Palm Pre 2 and WebOS 2.0 review

Uncategorized Jan 01, 2011 No Comments

Last week, we received a Palm Pre 2 developer phone from HP.  Reviews of the Pre 2 and HP WebOS 2.0 have rolled out slowly across the interwebs, mainly because Palm has only released the device on a few carriers worldwide.  For most customers in the U.S., the bigger story is what HP WebOS 2.0 will bring to whatever existing Palm phones are still in use.  Verizon was announced as a carrier for the Pre 2 sometime in 2010, but that date is has obviously slipped, and you have to wonder if there’s any point in carrying the device anymore.  The reason is not because it’s a bad phone, but because it is an outdated design that is sure to be replaced sometime soon in early 2011.  Palm (we’ll just consider that the current brand name) isn’t likely to debut anything at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show, but they are clearly working on shipping a WebOS tablet and a new set of phones in the coming year.  If Verizon doesn’t get a CDMA version on shelves soon, it’s going to be faced with selling a device that many hope will look weak in comparison to whatever Palm expects to release.

So what is the Pre 2?  By most accounts, this is likely a phone that was in the product pipeline before HP bought Palm last year.  It is little more than a slightly-improved Palm Pre, and is probably what Palm should have put out as the Palm Pre Plus in 2010.  The main improvements from the Pre Plus are a flat (as opposed to rounded), glass screen, a faster 1Ghz processor, some slightly improved mechanics in the slider and keyboard, a better camera, 16 GB of internal storage, and a soft-touch material wrapping around the phone.  Other than that, it is the same phone as the original Pre with the same woefully small, low-resolution screen and overall sub-par build quality.  With the updates, this would have been a great phone when it was announced in January 2009 and released that summer.  In December of 2010, it almost seems like a joke.

So why did HP bother to put out this phone?   With its design finished, it was the only phone they could put in developers’ hands at this time.  With Palm’s market share dwindling close to zero, they needed something with modern specs to give to developers.  You have to wonder why they bothered to do any deals with carriers, though, since they are clearly positioning the phone as a developer device, offering it on their website unlocked and with a significant discount for developers.  It’s undoubtedly serving as a showcase for WebOS 2.0 and something on which developers can test their apps if they have faith that there will be real competitive phones coming in the next year.

The real message, then, is that this is all about WebOS going forward.  HP made it clear when they bought Palm that they were primarily interested in the software platform.  We know they are committed to owning their own tablet platform, but their commitment to smartphones themselves remains unclear.  Unfortunately, the Pre 2 does very little to show off their new OS because it is so hampered by hardware issues.  With any luck, developers can get past that, because it certainly feels like WebOS could come alive on all kinds of larger screens.  Until it does, however, we can only evaluate it on the phones available to us.

Hardware

Yes, it’s been said before, but it is shocking how dated the Pre 2 hardware feels.  What was underwhelming in summer 2009 is downright unacceptable turning the corner into 2011.  The small tweaks Palm made are welcome, but hardly transformative.

Overall look and feel

There’s a lot to be said for smaller phones that look attractive today, seeing as Android and Windows phones keep exploding to bigger sizes.  The Pre 2 has a nice refined look, even down to the way the logo, camera, and speaker are revealed on the back.  By surface area, it’s an incredibly small phone, but the thickness of this device is almost comical today.  Placed alongside an iPhone 4, Samsung Focus, or HTC Aria, it looks like a monster.  Similarly, in the hand the thickness is perceptible and one reason why it is sometimes more comfortable to use the phone with the keyboard out.  The balancing act of the index finger and thumb is the natural result of the hand wanting to find a position that balances well.

Oh sure, while the comparisons I made above were to keyboardless phones, that doesn’t get Palm off the hook. The Motorola Droid 2 and HTC G2 have shown that a phone can feel thin even with a keyboard.  And even if the keyboard was the culprit, what does that say about the utility of having a sliding mechanism at all?  A phone this size would be infinitely better if there was no slider and the keyboard simply sat at the bottom.  Surely Palm knows this by now, seeing as how the even smaller Palm Pixi has a more useful keyboard with more room to travel.

Somewhere along the way, Palm also made some questionable decisions regarding ports and buttons.  While it’s frustrating enough for Samsung to put the micro USB port on the top of the Focus, it’s especially aggravating that Palm put it on the right ride of the Pre 2.  This renders the phone very awkward to use when plugged in, at least for right-handers.  Again, using the phone with the keyboard out is the best remedy for this problem.  Palm also placed the microphone on the front of the screen, bottom-left.  With the mic on the front, it is much easier to accidentally cover it while on the phone.  The most confounding mistake, however, is the placement of the power button.  On the Pre 2, there are only two ways of turning on the screen.  You either flip the keyboard open or you press the power button.  The problem is, the power button is on the side of the phone, in the upper right corner.  The only way for a right-handed user to turn it on one-handed is to press the button with their thumb, thereby repositioning their hand.  After pressing the button, the only way to resume using the device (i.e. slide the unlock button), is to slide the hand back down and reposition.  This may not sound like a big deal, but it is an ergonomic nightmare. You almost have to wonder if Palm didn’t bother testing the phone after it gave the job of hardware design to one person.  That person must have been left-handed.

