I'll state up front that we are regular Princess cruisers who tried HAL and really enjoyed it, even though it was more laid back. So when we had the opportunity to sample the Norwegian Pearl, what we heard was one of NCL's best ships, we grabbed it. The Pearl was offering a 2 night Nassau cruise after repositioning from Alaska to Caribbean. The Freestyle idea sounded great, and pictures of the Pearl looked beautiful. But that's just it about NCL vs. Princess: the Pearl was all surface flash with zero substance, whereas Princess has little flash with a lot of substance.
Some random comparisons: the Pearl has a very cheap, tacky made-in-China quality throughout the whole ship that doesn't translate in photos. Photos may be pretty, but they don't convey how extremely uncomfortable every couch and chair is or the cheap Ikea quality of all the furnishings and carpeting. The Italian eatery may look quaint in pictures, but in reality all those hanging plants are plastic and that stone floor is actually a well worn carpet. In fact, every single plant on that entire ship was plastic, even in the extra cost Thermal Suite. On the other hand, the pictures of the Crown/Ruby Princess show soaring atriums, but what they don't reveal are the authentic, intricate marble and iron work and the authentic details that show up everywhere.
Another negative is the ship's layout. The Crown/Ruby Princess are bigger ships, but they are much easier to navigate and feel twice as spacious inside. The Pearl has a very awkward layout. This sums up our entire NCL experience: the pool was packed with screaming kids and couples making out in the Jacuzzis, so we laid out on the deck directly above it. It was hot so we wanted iced tea. But the waiters would only deliver extra cost alcohol drinks, not tea or water.
So I walked to the far end of the pool area, down the stairs then all the way back to the pool bar only to find the pool bar did not offer water or tea, only the buffet. So I had to walk through Cagney's steak house lobby to get to the buffet, only to be told I needed shirt and shoes to get tea or water.
Also the Pearl has a ridiculously TINY gym for the amount of people on board.
I've read some reviews about Princess food being mediocre, but our experience on all of our cruises has been very good (HAL had the best food, but the Le Cirque night was a waste.) But on NCL we found that the extra charge restaurants were almost equal to the regular Princess dining room, and the uber tacky Tsar's Palace main dining room was ridiculous. I ordered some exotic sounding chicken, but what I got was one deep fried chicken breast on a bare plate.
We realize that NCL caters to mass market cruisers with lots of young kids, and Princess to more mature cruisers, but lets face it. Each ship has 3,000 pairs of feet stomping through it week in, week out. The Pearl showed it, the Crown/Ruby didn't. As my DH said, Princess was like staying at one of Disney's on site hotels, and the Pearl was like an off site Motel 6 during Spring Break. And since our Princess cruises are booked during sales, the cost per night was equal to NCL. For our money, Princess has the best bang for the buck.