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Review: Palm Pre WebOS

My Palm Pre hardware review made it clear, that while the Palm Pre is a nice device it’s not groundbreaking on the hardware-specs front. The real unique selling point is the new WebOS, which aims for a fingerfriendly and innovative touch interface while incorporating different web technologies to provide a seamless internet experience. This review will be about the WebOS functionality, innovations, biggest pros and cons as well as the UI philosophy. Furthermore i will make comparisons to Android and Windows Mobile in order to give you an impression about the strengths and weaknesses of each OS.

After the first startup you will be prompted to setup a “Palm Profile”. This profile is needed for the backup services, as well as for the OTA (Over the Air) firmware updates. You need to have internet access for setting up a palm profile, and it’s not possible to set it up via WiFi (i wasn’t able to activate WiFi or to search for wireless netorks). So make sure to have a simcard at hand which has 3g/edge/gprs access. This should be the case for nearly all simcard nowadays, but you should really get an internet flatrate for your simcard since using the Palm Pre, which relies heavily on internet services, can get VERY expensive otherwise. It doesn’t make much sense to get a Palm Pre without an internet flat.

palm_pre_profile_setup

When your Palm profile has been set up, the default homescreen will appear, with a nice wallpaper and the main navigation shortcuts at the bottom of the screen. The main navigation is customizable and consists of: contacts, mail, calendar, dialer and the main menu arrow.

This is also my first gripe with the Palm Pre, you have a lot of wasted screen real estate. On the top of the screen you’ll find the mobile network name, a clock, battery level and 3g connection icons as well as the strength of the mobile network signal, but the main area of the touchscreen is left empty.

palm_pre_homescreen

Sure the space is used for the cards (which i will explain in a seperat chapter), but it would be still possible to make more out of it. Especially for business users which prefer to have some kind of today screen which gives them all important data of the current day (tasks, meetings, emails, messages) at a glance. The competition uses the homescreen for app shortcuts and/or widgets, and after customizing such an interface to fullfill your personal needs, it’s really a great feature you don’t want to miss. Android has many customization options and enhancements like HTC Sense, Windows Mobile has the today screen and many 3rd party plugins/apps like ultimate launch to further customize the today screen. The IPhone has at least app shortcuts to play around with. But on the Palm Pre i feel like the homescreen is too empty, it would be nice to have more options like further app shortcuts or widgets on the homescreen to be accessed directly. You could just shade out the background if the user wants to see the cards, so there would be no need to keep the homescreen empty in order to work with the cards system too. Hopefully Palm will adress this issue in future updates of WebOS.

You can access the main menu with all apps by touching the arrow icon on the bottom of the homescreen. It’s possible to rearrange the apps in this list, and you also have the possibility to use three pages for your apps. One thing which immediately stands out is how polished and professional the UI elements look. Starting from the great text fonts, to the app icons and the color selection, we are talking about an incredibly stylish user interface here, which is easily up to par with the IPhone UI, and surpasses the standard UIs of Windows Mobile and Android (add-ons like HTC Sense can compete quite well though). Palm did a great job of developing a state-of-the-art touchscreen UI, which is truly easy to use.

palm_pre_app_menu

The small lines at the bottom right or bottom left corner will indicate how many pages you can access by swiping in that direction. So in example if you are in the third page of three total pages, you’ll see two lines at the bottom left which means that you have two pages on the left side of the current page. This is just a small detail, but can be helpful for quick orientation.

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While WebOS doesn’t support homescreen widgets or app shortcuts on the homescreen directly, it is still possible to access the main navigation from ANY app. In order to access the main navigation from anywhere you just need to swipe your finger up from the left gesture area to the touchscreen. This will result in a hovering main navigation which is shown as a layer on the current opened app. The following screenshot shows how i opened the main navigation from my ‘Spiegel Online’ app. This is really a great idea that works perfectly, since there is actually no need to go back to the homescreen to open your main apps.

palm_pre_main_navigation_popup

WebOS Universal Search

Another great feature is the universal search. Just start typing in any text or number on the homescreen using the QWERTZ keyboard, and you will see on the fly results of your contacts, and apps. You will also have the option of searching via Google, Twitter or Wikipedia for results. This is a very handy feature which i used quite often to quickly access a contact. But since nearly all competitors provide a similar feature, or will shortly provide one, this is not a killer feature anymore. Still it’s good to know that WebOS already has universal search in full force.

