Back in February, HP (and the company’s mobile team, formerly Palm) announced that it had some big — and small — plans on the horizon. A new tablet, the TouchPad. A larger, high-powered smartphone dubbed the Pre 3, and the Veer. The Veer 4G — an ultra-tiny webOS smartphone that would pick up where the Pixi left off and serve a legion of users who… want a smaller phone? That’s the thinking, apparently. As I went into this review, my take wasn’t so much about the Veer being an alternative to a “real” smartphone but rather that it’s a smartphone with all the power of a normal handset for those looking for something daintier, lighter, and more portable. Jon Rubinstein and the crew at HP have gone out of their way to say that this isn’t an underpowered handset — just a different kind of handset. In fact, Jon told me on the Engadget Show that he was using the Veer as his main device (not the bigger, more powerful Pre 3 or even the semi-new Pre 2). So, will the Veer 4G fill a gap in the market? Can HP’s $99 mini-phone tempt buyers away from the iPhone 3GS or cheaper Android offerings? Or is the diminutive device just another misstep in the Palm / HP story? I try to answer all those questions (and more) in my review below.
The Veer 4G is absolutely miniature
The Veer is tiny. Extremely tiny. Absurdly tiny. Seriously, I can’t stress this enough — the phone is absolutely miniature. The Veer is just 2.1 inches across and 3.3 inches tall, with a thickness of .59 inches. While it’s certainly not the thinnest smartphone I’ve ever used, it feels like the smallest overall. The closest companion in terms of design would be Microsoft’s failed Kin One; in fact, the phones share similarities in a number of ways, from the diminutive display (the Veer’s screen is 2.6 inches, like the Kin), to the slide out QWERTY keyboard. Overall, that’s probably not a great thing, though the Veer is easily more stylish.
On the black version, the body of the phone is made up of a plastic, soft touch material, similar to the Pre 2. The white version feels a bit more rigid and plasticky — that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it definitely feels different in your hand. The front of the devices house that small screen, an earpiece, and ambient light / proximity sensors, plus a gesture area below the display which has a thin LED strip that lights up on touches or for notifications. Up top, there’s a loop for your favorite phone charm, the SIM slot, and a chrome mute switch. On the left side of the phone you’ll find a volume rocker, while the right side holds the power / sleep / wake button (which I found tough to reach in a number of situations) and the very odd, Veer-only magnetic sync / charge socket (more on that below). Around back there’s a small speaker and an opening for the camera sensor.
The phone has a sliding mechanism that’s similar to the ones seen on the Pre and Pre 2, but this particular slider feels substantially tighter and more solid than previous Palm phones. There is a slight bit of wiggle when the phone is opened, but it’s nothing compared to the "Oreo effect" observed on earlier models. There’s a definitive snap and mechanical feel to the Veer’s slider that is confidence-building. When you do get the phone open, you’ll find a minuscule but surprisingly useful keyboard inside. HP has opted for a clickier, less resistive version than on the Pre 2 but have reduced the amount of travel and pressure needed to complete a key press. It means that you can type faster and more accurately than on the spongy keyboard of the Pre and Pre 2. That’s great, but I still had trouble the sheer tininess of this keyboard — it’s simply not very spacious, which means missed keystrokes are common. Once I got used to it, my accuracy improved, but I wouldn’t say it was ever a totally comfortable experience.
Now let’s talk about that weird Veer port for a moment. Basically, given the diminutive size of the handset, there’s no room here for a Micro USB port or a headphone jack. That means that inside the box for the Veer 4G there’s a tiny little dongle for plugging in headphones, and a special cable for syncing or connecting to a charger. Honestly, it seems impossible to believe there wasn’t another option for at least one of these, but that’s the score. The dongle for the headphone jack is so tiny that you’re probably guaranteed to lose it — as far as the sync cable is concerned, well… both special accessories mean that you’re in major trouble if you don’t have a spare laying around. I would have opted for a slightly larger phone with both of these jacks on board, but that probably has more to do with my overall size issues with this phone. And one other thing — the dongle is just plain ugly.
It seems that the goal with this phone was to make a successor to the Pixi that was even more impressively small. HP and Palm believe there is a market for a phone of this size. I have my doubts, and none of those doubts were put to rest after using the Veer for a few days. The phone is simply too small in my opinion. The screen can be hard to read at times, and the interface now feels cramped and crowded. Honestly, it’s tough to understand why HP didn’t just evolve the Pixi form factor here — it’s a more attractive, thinner device that feels better in your hands. Adding a slider to a phone this small makes the whole experience much less comfortable than having a candybar QWERTY. Taking it in and out of pocket almost always resulted in unwanted slides (which means the phone wakes up), and I found it generally difficult to grapple with when I need to send a quick message or email.
