Tuesday, 30 August 2011

HP Pre3 Review

Before it's completely irrelevant I thought I'd post my thoughts about the HP Pre3, which with comical timing I ordered about 3 hours before the announcement that HP was giving up making phones and tablets for the webOS operating system. Does this mean the Pre3, and Touchpad, are completely pointless? Of course not. It does mean however that there will likely be a slowdown of developer support, a tailing off of app and game releases, and a limited time span on support and updates for operating system itself on these devices. The future of webOS is anyone's guess, even HP had not decided that much when they released the statement discontinuing webOS mobile hardware. As they seem unlikely to sell webOS off altogether, licencing it out seems the only viable option, and with Nokia and Motorola seemingly the preferred vendors for Windows Phone and Android respectively, HTC and LG are the manufacturers that have all been linked with webOS, with Samsung potentially able to fall-back on their fledgling Bada operating system.


The Pre3 follows in the same form factor as its predecessors the Pre and Pre2; a front facing touch screen with a vertical slide-out qwerty keyboard. The screen is 3.6 inches and has a 480 x 800 WVGA resolution. Default brightness was set at the halfway mark, although ramping it up to 100% gave very little extra. The TFT screen is nice enough indoors, but outdoors it suffered like many other TFT-loaded handsets. Apps with black or dark backgrounds in particular suffered outdoors, with apps using black text on white being much more visible.

The keyboard is the biggest yet on a webOS phone, but still felt slightly cramped compared to other physical qwerty phones in the house at the time, such as the BlackBerry 8520 and Motorola Droid Pro. The keys have a slightly rubbered texture and a nice amount of travel however, and once used to the placement of some of the punctuation characters I was able to type at a reasonable pace.

At 155g the Pre3 is on the slightly heavy side, but does feel solid in the hand in the closed position. One handed opening with the thumb feels satisfying, but you do end up pressing on the touchscreen itself to perform this manoeuvre, which can affect on-screen apps. This is fine if the phone is locked, but if you find yourself wanting to input text whilst the screen is unlocked you may affect (or even close) the app you were using as your thumb pushes upwards along the touch screen.

The Pre3 boasts a 1.4GHz Snapdragon processor with 512MB RAM, and movement around the operating system was very smooth with no visible lag, even with many apps open. There is 8GB of onboard storage on this model, accessible as an external drive when connected via the standard micro-USB port, but there is no SD card slot for further expansion.

Connectivity is pretty standard for a 2011 smart phone; Wifi b/g/n with range comparable to that of any other iOS or Android smart phone I've used; HSPA 3G on the usual European frequencies, and Bluetooth 2.1. The speaker is only mono but does pump out a reasonable volume, and the earphones are the usual bundled low quality in-ear design; you'll swap these out for your usual earphones if you have any kind of requirement for reasonable audio quality.

Operating System

Onboard the Pre3 you will find webOS version 2.2, which was released specifically and so far exclusively for the Pre3, with the Veer on 2.1.2 and previous Pre and Pixi handsets on 1.4.5.

Stacked cards in webOS
(Evernote and web browser)
If you've never seen it action, I can tell you that webOS is a very nice operating system to use day-to-day. The multitasking paradigm of representing each app with a card seems very intuitive, and swiping through open cards (apps) is smooth and provides a clear visual of each app and its current state and output. Cards can be stacked together to group apps that are related to a particular task you may be doing. If you were to open a link in an email it will stack the web browser app on top of the email app for instance, and still allow you to open another separate instance of the web browser elsewhere outside of that stack. It's a logical way of working and one of my favourite parts of the operating system. The screenshot to the right show the Evernote app at the bottom of the stack, followed by the note I opened, and the web browser showing the link I opened from the note.

The initial boot up will guide you through another of webOS' key features, the gesture area. Just under the screen is a capacitive touch area where gestures are made to move around the operating system; for instance a right to left swipe along the gesture area is "back", and a swipe from the gesture area upwards onto the main screen takes you out of the full screen view of your app, and into the multitasking card view.

Like other mobile operating systems, you can start typing from the homescreen or card view and this will straight away start looking for your search term in your installed apps, your contacts and emails. Furthermore you can then send your search term to Google, Wikipedia, the App Catalog search, or simply use the text you typed it to create a new email or contact.

