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
The Pre is the first cell phone that I have had where I have found the camera to take good enough pictures to be useful. The phone has a 3-megapixel camera and a built-in flash, specs that fall a bit short of most newer phones but which were pretty good in 2009 and definitely better than any phone I had before. While the flash makes it more usable indoors and in other low-light conditions than other cell phone cameras that I’ve had in the past, the camera is still better suited to photos taken in good lighting, particularly daylight shots outdoors.
The camera isn’t a substitute for a real dedicated digital camera, but it does take pretty acceptable photos under good conditions. It has come in very handy for occasional photos taken when I don’t happen to have another camera along or when I want to immediately share a photo via Facebook or Twitter. I think I took more photos with the Pre in the first couple months that I had it than I ever took with my previous phones. The photos in this section were all taken using the Pre camera.
Admittedly, smartphone cameras have improved dramatically in the year and a half since the Pre was first released and most comparable phones have ones that are much better. The Pre 2 increases the specs to a 5 megapixel camera and supposedly has some more advanced imaging than the Pre camera. Palm/HP definitely does need a higher end phone with even more improvements to the camera, as well as a front-facing one for video conferencing. The camera also lacks the touch to focus feature now included on the iPhone and many Android phones.
The camera application is pretty simple to use. I have it on the top row of the first page of the launcher, allowing it to be accessed pretty quickly. The controls available are a shutter button on the center bottom of the screen, a thumbnail photo to the left of the shutter to switch to the photo display application, and toggle on the right to switch the flash between on, off, and auto (based on a light sensor) modes and to switch to video recording.
I do find that triggering the shutter using an on-screen control is a bit awkward and has taken some getting used to. I would prefer a physical button for that and have actually found that my first instinct has some times been to hit the center button (which launches card view) instead. If you don’t mind opening the slider, the shutter can be activated with the spacebar as well. In some cases, that can be an easier way to take a picture.
Up until the late February 2010 release of WebOS 1.4, the biggest limitation with the camera was that it didn’t have any video recording capability. Fortunately, the camera was always capable of it and the feature simply needed to be implemented in the software. Video recording and simple editing (basically trimming the start and end) was finally added with that update. The video quality isn’t spectacular but is useful for quickly capturing moments that come up when a better video camera isn’t available. It definitely needs a lot of improvement before it would even be a replacement for Flip-style hand-held camcorders.
I think that taking so long to add video recording to the phone was a definite mistake on Palm’s part. At the time that the Pre was launched, video recording was already pretty common even with lower end phones and pretty much a standard feature on other smartphones. Particularly since Apple added it to the iPhone right around the same time as the Pre’s initial release, this stood out as a pretty glaring shortcoming. It is great that the feature is there now, but there are an awful lot of reviews and other articles still out there saying that this is a feature the Pre lacks. Somebody casually evaluating the Pre (or later webOS phones) via web searches could easily get the impression that this is still a limitation.
The Photos application isn’t anything overly fancy, but it gets the job done. It has the key features that you would expect, including the ability to organize photos into albums and support for multi-touch gestures to pan around and zoom in and out on photos. In addition to viewing photos taken with the phone’s camera, the application also can display photos copied to the phone via USB or downloaded from email or the web.
By default, the application includes galleries for “Photo Roll” (photos taken with the camera go here by default), “Downloads”, “Wallpaper” and “Screen Captures”. A nice feature of webOS is that hitting the orange, sym, and P key at any time on the keyboard will grab a screen shot that is then available in the “Screen captures” gallery. Most of the shots I’ve used in my review were taken this way. Additional galleries can be created, but not from the phone itself. Instead, you have to connect the phone to a computer via USB, create additional folders under the photos directory, and then move photos to them. The ability to manage this on the phone itself definitely needs to be added.
