First Impressions: Palm Pre 2 With WebOS 2.0

InformationWeek spent some time with the unreleased Palm Pre 2 running webOS 2.0. Is this the webOS sequel device for which we've been waiting?
The Palm Pre 2 will be sold by French wireless network operator SFR starting November 3. It won't hit the United States for a while yet, but will be sold by Verizon Wireless once it is available. Palm was showing off a prototype of the Palm Pre 2 at an event in New York City and let me take a look at the new phone, which is running Palm's new webOS 2.0.

The Pre 2 is a follow up to the Pre and Pre Plus. From five feet away, only the most well-trained eye could spot the differences between the Pre 2 and the Pre Plus. It's black. It's small. It looks less like a river stone. It is a slider with a touch screen and a QWERTY keyboard.

The overall look and feel of it in your hand is the same. Its puckish shape and small footprint make it very easy to hold and use. One important difference pointed out by the Palm booth staff is that the front surface is no longer curved as on the original. Instead, there is a bevel wrapped around the Gorilla Glass, which protects the screen.

All the other buttons and controls are essentially the same, and worked well. Other than the Gorilla Glass, the biggest improvement in the hardware is the keyboard. The original Pre keyboard was awful. The Pre 2's keyboard makes a significant improvement, though there are many better keyboards available from other manufacturers. The Pre 2's keys have a slightly different shape to them, and offer much better travel and feedback -- both of which translate to a better typing experience.

I wouldn't have known the device was a prototype if Palm hadn't told me. The fit and finish all appeared to be very good. I still think Palm needs to come to market with an entirely new device, but the subtle updates to the Pre 2 make it a better device than its predecessors.

But the hardware isn't the real story here. WebOS 2.0 is.

The Pre 2 had webOS 2.0 on board, and Palm walked me through a demonstration of the operating system's new features. One of webOS 2.0's biggest improvements in the Stacks feature. Remember that webOS is based on the use of cards. Cards represent active applications. Stacks allows users to lump cards together in groups.

For example, Palm showed me an HTML email in the email program which had hyperlinks in it. Clicking on the link opened the Web browser, but created a new card and stacked it with the email program's Card. In other words, it paired too related activities together. This would help if, for example, you wanted to bounce back and forth between the email and the Web site. Visually sorting through Cards and Stacks on the home screen makes sense in its own way, and is an interesting evolutionary step for webOS 2.0.

Beyond Stacks, the other big feature is the Just Type search functionality. Just Type can be configured to perform Quick Actions. These allow users to start writing an email, for example, without first opening the email application. Palm showed me how it can be customized, especially for searching specific apps, web sites, and so on.

If all this sounds memory and processor intensive, it is. Thankfully, Palm has stuffed a 1GHz processor into the Pre 2. The difference is astounding. WebOS always felt a bit sluggish on the Pre, Pre Plus, Pixi and Pixi Plus. With webOS 2.0 on the Pre 2 with the 1GHz processor, webOS was smoking fast. The speed improvement is a very welcome one, and something I am sure webOS users will be excited about.

I maintain the opinion I voiced last week when the Pre 2 was first announced. One of the reason's Palm's devices haven't sold well is the ho-hum hardware. Palm needs to shoot for the moon and make its next smartphone a category killer. Until then, the Pre 2 is good, if way-too-evolutionary, follow-up.

Neither Verizon Wireless nor Palm has said when the Pre 2 will be available for sale.

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