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WebOS 2.0 review

When it comes to webOS 2.0 (now actually called HP webOS), it almost felt like we’d never see the version number, let alone get to review it. It’s been an intense few months for Palm: after floundering in the early part of the smartphone wars, it was scooped up by HP for a tidy sum of $1.2b. Though it seemed like the dream of webOS could fade away, the company made it clear that it had plans to not only continue the work Palm had done in the mobile world, but extend what the tiny company had created to other platforms as well (tablets, and yes, printers). We’ve heard a lot of talk from both parties since the acquisition, but have seen little in the way of proof that progress was indeed being made — but that’s all changed today. Palm has officially released its second generation OS into the wild, along with a new, beefed up version of the Pre (at least in France — North American handsets are coming soon). The company offered us an early developer phone to test out the new OS and see if the combination of tightened code and a significantly faster device (the Pre 2 clocks in with a 1GHz CPU) could make a difference between last place and a fighting chance. We’ve taken an extensive look at the new OS, so read on for our full take!

First off, you should know that this isn’t a review of the Pre 2. According to the company, the device we have is an early unit which isn’t final hardware. Beyond that, you won’t be able to get the phone in America anytime soon (though it will be coming to Verizon at some point in the near future). In fact, the only place you can get the hardware right now is on SFR in France. Palm’s strategy seems to be to get webOS 2.0 into the marketplace, and more importantly, into the hands of developers so that they can begin to code for what is a notably changed OS with lots of new features.

And what features! It’s clear that Palm devs have been keeping their collective heads down working on the new OS, and it’s jam-packed with all kinds of interesting new additions which should spark some refreshed interest in the platform.

Hardware

So, this isn’t a review of the Pre 2 by any means — but it is worth noting that even though Palm has made subtle improvements to the handset (faster CPU, flat glass display, better build quality), this isn’t a significantly different piece of hardware. Really it’s a rehash of the original Pre and Pre Plus with minor tweaks. Certainly the screen size and resolution remain the same, and the overall design doesn’t seem dramatically altered. To our fingers, the keyboard feels identical, though Palm has made a wise decision in making the entire casing the soft touch material it’s been using for Touchstone-compatible backs. One other thing of note that did seem slightly improved with this combo: battery life. While we didn’t see major jumps, the juice seemed to sap away slower than on any previous Pre. That’s something… but still not good enough in our opinion.

In all, it’s pretty clear that this hardware is a stepping stone to get developers and hardcore users into a solid webOS 2.0 experience, and the Pre 2 is not meant as a challenger to the Droid Xs and iPhone 4s of the world.

Overall look and feel of webOS 2.0

The first thing you’ll notice about webOS 2.0 is that Palm has subtly changed the look of the OS, cleaning up a lot of the graphic elements from earlier iterations, and adding much needed functionality and utility in areas. For starters, the UI now bears a darker, more refined design. The dialpad is a deep blue instead of the previous green, and programs like the App Catalog have been doused in a slick and shiny black. In addition, little details like the launcher and universal search section (now known as “Just Type”) have been tweaked, the former getting clearer navigational elements and much-needed options like the ability to add pages, and the latter providing a clearer delineation of sections and far more options on what to search (more on that in a moment).

On the Pre 2, the OS was incredibly fast. We’re talking seriously impressive performance, which just seems to prove that a big part of what webOS is missing is great, high performance hardware. Moving from app to app was extremely light and quick, and opening applications was far faster than on any previous Palm handset or OS version. Little things like word correction and searches popped up quickly, and browser load times seemed dramatically improved. In addition, the feel of navigation in the launcher panels and in long lists was way tighter, providing scrolling and panning that felt solid and confident. We did see the occasional stall when opening an app in a sea of cards, but most of the time the OS hummed along with little interruption. In terms of overall gloss, webOS 2.0 feels like a best in class contender, coming off as slicker and more thoughtful than most smartphone OSs on the market.

But it’s not just speed and cosmetics — as we pointed out back in August, there are a couple of major changes to the architecture of webOS that will make a big impact on the direction of the operating system. We’ll run through the most notable alterations and additions and explain what they mean (and what they’re like) for the end user.

Synergy

Palm has made huge strides in cleaning up its implementation of Synergy (actually now known as HP Synergy) for basic account management and content parsing. For starters, the company now provides a centralized control panel where you can add, remove, and tweak accounts on the device. Additionally, you’re now given far more control over what actually comes into the phone, with Palm adding controls for toggling whether you pull contacts, calendars, messaging, and other services at will. More importantly, Palm has opened the Synergy service up to third-parties with a new API, making it possible to connect far more than just email and IM accounts. Right now you can plug in your Photobucket, YouTube, and LinkedIn accounts (amongst others), but that’s just the start. We’re interested to see where this goes (maybe someone will integrate IRC with SSL support?), especially considering the new control Palm has given users.

