking a (stateless) check mark. A “no entry” icon is used for delete instead of the conventional “—” icon.
  • To finish editing a new macro, you can either close the actions pane, or click the “+” icon, neither of which is particularly obvious.
  • By default, Option+backspace is remapped to forward delete, which left me scratching my head for a few seconds, as I generally use that shortcut to delete entire words.
  • Similarly, Ctrl+Tab is remapped to Keyboard Maestro’s own application window switching function (which is similar to the Dock expose feature in Snow Leopard) – I use that shortcut extensively to switch between tabs in Safari.

But these are all minor gripes that won’t annoy you at all once you have everything set up the way you want, so I offer them mainly as feedback to the developer.

What about the tools built-in to OS X?

I know a lot of users prefer to use the tools and functionality built-in to OS X whenever possible, so you might ask what’s wrong with those tools…

Well, although text substitution service has been beefed up significantly in 10.6, it’s still lacking the customizablity you’ll find in utilities such as Keyboard Maestro. You could also replicate a lot of the functionality in Automator, but in my experience, Automator is so slow to execute a command, it’s not worth the effort.

Conclusion

Keyboard Maestro is a great utility for anyone that spends a lot of time working with text on their Mac. Whether you might be thinking of using it to help you quickly answer repetitive email, create blog posts or just to map certain mouse-based actions to a keyboard shortcut, it’s definitely worth checking out.
I’ve tried a number of similar utilities, but in terms of extendability and scope, Keyboard Maestro seems to take the cake. At $36, it’s not cheap for a utility, but considering the time it’ll help you save I think it’s a fair price. I’d recommend you try it out and see how well it could fit into your daily workflows. A free demo is available.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: Peter Lewis, maker of Keyboard Maestro kindly provided me with a license for this review. All opinions are however, of course my own.

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An iPhone user’s review of the Palm Pre

Posted on Jan 3, 2010 in Featured, iPhone, Reviews

I’ve been using my original iPhone since early 2008 and use it every single day. But the iPhone isn’t necessarily the right phone for everyone: The pricy contracts, issues with carrier coverage, a preference for physical keyboards or an objection to Apple’s App Store policies are all reasons some users are looking to alternatives.

Take Germany for example. The iPhone is only available with a 2-year T-Mobile contract. The contracts T-Mobile Germany offers are significantly more expensive than comparable contracts from other providers, so alternatives such as the Palm Pre have received a fair amount of interest. In the US, the situation is similar, but it is primarily AT&T’s poor network performance that has customers looking at alternatives.

So the Pre might be less expensive and on a carrier with better coverage than the iPhone – but can Palm match the great overall user experience Apple offers?

Disclaimer: I received a 10-day loan of a Palm Pre review unit with Touchstone charger from O2 Germany to review, which was returned at the end of the review period. I received no other compensation and the opinions stated reflect my honest impressions. Having said that, if you like this review you can save a few bucks, support the site and buy your Palm Pre at Amazon.

The short version

There’s a lot to like about the Pre: Multitasking, the quick-launch bar, the messaging application and background notifications are just some features that I would welcome on the iPhone. Occasional slowdowns, poor build quality, a tiny keyboard and the smaller number and somewhat simpler nature of 3rd party apps means the Pre is just shy of being a true iPhone alternative. Here are my top pros and cons for both devices:

Unboxing

Your initial experience of opening a product can set the tone for your overall impression. Apple’s attention to detail really shows in this area and Palm’s legion of ex-Apple employees seem to have brought this thinking with them to Palm: The Pre comes in a sleek white box that is very clean and uncluttered. This packaging is somewhat marred though by the plastic wrapper with specs that O2 insists on wrapping it in. When you first turn on the device, you’re forced to create a Palm Profile before you can start using the device. The Pre then launches an interactive tutorial, that shows you how to navigate around its interface and explains some of the gestures. This is important, as WebOS requires the user to use gestures to navigate back through menus.

A nice mood-video completes the initial setup and does a good job of leaving the user with a good first impression of the device.

Hardware

The device itself looks very attractive: the screen is flush with the body and the glossy black plastic enclosure is quite fetching. The back same glossy plastic is used on the default battery cover, which feels slightly slippery in your hand. Luckily, this can be swapped for the Touchstone-enabled back, which has a rubberized matte finish, that looks and feels much nicer. You can’t see where the screen ends and the housing begins when the screen is switched off, which gives the front a very smooth look. When closed, the Pre is a very nice size and fits nicely into your hand and most pockets.

Build quality

The single button on the front of the device has a nice “clickiness” to it, but the other the physical buttons on the device are all very mushy and feel extremely cheap (the power button is particularly nasty). For a phone with this price tag, these buttons feel almost unacceptably junky. Luckily you won’t need them very often though.

The Pre’s slide-out keyboard is hidden by a sliding hinge mechanism, which is easy to open in one hand. When the keyboard is hidden though, the screen can be wobbled slightly – quite the contrast to the iPhone’s sturdy fit and finish.

