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.

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HP/Palm Pre and webOS Review: Camera, Photos, and Maps/Navigation

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


Walt Disney World Castle - Taken with Palm Pre

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.

Hollywood Bowl - Taken with Palm PreThe 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.

Carousel Horse - Taken with Palm Pre

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.

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HP Palm Pre and webOS Review: Synergy (Calendar and Contacts)

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

webOS Contacts - Setup AccountsProbably the most innovative feature of WebOS is its ability to consolidate contacts and calendar data from multiple web-based sources, a feature that Palm branded as “Synergy”.  Currently, the OS can consolidate calendars from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft Exchange and contacts from those same services plus LinkedIn.  Calendar entries and contacts entered directly into the phone can be directed to any of those services or to an online Palm Profile that is created during the initial set-up of the phone.

This ability to manage personal data from multiple cloud-based sources is the killer application in WebOS and other platforms (especially Android) are already implementing similar features.  At this point, the lack of a similar feature is probably the most glaring omission in Apple’s iOS.  It is becoming increasingly uncommon for anyone to have all of their contacts and calendars in a single location and the ability to effectively organize and consolidate it all is becoming vital.  Since I’ve had the Pre, it has become my primary calendar and address book.  Even when I’m near a desktop or laptop computer, I know that I’m likely to find the most complete version of what I’m looking for on the phone.

webOS Calendar - Setup AccountsWhile it generally works reasonably well already, the feature is somewhat in the infant stage.  HP/Palm especially needs to expand it to pull data from a wider variety of sources.  They are still missing a few major services such as MSN and AOL.  Native support for more generic formats such as iCal would certainly be a big plus as well.  Adding synchronization of tasks and memos is also an obvious need that I’m pretty surprised that they have yet to address. WebOS 2.0 reportedly exposes more of Synergy in its public APIs, which should allow more services to implement their own synchronization.

I also strongly believe that HP/Palm should beef up their own Palm Profile service for those that might prefer not to use a 3rd party service for managing their personal information.  At the very least, they should implement the ability to view and manage data stored in the Palm Profile via the web.  Currently the data are only accessible on the phone itself.  There have also been reports of data loss from the Palm Profile when people have replaced or had to hard-reset their phones and this is something that is simply unacceptable with a cloud-based solution and must not continue.

One other shortcoming that is often cited is that there is no out-of-the-box solution for synchronizing with desktop applications for those that are still generally avoiding storing this kind of information in the cloud.  They do provide a tool for doing a one time transfer of data from Microsoft Outlook or the older Palm Desktop (used with the old Palm OS), but it does not establish an ongoing synchronization.  I don’t personally feel this is a bad decision, though.  There are already third-party solutions available to do this kind of synchronization (admittedly at an extra charge) and I think it probably is wiser for Palm to keep their own focus on the cloud-based approach, which I do think will be the preferred solution for most people.

CalendarPalm Pre - CalendarIn the calendar application, the default view is a combined one with the events from each source (Exchange, Google, Facebook, etc.) color coded.  In the settings, you can select the specific color to use for each source and can also have it remove specific calendars from the combined view.  From the main screen, it is also easy to switch to a filtered view that only shows events from any single source.

GwebOS Calendar - Monthly Viewoogle’s calendar supports multiple calendars on a single account and webOS treats each as a separate source with its own color-coding and option to display or not in the combined view.  Since Google offers the ability to subscribe to iCal or other types of calendar feeds, this provides a method to pull in events from many calendar systems that aren’t directly supported by Palm.  I use TripIt for travel planning and scheduling and was able to subscribe to its calendar feed via Google.

I have found that there are some quirks/bugs in the system, which I hope Palm will work out in time.  Sometimes updates made online to a calendar have taken several hours to show up on the Pre and, occasionally, never made it there at all.  This problem was particularly common when subscribing to an external calendar source in Google and I eventually ended up dropping the TripIt subscription in favor of manual imports.