The market reaction will show whether or not there really is a place in people’s hearts for a phone this tiny, but from a hardware perspective, I was unconvinced.
Internals / Display
Inside the Veer you’ll find an 800MHz Qualcomm MSM7230 (the same CPU used in the speedy G2), 512MB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage (about 6 of which are usable, and there are no SD slots here), WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, along with those highly controversial HSPA radios. That tiny, capacitive display has a resolution of just 320 x 400, but I don’t see how you could get away with much more at this size. I mentioned the proximity and light sensors, and there’s also an accelerometer inside, along with an A-GPS chip.
When all is said and done, I didn’t think the phone’s performance was notably speedy. In fact, I found myself quite annoyed by system slowdowns and freezes that I’ve seen in earlier handsets, which I largely chock up to the software itself, not the hardware (more on this in the software section). Still, nothing inside the Veer seemed to mitigate the issues. Multitasking worked well — as it does on most webOS devices — and I didn’t see any RAM issues.
The display looks great in daylight and in lower light settings, but the size and resolution leave much to be desired. There were times when I had email that I literally could not read without zooming in. It’s nice to be compact, but the miniaturized screen on the Veer left me wanting more, which is never a good feeling. The experience feels trapping, as if you’re trying to peer around a corner. You might think I’m spoiled by larger screens, but 3-inches and above is the norm, and many (if not most) smartphones sport touchscreens that occupy the entire front surface of a phone. The Veer’s display doesn’t necessarily improve on previous QWERTY phones (like the BlackBerry Bold) due to its narrowness, and it doesn’t take the place of a "standard" smartphone display.
I found myself quite annoyed by system slowdowns and freezes
Sound quality / Battery life / Network
One area that does seem to be slightly improved is battery life
Sound quality was fine though not by any means special on the earpiece of the phone, and the same is true for the speakerphone. One note is that the speaker around back is highly susceptible to touches — so even if you cover it slightly, your sound whooshes away as if someone just flipped the treble knob to zero.
One area that does seem to be slightly improved is battery life. In my testing, I was able to easily make it through a full day of normal use (calls, browsing, email and Twitter syncing regularly, music playing) without needing to pitstop. I don’t think the battery is particularly robust (it’s a non-removable 910 mAh pack), but the Veer felt like it had enough juice to make it through a day of work, which is more than you can say for some earlier webOS devices.
As far as the Veer’s "4G" performance, I saw none of that here. Typically, speeds on its HSPA radio were slower than speeds seen on the iPhone 4. My testing showed download speeds roughly on par with the Atrix 4G, which means never hitting much higher than 2Mbps down (at least in North Brooklyn). Meanwhile, upload speeds were even worse, rarely topping out over 1Mbps.
The Veer’s camera, while higher in resolution than the Pre’s 3 megapixel shooter or Pixi’s 2 megapixel option, did not yield significantly better results than either of its predecessor’s sensors, and certainly not better than other smartphones I’ve tested recently. Sure, 5 megapixels will get you bigger photos, but because the Veer’s camera lacks a flash or auto-focus, and its sensor is lower quality than many other devices, images I captured looked artifacted and washed out. The actual picture quality didn’t seem markedly different than previous webOS phones, and that’s a bit of a disappointment. Also, while you can shoot video on the phone, it does not do HD video.
The Veer's sensor is lower quality than many other devices
While Palm’s hardware has historically been a little underwhelming, I’ve always been impressed with what the company has done on the software side. While Palm wasn’t able to compete on a large scale with Google, Apple, and RIM, its OS has always been an incredibly strong contender when it came to innovation and ease of use. In fact, it’s clear that other companies — companies like Research In Motion and Microsoft — have taken cues from Palm by introducing card-like multitasking and gesture support in their mobile OSs. HP has taken up the webOS mantle and is pushing forward with it into just about every facet of its business, so I expected to see a newer, slicker version of the operating system on the Veer than I’d seen previously. Unfortunately, that wasn’t exactly the case.
Back at Engadget, I reviewed webOS 2.0, the biggest overhaul of the OS since its initial launch in June of 2009 (the Veer sports version 2.1.2). In that version, HP / Palm had added little perks like the ability to stack related cards together, "Just Type" functionality which let you quickly search the web, content on the phone, or immediately perform a "Quick Action" like writing a tweet or making a new calendar entry. The company had also improved its account aggregator Synergy so you could plug more services into it, and made some useful tweaks to the overall UI and look and feel that made getting around the OS a more pleasant experience.
