|Introduction and Specifications|
|HP webOS, as the mobile operating system is now officially known, was first born in the labs of a revitalized Palm, at a time when the company was angling to take on iOS and Android and offer the world's next great mobile OS. The first real glimpse at webOS came at CES 2009, with the introduction of the Palm Pre. Unfortunately, some would say Palm took too long to ship what ultimately turned out to be a subpar piece of hardware, and webOS fell to the wayside while Android leapfrogged iOS and Apple also continued to innovate.
Then, amidst the turmoil, came more turmoil. HP's CEO was canned following a scandal, an unlikely successor was found, and Palm was sold to a company that seemed to be a strange bedfellow. Why would Palm end up at HP? Would HP seriously devote the money, time and resources in to making Palm viable again? And why would they kill the Palm branding, a brand that had once been synonymous with quality mobile products? Questions abound.
HP tried to answer a lot of questions and quell fears by launching their first stable of webOS 2.x based products earlier in the year -- the first webOS launch since the acquisition. A lot was, and is, riding on it. The Veer 4G is a surprising choice for HP to launch first; the Pre 3 will come later, and the TouchPad tablet after that. Is the world's smallest webOS phone an appropriate launch device?
In the pages to come, we'll take a deeper look at webOS 2.1.2 (the build loaded on this phone), HP's new hardware direction and the overall value proposition. webOS still has a lot to prove in the smartphone world, as it currently battles BlackBerry OS, Windows Phone, MeeGo and a handful of other small competitors for that coveted third-place spot behind iOS and Android. Priced at just $99.99 on a 2-year AT&T contract (or $49.99 if purchased through Amazon Wireless), it's certainly one of the cheaper 4G smartphones on the market, and paired with AT&T's newer $15/month low-end smartphone data package, it has the makings for a nice, budget handset that'll do significantly more than make calls and send texts.
|Design and Build Quality|
|At 2.1 inches x 3.3 inches x 0.6 inches, the Veer is one of the smallest full-featured phones we have ever seen, and easily one of the (if not "the") smallest smartphone we've handled. You may have gotten this impression when reading the introduction we posted way back in February, but the Veer 4G is tiny. In fact, tiny doesn't even accurately describe it. It's more like minuscule. It's smaller than a Verizon MiFi 2200. It would probably look normal in the hands of a 3-year old. It's really, really tiny.
HP sells the Veer in both black and white. The black version seems the more classy of the two, as the black display beautifully bleeds over into the black chassis. The 2.6" display (400 x 320) is wildly small, particularly in comparison to the massive screens that are popping up on today's most cutting-edge smartphones. Above the display, there's the typical earpiece / speaker, while HP has included a unique "gesture area" beneath it. Those familiar with RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook bezel will understand this -- you can make gestures on the bezel to impact the display, without actually having to touch the display itself.
The left edge is home to a volume rocker, while the top has a full-size SIM card slot, a lanyard loop connector and a Mute / Unmute toggle switch. Coming around the top curve heading leftward, there's a power / sleep button, and on the left edge there's a magnetic charging port. The bottom is flush, while the rear has an HP logo, and AT&T logo, a speakerphone grille and a 5MP camera sensor.
Let's touch on that charging port while we're on the topic. While the Veer 4G is certainly thicker than the Galaxy S II (as an example), it's evidently not quite thick enough for HP to put a standard Micro-USB port on here, nor a 3.5mm headphone jack. These are two crucial design flaws. With this proprietary port, it means that you're stuck carrying around a special travel cable to charge it, and a special dongle if you need a 3.5mm headphone jack. Yes, TouchStone inductive charging is supported, but travelers aren't going to bust a TouchStone out in the airport. Having a Micro-USB connector would have been hugely appreciated; you can work around the headphone snafu with a pair of Bluetooth earbuds, but again, this is asking a lot out of the customer.
