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Palm Pre teardown shows iPhone-inspired design

Dismantling a Palm Pre piece by piece has revealed it to be very efficiently designed; so much so that, at points, it appears better put together than the Apple iPhone many see as its role model.

The component teardown by iFixit notes that the smartphone's thicker shape — necessary to accommodate the slide-out keyboard — gives Palm added design freedom to optimize the design where the iPhone is relatively straitjacketed by its thinner shape.

One of the obvious changes is a removable back panel that lets owners themselves replace the battery rather than take the device into a store. Similarly, the conspicuous speaker on the back of the Pre is louder than the small example on the iPhone, and the space affords room for an inductive (wire-free) charging system through an optional dock. That Palm has fitted a keyboard on its phone but managed to produce a device effectively as large as the iPhone is "very impressive," iFixit says.

In fact, the two share certain basic design traits. Both have separate processor and communication logic boards, and both are so tightly packed that they resort to glue and soldering to keep parts together in lieu of screws and other removable connectors. Repairing the very deepest components is expected to be very difficult, if not impossible.

Some characteristics, however, show refinement over what Apple has done. The Pre's processor board is "substantially" smaller than the iPhone's and reveals that Palm spent a large amount of time maximizing its available space — a particular feat given the faster, 600MHz Texas Instruments OMAP3 processor and newer PowerVR SGX 530 graphics. Enough seems familiar that iFixit draws a close parallel between the two companies.

The Pre's main components exposed but still assembled; a water damage sensor is highlighted on the left. | Image credits: iFixit.

"This Palm hardware reminds us a lot more of Apple's engineering style than any of hardware we've taken apart by other manufacturers (like Dell)," the repair site observes.

The Apple-like quality isn't likely to be coincidental. Palm is thought to have scored a coup when it hired Jon Rubinstein as an executive board chairman, supplying it with one of the iPod's key creators. Aside from steering Palm away from an increasingly formulaic series of PalmOS and Windows Mobile devices, Rubinstein is known to have added or replaced many of Palm's engineers with former Apple employees, some of whom had worked on the iPhone earlier in its history.

That sudden break in philosophy has not only helped Palm overcome many of the barriers to producing a physically appealing phone but has extended as deep as its connection to software; the Pre is set to identify itself as an iPod and syncs natively with iTunes as though it were one of Apple's own devices, albeit without the extra access to calendars, contacts and e-mail that make the iPhone's sync so seamless.

Palm Pre and iPhone components
iPhone 3G components laid out at top versus the Palm Pre on the bottom. | Image credits: iFixit.