Palm Pre (US) review
Oh what a tangled webOS we weave
Of course, the design of the Pre is merely the appetizer before the entrée that is Palm’s webOS. It’s not really the Pre on which Palm is betting its company, after all, it’s the totally new, built-from-the-ground-up OS. The Pre is merely the first phone to run the software, and rumors are already rampant about the next models to use it. So, how does the webOS stack up?
From my time with it, surprisingly well. While it may not have the attention to detail and design nuances that the iPhone’s operating system does, it’s still a friendly, eminently capable foundation on which to build a smartphone.
Unlike with Android, Palm has set out to truly create a touchscreen-focused operating system. That’s a good thing, since it gets away from the identity issues that the G1’s multitude of user-interface options spawned. And Palm’s done surprisingly well at it, thanks to the the very fact that they didn’t spend too much time holding on to the vestiges of the outadated PalmOS on which the company made its name.
He tasks me! He tasks me!
The big marquee feature of the webOS is, of course, multitasking. Palm’s been stressing the capability in its advertising since it’s one capability that the iPhone notably lacks. There are different philosophies at work here: Apple argues that allowing background apps slows down the phone, eats up resources, kills battery life, and is an affront to freedom and our way of life.
Palm, on the other hand, merely acknowledges that users want to multitask, and lets them have at it, even if the fine print on the side effects is a couple of pages long. Basically, Apple doesn’t want to compromise the user experience while Palm’s willing to give you enough rope to hang yourself.
For the most part, multitasking works pretty smoothly. The webOS operates on a “card” metaphor. Any time you launch an application, it’s represented as a card. To view your cards, you press the Center button. You can use the touchscreen to flick through them, then tap on one to bring it to the foreground.
When an app is in the foreground, it’s the only application you can see (except for the small strip of notifications at the bottom of the screen, but I’ll get to that in a moment). If you’re done with an application, you can go into the card view and just flick it upwards to discard it—that effectively quits the app. You can rearrange cards by tapping and holding on them, then dragging them around.
It’s a nice system, and it feels perfectly natural and intuitive to use. Switching between cards is usually pretty fluid, and I didn’t notice outrageous slowdowns in performance. While you can have pretty much as many applications open as you want, the Pre will warn you if you open so many that the phone begins to get overloaded.
Falling into that trap isn’t difficult. On the iPhone, the enforcement of the one-application limit prevents this. For example, if you click on a link in an email message, it quits Mail, opens Safari, and displays your page. On the Pre, if you click on a link in an email message, it opens the URL in the Pre’s Web browser in a new card. If you get distracted from that link and end up deciding to check the latest sports scores or read the news, you may forget that the original email message is still open. Because users are responsible for clearing out their own cards, it’s pretty easy to get to a point where you suddenly realize you have half a dozen or more cards open.
And that forgetfulness can come at a price. While the Pre usually handles multiple tasks pretty well, if you start loading it up with processor-intensive jobs (media playback, GPS directions, etc.), then the whole system starts to take a hit.
More than once I found that using a number of other apps while playing music in the background would cause the music to skip, a problem I’ve encountered only infrequently on the iPhone. Battery life also takes a hit, especially when using features like the GPS, which consume a lot of power. Playing music and using the GPS on a not too long car trip one Saturday saw me running out of battery well before I returned home.