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HP/Palm Pre and webOS Review: User Interface, Launcher and Multitasking

This continues my review of the HP/Palm Pre and webOS.  Click here for the introduction and review of the Pre hardware.

User Interface

Palm Pre - LauncherIt is difficult to ignore that the webOS user interface was pretty closely inspired by Apple’s iOS on the iPhone and other related devices.  Palm was the first to directly challenge Apple’s claimed exclusivity on a multi-touch gesture based interface on a handheld, which creates some obvious similarities between the interfaces of the two phones.  I’ve never owned an iPhone, but have become familiar with it because of my wife’s phone as well as some friends and co-workers that have them.  HTC also tried to emulate some of the iPhone-style gesture navigation with the Touch Pro, although it was greatly affected by the limitations of a resistive touch-screen, the lack of multi-touch, and the overall non touch-friendly design of Windows Mobile.

Like the iPhone, the Pre uses a capacitive touch-screen which relies on the conductivity of human skin.  This prevents it from detecting input when using a stylus or much of anything else other than a finger.  This type of touchscreen allows generally accurate finger-based selection with fairly high durability and easy support for multi-touch.  It also demands a user-interface that is designed for finger-based touch in essentially every aspect of its operation.  The physical keyboard on the Pre allows for more traditional data entry and the webOS design makes use of the keyboard to augment the touch screen for tasks such as precise cursor positioning and text selection.  I can’t fault Palm for copying Apple’s approach to touch navigation as the approach works well.  Scrolling, panning, and zooming are incredibly easy and intuitive.

Directly under the screen there is a touch-sensitive “gesture area” that is used for some additional navigation.  The most commonly used is a right to left swipe across this area that goes back to the previous screen.  This is used so frequently that the initial device set-up process when the phone is powered up for the first time includes a short practice session for it.  The other frequently used gesture is an upward swipe from the gesture area onto the screen, which opens the main application launcher, and there are a handful of other less frequently used gestures.  Tapping the gesture area is used to initiate cut/paste and other special operations.  The gesture area has been hailed as one of the more inventive elements of webOS, but I am actually a little torn about its value.  I’ve gotten used to it, but I’m not fully convinced that “back” and “home” buttons wouldn’t be simpler and more straightforward.

I also am not 100% sold on the completely stylus-free interface as I still find occasions where I would like to be able to select items with more precision.  In particular, corrections and insertions during text entry are tricky, although WebOS does alleviate this by allowing finger swipes to be used for linear cursor movement when the “orange” key on the keyboard is held down.  I have also sometimes wished for a stylus (or even responsiveness to fingernails) when selecting smaller links in web pages or emails or when playing some kinds of casual games.  Still, the combination of good predictive algorithms and easy to use zooming does minimize this as an issue.  Of course, the lack of a stylus eliminates the possibility of handwriting recognition or freehand note taking.

Any photo can be set as the background image on the phone (I currently use a photo of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland).  The photo to use can easily be selected from the Photos application.  The webOS approach of hiding the launcher when not in use makes this particularly useful as the background photo frequently is fully visible instead of being hidden by icons.  Even when the launcher is displayed, it is kept slightly translucent so that the background image is still slightly visible.

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HP/Palm Pre and webOS Review: Introduction and Hardware

Palm Pre

In October 2009, I purchased a Palm Pre smart phone on the Sprint network.  As a Sprint Premiere customer, I am eligible for upgrade pricing on new phones after the first year of the two-year contract, making now a good time to assess my experience with the Pre and webOS and whether or not to continue with it or look at a switch to Android or some other platform.  My review will be presented in several parts over the next several days.

