My interest in webOS is not new, it dates back to 2009, when the Palm Pre was announced at CES. At that time, I have to say, I wasn’t really interested in Palm or its products. As a Newton user, Palm and the success of its PDAs, along of course with Jobs’s decision to discontinue the Newton platform, didn’t leave me too happy, so who cares about Palm, I thought. In 2009 I was enjoying my iPhone 3G, bought the year before, still thanking Apple for taking me away from the atrocious mobile phones of the pre-iPhone era. But I was also thinking that the iPhone could use a little competition, and Android to me was a joke, its UI and user experience a sort of less horrible nightmare than Windows Mobile 6, and so on and so forth.
The Pre and webOS struck me as something fresh, more pleasant, more elegant. I was even willing to forgive the physical keyboard. I thought: this is interesting. The idea, the implementation, looked coherent enough to me. Since I moved to Spain, I’ve maintained two mobile numbers, one tied to a Spanish SIM, and the other to an Italian SIM. When the Pre was introduced, I was willing to purchase one as my second phone, a project that never materialised because when it finally was available in Spain (early 2010, if I remember well), apparently you could only have one locked with a Spanish carrier, and I needed one unlocked. Concurrently, at that time I was rather low on budget, and such a ‘research purchase’ (as I love to call it) wasn’t possibile. So I waited, following webOS’s development from the sidelines, downloading the SDK and running the Palm Emulator under Mac OS X just to analyse the interface and interaction.
Fast forward to February 2011: when the Pre3, the Veer and, most importantly, the TouchPad were unveiled at the HP webOS Think Beyond event, I really believed webOS could be a valid competitor along with iOS, Android, Windows Phone. And I really liked that TouchPad. It was the first non-Apple tablet I would consider buying, despite the not exactly stellar reviews that started to appear later. When HP executives managed to butcher the platform completely, making what I still consider the hugest mistake in mobile operating system history, I was quite saddened by webOS’s misfortune. (If you haven’t yet read Chris Ziegler Pre to postmortem: the inside story of the death of Palm and webOS at The Verge, I suggest you do. It’s a long, but worthwhile read.)
A Pre 2 falls from the sky…
In recent months I’ve been keen on obtaining an HP TouchPad as a ‘research purchase’, my interest still strong especially after reading Please steal these webOS features by Lukas Mathis. I wanted to get one from somebody who maybe made an impulse purchase when the 16GB model was fire-sold by HP at $99 and now wanted to get rid of it, but I still haven’t found such a deal. (I’m still open to it, and willing to pay €99 for your TouchPad). When I vented my frustration on Twitter some weeks ago, I was contacted by one of my followers and offered an unlocked Palm Pre 2. Not a tablet, but definitely a first-hand, non-emulated, webOS experience.
After using this Pre 2 as a second phone for ten days, my general impression is definitely positive overall, and every time I pick it up and interact with webOS I can’t help thinking of what it could have been and wasn’t. I’ve been an iPhone user since 2008, and as regards to responsiveness and user-friendliness of the UI, I’m undoubtedly spoiled. Every other smartphone I’ve tried and tinkered with has always disappointed me on this front, compared with the iPhone. Only the most recent Android and WP7 phones have started to really catch up on responsiveness. Well, I was positively surprised by webOS and the Pre 2 touchscreen. Moving through screens of apps is smooth, as is scrolling pages of content (like emails, Web pages, Twitter feeds, PDF documents etc.). The Pre 2 also seems powerful enough to handle true app multitasking without getting sluggish. Of course, I haven’t tried opening 20 different things because it seems just a stupid test to do. In real-world everyday use one can probably keep three or four tasks open, and that is handled very well by the Pre 2.
There are things of webOS I really like and even prefer over iOS. Most of them have been already pointed out by Lukas Mathis in the aforementioned article, especially (I’m using Mathis’ section titles for convenience and reference) Notifications, Quick access to regularly changed settings, Switching apps, and the Just Type system-wide search feature.
Hardware-wise, the Pre 2 feels great in my hand, and beautifully proportioned. It has a removable battery, so the plastic back comes off entirely to let the user install/remove the battery and the SIM card. Unlike many other phones, whose back panels feel cheap and start wobbling a bit after a while, the Pre’s back snaps solidly in place (at least in my unit) and remains in place rather firmly.
I was really amazed by the screen’s brightness. Due to my eyesight, I tend to keep both my phones and laptops on high brightness settings, but the Pre 2’s screen is bright and pleasant even at 35% of total brightness. When I cranked it up to 100% the white areas in the UI were simply too bright to stare at.
The gesture area is a smart idea: on the Pre 2 there is no physical Home button, but the whole area beneath the screen acts as a Back/Home button. It’s very handy and quick to get accustomed to (and yesterday I even tried to swipe on my iPhone 4 in the same manner…) and definitely the kind of implementation that wouldn’t be out of place on a future iteration of Apple’s own iOS devices.
