Something small, something ahead, something dead: A Review of webOS and the HP Veer


How do you review something that's frankly dead? More accurately open sourced, yet history does not set a good precedent: Meego Tizen didn't turn out too well. Something that will never be touched by the hands of the mainstream consumer. The frankly dead item in question is webOS. In brief, webOS was created by Palm to replace an aging Palm OS and to compete with the iPhone and the modern smartphone. In its own regards webOS was lightyears ahead of every other operating system on the market and its features have been copied by other major smartphone operating systems.

This review will be in two parts. The first will review webOS on a smartphone (to be exact version 2.1.2.) The second will be of the HP Veer (exactly the HP Veer 4G on AT&T,) one of the last hardware devices released by HP running webOS. The hardware portion focuses on the small form factor of the device and how well webOS works on it.

Part 1: webOS 2.1.2

A brief primer on webOS

As said above, webOS was created by Palm. It was first introduced to the public at CES 2009, at a less than disappointing presentation. Though, things went far less than stellar afterwards. Requiring an acquisition from Hewlett-Packard in April of 2010. Things began looking up for Palm. They released two new smartphones, the Veer and Pre 3, and a tablet called the TouchPad. Then, a new CEO, with an agenda, resulted in all webOS hardware to be discontinued. webOS went into limbo, until a new CEO decided to open source it. This, is the current state of webOS. [For an extremely detailed history of the life and death of webOS, read Pre to postmortem by Chris Ziegler of The Verge.]

When released in 2009, there were key features that set it apart from other smartphone operating systems and still do. In a way, it was the ingenuity of Palm that figured out how to best address the follies and constraints of using a mobile phone with its limited specs and screen-size. In the present, other manufactures are copying/integrating aspects of webOS as they are, in fact, the best and most optimal way to use a smartphone.

KEY FEATURES

Cards: How you do true multitasking

On the iPhone or an Android when you close an application, it is frozen or it is allowed to continue in the background for a predetermined amount of time as set by APIs. This is the case for music or phone calls. Apps are frozen in order to preserve battery life and the responsiveness of the device. webOS took an entirely different approach to multitasking via a UI concept called Cards.

Each application you launch opens a new card. You can have multiple cards open at once and switch in between them. To switch between cards hit the home button on the device, then flip through the cards by flicking left or right on the screen. Tap to open. (Advanced gestures allow you to flick left and right on the gesture area to switch between apps.) Apps are closed by flicking the cards up and off the screen. In webOS 2.0 and beyond cards can be rearranged for organization, as well as grouped together in stacks.

The key differentiator with webOS is that the apps keep running in the background, true multitasking. To this day iOS, Android, and Windows Phone still do not have true multitasking at the application level. Ironically, the BlackBerry Playbook has this feature.

Perfected Notifications

Personally, I believe an operating system needs to feel alive. By alive, I mean I need to know that the OS is still working and has frozen out on me. I need to be constantly updated if the things that I find important. This can be done through notifications. To this day, I and many others believe that webOS has the best and least unobtrusive notification system (looking at you iOS) and at the same time it has to feel alive.

In webOS, the notification area is located at the very bottom of the screen. When a notification comes in, it slides in from the bottom of the screen. It also makes the current app you are in shrink or resize to allow for continued use of the app while the notification is displayed. This resizability is achieved due to the nature of Mojo and Enyo application frameworks for developers.

For example, when you get an email, a preview of the message will pop up, then it slides away and an email icon remains. You can then tap on the icon to expand them. Notifications can be removed by swiping them away. Remember, while all this is happening you can continue to use the app you using.

When you have music playing in the background, a Music note and icon will appear in the Notification area. Tapping it shows you the standard music controls and what is currently playing. When a new song plays, it will display the name and artist briefly.

In Settings, there is an option to not show notifications when the phone is locked (so that the screen won’t turn on.) Though this annoying as it does not show the Music notification on the lockscreen so that you have to unlock the device to pause the song. I don’t necessarily care of wandering eyes see that song I’m currently listening to, no matter how embarrassing the song is. There is also an option to have the gesture area blink when there is a notifications, similar to notification lights on other phones. This is extremely convenient.