palm_pre_universal_search

WebOS Cards System

One of the most talked about features of the Palm Pre, besides the synergy concept, is definetly the cards system. Cards stand for active apps, and the cards system is basically a task manager which is easier to understand and to use than the regular task manager apps you’ll find on other platforms like Android and Windows Mobile. Every time you work with an app and press the main hardware button to access the homescreen, a small card-shaped window will be created showing the previously opened app. This card represents the active app, which means that the process is not closed and will continue to work. You could now continue opening other apps at will, and work with them, while all cards stay active in the background. Switching through cards is as easy as a swipe to the left or right, and by touching a card you will maximize the window to full screen view in order to use the app.

If you don’t need an app anymore, you can close it by “throwing” the card out of the touchscreen. Just touch a card and swipe to the top of the screen, and the card will fly off the screen which will close the app. This is real multitasking and a great advantage compared to the IPhone, which allows only a few main apps to run in the background. Android and Windows Mobile provide multi tasking too, but Palms card system is easier to understand for the mainstream audience.

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By touching and holding on a card you will get a zoomed out view of your cards, and be able to rearrange the current cards.

palm_pre_cards_rearrange

WebOS Notification System

Obstrusive notifications are not always helpful when you are doing something important with your phone. Any smartphone user will agree, that it’s not convenient to get a big popup window which will remind you to buy milk, when you are just fully concentrated with your current task at hand. Also there might be instances where you wouldn’t want private tasks or messages to be visible to anybody else having a glance at your screen. Palm took care of this by implementing an unobstrusive way of notifications. Your current view of any app will not be disturbed, as the main windows will be slightly zoomed out to show the message at the bottom of the screen.

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Touching the notification will maximize the message area, as you can the on the next screenshot.

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This is really a great way to handle notifications, and in my opinion only Android is as good or even slightly better with the pulldown shade concept.

WebOS Contacts app and WebOS Synergy

One of the big innovations the Palm Pre introduced is a feature called “Synergy”, which will pull informations from different sources on the web and unify them in a single view. To be more precise, the Palm Pre can pull your Facebook contacts in example and merge them with your google contacts on your phone. This way you have all your contacts in one application, which is really an ingenious idea. Other players on the market like this idea too, that’s why there are many companies like HTC and Samsung taking similar approaches with their custom made skins for Android and soon Windows Mobile. Also Android 2.0 supports pulling data from web services like Facebook.

The following two screenshots show the setup of contact accounts. In the current german Palm Pre firmware you can choose between Google, Facebook and exchange accounts. As far as i know the american firmware includes further services like LinkedIn. So it should be just a matter of time until germany gets this option too.

palm_pre_contacts_accounts

This is the overview of all currently active contact accounts.

palm_pre_contacts_account_setup

The contact list is quite nice, and the scrolling is very fluid too. The Palm Pre is as good as the IPhone in this regard, and slightly better than the HTC Hero which sometimes can be laggy during the contact list scrolling.

palm_pre_contacts

Touching a contact entry in the contact list will open the detail view. You’ll get an overview of all phonenumbers and other contact informations here. It’s possible to start a call, write an email or write a textmessage from this screen by touching the “SMS” icon. This is also were you’ll see informations taken from Facebook, if your contact is a Facebook friend too. In this example the contact picture shows a number as an indicator of how many contact sources have been merged. The contact information has been pulled from my google contacts, and from my Facebook contacts.

palm_pre_contact_detail

The “Synergy” feature works well, and it’s possible to manually map contacts to Facebook if the automatic mapping didn’t work. This makes sense, since some people don’t use their real names on Facebook, and therefore it wouldn’t be easily possible for the app to map them automatically to your phones contacts. Currently the Palm Pre will only pull your contacts information from Facebook, like phonebumbers, birthdays, emailadress and so on. But it doesn’t pull Facebook status messages or albums. HTC Sense is one step further in this regard, since it will pull Facebook status updates and albums too.

