In our second in a series of articles helping you choose a smartphone OS, we’re going to take a look at Android versus Palm’s WebOS, which by every metric is soundly bringing up the rear in the smartphone OS race. Still, it has a lot of features that not only show Android’s possible future, but also its room for improvement.
Update 3/22/10: AT&T announced that they will carry both the Palm “Plus” handsets at an undetermined future date. That makes Palm almost as ubiquitous as Android.
Palm’s rebirth has been well publicized, and Palm WebOS is rare, as a truly unique take on the Smartphone. By putting everything on the web, and limiting access of native apps, Palm made a bold move to the cloud. Palm’s take on Multitasking was also highly touted, though in reality it suffers from a pretty steep performance hit. Palm also made serious nods to its heritage with deep gesture support. WebOS also puts a high priority on unifying information. Contacts, Calendars, and Email are all pulled in from dissimilar sources such as Google and GMail, MS Exchange, Facebook, AIM, and Palm Profile. They call this Synergy, and among Palm users, it is perhaps the most beloved feature. It aggregates your data, and gives you powerfully simple ways to look at your data, like a unified inbox for all your email accounts, a layered calendar, and a complete contact list. Each area of information can also be adequately segregated, too keep you from getting to overloaded. Palm’s hardware is rather limited. While the Pre and Pixi have been fairly well acclaimed, the lack of choice in hardware features and specs is rather limiting. If you don’t want a physical keyboard, look elsewhere. There are two versions of each Palm handset. The Palm Pre and Pixi Plus are both available from Verizon, and feature more powerful hardware. The Pre Plus has doubled RAM for handling more simultaneous tasks, and an additional 8GB of storage, bringing its total to 16GB. The Pixi gets a much needed addition of WiFi, which was left out originally, in one of those what-were-they-thinking moves. Sprint doesn’t have the Plus versions of either handset. If you’re buying a Palm device, it wouldn’t make sense at this point to choose a Pre or Pixi on Sprint. If you’re stuck on Sprint, and dead set on a WebOS smartphone, hang in there, I’m sure Sprint will get the Plus versions at some point. One concern that some have is Palm’s financial situation. It’s feared that, without a fresh device, or a sudden wave of sales, that Palm will not be able to keep its head above water. This is a valid concern, as we all want to use our smartphones for at least a year, and look forward to software updates and upgrades. And then there’s the apps. Who would develop apps for a dead platform? And when it’s time to upgrade, resale prices for Palm devices could be much lower if Palm is dissolved.
Android vs. WebOS
It could be said that Palm was the first one to out-Apple Apple. Apple’s operating system is highly polished, though closed, and limited in some ways. However, the user experience is tightly controlled. Palm takes this to the next level by nearly eschewing native apps and content. What it does, it does extremely well, but from an outsider’s perspective, it feels somewhat limited in what it can do. There are very few 3rd party apps for Palm, but what apps there seem to be very well put together. It seems that Palm doesn’t subscribe to the more is better philosophy that brought us such gems as iFart Mobile and Wobble. Maybe that’s a good thing. Palm’s Synergy and layered information views seem to work with very little setup and tweaking. This is one advantage that WebOS has over Android, at least stock, unaltered Android. As far as I am aware, there is no Android counterpart to the layered calendar that automatically pulls from seperate calendars. You can get this functionality, however, with Google Calendar. Google Calendar syncs with any Android handset, and you can get your Facebook events on Google Calendar. Also along the lines of aggregating information, MotoBLUR does a great job of this, by combining your social networking into one place. This isn’t to say that Palm WebOS is superior in every way to Android. As with Apple, your hardware choice is limited with Palm. With Palm, you can have a portrait-qwerty slider device with a mediocre keyboard and a below-average screen size, or a portrait-qwerty candybar with a great keyboard but an even smaller screen. While you can’t