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Review: HP webOS 2.1 – Can webOS still keep up?

It’s been nearly two years since i wrote an in-depth webOS review. Back then Palm surprised everybody with a very innovative mobile OS which didn’t have to hide from the competition. On the contrary, webOS surpassed iOS and Android in some areas like data sync (synergy) and general UI quality. Luckily Palm/HP decided to provide an webOS 2.1 update for the Palm Pre Plus even though it’s not a product from the new HP line. Naturally it was the first task for me to install HP webOS 2.1 on my Pre Plus, since i was very curious to see how webOS evolved over the past years. It was a little bit of a chore since the update was not delivered OTA, instead you have to go through multiple steps and use an update software called webOS doctor to flash the new HP webOS 2.1 firmware. But after some tweaking around i finally managed to get HP webOS 2.1 running on the Pre Plus. If your are new to webOS i suggest to read my in-depth webOS 1.0 review first, and continue with this article afterwards in order to get an complete overview. This article will primarily be about the new features of webOS 2.1.

HP WebOS 2.1 Synergy

The initial setup of the phone and the creation of a Palm profile still doesn’t work with a wifi connection, so you have to use 3G/GPRS access in order to go through the setup steps. I don’t know why there is no option to turn on wifi for this, as some people complained that their carrier wasn’t setup correctly on the Palm Pre Plus to allow an internet connection.

One of the coolest features of webOS from day one is called ‘synergy’, which means that webOS can collect data from several of your online accounts and merge them within different webOS apps like contacts. So the contacts app will i.e. show Facebook pictures and all other informations that your contacts have shared like i.e. phone numbers, email adresses and so on. This is not a unique feature anymore, as all competitors offer similar options by now. But back when the Palm Pre was released this was a killer feature. On HP webOS 2.1 you’ll find the following services out of the box: AIM, Email Account, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, MS Exchange, Photobucket, Yahoo and Youtube.

Interestingly there is an option to find more synergy services on the app market, but i didn’t find any additional service as the market search wouldn’t provide any results. I don’t know if this is due to the Palm Pre Plus device, or if there is really not a single 3rd party synergy service on the market to download. Either way the options which are available out of the box are quite extensive so i won’t complain. And it’s nice to see that webOS offers this API for all developers which want to utilize synergy.

HP WebOS 2.1 ‘Just Type’ Feature

Another very strong feature is now called ‘Just Type’, which lets you start typing while being on the homescreen and webOS will search your apps, contacts, messages and many more sources to find what you are looking for. You can also forward the searchterm to start a google search or utilize other services like wikipedia, twitter and google maps.

HP/Palm also added the “quick actions” to the mix. Using the quick actions you can i.e. write a message by directly start typing on the webOS homescreen and the ‘Just Type’ feature will give you the option to create a new message, email, calendar entry or task with the text you just wrote. This is really a great idea, because you don’t have to open the specific apps everytime you want to write something quickly.

Searching for contacts also works very nicely and you will not only get the contact as result, but also emails and messages which you received from that specific person.

It’s possible to install additional search engines like IMDB, but at this point the selection on the HP webOS market is quite small so you shouldn’t expect a lot of different offers. Similar to synergy this is not a big issue though, because the search engines which come preinstalled should already represent the majority of important ones.

I really love the ‘Just Type’ feature and think that it’s actually better than the universal search for Android and iOS, since you have quick actions on webOS while the competition only provides pure searches.

HP WebOS 2.1 Contacts

Besides the fact that there are a few new synergy services available to sync your contacts, there have been some minor updates of the contacts app too. The contacts list provides a new tab called ‘Favourites’ which can be used to access your starred contacts quickly. I found it surprising to see that the scrolling is very stuttery now and not fluid at all. Especially since i was expecting the opposite: scrolling was absolutely fluid on my old Palm Pre device with webOS 1.0 so i don’t know why it suddenly became so bad. And i also had a very strange issue with Facebook sync, since my device just wouldn’t pull my contacts even though the connection with the account worked and the Pre Plus showed that there is a sync in progress. Some DAYS later the first contacts started to show up on my Palm Pre 2 but the Facebook picture galleries within the regular webOS images app never showed up at all. I never had this kind of problems with the old webOS version, and it certainly wasn’t the best initial impression i got from webOS 2.1. This isn’t just a coincidence as i found a lot of other people on message boards having similar syncing issues.