palm_pre_contact_edit

WebOS Calendar app

Synergy doesn’t only apply for the contacts app, but also for the calendar app. The concept is the same: the Palm Pre calendar will pull the data of different calendar sources from the web (google, facebook, exchange) and show them in your calendar using a different color for each. The daily view on this screenshot shows two items from different calendars. As you can see the free time between the two items is compressed in order to show more information onscreen at once. This is another detail, which really shows how Palm thought about the little things to make life easier for you.

palm_pre_calendar_dayview

The week view in this example shows two full day events, and two items from different calendars. You can scroll through weeks by swiping to the left or right. This is also possible on the day-view.

palm_pre_calendar_weekview

I like the month view especially because you can see how many items you have on each day. The calendar will fill the day with a grey background depending on the number of items you have on each day. So it’s possible to see which days are very busy having many meetings at one glance. This concept is much better than the HTC Sense calendar, or the default Windows Mobile calendar, since both will only indicate if a day has an item or no item at all.

palm_pre_calendar_monthview

Of course you can choose which calendars to show on your Palm Pre, and deactivate calendars which should be kept private.

palm_pre_calendar_selection

This is just an example of the calendar card besides some other active cards. I like to keep my contact, calendar and email apps open at all time, so i can access them easily and fast.

palm_pre_calendar_card

WebOS Email app

A good email application is as important as contacts or calendar apps, and Palm created a nice solution for emailing. Setting up an gmail account is very easy, and straightforward. You just have to input your username and password and the Palm Pre takes care of the rest. After the first sync you will see your gmail inbox and all your gmail labels as folders.

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This is how the inbox view looks. As you can see there is an email icon on the bottom left corner, which can be used to write a new email.

palm_pre_email_inbox

The Palm Pre renders HTML Emails beautifully. Just take a look at the vodafone newsletter from my inbox.

palm_pre_email_example

One problem with the gmail sync is that labels are not handled correctly. While the email app will show all your labels as folders, they are not polulated with any emails. So there is no way to access your emails which are assigned to a gmail label easily.

palm_pre_email_overview

The next screenshot shows that my “Android” folder is empty, and even after resyncing manually, it isn’t populated with the correct Android labelled emails. The only way to perfectly work with your Gmail labels currently is using an Android device.

palm_pre_email_gmail_label

Writing a new email is not much different than on other devices. Choose the recipient, write your text, attach files and send the email.

palm_pre_email_new_mail

WebOS Messaging app

Text messages are still very popular in europe, and especially in germany. The Palm Pre messaging app natively supports google talk and AIM messaging services additionally. I’m sure more services will be supported in the future.

palm_pre_messaging_accounts

Regular text messages are shown as a list, and touching a text message will open the conversation view which will show the text messages exchanged with the specific contact.

palm_pre_messaging

The following view would show all text messages with the current contact, but since i only wrote one test message, this screenshot shows only one entry.

palm_pre_messaging_detail

General messaging options include: activating/deactivating messaging accounts, activating/deactivating notifications and activating/deactivating sounds.

palm_pre_messaging_options

WebOS Tasks app

Android devices tend to be very barebones nowadays, so the user has to download the most basic stuff like task manager from the Android market. Palm tried to preinstall the most important apps so the user can start using the Palm Pre instantly without the need for further downloads. The preinstalled task app is very basic, but gets the job done. You can add new Tasklists having different subtasks, and add priorities and due dates.

palm_pre_tasks_list

WebOS Browser app

Apple revolutionized the way people surf the web with smartphones by introducing an incredible webkit based mobile browser. The whole mobile industry didn’t manage to do this for the past years, but Apple really pulled it off developing the first smartphone which made it truly easy and comfortable to browse the web. Of course there are great Windows Mobile browsers out there, especially Opera Mobile 9.7 can actually live up to the Safari browser, but the combination of a capacitive screen and a fast and intuitive browser was really special for the first IPhone launch.

