REVIEW: Palm Pre 2 – HP’s First webOS Phone

Palm-Pre2-front

The Pre 2 is the first handset Palm has made since they were rescued from complete deterioration by HP and given what you might call a third wind. Despite the fact that webOS brought a lot of cool stuff to the table when it was introduced two years ago, like live thumbnails in multitasking, gesture areas outside of the screen, appealing to web developers, and using social networks to enrich the address book, the market had been just too crowded with Android, BlackBerry, and iPhone running amok.

Palm’s not dead yet, though, and until they really take advantage of the new life HP has given them, we’ve got the Pre 2 to tide us over after the Pre Plus. The most prominent difference is the new Gorilla Glass screen, but the Pre 2 also got a much-needed upgrade in processing power, and a new version of webOS with the ability to stack cards on one screen, and a variety of performance improvements.

The Pre 2 isn’t available on Verizon yet but it’s coming soon; let’s get an early look, shall we?

Palm Pre 2

Available for $99 w/ 3-year contract from Rogers

Specifications (Specs – sheet)

  • 3.1-inch HVGA (320 x 480) display
  • 1 GHz CPU, 512 MB of RAM, 16 GB storage (no microSD)
  • 5 megapixel camera with LED flash (no autofocus)
  • 3G via HSPA, Wi-Fi b/g with mobile hotspot
  • GPS, Bluetooth 2.1
  • 3.5mm headphone jack, micro USB slot
  • webOS 2.0
  • 1150 mAh, 5.5 hours talk time, 14 days standby
  • 59.6 x 100.7 x 16.9 mm, and 145 g

The Good

  • Smooth, snappy software
  • Elegant, minimal style
  • Unique and flavourful OS

The Bad

  • No autofocus makes for poor close-ups
  • Wobbly slider mechanism
  • Middling third-party app support


Hardware

The Palm Pre 2′s most notable hardware change since the Plus is the new Gorilla glass screen, which is a nice change from the plastic of old. Despite all of the noise people make over the toughness of Gorilla Glass, I got a pretty significant scratch over the course of a week of everyday usage. Your mileage may vary, but I’d suggest a screen protector just to be on the safe side.

The keyboard will feel a little tight for some folks, but I had little trouble transitioning from the BlackBerry Torch, and the software autocorrect helped a lot for the odd mistype. As a testament to the keyboard quality, the bulk of this review was written on the Pre 2 in one sitting with little discomfort, and minimal editing required on the desktop.

In terms of overall build quality, the Palm Pre 2′s slide mechanism has a good kick, but still feels a little loose. The top half’s edge now has a matte rather than polished finish for added grip when closed, though I’d like a little more texture on the back. Style-wise, the Pre remains classy with its arched slide, minimal layout, and signature rear mirror. Some might argue that its elegance lends itself to a female audience sooner than men, who might opt for a sharper and blockier smartphone, like something from Motorola, but I mostly just felt like I was using a sexier BlackBerry during my time with the Pre 2.


Software

WebOS 2.0 has a few new tricks up its sleeve that old users will quickly notice, but as someone who had only played with the original OS in passing, I find it’s still the same core experience. The most notable new feature is Just Type, renamed from Universal search because it now enables you to launch into actions as well as a variety of searches. That means from the home screen, you can start typing and with one tap start an e-mail, do a Google search, find a contact, and lots more using the same input.

Multitasking has been tweaked a little bit; apps are still represented in live thumbnails (“cards”), but instead of each one taking up a whole screen and requiring a swipe to switch between them, related cards remain in the same stack, and are fully reorderable. For example, when you open a link in an e-mail, the browser card just piles on top of your e-mail card. If you happen to have a bunch of pages already open, you can tap and hold the new browser card and drag it over to the existing stack.

There’s also old goodies, like Synergy, which populates contact information from a variety of outside sources, like Exchange, Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I would have liked to see better support for Windows Live services, and sometimes the automated pairing would get things wrong, forcing you to unlink bad profiles. Luckily, that’s just a one-time chore after setting everything up. The lack of Twitter Synergy really hurts, and I don’t even use the social network that much.