All of those new features have made their way to the Veer and its OS, but so have problems that have been plaguing Palm’s phones since the original Pre. In earlier reviews, I believed that some of those issues were growing pains, or that they were the product of a company with a reach which exceeded its grasp (due to staff or budget limitations). Now I’m not so sure. In particular, there is general stuttery and inconsistent feel to the user interface that causes major problems when trying to quickly interact with content. Apps take far too long to load. Scrolling can be laggy. Sometimes when the phone syncs or brings up a notification, the entire device will freeze for a split second — this usually results in missed touches, or touches to sections of content which are unintentional.
The aforementioned problem is especially notable in the mail application, where any message management (deletions, moving messages) is synced back to the server immediately (at least with IMAP accounts like Gmail). This makes for an extremely frustrating situation when trying to quickly delete lots of messages — the phone feels unusable in this situation. Of course, that wouldn’t be an issue if Palm / HP had made any significant updates to its mail app (such as adding threading or multiple message management). Let’s just be frank here: webOS is way behind its nearest competition when it comes to email, which is a major part of most users’ lives. The fact that the company has yet to make major updates to the client and is still touting an iOS 1.0-level mail experience is unforgivable at this point. And those aren’t the only mail issues — when writing a new message or forwarding something on, the time it takes for webOS to open a new card is simply too long. It’s frustrating. Then there’s the issue of the search functionality in mail. It seems to only look at specific strings, like a contact name, which can be a pain when you know someone’s email address and expect that beginning to type it will autofill the remainder. As an example, our dev Justin Glow has an email address which begins with justinglow — in Gmail or on an iPhone, I would just begin typing this and expect to see it autocompleted. That’s not the case in webOS. In webOS, it will only find his contact if I type his name in with a space. It makes no sense!
HP thinks that a device like the Pre 3 can compete with RIM devices for business users, but this two-year old email experience won’t win over many customers. It’s clunky, slow, and often frustrating.
Even more troubling is the third party app situation. While the webOS catalog doesn’t offer tens of thousands of titles, there are some pretty impressive pieces of software available. Going into the Veer review, it was my impression that I would have access to all of those titles, given the device’s improved specs over the Pixi — but to my shock, there are many apps (particularly 3D games or anything relying on the PDK) which are not compatible with the Veer. According to HP, this stems purely from the fact that developers need to make their titles play nice with the lower resolution of the display. Perhaps naively, I expected that the company would have a simple, automatic solution for scaling larger apps down to the smaller screen, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. So, if you were excited about playing N.O.V.A. or Rock Band on the Veer, you’re out of luck for now. That’s especially disheartening considering how little software is available overall to webOS users — to trim it down even further presents a somewhat unattractive picture.
Issues aside, there is still a lot to like about webOS, and I still believe it has incredible potential. As far as mobile operating systems go, it’s easily one of the most intelligent, intuitive, and enjoyable to use (if you can adjust to some of the bugs). Of course, the highlights of the OS haven’t changed much since its debut, nor have the issues, so while webOS has many bright spots, it still doesn’t feel like a smooth, consistent experience. When you compare the time and steps it takes to carry out many tasks and weigh some of the behavioral problems in day-to-day tasks, it seems less inviting than the newest Android and iOS offerings. Two years after its introduction, I still feel like I’m having the same problems I had the first time around — in fact, some of those problems feel worse.
AT&T is currently offering the Veer 4G at $99 with a two-year contract. That may seem like a great deal, but when you consider you could have the Inspire 4G, or Captivate — both more powerful, full featured devices — for the same price, it might make you do a double take. Furthermore, you could get an iPhone 3GS or Samsung Focus for half the price! At the end of the day, there is nothing inspiring, exciting, or deeply original about the Veer 4G. As a webOS device, it underperforms the Pre 2. From a pure features and apps perspective, it’s easily bested by iOS and Android devices in the same price range. So really, the only factor here that could be potentially appealing to customers is the size and inclusion of a hardware QWERTY keyboard, and that’s not much to go on as far as I’m concerned. If HP and Palm wanted to make a splash back into the smartphone game, the Veer was not the device to do it with. In fact, it might have been a smarter move to wait on the release of the Pre 3 and TouchPad to reintroduce webOS to the world. As it stands now, the Veer has taken the remaining embers of excitement I had about the operating system and its devices and all but extinguished them.