You have the ability to lock the device with a simple passcode or password. After three failed attempts the device is wiped. I found this to be slightly too aggressive, as sometimes you can mistyped, especially when you aren’t particularly focussed. Another annoyance is with the simple passcode, is when you enter it you have to press done, unlike in iOS when after you type the correct passcode it automatically unlocks.

Synergy: Social combined

Your social life is spread out through numerous websites and services. It is a given that you have more than one email account, personal and work, on different services. Everybody has a Facebook and everything is slowly moving towards that website. It is a nightmare to keep track of all those things, much less to do it on a tiny smartphone. The question is how you integrate that mountain of information, into something that is actually readable and useful, rather than it become an information overload.

webOS has come up with an ingenious way of solving this called Synergy. You first log-in to all of your accounts and you are give the option to select what you want the account to sync. For instance, when you enter your Facebook account, you might want to unselect the option for contacts, as that syncs ALL of your Facebook friends. Synergy works with Google, Yahoo!, Linkedin, Facebook, YouTube, PhotoBucket, and Microsoft Exchange. webOS will then combine all this information, making sure to remove duplicate entries. This is best seen in the contacts apps, but Synergy is also demonstrated in Calendars, instant messages, and text messages from multiple sources. For contacts, it will combine your friend's multiple profiles across the numerous services into a single contact card.

Just Type: Really!

Likely one of the best features of webOS is Just Type, a universal search system. On the top of the screen when you aren’t in any apps and above any Cards, is an always present search bar. Just begin typing on the keyboard to do a quick Google, Wikipedia search, it’s actually rather similar to Spotlight on iOS. Like on iOS you can also search and launch apps. Though, the similarities stop there. It is much powerful than that. Just Type allows you to search within apps like YouTube or Maps. A neat feature is when you come across a search bar in a website, a notification will pop up allowing you to add the ability to search that website directly from Just Type. A real world use case of that is when you go to a library's website, you can add the ability to search the library’s catalogue for a book directly from Just Type.

Another great part of Just Type are Quick Actions. Let’s say you want to send an email. Start typing on the keyboard your email and then select "New Email." The text you already wrote will be copied into the Email app. The same can be done for text messages, calendar events, tasks, and memos. Some third-party apps make use of Quick Actions. For example, a Twitter client called Spaz, allows you to start your tweet in Just Type and then send it in the app.

Another Quick Action available by default is updating your Facebook status without the need for an app. All you need to do is sign-in to Facebook. Facebook integration is well placed into the OS, as seen by the ability to upload photos and videos, without the need for an app.

Minor features in webOS 2.0

Exhibition: Agenda view

Another minor feature released in webOS 2.0, is something called Exhibition mode. With Exhibition, as the device charges via USB or through a Touchstone (more on that later) it can be made to display useful information. By default, you can choose between a clock, an agenda view, or a photo slideshow. App developers can also add Exhibition mode as done say by some Twitter clients or the Facebook app, which displays your latest statuses from your friends.

Text Assist was also introduced in webOS 2.0, allowing you to create text shortcuts. For example, instead of typing your email you can just type email, or whatever abbreviation you choose, and your full email will be written. An extremely convenient feature that was not introduced until iOS 5.

Secure: Not Really

webOS, as the names implies, is built on WebKit. Security-wise this has doomed the operating system in a very simple way. By creating an open platform built on open web standards, webOS can be exploited by web-based attacks. It makes it very easy for hackers to inject such malicious code as keyloggers. Though at the same time, as of now, webOS is security through obscurity as, again, it is a dead OS and therefore not a popular target for hackers. Just a thought.

A Look at Some Stock Apps

webOS is not without its follies as best displayed in its stock apps and in general available apps. As an alive platform, webOS did not got a lot of developer traction. As of December 2011, the App Catalog only has 10,002 apps in comparison to Apple’s 650,000+ and 400,000+ apps in the Google Play Store as of January of this year. Many developers have given app supporting their app. Though all is not lost, as webOS has a fantastic homebrew community. The current fantastic Twitter client I am using, Project Macaw, was downloaded from Preware, an open sourced app store.