Speaking of the App Catalog, I did find I could see apps that were not available for my phone model, which started to become a little frustrating. The Facebook app was highlighted on the App Catalog's home page for the entire duration I had the Pre3 (just over a week) yet it was not available for this model!

Finally, there is a feature called Synergy, which collates all your accounts for popular web services under one roof. This is where you would find Google and Yahoo integration for email, contacts and IM; Facebook and Photobucket for uploading photos and videos; Exchange and POP/IMAP accounts; plus the very nicely integrated Skype functionality. Once your Skype account is hooked in, it links to your contacts and allows messaging and video calling right from the contacts app and is neatly integrated into the OS all round, with no need for a dedicated Skype app at all, very nice indeed!

Apps and the Ecosystem

It's no secret that webOS is missing apps in some key areas, and lacks numbers of apps full stop. Not that quantity counts over quality of course, but the long tail of the iOS and Android app collections must be one of the reasons why both are so popular.

Excellent Twitter app: Carbon
Some wins were a first-party Evernote client (though a little buggy at times), plus very good apps for Dropbox (Dropboxify), Twitter (Carbon), Last.FM scrobbling (Amigo), and podcatching (Dr Podder). Oh, and Angry Birds, of course!

Some fails were the apparent lack of any sat nav apps, paid or free, no Lastpass, no barcode scanning apps (that worked), none of the popular cross-platform IM clients (Whatsapp, and Kik for example), no Sonos app, and the list goes on! As previously mentioned, the Facebook app was not available for the Pre3 at the time of writing, and to compound this the browser coped very poorly with the Facebook mobile site and desktop site too.

As a heavy Google services user I missed not having a G+ app, but not as much as the reduced GMail functionality through the webOS email client; you'll have no starring, no labels, and no message threading, although this is true of most non-Android operating systems of course. Google contacts sync well into the webOS contacts area, including contact photos, but you won't have access to your Google contact groups or favourites.

Camera and Video Capture

HP included a 5MP camera unit with LED flash, capable of recording video at 720p, though I have to say both photos and video were a little disappointing. There is no dedicated camera button, but the camera app does at least provide touch-to-focus to compose your shots a little more accurately. Photo output seemed to lack definition and really suffered in low light, as do many other mobile phone camera units from other manufacturers. Video capture seemed to lack clarity, and there are no focus options either, with audio volume pretty quiet. On the plus side geotagging was very quick and accurate! There is also a 2nd camera unit which is front-facing and works really well for Skype and other video calling apps.


All in all the Pre3 isn't a bad phone, it's just really hard to recommend! The hardware is the best we've seen on a Pre model, but that bar was pretty low, and the slider form factor and rounded pebble-like shape won't suit everyone. The operating system is very well thought out on the whole, but lacks the ecosystem of iOS and Android and arguably Windows Phone too at this point in time.

The uncertain future of webOS is the major reason the phone is hard to recommend at full price (£300 on launch) though rumours of a fire sale are rife. If it were to become available under £100 the story changes significantly to an affordable 2nd phone with a nice OS that makes a nice change from the relative boredom of iOS and dull copycat Android slabs, or even a nice upgrade for someone currently using a feature phone for their first foray into smartphone territory.

UPDATE: Also see my video review of the Pre3 in Phones Show 147

Thursday, 18 August 2011

HP Discontinues WebOS Devices

As is all over the technology sites and blogs right now HP have stated their intention to discontinue WebOS devices.

Amazingly this news came out 3.5 hours after I bought a Pre 3 online, which will be delivered tomorrow! No doubt I will end up returning it if it has no foreseeable future, and WebOS seems even less likely to get any developer interest now as well. Still, I'll try and post some thoughts and pictures of the device anyway when I get it!

Source: HP

Monday, 15 August 2011

Motorola Announces Defy+

Motorola today announced the Defy+, an Android 2.3 Gingerbread-based successor to the Defy from 2010. This will probably go under the radar for two reasons; first is that Google today acquired Motorola Mobility, a massive move in the smartphone market which will dominate news/analysis for some time, with huge implications not only for Google's competitor mobile platforms but also for other manufacturers producing Android devices, and second because in truth the Defy+ is only a minor upgrade to the original Defy.