External issues aside, the 1 GHz processor form Texas Instruments that Palm put in has finally helped make this OS run as fast as originally promised.  In ourtesting, we experienced very little slowdown on the device, and no alarming freezes or glitches.  While much of that must have to do with the software architecture, this kind of performance was not evident on earlier Pres, and Palm deserves some credit for making that happen.

Display

The updated glass LCD screen is of decent quality but not especially eye-catching.  Viewing angles are far worse than on any AMOLED screen, an iPhone 4 I.P.S. Retina Display, or even the better quality LCDs that HTC is using.  The biggest problem, though, is in the size and resolution.  Mobilified is on record as being impressed with smaller-screened phones such as the HTC Aria, but the Pre 2’s screen is painfully small.  While the Aria has a 3.2-inch display, the 3.1-inch display of the Pre 2 is just that one step over the line to being almost unusable.  Some of that is due to some of the software decisions in Web OS and how it utilizes space, but this size and 480 x 320 resolution feels incredibly cramped.  And cramped is the right word because the resolution itself is not such a huge problem.  After all, Apple still sells the iPhone 3GS with the same resolution.  While that phones looks outdated compared to their 960 x 640 doubled-resolution iPhone 4, it still works because of Apple’s treatment of graphics and fonts, not to mention that at 3.5 inches, the iPhone 3GS screen feels massive compared to the Palm Pre.  Considering that the best-selling Android phones are now in the 4 to 4.3-inch range,  that should give you an idea just how puny the Pre 2 screen feels.

3.1-inch Pre 2 screen (right) beside 4.0-inch Samsung Focus (left)

In addition, someone seems to have not passed on the message to Palm that other manufacturers are coating their screens with fingerprint-resistant coatings.  With no phone since the iPhone 3G have we felt like wiping the screen so incessantly.

Keyboard

As we aluded to before, the keyboard for the Pre 2 is pretty disappointing.  It seems a little clickier and less mushy than the original Pre, but not by much.  The overall narrowness of the phone brings that cramped feeling from the display to the keyboard, causing you to be that much more careful while you type.  While we’ve been clear about how we feel about landscape keyboards, this portrait implementation isn’t miles better.  A virtual keyboard in place of this tiny keyboard would be preferable, unless it was of Blackberry keyboard quality.  More and more, it seems as if the only acceptable smartphone keyboards today are made by Blackberry or are direct copies of Blackberry (see: Droid Pro).

Software

The single biggest asset and point of differentiation Palm has is its proprietary mobile operating system, WebOS (now officially HP WebOS).  The appeal of WebOS is the way in which it simulates a workspace through its “cards” system.  Individual applications and websites can be left open as cards, put aside for later use, or flicked away with a satisfying gesture upwards.  Gestures, in fact, form a major part of the OS, as most major actions are controlled by simple gestures onscreen on in the “gesture area” below the screen.  Swipe up to bring up the launcher, swipe back to go back, swipe up while in an app to return to the card view, it’s all great fun.  One of the alarming things about WebOS is just how natural these motions become, to the point where you can find yourself performing those gestures on other devices, expecting the same experience.

The main advantage of Palm’s vision for their OS is how natural it feels to multitask in this environment.  When you have something open and running in Web OS, you know it because it’s right in front of you.  When you need to bring up the launcher, it’s trivial to swipe up and hold from the gesture area, bringing up your dock and the ability to go directly into the luncher or a frequently-used app.  WebOS animates the movement into and out of card view so well that it takes all the guesswork out of what your system is actually doing.  One of the main problems with Apple’s implementation of multitasking is that apps don’t fully run in the background and there is always some delay switching between apps.  On Android, they have the opposite problem where you have no idea what is running in the background and the most efficient way to multitask is to navigate through the notification bar. Whether or not it may negatively impact battery life, the card-style multitasking on WebOS is more intuitive than both.

Notifications

The notification system on WebOS is well-considered, but severely flawed.  As notifications come in, they populate in thin lines at the bottom of the screen, by tapping on them, they expand to show the nature of the notification, and tapping again takes you into the relavent app.  If you choose not to deal with the notification at that time, a left or right swipe clears the alert away.  It is a far superior solution than what Apple provides in iOS, but it has one major flaw.  As notifications come and populate at the bottom of the screen, they essentially take screen space away from the shrinking app that is in use.  This might work with more screen real estate, but the limited space for an active app can cause anxiety for the user.  If a notification comes in, ignoring it is almost not an option and that makes the process more intrusive than it needs to be.  The system does feel very organic, but for it to work effectively we’re going to need to see it on a bigger screen.