If you happen to forget, lose or misplace your special charging cable, there's no alternate way to recharge the phone. Moving on, a gentle push on the gesture area of the screen pops open a QWERTY keyboard. Those familiar with the Pixi and Pre will immediately recognize these keys. The keys are small, yes, but HP (or to a greater extent, Palm) has always had fantastic phone keyboards. That hasn't changed here. The key travel is excellent, though you'll have to get used to typing with fingernails in order to enhance accuracy and cut down on mashing multiple buttons at once. At the very least, this keyboard ensures that none of the valuable screen space is occupied with a virtual keyboard.
Once you slide up the keyboard, you'll notice that the rear functions as a mirror. A cute extra. The sliding mechanism is really top-shelf; it glides nicely, and requires the perfect amount of force to open and close. The display is extremely sharp and crisp, with amazing viewing angles. The only issue, however, is the physical size; it's just hard to read email on a smartphone with a 2.6" display now that we've grown used to the panels on the Droid X, iPhone 4, Nexus S, etc. The multi-touch support is also rock solid, and the gesture area never once let us down -- highly responsive from top to bottom.
The 5MP camera on the rear, unfortunately, was a let down. Images were consistently washed out and lifeless, and video was low quality. There's just no way you could use the Veer 4G's camera when it comes to taking serious images; in dimly lit environments, it goes from bad to really, really bad. The speaker and speakerphone, as well as the microphone, all seemed to live up to our expectations. Call quality was on par with other higher-end AT&T smartphones we have tested, and we could hear others loud and clear when we were able to lock onto a solid signal.
|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?
|Summary and Conclusion|
| HP's Veer 4G is an interesting device, with distinct pros and cons. For starters, this phone is only available on AT&T, which puts it at a disadvantage right away. For $99 on a 2-year contract, potential AT&T buyers have a ton of great options -- everything from an iPhone 3GS to a slew of very potent Android-based phones. It's also only available on AT&T; that is to say, HP will have a very limited reach with this phone, and when you're desperate for developer support, you need to get a phone out onto as many networks as possible.
Calling the Veer a 4G phone is also somewhat of a stretch. Some reports suggest that this isn't even an HSPA+ phone by definition, because it doesn't support enough of the performance-enhancing features of the specification. Regardless of all that, the somewhat dated 800MHz CPU seems to struggle when downloading and rendering complex webpages over Wi-Fi, so having the extra connection speed on this particular phone probably won't do a ton of good anyway. Of course, the Mobile Hotspot feature does indeed make good use of it, but given AT&T's historically clogged data networks, we wouldn't suggest buying this phone if you're looking to tether very often.
Then, there's the size. The Veer is just too small to adequately show off the intricacies of webOS, and it compromises too many basic things for the sake of being small. The fact that you have to carry around a dongle to use standard headphones, not to mention a proprietary charging cable, defeats the purpose somewhat. You still end up packing extra peripherals, so the entire package swells in size. The keyboard, while nice, still requires fingernail typing, as it's just too cramped. The 5MP camera also leaves something to be desired.
We think the HP Veer 4G is a poor choice to showcase webOS 2.x. We suspect that the operating system -- which is great to use, good looking, and reasonably snappy -- would have a much better showing on a Pre 3 or TouchPad, both of which are coming some time this summer. But the Veer 4G hardware has too many deficiencies for us to openly recommend it. The only demographic that we could reasonably recommend this phone to is the tween / teen crowd that places a high value on style and size, and is willing to make use of AT&T's bare-minimum $15/month data plan. In a month or two, this phone will likely be offered for free on contract, and it may be a solid choice for parents needing to extend an AT&T family plan in order to give their child their first smartphone.
Ultimately though, webOS really impressed us. It's an solid operating system in almost every regard, and even outperforms Android and iOS when it comes to things like multitasking. Sure, the email system needs improved, and there needs to be a way to add more shortcut icons to the bottom taskbar, but HP has a hit on their hands if they can launch nicer hardware. The Veer 4G isn't it. It's too small, too niche, and forces too many compromises. We think the Pre 3 has a much better chance at getting consumers excited, but we'd recommend steering clear of the Veer 4G for now unless you fit into a very narrow niche who values ultra small form factor of this device.