The Palm Pre browser is fast, renders pages beautifully, automatically adjusts the screen orientation (thanks to the approximity sensor), supports multi-touch zoom and when opening a new page it will show the zoomed out view as default. I think this default view is much better than the HTC Sense browser, which starts out in the zoomed in view, because you can decide which part of the webpage you want to zoom into.

palm_pre_browser

Bookmarks are stored with little screenshots, which is nice, but having a lot of bookmarks it can be a little bit frustrating to scroll through your list. But it’s also possible to access a regular bookmarks list without screenshots via the main menu. One feature of Opera Mobile which i really miss, is the possibility to use folders for your bookmarks. That way you can easily organize many bookmarks into different categories, but the Palm Pre browser doesn’t support this. In this regard the HTC Hero browser is not much better, but at least Opera announced an Android version of Opera Mobile, so hopefully we will have another great browser on the Android market soon. There is no information on a Palm Pre version of Opera Mobile yet.

palm_pre_browser_bookmarks

Another setback of the Palm Pre browser is the missing textwrapping. When zooming in the text of a webpage is not automatically reformatted to fit the screen. This makes reading content really uncomfortable, since you have to scroll to the left or right all the time to follow the sentences. Maybe there is a way to activate text wrapping, but i couldn’t find any option to activate it. If this feature is really missing than this is a HUGE disadvantage compared to the competition. All important browser on Android, Windows Mobile and IPhone support this, so i don’t understand how Palm could leave that out. Again if there is a way to activate text wrapping, please let me know.

Generally the Palm Pre browser is rendering slightly faster than the HTC Hero browser, and nearly up to par with the IPhone Safari browser. The multi-touch zoom is also more fluid than the HTC Hero zoom.

palm_pre_browser_zoom

WebOS Music Player app

Transferring your music to the Palm Pre can be done via USB drag&drop. Palm also supported iTunes sync initially, by tricking the iTunes app to think that the connected device is an IPhone. Of course Apple wasn’t happy about this and every new iTunes update tried to close this gap. Palm reacted on those iTunes updates by reenabling the sync again, but finally the court decided that Palm was breaking the law and therefore is not allowed the provide this feature anymore.

palm_pre_musicplayer

Palms music player supports all the basic functionaliy you come to expect, like playlists, browsing your library by artist, album, genre and so on. Nothing special to mention here, the player gets the job done, but doesn’t provide any big innovations.

palm_pre_musicplayer_playback

WebOS Notes app

A notes app also comes preinstalled. It uses a funny user interface, i’m using the word “funny” on purpose, because i don’t see the benefit of showing the notes as pinned to a board. I would prefer a simple list, because then you would be able to see more notes at once.

palm_pre_notes_app

WebOS Camera app

The camera apps results are not bad, and much better than the HTC Hero cam, despite having only 3 MP compared to the HTC Hero cam which sports 5 MP. It’s also much faster, and therefore easier to get good pictures. I will add some comparison pictures took with both devices to this chapter later. The user interface for the cam is very simple, basically just showing one button to take a picture.

palm_pre_picture

WebOS Dialer app

Starting a call with the dialer app is easy, and the app will search for contacts in realtime while you are inputting the number.

palm_pre_phone_dialer

Searching for specific contacts can be done using the search box at the top, or by scrolling through the contacts list.

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You can also open the call log from here.

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WebOS Photos app

Photos can be viewed and zoomed with multi-touch gestures, and you can share them via Email, MMS, Facebook or set them as wallpaper or assign to a contact. Since the Palm Pre has an approximity sensor the screen orientation is automatically updated depending on the way you hold the device.

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WebOS YouTube app

No new smartphone without an YouTube app nowadays. And this app comes with all important functionality to view YouTube videos, as well as sharing them. It doesn’t support uploading videos though.

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The user interface is fast and easy to understand. Scrolling through video lists, opening detail view and videos is handled very well.

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WebOS Appcatalog

I think this review established that the Palm Pre is a great device having a great OS, but the real winning factor is the app marked. WebOS has huge potential, now it’s up to the developers to make good use of it. Sadly the way it stand right now, the Palm Market is really tiny compared to the competition. I know that the Palm Pre is pretty new, and the Android market took some time to get going too. But we have to admit, that Google is in another dimension resources wise than Palm will ever be. Google is basically taking over the internet world, and Apple has over 100.000 apps, while Palm was at the brink of extinction and is still in a dangerous situation.

palm_pre_app_catalog_app_details

So the Palm market just doesn’t provide a big selection currently, and even basic stuff like RSS readers were missing during my testing period. Also i don’t like the fact that besides having a small selection, there are already a lot of nonsense apps available. Palm should really concentrate their efforts to get the most important apps out (PIM apps, Finance apps, Tools, Multimedia apps), instead of mini-games or wallpappers. At least there are Twitter and LinkedIn apps available, which is nice.