From the full-screen view of a photo, options are available to set the photo as the phone’s wallpaper, assign it as the photo for a contact, send the photo out via email or MMS, or upload the photo to Facebook or Photobucket. The upload feature is a particularly nice one, but it is also a feature that Palm needs to upgrade to support additional photo services. Obvious additions would be Picasa, Flickr, and Twitpic and other Twitter-based photo services. In most cases, photos can still be uploaded to those other services via 3rd party applications, email, or web interfaces, but it would be very welcome to have them integrated into the Photos application.
It would be a big improvement to be able to include captions with the photos when uploading from the Photos application. Facebook users can also upload photos from the Palm-built Facebook application (available in the app store) and that does allow captioning. I would also like to see the addition of the ability to do batch uploads (currently, photos have to be selected one at a time for upload) and to assign photos to specific existing or newly-created galleries as well. Uploads are fortunately done in the background, which does minimize the impact of the lack of batch selection.
The Facebook integration in the Photos application has an odd bug that became a pretty big frustration for me. At one point, it simply stopped working, instead always telling me my password was incorrect. I tried removing and adding the account many times (as well as rebooting the phone numerous times) and couldn’t get the problem to go away. The only way I finally got it working again was to switch to using a secondary email address that I had associated with my Facebook account, definitely a far from ideal choice. I haven’t tested to see if this problem was fixed in the most recent OS updates, mainly because I’m hesitant to mess with it now that I have it working.
Maps and Navigation
The Pre includes a built-in GPS which can be used with a number of different location-based applications and services. The Sprint version of the Pre includes Google Maps and Sprint Navigation pre-loaded on the phone. Location-based features are limited a bit by the lack of a compass in the Pre, limiting its ability to detect orientation. Unfortunately, that might not be a fixable problem in future models due to the magnets required for the Touchstone charging.
Google Maps on the Pre is familiar to anyone that has used either the web-based version or one of the numerous other mobile versions available on other phones. The Pre version makes good use of the WebOS multi-touch interface, allowing for easily panning around the maps by finger as well as two-finger zooming just like in the web browser and photo applications. Re-centering based on the current GPS location is done by simply tapping on the blue dot towards the bottom of the screen. A search box lets you find locations or businesses (obviously using Google as the data source). Tapping a menu button lets you get directions, switch to satellite view, or overlay traffic data.
While the Google Maps implementation works well as far as it goes, it should be noted that Google seems to have mostly abandoned enhancements to it, meaning that newer features offered on currently more popular platforms (such as Android and iPhone) are missing from the webOS version. The most immediately noticeable omission is street view, a feature that would certainly be very nice to have when trying to find a specific address or business while on the go. Also missing is Google’s Latitude location sharing feature as well as integration with their Buzz social networking.
Perhaps with HP’s expected to be aggressive push for webOS, Google will consider once again directing more resources towards the platform. If not, hopefully HP will find an alternate developer for the maps application that will be willing to bring it up to current standards. For now, though, webOS users have to be content with a version of Google Maps that works well, but falls somewhat short on the feature list compared to competing platforms.
The turn-by-turn navigation software on the Sprint Pre is a pretty full-featured implementation of the Telenav system, which is common on many mobile phones. The “Simply Everything Data” plans that Sprint requires with the Pre all include unlimited use of the navigation software, so there are no extra charges involved with it.
The feature set of Sprint Navigation is pretty much what you would expect. You can specify destinations by manually entering an address, looking one up in the phone’s contacts, or searching for points of interest. The verbal navigation cues are clearly spoken and it does phonetically pronounce street names.
The navigation software doesn’t store the maps on the phone, which means that it only works in areas where you have a data signal. This makes it generally more useful for short trips in urban areas with strong Sprint coverage than for longer city-to-city trips. That is, in fact, just how I have been using it. We have a dedicated Tom-Tom navigation device that we use for longer trips, but the navigation software on the Pre is very useful on short trips, particularly when I don’t really know ahead of time that I might need some help with navigation.
Coming up in part 6: Media (music and video)