HP Veer 4G Smartphone Preview

webOS 2.1.2: The Software Experience

webOS is grossly underrated. It's really unfortunate that Palm, and now HP, is having such a hard time getting such an good OS into the hands of consumers. But having great software is just a small part of the battle. You also need great hardware, lots of it, and great marketing and apps. Thus far, HP has none of those. But we're hoping things change with the company's new stable of webOS 2.1.2 devices, and it's worth a dive into the webOS world here for those that have yet to experience it.

webOS 2.x is a well thought out operating system, and has many features that trump both Android and iOS. The "cards" system -- which allows true multitasking -- is the best implementation of multitasking that we have seen in a smartphone. In practice, users can have a number of cards (or "Stacks" of cards if you're using several cards from the same application), which can be located by simply swiping in the gesture area. The cards actually update in the background, so when you flip back to one, it's already up to date. The entire process is gesture-based, and it works beautifully. You truly feel as if you can have your email, Maps, Facebook, Twitter and any number of other applications open at once, with a simple swipe bringing them all into view. It's sort of like a modified version of Expose (from Apple), but tailor-made for mobile devices.

webOS 2.x was clearly built for powerful phones, but it manages to run fairly well even on the 800MHz Qualcomm processor here. There's a subtle bit of lag when you open up an application for the first time, and the phone takes an unusually long time to boot (well over a minute), but by and large many people should be pleased with the snappiness of the system.

Unfortunately, there are a few downsides to webOS. The email application is very basic, and doesn't support a native Gmail architecture (things like Archive are nowhere to be found), and it doesn't support threaded messaging. Furthermore, it's very difficult to properly sort email on a 2.6" display. We also noticed that the gesture-based system, albeit accurate, is a bit clumsy. In other words, if you gesture "back" or "up," you never really know what's going to happen. Will it go back a section within the app, or back all the way out to the homescreen? It's hard to say because apps behave differently.

While HP won't let you install any custom keyboards (since there's no virtual keyboard here), you can customize something else. There's a neat feature that lets you establish keyboard shortcuts for commonly used phrases. You can set "ill" to spell out "I'll," or "tj" to spell out "Timothy Johnson." It's totally customizable, and we have to wonder what's stopping other mobile OS makers from doing something similar.

The notification system on the Veer is also worthy of praise. It's similar to Android, but the notification bar is at the bottom of the display rather than at the top. For all intents and purposes, it works the same way -- it's much less intrusive than the "pop-up" system implemented in iOS.

The other major addition to webOS 2.x is "Just Type." This feature does exactly what you'd think. You simply start typing on the keyboard, and it intelligently gives you options. If you start typing a name, you can either select to Google that name or find that name within your contacts. If you type a date, you can hop right into your Calendar to add an event. In practice, it works great. It's sort of like a universal search / shortcut, and if you learn to use it heavily you'll probably save yourself a lot of time and effort poking around in the menus.

webOS is fluid, well-conceived and nicely executed, for the most part, but there are two major issues to address. The first is developer support. The reality is this: iOS and Android hold the lion's share of the smartphone OS market, and when you have the most customers, you inevitably attract the most development. This means that the webOS app catalog is really bare compared to what you'll find in iOS and Android. The main apps are there -- weather, sports, Facebook, email -- but there's not even an official Twitter client, if you can believe it. webOS is clearly taking a back seat when it comes to development; with so few users, it's hard to convince developers to invest their time and energy into a platform that may not pay off. Not yet, anyway.

The second major issue is this: the Veer 4G is too small to adequately run webOS. We got the impression that we were just getting a small taste of what webOS could really do because we had to use it on a 400 x 320 resolution display. It's hard to fully enjoy the user interface on a panel that small. Why does this matter? This is HP's main chance to get people interested in webOS 2.x, and the niche Veer is a very strange choice for a launch device. Why not push the Pre 3 out earlier, or the TouchPad?

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