When the first Defy came out in towards the end of 2010, it was no more than a midfield player with its 800MHz CPU, 512MB RAM, 5MP camera, VGA video capture and poor screen viewing outdoors. What it did have was a unique selling point which Motorola called "life proof", being dust proof, scratch resistant and water resistant (to a point of course!). At the time it narrowly had the largest battery capacity on the market at 1540mAh. However, other devices were shortly released with 1GHz CPUs; Samsung's Nexus S, Moto's own Milestone 2, the Incredible S. HTC also starting pushing towards 1GB of RAM with the Incredible S and Desire S as well.  I bought a Defy very shortly after it was released in the UK, and despite buying other devices in the meantime I've kept coming back to it as my primary device, particularly after the upgrade from Android 2.1 Eclair to 2.2 Froyo.

The Defy+ only slightly bumps its older sibling's specs: the CPU goes up to 1GHz, the OS to Android 2.3, and the battery to 1700mAh. That's it! Then it's the same 3.7" Gorilla Glass screen, 5MP camera, 2GB internal storage and 2GB SD card included in the box, and presumably the same 512MB RAM although this was not stated in the press release. Although it will share it's brother's chassis with a pleasingly small bezel, making the feel in the hand seem smaller than in should for the 3.7" screen it contains, it's not really worth getting out of bed for!

With the "life proof" unique selling point Motorola have clearly never gone for the top end of the market in terms of specifications and performance, however the Defy+ is due to ship in "early fall", and we already have 5 dual-core 1GHz+ Android phones out in the UK today market versus its 1GHz single core in a month or two's time. Smartphone cameras are significantly better than late 2010 with Sony Ericsson pushing the Android boundaries on the Arc, and everyone else trying to catch up to that, the iPhone 4, and even higher Nokia N8, yet here we have the same 5MP unit from last October! A competitor to this will be Sony Ericsson's Xperia active, which will also have a 1Ghz CPU, but a smaller 3.3" QVGA (and app-choice limiting) screen. It's 5MP camera unit will take 720p video, and on the "life proof" front it sports "wet finger tracking".

The original Defy must have sold well otherwise Motorola wouldn't be bothering with this, but its nowhere near enough of an upgrade for existing Defy owners to consider. Which is a shame, as when this phone was first rumoured I was excited at the prospect of a dual-core, life proof Defy+ with a nice new 8MP camera and a beefy 1GB RAM, and now I'm on the lookout for my next phone. Again. I hope that other manufacturers will think about this type of phone though, because what Motorola and Sony Ericsson have proved is that rugged phones don't have to be ugly phones any more.

Source: Motorola Mobility

Google Maps 5.8 for Android

A couple of weeks ago (I've been on holiday, ok!) Google released an update for Maps for Android to version 5.8, from which you can now upload photos of a place directly from your device, a feature which also hooks in nicely with Picasa too. You can also add brand new places for checking in in the new version, but the most interesting feature for me though was the ability to properly view your "starred places" at long last. There's still some way to go though, particularly when you consider a big draw to Android devices is the free turn-by-turn navigation i.e. "sat nav", and dedicated sat nav devices have much better and more intuitive ways of storing favourite places.

Favourite places for Google are effectively "starred items", which in turn need to be based on real addresses, something already defined as a place in Google Maps, or a set of coordinates. You can leave them to be named by their address/Google Place name/coordinates or rename them to something memorable to yourself, something I always do as a friend or customer's name means a lot more than an address, and that's how you store favourites in your standalone sat nav. Before Google added the My Places tab to Maps for the desktop the only way to manage your starred items was the little known Google Bookmarks site, and not many people would have intuitively found that, I know from experience of helping friends and family! My Places in Google Maps for the desktop is a huge improvement to that however, and can be found very easily.

"My Places" area of Google Maps for Android 5.8

The new "My Places" area of the mobile app shows you your starred items, but you can only view and not edit them from there, which is a real shame and hopefully will be added in future. Also more frustratingly, the My Places area only shows the address/coordinates of the starred item, not your own descriptive name for the place, as shown in the app's screenshot above. So when I'm looking for customer XYZ or Jim or Bob in my list, I instead get a long list of addresses not knowing who is who!

So yes Google this is a step forward, but for those of us wanting to use your phones as sat navs, as you presumably intend us to (despite it still being in beta at time of writing), please let us edit and view our starred places properly on the device?