Palm Pre 2 Review

Well, it’s finally here, and just in time to be replaced by the HP Pre 3 and HP Veer. The Palm Pre 2 could very well be the last Palm-branded smartphone.  In better news, Rogers has started selling the Palm Pre 2.  I’ve actually had one since December, as a part of HP/Palm’s Developer Program.  HP/Palm first shipped me an EU model but it had serious stability problems (and wouldn’t work on North American 3G GSM bands)  They have since shipped a North American model, which has pretty much sorted the random reboots, though WebOS 2.1 is still a little less stable than 1.4.5.

So, just to be totally clear, HP has given me a Palm Pre 2, unlocked, in order to help spur development.  I am working on a few apps at the moment, though I haven’t published any of them on Palm’s App Market yet.  I consider this review to be unbiased, though you can take it with a grain of salt if you so desire.

I am also writing this review as someone who has purchased and owned or owns the following smartphones:  BlackBerry Curve 8330, iPhone 3GS, Palm Pre, LG Eve (Android 1.5 and 2.2) and now a Palm Pre 2. The Pre 2 is by far my favourite device.

The Palm Pre 2

Why I Like WebOS as a Platform

The software is slick and fast like the iPhone, with true multi-tasking. The app catalog, while small by Android and iPhone standards, has everything I need: Some fantastic games (including Angry Birds, and many high-end iPhone games that have been ported), decent RSS readers, streaming CBC apps, Twitter clients, optional Facebook integration, Google Maps, and great news apps.

WebOS/Palm for Developers

The Pre’s WebOS 2.0 is the best mobile operating system I have used. Developing for it is also a breeze. Native apps are written in HTML/CSS/JavaScript. games can be written using Palm’s PDK in C++. Apparently, porting from iOS is a snap, as they’ve purposely kept the APIs similar.  If that’s not enough, WebOS also supports PhoneGap, a cross-platform JavaScript library that lets you easily write apps that work on iOS, Android, WebOS, and BlackBerry.  HP/Palm even provide tutorials that show you how to write a PhoneGap-based app and bundle it as a native app for WebOS, Android, and iOS.

If you’re a tinkerer, you’ll like to hear that there is no need to root the phone. Just enable developer mode, and you’re set. Palm even includes a Terminal program, if that’s your thing. WebOS has a very active homebrew community, which Palm and now HP have been very supportive of. WebOS is Linux underneath, though it’s more like a traditional Linux, not the very stripped-down version that Android uses.

My first WebOS app!

There is no such thing as a locked-down WebOS phone.  All of them have a “Developer Mode” app which, with a single swipe, roots your phone and allows you to install from 3rd-party sources.  While it may not be open source like Android, WebOS and HP/Palm are very developer-friendly.  I signed on as a Palm Developer because I like the platform.  In my opinion, the development model is very open, the software is fantastic, HP are moving the SDK in the right direction, and are keen to support all types of developers; from small-time hobbyists to large software houses such as EA and Gameloft.

Using the Pre 2

As an end-user, the phone just works without the fiddling associated with Android devices. No need to install Task Killers, no slow-downs over time. People coming from the original Palm Pre will feel right at home and users coming from iOS or Android should have no problems picking up WebOS.  It works very logically and is very fluid.

WebOS 2 features Just Type. Basically, you start typing anywhere and the Pre 2 instantly searches your address book, calendar, web, etc. It works very well. WebOS also has what they call Synergy. It is a layer that syncs back and forth with cloud services such as Google’s calendar and address book, or Facebook etc. It is pretty much transparent and just works.

WebOS Cards

The Pre 2 itself is almost identical to the Palm Pre. It is, however, much faster. It uses HP’s new WebOS 2 software, it has a much improved 5.0 megapixel camera, and takes great videos. The Pre 2 camera is the best phone camera I’ve used.

The keyboard is OK; I like the LG Eve keyboard better but the overall size of the Pre2 evens this out. It is a lovely, small, extremely capable device.

The web browser is easily just as good as the browser in the iPhone, which, in my opinion, means it’s much better than the current Android offering. It’s fast and fluid. The Pre2 even has beta Flash support, though I always turn Flash off, even on my computers; so I have no comment as to the quality of the Flash port.

The Pre 2 is also surprisingly suitable as a work device. The basic PDA applications are very thoughtfully laid out and are much more usable than the stock offerings for iPhone or Android. In particular, the Calendar and Task Manager “Tasks” work very well. They look nice, and are fast to use. In the Calendar, one tap adds/edits an event, then you can just start typing. The Pre2 has a great PDF viewer and can read MS Office documents as well, so attachments aren’t a problem.

WebOS 2.1 Exhibition Mode and the last Palm? (With Touchstone)

Room for improvement

It would be nice if the Pre 2 had a higher-res screen than the original Pre. 320×480 isn’t great by today’s standards. Still, it’s a nice, bright and responsive screen with intuitive touch-screen controls.  It also works great in full sunlight.  The Pre 2 has a glass cover; a vast improvement over the original plastic cover of the Pre.  Still, the glass comes at the expense of the smooth feel of the original Pre.  It looks nicer, it’s nicer to use, but doesn’t feel as nice in the hand.

The Pre 2’s biggest weak-spot is the small app catalog compared to iOS or Android.  However, what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in quality.  The stock apps are great, and there are some very high-quality apps in the catalog to fill in the few remaining gaps.  HP is also aggressively courting developers, so hopefully this will continue to improve over time.

Having used WebOS 2.0 for a while now, I mostly think it’s a big step forward.  Adding words to the spell check is very well done, as is the text replacement feature.  This was something that I sorely missed from the BlackBerry.  On the downside, 2.x is buggier than 1.4.5.  My random lockups are mostly gone but the device has still rebooted a few times in the last three weeks.  Things are better in 2.1 but the situation still leaves some room for improvement.

Finally, Palm could improve the hardware keyboard, as well as the overall quality of the device itself. My LG Eve feels like it’s better built than the Pre 2. However, overall, the Pre 2 is just lovely to use. It’s fast, it has fantastic software, it makes a great MP3 player, it’s small and unobtrusive, and has the best calendar/address book/task apps I’ve used on recent smartphones.

Wrapping Up

I’ll be completely honest:  HP/Palm have a lot of ground to make up to be competitive with current iOS and Android devices.  Still, WebOS is a very cool platform.  It feels just as polished as iOS without many of the developer constraints of iOS.  It feels almost as open as Android but without my lingering fear of Google having yet another way of reaching into my life.

The Palm Pre 2 is a fine hold0ver device for HP but they really need to push new devices to advance the platform.  They need to do this soon, too, as Android keeps picking up market and mindshare, while iOS picks up the profits.  Hopefully HP will have compelling announcements this February.  WebOS would certainly make a fine tablet or netbook OS.

I’m using my Palm Pre 2 every day.  If HP hadn’t given me one, at $99 on a three-year contract from Rogers, I still think it’s their best smartphone offering for people who just want a smartphone that works but don’t want an iPhone.  HP’s biggest problem here is a lack of marketing.  Everybody knows about the iPhone and Android.  Hardly anyone knows about WebOS or the Palm Pre 2.  In fact, even the Palm name is a double-edged sword.  Long-time users love the brand but just as many people have visions of 7 year old PDAs that crashed all the time.  The Pre 2 is good but it’s not great.  HP needs to have something new ready soon.  I hope the Pre 3, Veer, and Touchbook are actually released on time and are enough to turn the tide for WebOS.   It would be a complete shame if WebOS as a platform was never given a chance to truly shine.

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