get a portrat-qwerty phone for Android, you can have a phone with or without keyboard, from 3.2″ screen up to 3.7″ (5″ if you count the upcoming Dell Streak) with different colors, form factors, and features to fit your needs. Speaking strictly of hardware, speaking, there are handsets that spec out higher than Palm’s offerings on every major carrier in the US. Android also boasts an App Market that is now 30,000 strong. The total number of Palm WebOS apps in the catalog is not easy to find. On their site they state there are “many”, though on their website they have 12 sections, and each they list between 12 and 20 apps. Games had the highest count, at 33. While both OS’s sport webkit-based browsers, Palm’s is at the heart of its entire OS, and as such is very good. It is both fast, and has native multi-touch pinch-to-zoom. When it comes to syncing media, the two OS’s are also in the same boat. On Windows (and Mac), both require either The Missing Sync ($40, media, photos, contacts, calendars, and more), or DoubleTwist (Free, media and photos only). It’s possible that no one has yet approached the level of polish that the WebOS gives a user. Android, even with SenseUI, doesn’t quite top WebOS for slickness and simplicity. But Android does give users more flexibility and control, something that appeals to techies and tinkerers. But for people who want the phone to do the work for them, the WebOS is an excellent choice. The bottom line is this. Android is an OS that can do just about anything very well, many things extremely well, and can work for almost everyone, but WebOS feels like an OS that does a few things really well, some things it doesn’t do at all, and it’s targeted at a very specific type of person, the person who wants to be connected and organized while spending the least amount of time integrating their mobile device.
|Web Browsing||Webkit||Webkit, Proprietary & Dolphin|
|Proprietary, Unified Inbox||Android Mail|
|GMail Support||Mail, Calendar, Contacts Sync||Mail, Calendar, Contacts Sync|
|Exchange Support||Mail, Contacts, Calendars||Mail, Contacts, Calendars (2.0 only)|
|Contacts||Synced w/Multiple Services||Synced to Google Account|
|Information Aggregation||Synergy||MotoBLUR on some devices, Google Calendar, Facebook Calendar, Notification Area|
|Notifications||“Live” tiles for Email, Calendar, Social, SMS, App notifications||Unified notification area for Email, SMS, Calendar, Social|
|Camera||3.2MP||Avail. 5MP w/Dual Flash, Autofocus|
|Media Sync||DoubleTwist (Mac or PC)||Doubletwist (Mac or PC)|
|Media Organization & Playback||Proprietary||Proprietary|
|Multitasking Performance||Easy to use, Fast on Pre Plus||Excellent, controllable|
|App Store||~2k||>35k Apps|
|Interface Customization||Full, but must be rooted||Widgets, Wallpaper, Icons, Skins|
|Handset Choice||2 (4 if you count the Plus)||Many|
|U.S. Carrier Availability||Verizon, Sprint, maybe AT&T||T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, AT&T|
Wow, I had to take a lot of bold out of the Android column on that one. I think the choice between Android and Palm comes down to personality, availability, and hardware preference.
First, personality: I think if you like out-of-the-box granular control over your phone, you’ll like Android. If you appreciate simple setup and want the phone to “just work” you might lean more toward Palm. But this is just a generalization. You should try both to make sure.
Second, availability: You may have to switch to Sprint or Verizon to get a Palm device. That may not be a bad thing. Sprint has, by far, the most affordable smartphone plans in the US. Android is a little more ubiquitous and is probably the best option if you’re stuck with (or actually like!) AT&T or T-Mobile.
Finally, the big one, hardware choice: If you don’t like portrait qwerty layouts, you will not like Palm. Their whole design language is predicated on this form factor. It’s been their trademark for years, and it’s not going away. If you want a large screen on your device, Android is the way to go. If you like landscape qwerty, or no keyboard at all, your best options are not with Palm. Again, I’ll be clear that this is based on what’s available now. I know someone will probably say “Palm is going to come out with a 4″ landscape qwerty” but they haven’t yet, and they haven’t even announced it.
Stay tuned for our next in the series: Android vs. iPhone 3GS and 4G!
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