In our testing, Synergy worked as expected, but we had some major syncing issues with our hosted Gmail account’s calendars. In the time that we spent with the Pre 2 and webOS 2.0, we couldn’t consistently get our events to sync back and forth to the server, and we had folks at Palm stumped with the issue. We’re still debugging the issue with the company and will report back, but it’s a little disappointing to see that the experience isn’t a no-brainer (as it should be). Given that Synergy sync is such a major part of the OS, you would think most outstanding oddities would be licked by now — but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Just Type / Quick Actions

Palm has renamed its universal search to “Just Type,” and it’s opened this API up to developers as well, allowing lots of other people to plug into potential searches. But the functionality goes one step further, auto-detecting when a compatible search engine is present in a page you’re viewing, and offering to add that engine to your searches. This piece of webOS 2.0 didn’t always seem to recognize what was or wasn’t a search engine, and we found the results to be somewhat spotty. In terms of included engines, right now there are options for Google, Wikipedia, IMDb, the App Catalog, YouTube, CNN, Amazon, Google Maps, and Twitter. You’re also given a lot more control over what you search, with the ability to add, move, and remove sections of the searches at will.

So when you start typing, you get full searches of your email, apps, potential search engine options, phone numbers, and one other function we feel is really outstanding here: Quick Actions. What are Quick Actions you ask? Probably the single most ingenious thing that Palm as done in 2.0. Put plainly, Quick Actions are macros for the text you just entered — or shortcuts to using that text. It works like this: you type in “dinner with Joe,” and Quick Actions gets you to a calendar event, memo, email, SMS, or any other action (provided someone has coded it — first- or third-party) you can think of. Obvious actions, like a Twitter client that allows you to update your feed without all of the intermediary steps to get there, seem likely, but we’re betting that’s just scratching the surface. In our BlackBerry Torch review, we lauded RIM for its comprehensive search functions, but the combo of Just Type and Quick Actions takes the game to a whole new level. Well done, Palm.

Stacks

This one seems minor, but actually makes a huge difference when navigating the phone. Essentially, it stacks cards you’re using together automatically. What that means is that when you open a link from an email or a message, or a preference pane from an app, it sticks that card on top of the card you opened it from. You can also choose to stack cards yourself by dragging them together at will. In practice, the function works excellently and goes a long way to making webOS feel more organized. If we had one gripe, it’s that the phone seems too willing to stick cards together when you move them around — there should be a slightly longer hover period when manually creating stacks.

Flash

This isn’t necessarily something everyone will get a lot of use out of, but it’s nice to see it finally included in webOS after lots of promises. The plugin seemed to work well, and just like Android, you’re given the option to either let all Flash content play, or selectively load pieces of content on a case-by-case basis. We didn’t have any issues using fairly Flash-heavy pages, though webOS seems a little touchy about how you zoom into a page once you’ve loaded up content. In our experience, we had to rotate the device to get some of the action full screen. We also ran into trouble when trying to play some video content in-browser — we either had stuttery performance, or the videos wouldn’t play at all. The plugin is still in beta, so obviously there are improvements coming down the road, but we welcome the fact that at least Palm is giving its users options on this.

The rest

Palm added lots of other little odds and ends, though a lot of it is in the guts of the OS, not on the surface. For instance, the company has made a handful of HTML5 enhancements, it’s added the node.js runtime environment for developers, and the company has taken its PDK plugin out of beta and is fully incorporating it into the SDK.

More notably, the company has given users far more control over their text entry with a new section called Text Assist, which allows you to curate and edit your own dictionary, as well as put together macros for oft-typed words or phrases. We love this functionality, and deeply appreciate the fact that not everyone is playing with the same set of requirements. It’s nice to see Palm put some focus on details like this — if only every OS-maker provided this access!

Palm has also updated its Facebook application to 2.0, and it might just be the best Facebook app on the market right now. The company has included the ability to open multiple Facebook cards in a stack, and also gives you powerful filtering options for news feeds which makes seeing the important stuff easier than ever. We found that it actually improves on the website considerably, and in fact we prefer using the webOS app to view Facebook.

What’s missing?

Even though Palm has made big improvements in lots of areas of the OS, it’s still painfully lacking in others. In particular, the mail client leaves a lot to be desired, with no multiple message management, and no threaded messages. As noted before, we also had major issues with syncing using our Gmail account. It wasn’t just calendar issues either; we found sync times to be unpredictable at best, and sometimes the phone wouldn’t sync at all, requiring us to manually refresh to email app. The OS definitely caused us some headaches when it came to getting all of our info pulled down cleanly, and for the company that touts Synergy as one of its big assets, that’s a little disappointing.

We also had a handful of “too many card” notices, sometimes even when we had no cards open. It’s possible that this may be due to memory leaks from apps, but a user should hardly ever see this message. We eventually had to do a soft reset to get the handset performing normally again.

There were also moments of staggered scrolling or freezes, mostly due to syncing, which made the experience uneven in some places.

Wrap-up

Despite some issues, webOS 2.0 is probably neck and neck with iOS4 when it comes to polish and ease of use, and that’s a pretty huge thing for Palm. This isn’t just a good OS, it’s a great OS, and the updates in this version have made it even better. It’s obvious that when combined with even slightly better hardware, it’s also a fast experience that makes it easy to get real work done. And that’s the problem with webOS 2.0, really. Palm is still hampered by last-generation, underpowered hardware. The Pre 2 is nice, but it’s not cutting edge, and it doesn’t hold a candle to the iPhone 4 or G2. If Palm wants to survive in this game — let alone truly compete — it needs to push killer hardware into the marketplace now. The faithful are dwindling, and the smartphone race is getting more crowded every day — webOS 2.0 is a big improvement, but if this and the Pre 2 are Palm’s hail mary, they just lost the game.

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