The Pre’s USB connector is hidden behind a small plastic cover on the side of the device. The cover is flush with the rest of the casing, but this does make it a bit fiddly to open. Since you’ll need to open the cover quite a bit to charge the device (more on battery life later), I’d definitely recommend investing in the Touchstone wireless charger instead, to save yourself the hassle.

Other Hardware Details

The device uses one of the various micro-USB connectors that you see on consumer electronics instead of a regular mini-USB jack. This means your existing USB cables probably won’t fit. If you plan on transferring media to the device on a regular basis, I’d recommend buying a second USB cable, as you’ll also need one to charge your Pre.

The standard 3.5mm headphone jack is nice. The Pre also comes with a wired headset, complete with a clicker for accepting calls and pausing or skipping music. The earbuds have little magnets on the side, so you can stick them together when not in use, which should help prevent the cord from tangling. The sound quality doesn’t quite match Apple’s earbuds though and the headset feels fairly cheap overall. Still, it’s nice to have and I hope we’ll see third party accessory makers offering compatible headsets in future.

Keyboard and typing

One feature many smartphone users would like to see on the iPhone is a physical keyboard. I’ve only ever used T9 text input on a regular phone keypad, so the iPhone keyboard was actually a welcome step up for me and I had high hopes for the Pre.

The keyboard is fairly tiny, so it actually offers less typing space than the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard whilst the width of the keys is about the same. The only way I was able to accurately hit a key reliably, was by using the very tip of my thumb, which slows you down a bit. On the iPhone, I can just type away and worry less about hitting each key exactly. I also feel that typing special characters, such as an apostrophe, comma or period slows things down as well: the iPhone usually autocompletes these, or has a shortcut. On the Pre, you have to hunt for the modifier key first. With some autocomplete intelligence built-in, the keyboard would be far better.

To give you an idea of how fast I was able to type, here’s a short comparison video – but bear in mind that I have much more practise typing on the iPhone:

WebOS

When Palm announced the Pre, the OS is what had everyone most excited. Palm had been floundering for years with several failed new OS projects, none of which were ever released. Palm OS was long overdue for an overhaul, but few people believed Palm would be able to produce anything to match the iPhone in the near future. Palm responded with WebOS – an entire mobile operating system built on web technologies and designed for a multi-touch interface.

WebOS feels quite snappy, but opening apps can be a little bit sluggish at times. This video demonstrates opening the phone  app on both phones:

However, in contrast to Apple’s iPhone OS, WebOS is designed to enable application multitasking via it’s “card” metaphor. Open one application and it will take up your entire screen, just like iPhone apps do. But press the home button and the app will zoom out and you can launch another app beside it. You can then switch between two or more apps at any time with a simple press of the home button. Swiping up across a card closes the application.

Here’s multitasking in action:

Swipe and pinch are supported on the Pre just as you would expect from a multitouch device and it even has a few more tricks up its sleeve: Slide your finger up from the area around the home button (the “gesture area”) and you can bring up the Dock-like launch bar, for instant access to your 4 favorite apps. Swiping from right to left across the gesture area will take you back in menus and dialog screens. The back gesture could be a bit sluggish to respond at times and I don’t really a huge advantage over a soft, on-screen back button.

Unlike in the iPhone OS, taps are visualized by a small dot pointer and wave animation, that indicates exactly where you tapped (like a mouse pointer). Certain menu items, such as the wifi options in the menu bar require quite a bit of accuracy to hit, as the targets a quite a bit smaller than a finger. This is compensated somewhat by the visualization of your taps, but Apple’s approach of making every UI element in the iPhone OS finger-friendly is definitely a better solution. I sometimes found tapping UI elements in WebOS a bit challenging.

WebOS is also not quite as responsive as the iPhone OS. Scrolling in lists in just one example of the slight sluggishness you sometimes feel on the device. Overall though the responsiveness is still fairly impressive and the ability to open multiple apps makes up for the occasional slowdown.

My favorite feature in WebOS might be the global search feature. Unlike Spotlight on the iPhone, that requires you to go to the Spotlight home screen, global search doesn’t need any additional steps to get to: just open the keyboard and start typing to search within your applications and contacts. If no results are found on your phone, WebOS will offer to search Google, Google Maps, Wikipedia and Twitter.

Phone and contacts

The phone application is fine and the on-screen number pad for dialing without the physical keyboard is very useable. You can easily access your contacts and voicemail as well. Speaking of contacts, one of Palm’s heavily touted features is “Synergy” – the ability to sync and merge contacts from multiple sources. If you sign into your Google and Facebook accounts, those contacts will be displayed in a single unified list. Depending on how tidy you keep your Facebook contact list, this feature may vary in its usefulness.