Update 6/17: Also, I recently found a great Simplenote client in beta called "Noted! beta" in the forums. Personally, there are 2 things I need in an app ecosystem: a great Twitter & Simplenote clients. As I now have both, it is making me easier to use webOS fulltime and to drop iOS.

Apps are launched through a laucher. The launcher is made of several Launcher pages that can be renamed, reordered, and created by the user. All settings are displayed as apps. As a result, by default there is a Launcher page called System with 17 apps to control settings. Frankly, I found this rather annoying and would wish that Settings would be unified under a single unified Settings apps, like on iOS and Android.

I found the Music app to be disappointing and lacking. At lacks many features found in every other OS. First of all, it doesn’t have gapless playback. For those leaning towards audiophiles, this is extremely annoying and some albums just don’t sound right. Next, you don’t have the ability to make playlists from the device and playlists added in .M3U don’t seem to display on the device. Also, Cover Art only appears on certain albums and not others resulting in just a gray music note showing. There isn’t a podcast player by default and as a result no podcast settings such as 30-second reverse. Then, there is also the annoying music notification in the lockscreen as I mentioned above.

Very basic camera UI

The camera in webOS is fantastic and very simplistic. The UI only has three things: a capture button, switch to video mode, and see our camera roll. This is practically no lag when you press the capture button. It can also shoot video and you have the ability to trim and upload them to Facebook or YouTube.

The Bing-powered Maps app is frankly just horrible and slow. By default, Google Maps was preinstalled with the device, however when you first launch the app, you are told to go to the App Catalog and download the new Bing Maps. Sad to say, this app really sucks.

Update 6/16: bluen, in the comments below, suggested I try the Google Maps made by the homebrew community and it is in fact much faster, smoother, and snappier than the default Bing Maps. So much, that I have confidently deleted Bing maps. [Also, I updated the post with links on how to get the homebrew apps I use.]

I found a minor bug in the Launcher page with the Voice Dial app. No matter what launcher page you put it on, it will be placed on the First Page. Slightly annoying. This is likely due to the fact that Voice Dial was introduced in the webOS 2.0 and has not been fixed in webOS 2.1.2. Then, again it will never be fixed now.

Part 2: HP Veer

On February of 2011, after Palm was acquired by Hewlett Packard, they hosted a "Think Beyond" webOS event to showcase three new products: the HP Veer, the HP Pre 3, and the HP Touchpad. Stateside-wise, only two products got released: a tiny 2.6-inch Veer and a tablet made from "cast-off reject iPad parts."

Design

The Veer is extremely tiny. It’s smaller than a credit credit and the same thickness as a deck of cards. As mentioned above, it has a tiny 2.6-inch 320x400 display with a less than stellar 197.02 pixel density. I would have preferred a higher-res screen, as well as a less awkward square aspect ratio of 4:5. As a result, the screen has a tendency to make unwanted screen rotations and unfortunately there isn’t a screen orientation lock. On top of the display, is an earpiece and ambient light/proximity sensor. Below the screen is a gesture area, as found on every other webOS smartphone, that has an LED strip that lights up for notifications. The screen is covered by Corning Gorilla Glass. As a result, I haven’t noticed any scratches on the display, even after keeping the device in my pocket. Though, fingerprints do have a tendency of smudging. On the topic of smudging, the black version of the Veer, it also comes in white, is made of a plastic, soft touch material which contracts smudges. The back of the device consists of an HP and AT&T logo, as well as 5 megapixel camera with the speaker grill right next to it.

The lefthand side of the device has a single chrome volume key. The top has a similar chrome colored mute switch. On the right-hand corner is a chrome colored sleep/wake/power button. This button is slightly awkward to press and doesn't feel very solid. As does the volume rocker, which wiggles. On the right side of the device, you will find a very odd magnetic port which serves as the data/charging and where you plug in the dongle for the headphone adapter. The lack of a microUSB port and 3.5mm jack is rather disconcerting and inconvenient. The 3.5mm dongle is small and you are most likely to lose it. The conjoining magnets are rather strong and the adapter hasn’t fallen off while running with the device. Though, holding the device with the dongle attached is weird and uncomfortable. HP should have opted for a slightly larger device to accommodate those two missing ports. In summary, the Veer makes a bad MP3 player as you always have to bring the adapter along and with that it's uncomfortable to hold.

