HP/Palm Pre and webOS Review: Media (Music and Video)

This continues my review of the HP/Palm Pre and webOS.  Click below for the previous parts:

Part 1: Introduction and Hardware
Part 2: User Interface, Launcher, and Multitasking
Part 3: Synergy (Calendar and Contacts)
Part 4: Phone, Web, E-mail, and Messaging
Part 5: Camera, Photos, and Maps/Navigation

While the current version of webOS does an adequate job as a media player, I think it falls short of what it could, or should, have been.  A lot of commentators have noted that Apple’s success with the iPod means that the iPhone’s media capabilities should be expected to exceed those of their competitors, but I think there were opportunities for Palm to pull ahead here in many ways.  Instead, the media capabilities not only fall short of the iPhone, but, in some ways, also fails to match older competitors such as Windows Mobile and even the Palm OS.  I haven’t seen strong indications yet that HP is targeting these issues with webOS 2.0, although maybe there are partnerships to be announced in February.

The greatest opportunity would have come from countering Apple’s infamous adherence to a closed ecosystem by working to make WebOS  compatible with as many audio/video formats as possible.  Instead, Palm only included support for pretty much the same formats that Apple did, mainly variants on MP3 and AAC audio and H264 and MP4 video.  I think that Palm seriously missed the ball by not at least licensing the Windows Media formats from Microsoft and/or including support for common open-source codecs like Ogg Vorbis and Flac.

A big disadvantage on Palm’s side is a complete lack of support for any kind of protected formats at all.  That isn’t a huge deal for music, since most online stores have now gone to distributing unprotected files, but it greatly limits the available support for commercial movies and TV programs or for audiobooks.  I strongly think they HP should make every effort to get support for Audible.com audiobooks and for Windows Media protected video onto the platform as soon as possible.  In fact, I think seem support for protected video content will be absolutely essential for the tablet that they are expected to announce next week.

One of the biggest advantages Apple has is their tight integration with iTunes, which is now the largest music retailer in the US.  Palm wiselywebOS Amazon MP3 Store webOS Amazon MP3 Storepartnered with Apple’s most aggressive online competitor, Amazon.com, to include a nicely designed application for locating, purchasing, and downloading music.  I didn’t really expect to use this much, but I have actually ended up purchasing quite a bit of music this way.   It is nice to be able to purchase and very quickly start listening when I hear about some music of interest while away from home.  The music is the same quality as the downloads purchased from Amazon via the desktop and, since it is unprotected, you can easily transfer the tracks to a computer via the USB connection.

Possibly the single biggest miscalculation that Palm made early on with webOS was hacking synchronization compatibility with iTunes by having the phone attempt to impersonate an iPod.  This put Palm into a war with Apple, which they simply couldn’t win.  For a while, every update to iTunes intentionally broke this feature, with Palm having to quickly code a new hack into their OS updates.  The synchronization has now been broken for over a year and Palm finally gave up on the feature early.  The 1.4 update disabled the “Media Sync” option by default, requiring those still trying to sync with an older version of iTunes to go into the settings to re-enable it.  I’d be surprised if the feature is still present at all in Web OS 2.0.

That war with Apple was a monumental waste of time and resources on Palm’s part that left them with some damage to their reputation (the USB committee even cited them for using Apple’s USB ID) and a missing feature for their users.  It isn’t remotely surprising that Apple didn’t want Palm doing this and it created an ethical grey area at best.  Palm would have been much better off either partnering with a more willing maker of music management software or building their own synchronization tool, possibly making use of Apple’s published API’s for accessing the iTunes library.  Web OS still needs a viable media sync capability and hopefully HP is working on a sustainable solution.

MusicwebOS Music Player - Main Menu

The music player on the Pre has an attractive and easy user interface, but is also limited in a lot of ways.  It provides a touch-friendly interface for locating songs or albums and playing them back as well as the usual forward and backward navigation.   One particularly nice feature is the inclusion of a large “shuffle all” button right at the top of the main screen, making it very quick and easy to start playing random selections from all the tracks on the phone.

webOS Amazon MP3 Store - GenresThe initial menu allows you to select tracks by artists, albums, songs, genres, or playlists.  All of these selection methods only go down a single layer, meaning that once you select an artist, album, or genre, you are then given a list of all the songs that fit that tag.  There is no way to select albums by genre or artist or artists by albums, for example.  It also doesn’t allow you to populate the “Now Playing” list from multiple searches, such as to cue up multiple albums for uninterrupted play. Once you select a song, it simply starts playing all the tracks in the returned result set starting with the one selected.

While the music player does support playlists, there is no mechanism available to create one or to add or remove tracks directly on the phone.  Instead, it expects you to create playlists in iTunes and then transfer them using the no longer supported media sync feature.  I’ve never really been a user of playlists (I tend to listen to entire albums), so I haven’t really explored any alternatives to getting them onto the Pre, but it certainly seems clear that some on-device playlist management is needed.