That is, in fact, a running theme when it comes to some of the decisions Palm made with WebOS.  Putting the notifications all at the bottom instead of in the upper status bar just adds one more horizontal area that can’t be used by a running app.  In addition, many of the apps add additional controls to the lower left and right corners of the app.  In the web browser, the lower left hand corner has a circular back button and the lower right a refresh button.  These buttons don’t take up all of the lower portion of the screen, but they are disruptive enough that you would want to scroll to move the text clear of them.  This severely limits the readable space and on a screen this small and low-resolution, that is a problem.

Shrinking real estate in the WebOS browser

Apps

Of course, one of the only things the average consumer out there cares about is, “does it have apps?  Does it have my favorite apps?”  With WebOS it’s a pretty mixed bag right now.  With the way the platform has stagnated in the last year, developers are not targeting WebOS as a place that their app needs to be.  Given that uphill battle, it is surprising how many quality apps have made their way over, due primarily to Palm’s Plug-in Development Kit unveiled last year.  This PDK made it very simple for developers on other platforms (READ iOS) to port their apps to WebOS.  The place where this is most evident is in games where WebOS has major titles from major and small manufacturers.  Long before Angry Birds came to (and subsequently became a problem) on Android, WebOS had it.  Same for Fruit Ninja and a host of games form gaming giant Electronic Arts.  Palm’s own Facebook app is a quality app.  Outside of a few big examples, however the app catalog for WebOS is looking increasingly bare.  The podcasting and Twitter apps are all a hair behind their Android counterparts and for virtually every category there appear to be only a few options available.  Until HP can generate a significant marketshare for Palm, the ease of developing for their system will go unnoticed and the app selection on WebOS will look sadder and sadder.

It is worth noting some really nice features of WebOS and touches that show the care that went into the platform.  WebOS has one of the best overall web browsers on a smartphone today.  In terms of displaying sites correctly and ease of multitouch navigation, Palm’s Webkit browser is second only to the iPhone’s mobile Safari.  The overall fit and finish of the OS is also impressive, with stylish fonts and thoughtful transitions animated throughout.  The new “Just type” feature that allows you to start typing on the hardware keyboard and select from a list of available actions dramatically changes the way you use the device for the better.  The phone app works quickly and efficiently, something that Android hasn’t been able to nail down either in stock or skinned form.

Flash

It is worth mentioning Flash on WebOS 2.0, if only because there has been so much discussion over Apple’s refusal to put it on the iPhone.  In my experience, Flash worked better on WebOS than on the Nexus One running Froyo.  On Android, playing any flash content made the webpage very unstable and difficult to zoom in and out.  On WebOS, it was much easier to move around the page, but the experience of starting and stopping the stream was very inconsistent and lacked the ease of use that playing any HTML5 content on iOS has.  One surprisingly nice feature was being able to navigate to the actual ustream.tv webpage and play a live stream, something you can’t do on iOS and helps given that the UStream apps don’t include every channel in their search.  What was not so nice was watching it destroy the battery.  When I say destroy, I mean it was legitimately frightening how fast the battery ran down.  The battery on the Palm Pre 2 is already small and doesn’t last long, but streaming content in flash on the Pre 2 killed the battery, even while it was plugged in.  To watch a phone lose charge quickly while it is charging is a disturbing experience and you have to wonder whether Palm would be better served putting its efforts towards how they play back HTML5 content.  For a mobile operating system supposedly built on web standards, you would think that they would embrace the full future of HTML5 and not disrupt that by continuing to dance with the proprietary Adobe Flash platform.

Going Forward

Based on the hardware alone, the Pre 2 is just not a competitive device.  The software catalog is also limited, creating a pretty steep uphill battle for HP Palm moving forward.  It would be easily to dismiss Palm at this point, but something about WebOS remains appealing at its core and they seem to have a handle on delivering a complete experience that goes beyond the level of polish Android has been able to deliver so far.  Palm has about six months to deliver a device before they will probably have fallen too far behind to ever be a major player again. Luckily, we have every indication that a tablet and new phones are coming soon.  New hardware and a renewed push could make a huge difference.  At the same time, when I was finished with my time with the Pre 2, I didn’t switch straight to an iPhone or Android phone, but went to to the Samsung Focus and it felt like a breath of fresh air.  If iOS and Android are destined to be the two leaders in the mobile space, it’s not a great sign for WebOS that the best Windows Phone in the U.S. feels like a a relief.  Here’s hoping that 2011 will bring a phone from HP Palm that is compelling enough that people will care about WebOS again.

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