webOS 1.4 – How Far Along Are We? (Part 1)

webOS 1.4 represents an important milestone in the platform’s development: simply stated, webOS 1.4 is the point at which the Palm Pre/Plus (and, to a lesser extent, the Pixi/Plus) has become mostly feature-equivalent to current smartphone platforms. Other than some very specific capabilities enabled by a digital compass and macro focus camera (neither of which any Palm device possesses), webOS smartphones can now do almost everything that can be done on the iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile. The lone missing capability is audio recording, which remains a mysterious omission.

So how does webOS stack up? The changelog is fairly significant, and the update adds a number of features, enhancements, and bug fixes, while introducing a few new issues and failing to address some others. All in all, webOS 1.4 is an important update that significantly advances the platform and provides a foundation for continued improvement in the capabilities and performance of Palm devices. The following provides a brief overview of webOS 1.4 and some of its most important changes.

Performance

One of the most important considerations with any system update is performance, and in this regard webOS 1.4 is a mixed bag. Performance improvements and bug fixes include:

  1. Scene transitions, i.e., from an email inbox to an individual email, are much smoother than with webOS 1.3.5.1 and earlier. In fact, transitions are so much smoother that some have speculated that Palm is using the GPU to accelerate at least some aspects of the UI. This hasn’t been verified and is unlikely. Rather, it seems that Palm has simply implemented newer versions of certain core components (such as WebKit 4 and the V8 Javascript engine) that are possibly responsible for the improved responsiveness of the UI. In short, webOS 1.4 has addressed a good deal of the “lagginess” attributed to earlier versions.
  2. Universal search seems generally quicker in returning search results.
  3. The email application seems to respond more quickly, for example in clicking an inbox and receiving a list of emails.
  4. Email, including EAS, Gmail, and Yahoo! accounts, now update in the background, resolving and issue that some were experiencing with before 1.3.5.x.

Some performance issues remain, including the “too many cards” issue. Indeed, memory issues seem worse than in previous updates, perhaps indicating that webOS 1.4 introduced a new bug. Hopefully this issue will be addressed soon with an incremental update.

In addition, battery life seems improved when the device is ”idle” (i.e., not in active use but with background processes running) but worse when it is being heavily used. Overall, it seems (on my Pre, at least) like battery life remains a weakness with the Palm Pre, and webOS 1.4 hasn’t done much to improve it.

Features

Looking at the changelog specifically, the following are some of the more significant changes. The entire changelog can be found here.

App Catalog

  • An application developer can feature a video in App Catalog by providing a YouTube URL for the developer’s application. The URL appears as a link on the app details screen. Tapping the link opens the video in the phone’s YouTube application.

Analysis: The static images were nice, but the ability for developers to provide a link to a video overview from directly within the App Catalog is a boon for both developers and customers. 

Calendar

  • You can customize calendar notification sounds in Preferences & Accounts. The options include Mute, System Sound, Ringtone, and Vibrate. The Ringtone option includes new notification sounds to give you more customization choices.

Analysis: Notifications have been one of the most requested features, and Palm has provided some very nice capabilities in webOS 1.4. The ability to set distinctive calendar notifications is a welcome enhancement and significantly improves the usefulness of Palm devices.

  • If you create an event and enters a phone number as the event name, location, or description, you can tap the phone number on the event details screen to dial it.

Analysis: A small touch, but nice.

  • A new Select All application menu item is available when the cursor is in an editable text field.

Analysis: This has been added to the Contacts app as well, and is a welcome addition.

  • A new Sync Now application menu item gives you a second way to manually synchronize your calendar accounts (in addition to the Sync Now button in Preferences & Accounts).

Analysis: I’ve never needed to manually sync my calendars, but this would come in handy if I did.

Sync Now Option in webOS 1.4 Calendar App

  • This release improves Calendar synchronization performance in poor network coverage areas to optimize battery life. It also increases the default interval for synchronizing with online calendar accounts other than Exchange accounts.

Analysis: As mentioned above, battery life is mixed with webOS 1.4. This is likely one of the changes that contributes to improved standby performance.

  • This release contains improvements to the visual calendar display, including a clearer indicator of AM and PM and improved current time display.

Analysis: These are small changes but they significantly improve the usability of the Calendar app. It’s now easy to see at a glance when an appointment is relative to the current time.

Camera

  • You can record video whenever and wherever inspiration strikes with the new camcorder feature in Camera. After recording a video, you can edit the clip in Videos, upload the video directly to YouTube or Facebook, or send the video by email or multimedia message.

Analysis: This is the highlight of webOS 1.4, and it’s a great addition. Taking video and uploading it to Facebook or YouTube, or sending it via email or MMS, is an easy point-and-click affair complete with inline trimming. The Palm Pre/Plus and Pixi/Plus are now suitable for quick, spontaneous video. In the screen captures below, you’ll notice that the camera icon has also changed.

Contacts

  • Global Address Lookup now appears as a contacts search option when you perform a universal search.

Analysis: This is a very nice addition to universal search, and is surprisingly fast. Searching for a coworker’s name returns EAS information almost as quickly as from the local Contacts app.

  • If you select the Select All application menu item, text in all contact entry fields is selected.

Analysis: This is the same option as was added to the Calendar app. 

  • This release improves Contacts synchronization performance in poor network coverage areas to optimize battery life. It also increases the default interval for synchronizing with online contacts accounts other than Exchange accounts.

Analysis: Again, this likely contributes to the improvements in idle battery life.

Device Info

  • You now have two partial erase options: Erase Apps & Data, which erases all installed applications and associated data, and Erase USB Drive, which erases files stored on the USB drive.

Analysis: More options are usually good, although in this case it seems like the options in webOS for wiping a device are getting a bit convoluted.

  • This release includes a new Secure Full Erase option. A secure full erase takes considerably longer than a regular full erase.

Analysis: Yet another option for wiping a device, although this one was probably requested by an enterprise customer.

Thus ends Part 1 of the webOS 1.4 overview. Stay tuned for Part 2.

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