The audio application doesn’t remember state once you close it meaning that you can’t easily resume playback where you left off unless you are willing to keep the music player application open in the background until you are ready to use it again.  I would prefer for it to at least remember the tracks in the “Now Playing” set and which track you are on.

webOS Amazon MP3 Store - Now PlayingThe player will automatically bookmark the last position played in tracks that are tagged with a genre of “audiobook” or “podcast” and will resume playback from that point the next time that track is selected.  The precision on this isn’t down to the second as you would expect, though, and it often resumes playback as much as a minute or so before or after the actual point where you left off.  The forward and backward seek buttons are similarly imprecise, making it very difficult to find the correct spot.  In fact, scanning forward or backward within a track is an exercise in frustration due to lack of responsiveness and a nearly useless slider on the track position indicator, which only is visible when scanning.

This issue with resuming playback is symptomatic of general problem with accurately keeping track of the correct time code on long files like audiobooks or podcasts.  It always stops playback when it thinks it has reached the end time, which causes it to usually cut off a couple minutes at the end of the track.  I now always use an audio editor to add 10 minutes of silence to the end of audiobooks before transferring them to the Pre in order to accommodate this problem, a fairly ridiculous requirement that is pretty certainly beyond the technical capabilities of most casual users.

The various issues mentioned above add up to some rather serious shortcomings in the music player that HP/Palm really must address.  Even with a nice user interface, it falls pretty far short of what is available on other platforms, even including the Pocket Tunes software that had become pretty much the standard music player on the Palm OS.

Some, but not all, of these issues are addressed in third-party music players that are available from unofficial “homebrew” application stores.  Due to official API limitations, these aren’t available in the official application store, although webOS 2.0 reportedly does open up the necessary APIs to make these applications official.  I have found that even third-party music players do not address the time code accuracy problems, though, meaning the problem is inherent to the webOS music playback functions.

On a more positive note, there are some pretty good streaming audio applications on the Pre that work really well.  Pandora, Slacker and Grooveshark have well-designed applications available and there arePandora for webOS Slacker Radio for webOSalso a couple good applications for accessing Shoutcast stations.  A free application called RadioTime provides a good mechanism for finding and listening to the online simulcasts of online radio stations.  Finally, many web-based audio streams will play back just fine in the built-in audio player if you navigate to and select them via the web browser.  This method can be used to access home libraries via Orb or other similar services.  Obviously, the quality of streaming audio is very dependent on the strength of the wireless connection available, but these applications work well with wi-fi or when you have a strong cellular data connection.

Video

I’ve never been too much of a viewer of video on my cell phone.  I typically find a cell phone screen to be too small for most videos and I generally am much more apt to watch anything I’m interested in either on our big screen TV (if possible) or on the laptop or desktop computer.  As a result, my experience with the video playback features of the Pre are somewhat cursory.

The Sprint version of the Pre includes three primary applications for playback of video: the general video player, a YouTube player, and Sprint TV.  There are also included NFL and NASCAR applications that I haven’t really tried, but apparently provide some access to related sporting event videos.

webOS Video Player - PlaybackwebOS Video Player - Selection ListThe main “Videos” application has an interface very similar to the “Photos” application.  It provides a simply system to organize videos into albums or to select from a complete list.  The application can play back videos that were recorded using the camera application or videos that are copied to the device via USB or downloaded from web sites or email attachments.  The only video formats recognized or supported are MPEG-4, H.263, and H.264.  During video playback, it automatically switches to landscape mode.  Controls for pausing or navigating through the video appear when you tap the screen.  As with the photo application, any organization into folders has to be done by connecting the phone to a PC with USB.

YouTube for webOS - Video descriptionYouTube for webOS - Video selectionThe YouTube application provides access to pretty much the entire contents of Google’s popular video sharing site.  Videos can be located via search or you can navigate through lists of popular or most-viewed videos as well as through a history of the videos you have viewed previously.  As in the video application, playback is in landscape and the video quality is generally acceptable, although dependent on the strength of your Internet connection (either wi-fi or cellular).  One very nice feature is that embedded YouTube videos on web-sites show up as thumbnails in the browser.  Tapping on them launches that video in the YouTube application.

SprintTV for webOSSprint TV provides access to a variety of video content from commercial sources contracted with Sprint.  This includes a number of the major broadcast and cable networks as well as various movie studios.  Short form videos (such as movie trailers or clips from TV shows) are included in the monthly plan, while some longer-form content (including feature films) are on a pay-per-view basis.  The biggest negative is that Sprint’s deal only covers programming delivered over their network, which means that the video can’t be streamed over Wi-Fi. The result is mediocre video quality that is very dependent on the strength of the cellular signal.

Coming up in part 7: Third-party Applications and Patches/Homebrew

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