Review: Palm Pre
The Pre uses a brand new mobile operating system from Palm called webOS. The entire OS is based on WebKit (also used by Apple in its Safari browser and Nokia in the S60 browser). It is an interesting approach for a platform to take.
When you first boot the Pre (which, by the way, takes between 1 minute 30 seconds and 1 minute 45 seconds), you have to set up a new Palm Profile. This is similar to the way the HTC G1 forces you to create a new Google account or the iPhone forces you to create a new Apple account (if you didn't already have either). This takes a couple of steps and is no biggie.
The basic menu works as follows. The home screen has five buttons along the bottom: Phone, Contacts, Email, Calendar and Launcher. The first four are typical shortcuts for a Palm device and open up exactly what they describe. They can be customized if you wish. When you are in any application they go away, but become available by swiping up from below the screen. This action brings up a ribbon with all the apps it in. Very cool!
The launcher is the real menu system. Open it up to access all of the Pre's features and systems. There are three main pages here, each displaying a grid of icons like just about any other phone. Each separate menu page can hold a nearly unlimited number of icons in it, but there are only three of these pages. You can swipe sideways back and forth to get at them, and there is a little indicator at the bottom of the screen to let you know which of the three pages you're currently viewing. Each of the icons in the menu can be rearranged/moved around at will. To get rid of the app launcher, just press the lone physical button on the face of the Pre and away it goes. You can also press the Launcher button again.
webOS also makes use of what Palm calls "cards". Each running application resides on its own card, which can be minimized, shoved off the screen or closed. You can have as many apps open on cards as you want. With a dozen or so active cards, I didn't notice any lag in the Pre's operation. Want to switch to another running app? Just hit the home button and then scroll through the cards to choose the one you want. To be honest, I don't see the benefit here. If you have a lot of cards open, it is often a lot faster to just go into the regular menu system to launch an app that it is to scroll through the cards to find it.
There is also an options button way in the top-left corner. This is a mostly useless button. All it lets you do is cut/copy/paste text in several applications. In some, it will let you change some minor preferences.
The last little bit you'll need to know about is the secret "back" feature. Just below the Pre's display is an area of the Pre that is also touch sensitive. Swipe your thumb from the center of the Pre (just above the button) quickly to the left, and you'll be taken back one screen. If you have the main menu up and you do this, it will simply clear the screen and show the desktop.
I would not rate this operating system the most user friendly I've ever seen. It's pretty, no doubt, but there's no real benefit to using the card system. I let a few people who had not even heard of the Pre give it a try, and they quickly became confused and frustrated. That's not to say that webOS doesn't have a lot of potential. It does.
In terms of general usability, webOS ranks below iPhone OS, is about on-par with Android, and rests above S60, WinMo and BlackBerry OS. With respect to utility, however, things are less clear. More apps are available on most every other platform, though that may change quickly. WinMO and BlackBerry are superior from a business person's perspective, and iPhone and Android probably have a better consumer smartphone appeal to them. Keep in mind that the Pre is running webOS version 1.0. iPhone OS is up to 2.2.1 (with 3.0 on deck), Android is up to 1.5 (with 2.0 under development). The S60, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile platforms are all many generations old. For webOS to come out of the gate so strong says something about Palm.
Phone Scoop takes a hands-on look at the new webOS 1.4 system software for Palm devices, including a tour of the new video shooting software.
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