On the detail view everything stayed the same, but since it was perfectly fine before i don’t see the need to change it. All information is well organized and i love the general design.

The favourites tab is also available on the call history overview.

HP/Palm changed the color scheme slightly and now you will find dark blue gradients everywhere instead of dark green. I preferred the green colors though.

HP WebOS 2.1 Calendar

I couldn’t find anything new within the calendar app, so it’s still as functional as ever. You have a great month view which will show indicators for meetings and fullday events. And you can sync multiple calendars from Google, MS Exchange Server and more.

One feature which i really would like to see on other mobile OS default calendars is the intelligent day view, which will show long breaks between two meetings in a minimized block with a time label. This way you can see on first glance that i.e. you have a meeting at 8 AM and another one at 8 PM, without the need of scrolling down.

HP WebOS 2.1 Browser

Rendering on the webOS browser is nice and on the same level as iOS or Androids offers, and it supports flash too. Currently Windows Phone 7 has the worst browser of the bunch, with incorrect rendering and many layout issues.

I don’t know about iOS but the browser on webOS still doesn’t support any kind of textflow feature, which automatically adds linebreaks to text you are reading depending on the zoom level. This was already a major setback on webOS 1.0 and i really can’t understand why HP/Palm didn’t add this functionality on webOS 2.1.

Reading articles without automatic text reformatting on a small screen is very tedious, i couldn’t browse like this for a longer period of time.

HP WebOS 2.1 Card Stacks

The unique approach of using cards to visualize multitasking is a main feature of webOS. It was received very well by reviewers because back then when the Palm Pre was released the only big competitor (yes, i’m not counting symbian as big competitor) which had real multitasking was Android, but Googles mobile OS wasn’t that accessible for people which weren’t a little bit tech savvy. WebOS on the other hand introduced a very simple and beautiful way of handling multitasking by using cards as representation of active apps.

WebOS 2.1 adds card stacks to the existing functionality. Using stacks you can group different cards, in order to have a better overview when there are many apps open at the same time.

It’s a nice idea and definitely helps to organize the homescreen with many cards. But it doesn’t have a huge impact, as i can’t imagine many people having more than 6-7 cards open at the same time.

HP WebOS 2.1 Exhibition Mode

Also new to webOS 2.1 is the exhibition mode which is activated when the device is put on the touchstone charging dock. There are a few different views to choose from like a simple time view, pictures slideshow or your agenda.

Developers can utilize the exhibition mode too, in order to provide live information like social media feeds on the screen.

HP WebOS App Market

One thing which really hurted the webOS experience during the Palm Pre release was the small app market. There were only a few hundred apps available at that time, while the competition had much more than 100.000 apps.

Sadly i have to say that this didn’t change much over the past years. The selection is still very small and i couldn’t find a lot of good apps in essential categories like RSS readers or business apps. But then there are like a dozen of different tip calculators which just shows that there aren’t many developers out there which really want to invest a lot of time to create powerful webOS apps.

I hope that HP will put all it’s effort into recruiting new developers for the webOS platform. Palm just didn’t have the financial power to push this, but HP certainly has and i’m sure they can move a lot if they are really serious with the mobile market.

The Verdict

So how does it feel to revisit webOS after over a year? Well it’s a mixed bag, webOS is still very elegant and sports a great user interface which is easy to understand and works well. But i have to admit that i was expecting more changes, and it surprised me to see quite some performance hits on the Palm Pre Plus. It’s not as fluid as webOS 1.0 was on the Palm Pre. Everything HP/Palm added for webOS 2.1 is not bad by any means and especially the new ‘Just Type’ feature stands out. But overall the competition just made bigger strides over the same time period. Google and Apple added fundamental new functionality to their mobile operating systems year over year. HP has to do it’s best in order to position webOS as an modern mobile OS which can keep up for the coming years, especially since the market is quite crowed by now as Microsoft also introduced a stylish new mobile OS with Windows Phone 7. I hope that we will see a real killer smartphone from HP soon, with specs that rival the existing highend devices, and another major webOS release with some real innovations. I’m convinced that HP/Palm has what it takes to create more of the uniqueness and freshness that webOS 1.0 brought to the table. WebOS is still a great asset and has huge potential if HP can manage to work on the app market and fully utilize the possibilities of the smartphone and tablet ecosystem. The Palm Pre 3 and HP Touchpad look like a promising start.