With Hewlett-Packard (HP) recently completing their purchase of Palm, there is the expectation of new webOS devices on the horizon.  Late in 2010, the Pre 2 was announced along with the new 2.0 version of webOS.  More new phone models and a tablet are expected during the first half of 2011, with announcements likely to be made at a press event HP has scheduled for February 9th. The Pre 2 is just a moderate upgrade to the specifications,  but it does address a few of the nagging issues with the Pre.  The OS update is pretty substantial and does add some nice new features, although most of those features will eventually be available on my current Pre as well via a firmware update.

In the United States, the Pre 2 is currently only available in a costly unlocked GSM version, although a subsidized version on Verizon Wireless is expected soon.  Right now, it doesn’t look too likely that other carriers are going to rush to pick it up.  A new Sprint webOS phone could be announced later, but I may have to consider whether or not an upgraded Palm phone would justify changing carriers and paying the cost of the pro-rated early termination fee for the 2-year contract (or waiting until October to upgrade).  I’ve found Sprint’s coverage near me to be spotty, though, so this may be worth considering.

I’m going to go into much more detail about the pluses and minuses of the Pre and webOS over the rest of my review, but I’m going to also cut to the chase and give my current thinking right away.  At this point, my plan is to sit tight for the time being and find out what new phones HP/Palm announces over the early part of 2011.  I do believe that webOS has some strong advantages over the competition that I would hate to give up and I would like to give the company a chance to impress me on the hardware side.  Upgrading to the Pre 2 right away would even be pretty tempting if it were available on Sprint, but I’m kind of glad it isn’t as I might be happier with a more advanced model.

I should mention that actually started writing this review shortly after I purchased the phone and have worked on it periodically, adding new thoughts and observations as my experience with the phone has grown.  Eventually, it felt like it had gotten to be old news, so I set it aside without completing it or posting.  I feel that writing my review over more than a full year of use gives me a more meaningful perspective  than if I had published a first-impressions review shortly after I got the phone.

My History with Palm and Smartphones

I have a pretty long history with Palm devices, starting with my first PDA: a work-issued Palm V back in 2000.  Since then, I have owned a Palm VIIx (their first network-connected device), Palm Tungsten-W (a very early smartphone), Sony Clie UX-50 (Sony licensed Palm OS for PDAs at that time), a Palm Lifedrive (PDA with a 4GB hard drive) and a Treo 700P.  While a couple of those were among the worst designed models that Palm has put out, particularly the Tungsten-W and Lifedrive, I definitely have a strong affinity to Palm’s approach to the design of PDA/phones.

In late 2008, I became frustrated with the limitations of the badly aging Palm OS and switched to a high-end (at the time) Windows Mobile phone: the HTC Touch Pro.  While that phone was very powerful and feature rich, I pretty quickly became frustrated by the slow, clunky, and inconsistent user interface and the general instability of the OS whenever I tried to do anything overly complicated with it.  In addition, Apple’s iPhone had largely re-defined the user interface for a phone and I couldn’t help feeling that I was using a seriously outdated operating system, particularly after my wife got an iPhone allowing me to gain some more direct experience with it.  While many of the technical specs of the Touch Pro are still higher than the Pre, the Palm phone definitely feels much more modern and elegant.

I was interested in Palm’s webOS operating system as soon as they announced it at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2009 and I followed the reviews and other coverage of the platform very closely, particularly after the official launch of the Pre in the early-summer.  I wasn’t eligible for a reasonably priced upgrade until October 1, which gave me a fair amount of time to monitor the progress of webOS and the Pre as well as its major competitors (particularly the Google-sponsored Android OS) before making a purchase decision.

Eventually, I realized that the webOS seemed to combine many of the good ideas that I’ve long found appealing about the iPhone, while addressing the biggest issues that have kept me from deciding to jump onto that bandwagon.  In particular, the inclusion of a physical keyboard, the generally more open approach to 3rd party development and the better support for multitasking were important advantages.  My research also indicated that the new OS still reflected some of the strengths that I had long associated with Palm, particularly a good balance between ease of use and flexibility/power as well as very innovative control over personal information management (PIM) data such as calendars and contacts.

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