Sliding up the Veer reveals a tiny four-row QWERTY keyboard. Having been a person who previously only used virtual keyboards on mobile devices, I found the physical keyboard to be extremely useful and convenient for fast typing. The keys on the Veer feel mushy and don’t provide much tactile feedback. I made few errors when typing on this keyboard and the errors made are addressed by the good autocorrection in webOS. I think I understand why BlackBerry users swear by their physical keyboard.

Actual Use

So how does it feel to actually use a small phone? Truthfully, not very comfortable. It’s best if you use the phone with keyboard slid out, making the Veer definitely easier to hold. But, still the sheer size of the device makes it hard to hold. When holding, you will most likely cover the speaker on the back, as a result audio quality is greatly diminished. You can hold the phone in the palm of your hand, covering the entire device. As for the device’s build quality, it’s rather good except for the buttons. The device feels solid in your hand.

In addition to how uncomfortable it is to hold the device, the screen is just too small. On Project Macaw, my Twitter client of choice, you can only see two tweets completely in normal font. This has forced me to change the font to tiny in most apps in order to make the device usable and convenient. Don’t even bother reading PDF documents on the Veer, it’s just too small. Also, as a pixel density enthusiast, you can see the pixels rather clearly.

Specs

The Veer packs a rather speedy feeling 800MHz Qualcomm MSM7230, 512MB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage (which only 6.5 is available to the user,) WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, and A-GPS chip, among the other sensors mentioned above, absent is a gyroscope. The Veer has yet to freeze up on me in use and I have not come across any situations where it feels sluggish. I believe webOS does a good job of managing resources.

Camera

The Veer has a 5 megapixel camera that captures still images at 2592 x 1952 and video at 640 x 480 (VGA) resolution. The latter is definitely disappointment. The camera takes ok-ish images. But, lacks flash or autofocus. Palm/HP continues to use a fixed focus "enhanced depth of field" camera. When taking pictures, there is fast capture with minimal allowing you to just keep pressing the capture button or even the space bar on the keyboard.

Battery & Touchstone Charging

There is a non-removable 910 mAh battery. Much smaller than most devices, but I can get through a regular day (music playing, constant Twitter use, note taking, emails, browsing, instant messaging, and checking the weather) without the need for a recharge. Charging and syncing is done through a provided USB cable with the Veer’s magnetic port. Though, I have been using a Touchstone. The Touchstone is an inductive charging dock. That means all you have to do is lay your Veer on top of it and it will begin charging automatically. This pairs rather well with Exhibition mode. While the Veer is charging, you can make it display useful information such as the time, your agenda, and, my favorite, photo slideshows.

webOS on a Tiny Screen

Beyond the physical constraints of using such a small device, there are minor software problems. For example, in Accuweather, a free weather app, some text, what the weather is like on a particular, is covered by a transparent toolbar. You can barely see the weather forecast, requiring you to tap the home button and go into cards view, where the toolbar disappears, to read it.

Conclusion

This is an interesting review. A review of two very dead things. Using webOS on the Veer has made me realize how I very much wish that webOS wasn’t killed and opensourced. By all accounts webOS, had a bright future. In some aspects, it was lightyears ahead of its competitors. It had features way before its competitors. For example, Facebook integration was in there way before it was in iOS 6 which was just released a day ago. webOS was designed around the user, small touches that make it much easier for the consumer to use. If it wasn’t for company politics, egos, and ambitions, webOS might have still existed today and on much better hardware that would appeal to a wider audience.

This would be the part of the review where I say whether or not to purchase the device. Yet, it's rather hard to get this device through any physical store or AT&T as it was discontinued last year. That leaves eBay. If you want want to purchase a webOS device as a souvenir, collector's item, or because you think webOS is just darn pretty, I suggest you get the Pre 2 or Pre 3, preferably that latter as it is more advanced and newer. You will really benefit from having a larger screen and faster internals.