The user interface remains distinctive; dragging up from the gesture area brings up a shortcut menu that flows according to your finger position, flicking upwards from the card view closes apps, and unobtrusive notifications pop up from the bottom which can be dismissed with a swipe. I don’t at all begrudge RIM for shamelessly copying many webOS UI elements for the BlackBerry PlayBook, because they’re really slick. In fact, combined with the free mobile hotspot app on the Pre 2, I think the PlayBook would make a fine companion device (depending of course on how much of the tablet’s functionality will rely specifically on being paired to a BlackBerry smartphone). Speaking of the mobile hotspot, I used it for about a day solid, and despite needing to reset the hotspot app once every four hours or so and some pretty extreme heat by the end of the day, speeds were really good on Rogers and it’s handy enough that I’d use the feature frequently.

Third-party app support is still something of a weak point for webOS. Google Latitude still isn’t supported in Maps, there’s no official Windows Live Messenger client, and most shockingly, there’s no official Twitter app (though there are two quality paid ones). Some of my favourite smaller apps, like Vlingo, GetGlue, and Poynt are nowhere to be seen. Despite a few conspicuous absences, there are still a lot of big names that have highly polished apps for webOS: Foursquare, Gowalla, Pandora, and lots of others are available. It would have been really nice if Grooveshark was working, since I haven’t been able to get their BlackBerry client to work my Torch, leaving Android as the only mobile platform it seems the otherwise great music service can work on. Too bad.

I even put some time into the top-selling 3D shooter, Nova, which was plenty entertaining and ran smoothly. Palm’s rich homebrew community also deserves a nod; anything not in the official App Catalog isn’t missing because of some draconian approval process on Palm’s part, but rather find themselves in the homebrew arena because the app is in early beta, or doing something experimental. While I didn’t have much reason to poke around in homebrew apps, the fact that this sandbox exists and Palm actively promotes it is very good for developer relations and gives lots of opportunity to tinkering end-users.

In terms of overall performance, I’ve been very pleased with how snappy and fast everything runs. Once in awhile the OS might lag and be unresponsive for a few seconds, but that happened maybe twice in my week with the Pre 2. I have a feeling that anybody’s issues with the speed of previous webOS phones will be happily satisfied with the Pre 2′s 1 GHz processor.


Web browser, Multimedia, Camera

Browser

The web browser on the Palm Pre 2 is really solid. It pans, responds to, and renders pinch-to-zoom actions very quickly, frequently detects search engines it can import into Just Type, and even has Flash support. Full-page Flash layouts don’t do so well because you can’t zoom in, but you won’t be without streaming videos or isolated menus. The nice thing about how the webOS 2.0 browser handles Flash is that it doesn’t automatically load it with the page – that way you aren’t wasting limited battery, processing power, and wireless bandwidth on what’s probably just a banner ad. The one downside to the browser is that you can’t directly download pictures (and presumably other files).

Multimedia

The Palm Pre 2 loses a few brownie points for not having a microSD memory card slot, especially since 32 GB cards aren’t that expensive these days. That being said, hardcore music fans who need more than 16 or 32 GB of tunes will probably already own a dedicated music player and not bother swapping around microSD cards on their phone. For me, 16 GB is enough to hold a respectable selection. The music app itself I found pretty bare-bones; it supports playlists, album art, shuffle mode, and links out to related YouTube searches, but I would have liked to see some equalizer options and support for Bluetooth file transfers from other phones.

As for video, the HVGA screen is amply crisp for me (though maybe not quite good enough if you’ve spent some time with the iPhone 4. The large WMV and AVI video files I tried to load onto the 16 GB local storage weren’t read by the native media app, but the smaller MP4 rendered fine, if a little softly.

Camera

The lack of autofocus on the Palm Pre 2′s 5 megapixel camera makes it abysmally useless at closeups, but shots taken under more generous conditions tend to turn out with plenty of sharpness and vivid colour. Of course, you get all of the great sharing options that come along with a good smartphone, like sending out pics to Facebook, Flickr, or Twitter with the right app. There are a few really good samples at the bottom of the review in the gallery.