Coming from four years of typing on a virtual keyboard, the physical keyboard of the Pre 2 took a while to get used to. After a few days, I can type without making too many mistakes, but I still type more slowly than on the iPhone. The keys are tiny, even for my long thin fingers. The only advantage of having a physical keyboard on the Pre, in my opinion, is in combination with the Just Type search feature. You flip the keyboard out and start typing, and you’re instantly inside the search interface. With all apps closed, you begin to type anything, a search term you want to look up in Google, or a contact name, or a word you want to search in past emails, or the first letters of an app you want to launch, and the search interface reacts promptly, offering you all the related options. It’s not that much different from Spotlight on iOS or even on the Mac, but during use I found it slightly faster to access and more elegant in giving results. And there’s one thing that does more than Spotlight: you don’t ‘just type’ to search, but also to initiate ‘Quick Actions’ such as writing a new text message, or email message, or calendar event, memo, etc. And this is really handy and well thought-out.
Another thing I’ve been liking about the Pre 2 is the file exchange procedure. I wanted to put some music, videos and documents in it, to test the relevant apps, and the Apple user in me automatically looked for some syncing software, only to discover that the quick and dirty (but equally effective) method was simply to connect the Pre 2 to my MacBook Pro via USB, choosing the ‘USB drive’ option (the other being ‘Just charge’), creating ‘Music’ and ‘Video’ folders at the root level of the Pre 2 main folder, and copying the files there. Ten minutes after I was listening to music on the Pre 2. When you connect the Pre 2 to the computer this way, you can also download all the photos you took with the Pre 2’s five megapixel camera just as seamlessly. Sure, the iPhone is more elegant and cable-free, but it’s been somewhat liberating to be able to manage music without relying on that beast of iTunes for a change.
And speaking of the camera: it takes decent photos overall, but nothing compared to the iPhone 4. Its features are the bare minimum (flash controls) and that’s it. No tap-to-focus, no exposure controls, nothing of the sort. Probably due to its simplicity, it has less shutter lag than the iPhone 4’s.
Application-wise, the Pre 2 comes with the usual basic system applications you’d expect in a modern smartphone: a browser, an email client, a calendar, a clock/alarm, a calculator, a Music app, a Video app, Camera app (the Pre also shoots video), Photos, Maps, Contacts, Memos, the App Catalog (i.e. the equivalent of iOS’s App Store), and so on. Everything is pretty standard, but my favourite apps are the browser, the email client and the Photos app. The browser is capable and minimal; I found the email client to be more pleasant to use than Mail on the iPhone (and it has a quick, handy “Mark All Read” feature which is quicker than having to select all the emails you then want to mark read, as you still have to do on iOS); what I like of the Photos app is one simple thing: photos are automatically arranged in different folders according to their source. So you have a “Photo roll” for all the snaps you took with the Pre 2’s camera, a “Wallpaper” folder with the stock webOS wallpapers (and if you want to add yours, you just place them there when you connect the phone to the Mac), a “Downloads” folder with all the images you’ve downloaded from the Web, etc. On iOS everything basically goes into the Film roll cauldron.
The third-party app scene is a mixed bag. I’ve been browsing the webOS app catalogue and any savvy iOS user exploring webOS will be underwhelmed by the general quality of third-party webOS apps. I found a surprisingly lacking choice of photo apps, for example. And I mean both apps to use the phone’s camera creatively (such as Instagram, Camera+, CameraBag, Halftone, ShakeItPhoto, Snapseed on iOS) and apps with photo editing tools. But there are good apps, especially those sticking to webOS system UI. And I found some nice surprises, like a couple of good Twitter clients (Spaz and phnx), an Evernote app, a Spotify app, a good ebook reader (pReader), an app for watching TED talks, a webOS version of Remote (to control iTunes from the phone) and Picsel Smart Office, to handle the odd Word/Excel/PowerPoint document.
An interesting aspect of webOS and third party apps is that you can benefit from a lot of applications outside the official App Catalog without having to ‘jailbreak’ or ‘root’ your Pre. You just need an application (webOS Quick Install or ‘wosQI’) on your computer and to enter Developer mode on the Pre (which is done simply by inserting a special string in the Just Type fied), then you connect the phone via USB and you’re basically set. It’s still not recommended for the non-tech-savvy guy, but it’s not too complicated or terribly dangerous either.
Battery life is a serious drawback, as any Pre user would tell you. To get at least one day out of a full charge, I had to disable automatic email check in Email, to put my GoogleTalk account offline in Messages, to deactivate the GPS and some other thing I now forget. At that point, the battery could hold one full day of moderate to normal use.
All in all, these ten days with the Palm Pre 2 as a second phone have been surprisingly pleasant, and my initial good impressions of webOS have been confirmed when using the software in person (emulation is enough when you want to explore the UI, but you need a physical device in your hands to actually test the software and hardware’s responsiveness). Considering the current, uncertain situation of webOS, it’s really a pity that something with this kind of potential has failed to be more prominent in the mobile world. Let’s see where the open sourcing of webOS will go.
On a really final note: these are just first impressions and this doesn’t want to be a comprehensive review of webOS or the Palm Pre 2. There are certainly omissions. If you feel I’ve missed something obvious or if there are factual mistakes, please write to me and let me know.