Messaging

This is a bit of a mixed bag. Similar to the “Synergy” feature for your contacts, the Pre displays SMS text messages and IM messages in a single application. This makes a lot of sense, but can be confusing at first. Overall AIM and text messaging worked pretty well though and it definitely beats the iPhone, which doesn’t offer IM support at all out of the box.

Mail

The mail application is fairly basic. It has a nice “favorite” feature, that allows you to create shortcuts to your most frequently used mail folders. But it lacks batch move and delete commands you’ll find on the iPhone. It does have more advanced attachment capabilities though, so you can grab documents, videos, audio files or pictures and attach them to any mail message. On the iPhone, you’ll need to go to the respective application and either copy & paste your attachment, or select the email option in the app.

Connectivity and browsing

The iPhone 2G only has EDGE (which is fairly slow), so I mostly stick to RSS readers and dedicated apps for mobile data access on the iPhone. Apps such as Netnewswire, Facebook or Tweetie have little overhead and load data fairly quickly – even on an EDGE connection. But browsing the web is usually too slow on EDGE to be of much use, so I was interested to see how much fast browsing over 3G on the Pre is. Truth be told I was slightly disapointed: webpages still took quite a long time to load and the browser is slightly more sluggish than the iPhone, so it wasn’t the leap forward I had hoped it would be.

The browser itself is webkit-based (as is WebOS itself) and is quite snappy. Scrolling isn’t quite as smooth as on the iPhone, but overall it’s a very capable mobile webbrowser.

Battery life

I was asked by several iPhone 3G and 3GS users if the Pre’s battery life is any better than the notoriously power-hungry iPhone with 3G enabled. Whilst I don’t have exact measurements, I’d have to say probably not. My original iPhone can go about 2 days without a charge, but the Pre was usually nearing empty at the end of the day (and was probably being used less than I use my iPhone during that time). You could argue the Pre has an advantage due to its user-replaceable battery, but honestly for day-to-day use you don’t really want to have to rely on battery swaps. It is nice to know that when the battery reaches the end of its useable life, you can easily pop in a new one though.

Third party applications

Palm includes a handful of common apps with the Pre, but you can also download & install additional apps via the Palm App Catalog. The Catalog currently only has about 1000 apps, but you’ll already find apps for a lot of popular sites and services. I downloaded apps for Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, weather, music services etc. and found them all to be quite useable. Strangely enough, the App catalog has a lot of subcategories, despite some of them being empty. I understand this may be due to regional restrictions, but it does seem as though the subcategories are far too detailed considering most general categories often only had a handful of apps.

The apps that were available all felt slightly less sophisticated than comparable iPhone applications – Facebook can only display and post to your news feed for example, as opposed to the near-complete experience its iPhone counterpart offers. The twitter applications I tried were similarly limited. Most of the time, they offered the main functionality I was looking for though, so they serve their purpose. The WebOS SDK is also less mature than Apple’s iPhone SDK (don’t forget, it is already in its third iteration), so I’d expect to see the apps improve in future. But by design, WebOS will only ever offer an experience comparable to a web app (but as webapps become increasingly sophisticated, this limitation will become less significant).

Background notifications

Since 3rd party applications can run in the background on WebOS, it doesn’t need the klutzy push notification system you’ll find on the iPhone to send you messages or updates that you receive whilst using another app. Notifications appear along the bottom edge of the screen and tapping a notification will open the corresponding app. Occasionally I also received notifications for applications that I had closed, but I guess that feature is limited to Palm’s own Mail and Messaging applications.

Syncing

This is one area that Palm doesn’t really compete in at all. While the Pre launched with iTunes compatibility, a few iTunes updates soon put a stop to that practice, so the Pre now only shows up as a regular mass-storage device. You can easily drag music, videos and images to the corresponding folders on the device, but that still leaves you with no way to manage applications, podcasts, purchases etc. I know some users prefer the ability to manually manage content on a device, but I think nowadays most users will prefer the iPod-like syncing offered on the iPhone.

Overall

The Pre is a great phone. But is it better than the iPhone? I’d have to say no. Launching apps and most UI interactions feel quite a bit more sluggish on the Pre than on the iPhone (and remember – I’m comparing it to my original iPhone, which is considerably slower than the new 3GS). Whilst this isn’t a huge deal breaker, it does emphasize that most other smartphones can’t match the overall quality of presentation the iPhone OS offers. Web OS is very pretty and there’s plenty of love and polish on display – but it’s just not quite as polished as iPhone OS.

The apps are also just slightly less sophisticated, which seems at odds with the slightly more advanced gestures and multitasking support in WebOS. It’s a geekier, sleeker smartphone, but the apps seem better suited to less demanding casual users.

If the iPhone isn’t an option for you, the Pre is a great device. It has a lot of the features that make the iPhone special and is almost definitely a step up from your current phone. But if I had to choose, the iPhone is still an easy pick.

Liked this review? Save a few bucks, support the site and buy your Palm Pre at Amazon.

Already own a Pre? Get the Touchstone dock kit at Amazon.

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