Call Quality and Battery Life

Battery life was good enough to get me through the day, and use of the Touchstone wireless charging dock can keep your Pre 2 juiced with minimal fuss. Unfortunately, my Touchstone didn’t work (kept flipping between charging and not charging when docked), but as I’ve seen it work elsewhere before, I’d chalk that up to a faulty unit. Or a faulty user. You have to make sure it’s perfectly centred in order to charge properly. That being said, I haven’t had a chance to try the new Exhibition feature in webOS 2.0 which activates a different mode for apps when docked on the Touchstone.

Call quality was fine for me on Rogers (no drops), and the curve to the device when open makes it comfortable in the hand and on the cheek. The phone app is pretty standard, with tabs for voicemail, favourites, log, and the standard dialpad.

Verdict

On the whole, I’m still really impressed with webOS, and the Pre 2 seems to answer most of people’s concerns about Palm’s hardware. You aren’t ever going to see app selection on par with Android, what with multiple hardware manufacturers pushing the platform, but with HP behind Palm, at least webOS will have a chance at growing sustainably for the foreseeable future. For now, be sure to check on the availability of your killer apps before taking the plunge and buying a Pre 2, and even then you can always nab one and urge devs to bite the bullet and make a webOS version of your favourite application.

Despite a few gaps in the software, the Palm Pre 2 still manages to delivery a mostly-complete experience with an excellent balance of style and function. As such a well-rounded device, there are few people I wouldn’t suggest the Pre 2 to; even folks who put emphasis on apps will find the meager selection is often offset by the high quality of professionally-made apps.

The Palm Pre 2 is coming soon to Verizon, is currently available on Rogers, or you can buy a GSM version unlocked right from HP.

  • http://webos.neathings.com pomokey

    Seems like a great phone :)

    One note about not being able to save pictures though… Unless something has changed (I have a pre, not a pre 2), you should be able to download any picture from a web page by holding the square button (the thing to the left of ‘z’) and tapping on an image. That kind of works like a right click, and gives you more options. You can even do it when tapping on a link for options like copy url, or open in a new card.

    • http://www.intomobile.com/ Simon Sage

      Aha, there we go. Like I said, webOS noob over here. Thanks for the correction!

      • http://webos.neathings.com pomokey

        No problem! Unfortunately, there are a lot of little things about webOS that aren’t explicitly stated anywhere, unless you go digging through the help files. I don’t know how, but hopefully HP can bring these more to peoples attention.

  • I2y4n

    regarding the touchstone charger…

    If the phone is not centered on the charger perfectly (you can tell by the magnetic snap) then it will go in and out of charging mode. So try to wiggle the phone on the charger until it gets centered and it should clear up the charging problem.

    • http://www.intomobile.com/ Simon Sage

      Good call. Tried it again this morning and it worked like a charm.

  • James McP

    The Pre2 isn’t really an HP phone; it was in development prior to the HP acquisition. I’m sure that HP dollars are what got it to market but HP’s influence on the design was probably minimal.

    I’m hoping CES will give us some timeline on the release of the real next-generation WebOS phones.

  • http://www.txparts.com/palm-parts palm parts

    The HP Veer 4G represents a pretty shaky start for the HP-Palm marriage.
    While the design is remarkably pocket-friendly and we like the
    keyboard, the screen is tough to read. Plus, you have to attach an
    awkward accessory just to plug in headphones. The bottom line is that
    the Veer 4G is more fun to show off than it is to use.

  • http://www.ihavephones.com/tmobile-accessories/ T-mobile Accessories

    The enhancements in WebOS
    2.0 make the Palm Pre 2 a very capable smartphone, but we think it’s
    worth waiting for the HP Pre 3, which will offer hardware improvements
    to complement the software upgrades.

  • G Mohanis4u

    Dear,

    i bought hp palm pre2. will u plz let me know how to delete wrong contacts from phone and how to use only SIM  contacts.

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