palm_pre_app_catalog_starred_apps

Help

Providing a good Help library is not something all smartphones provide. There is nothing like this on Android as far as i know, and a lot of times you have to find out yourself how the Android OS works. So it’s good to see that Palm implemented a good Help feature which takes care about the most important topics.

palm_pre_help

Language

I can remember how i bought a Windows Mobile device for a relative some years ago. Since he was not living in germany i wanted to switch the language setting to english, but this just wasn’t possible. The only way was to flash a new unofficial ROM on my device, which was too much effort for me back then. On the Palm Pre it’s easily possible to switch the system language.

palm_pre_languagepicker

PDF/ Doc Viewer

You also get a preinstalled doc and pdf viewer. The following two examples show one document and one pdf file.

palm_pre_docviewer_example

Both viewer are very basic and work as expected.

palm_pre_pdfviewer_example

Settings

Now let us take a look at the different system settings. Connectivity options include automatic position detection, GPS settings and background data for google.

palm_pre_connection_options

Date and time settings provide basic options like timezone and used time format.

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Backup

Similar to the ‘Mobile Me’ service from Apple, or the ‘My Phone’ service from Microsoft, Palm provides a backup feature too which allows the user to backup his personal data on the Palm servers automatically. Google doesn’t provide such a service, and doesn’t really need to, since your personal data like contacts, calendar and emails will be in the Google cloud anyway if you use a Google account.

palm_pre_backup_app

Other apps

Further apps which come preinstalled include a calculator and the clock app. Both apps provide basic functionality, and nothing extraordinary.

Deviceinfo

Opening the device info will show your installed applications as well as hardware informations. This is were you can uninstall apps.

palm_pre_deviceinfo

Palm Pre verdict

Overall i had two weeks to play around with the Palm Pre, and there are many things to like about the Pre. It has a good slider keyboard, a very nice and intuitive UI, and an operating system with a lot of potential. The browser is faster than the Android default browser, and the scrolling in the contacts app is lagfree contrary to the HTC Sense contacts app on the HTC Hero. But the overall speed of WebOS is not really snappier than Android, since it’s possible to produce lags every now and then, when switching cards, and opening the app list quickly. I read a lot about the speed of the Palm Pre (and that it can rival the IPhone 3GS), but i can’t confirm that the Palm Pre is faster than the HTC Hero which has a 528 Mhz Qualcomm CPU. Both devices perform quite similar performance-wise, and i have about 45 apps installed on my HTC Hero, while i only installed 2-3 apps on the Palm Pre for testing purposes. So i think the IPhone 3GS still takes the price of the fastest device, but it doesn’t support multi-tasking as tradeoff. To me multi-tasking is extremely important and i accept some lags for being able to do many things at the same time. But most mainstream user won’t even notice the missing multi tasking on the IPhone. I have many friends which are casual smartphone users and got IPhones, and they don’t even realize that there is no multi-tasking on the IPhone, because they just got used to the way they have to work with the device: one thing after another. And since this concept keeps the OS responsive and fast, nobody really complains.

But the biggest issue for me is the uncertain future of the Palm market. The smartphone market is full of giants like Google, Apple, Microsoft and Nokia to name a few. And Palm is a very small company compared to the competition, which still has a lot of financial problems. So nobody can really say how this will play out. I don’t see the big app market explosion coming in the near future for the Palm Pre. Therefore i would recommend the Palm Pre for casual users which want to have a stylish smartphone, with a great UI, great web and multimedia capabilities and a full QWERTZ keyboard. But you should not bet on the 3rd party apps to make the Palm Pre worthwhile for you, instead get the Palm Pre if it provides the most important things you need out-of-the-box. Don’t get me wrong, there are some nice apps available on the Palm Pre market like the native LinkedIn app, but there is also a lot of basic stuff missing. So if you are satisfied with the out-of-the-box experience of the Palm Pre, it will eliminate the possibility that you’ll be dissappointed at a later time, because the app market won’t grow as fast as the competitors markets.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Also make sure to check out my Palm Pre WebOS gallery, providing a big collection of WebOS screenshots for further impressions.

You can find further information about WebOS at Betabuzz.