When Palm first introduced webOS in January 2009 and subsequently launched the Palm Pre, I called the innovative operating system the best thing to happen to smartphones that year. To this day, webOS holds a special place in my heart for taking a novel approach to smartphone operating systems and making it beautiful. It was refreshing, it was capable, and it was not received at all well by consumers. But webOS’ problem was never the software. Perhaps the lack of available apps has been a bit of a hindrance, but I view Palm’s release strategy, its horrible marketing strategy and its sub par hardware as having played the biggest roles in preventing webOS from finding stardom. In terms of hardware, I had high hopes when HP announced it was buying Palm; webOS might finally have a vessel worthy of consumers’ attention. Discounting the Pre 2, which should never have been allowed to ship, the Veer is HP’s first webOS smartphone to reach store shelves. The phone is undoubtedly unique and it features the latest version of the Palm team’s software platform, but is it the vessel webOS needs so desperately? Hit the break for my review of the HP Veer 4G — or, as I have come to call it, the Palmagotchi.
AT&T’s version of this cute little critter ships with version 2.1.2 of webOS, the latest version available to the public. Compared to older 1.x versions of webOS, the most important changes in my eyes all revolve around performance. Under Palm’s rule, the webOS operating system was gorgeous but it was anything but smooth. On the original Pre, the OS would choke regularly and stutter constantly. Then webOS 2.0 brought the cavalry and smoothed out webOS significantly.
As much as we love tossing specs around, particularly where processor speeds are concerned, savvy users know there are many factors that impact a device’s performance. Of course the processor will play a large role, but memory, component quality and software optimizations are just as important when painting a complete picture. The Veer 4G’s 800MHz single-core Qualcomm processor, for example, is dwarfed by the blazing fast dual-core offerings found in new Android phones, and yet the UI on the Veer is often much smoother and more fluid than many Android phones I have used. Even with a dozen apps open, flicks and taps are typically just as smooth as they are on a fresh boot. Booting the phone, by the way, takes forever.
There are times when the Veer gets bogged down, however, and the culprits are often familiar ones. The Google Maps app, for instance, has always been a tough pill for webOS to swallow. On the Veer, Google Maps takes a very long time to launch and render maps. This, in turn, slows other functions down and can cause hiccups. The contacts app is another constant culprit, and the phone seems to slow down a fair amount whenever contact or email data is syncing.
The webOS team at HP also added some other great new features to webOS 2.x, such as enhanced multitasking. My original Palm Pre would often bog with just two or three apps open, and that is not the case on the Veer 4G. Save for a few exceptions as noted elsewhere in this review, apps remain responsive while background processes tied to other apps are running. So streaming Pandora Radio while downloading Twitter updates and playing Angry Birds is no problem at all, for example.
Other new features include “Just type,” which is a global search much like Spotlight on the iPhone or universal search on BlackBerry phones; stack support, which allows users to group similar cards into stacks; and support for Adobe Flash. Synergy has also been refined, providing more control and more supported account types. For those unfamiliar with it, Synergy is a webOS feature that combines contact information from multiple account types — Gmail contacts, Facebook contacts, and so on — and merges everything into one entry. So, for example, the single contact entry I have for BGR President and Editor-in-chief Jonathan Geller contains data from his entry in my Exchange contact list, his entry in my Gmail contact list, his Facebook profile, his LinkedIn profile and his AIM account.
Phone calls placed using the Veer were loud and clear on AT&T’s network, and callers on the other end of the phone said the quality was terrific. The speakerphone function is also nice and loud on the Veer, though there is a fair amount of distortion as volume levels approach max. As far as battery life is concerned, this is another area where specs can be deceiving. At only 950 mAh, the Veer has the smallest battery of any smartphone I have tested in years. With solid software and such a tiny display to power, however, I was easily able to get a full day of moderate usage on a single charge.
Unlike its grandfather, the Palm Pre, HP’s Veer features a very solid build. While I personally far prefer metal or soft-touch plastic to hard plastic, the Veer 4G feels very solid and comfortable in the hand. The phone is quite light but it still manages to feel substantial in the hand, and the slider mechanism is very well constructed.
The Veer is also very, very small.
Measuring just 3.31 x 2.15 x 0.59 inches, HP’s Veer 4G is easily the smallest smartphone available from a U.S. carrier. It’s not terribly thin, but it is very short and very narrow compared to other cell phones. The face of the device is home only to a 2.6-inch touchscreen display and an ear speaker. The display sports a 320 x 400 resolution, which would be quite low if they weren’t all crammed into such a tiny screen. The result is bright and vivid, however, and if it wasn’t so tiny it would be a pleasure to use.
The top of the phone holds a SIM slot and a mute toggle, the left side of the device is home to the volume rocker and the right holds the power/lock button as well as a proprietary connector port. The phone ships with a magnetic adapter that fits on this port and allows a headset to connect to the phone. The USB cable that doubles as a charger has this special fitting as well, since there is no microUSB port on the device. In other words, if you plan to buy a Veer, invest in a Bluetooth stereo headset and a touchstone charging dock. The port and adapter were necessities since the device is so tiny, but having to worry about losing the adapter would be a huge turn off for me. HP’s inductive Touchstone charger technology is awesome and Veer 4G owners should plan to make use of it.
An HP logo, an AT&T logo, a loudspeaker and a camera with no flash are located on the back of the Veer. Plainly put, images captured using the Veer’s 5-megapixel camera are very disappointing. They’re grainy, colors are washed out, and even images captured in bright daylight are eyesores. Also on the rear of the device when the keypad is slid open, is a mirror.
The last item of note on the Veer’s exterior is the QWERTY keypad, which to me, is easily the most surprising thing about this smartphone.
I was as shocked to determine this as you undoubtedly will be to read it, but the Veer’s keyboard really isn’t that bad. In fact, it’s pretty ok. While that might not seem like much of a compliment on the surface, consider that this QWERTY keyboard is by far the smallest I have ever used on a cell phone. While I don’t have giant hands, I fully expected to find the keyboard laughable the first time I slid the phone’s display skyward. But after typing a sentence I found my smirk starting to fade. After making it through a second sentence, and then a third with no errors, I’m sure a puzzled expression stuck to my face for at least a few beats.
This keyboard isn’t half bad.
I wouldn’t call the typing experience enjoyable, really, but it’s not as bad as you might think. If you have giant hands, don’t even bother. Those with small to average-sized digits will almost certainly be able to manage on the Veer’s QWERTY, though, as the rounded shape of the buttons provides more separation than you might think. I would say that I made no more or less errors while typing on the Veer 4G than I do while typing on the iPhone 4 or a Windows Phone, which house my two favorite keyboards. I definitely type a bit slower on the Veer than on the two aforementioned devices, but not by much.
Beyond the keyboard, there isn’t much else to cover in this section I’m afraid. The device’s biggest strength is its operating system, of which I am a huge fan. The UI is gorgeous, the card interface is brilliantly intuitive and the feature set is all there. But…
Where to begin?
As a phone, the HP Veer 4G is more than adequate. As a smartphone, the Veer is very capable and fairly smooth for the most part. And yet at the same time, I’m unable to take it seriously.
My real question, jaded though it may be, is simply: why is this phone so small? It serves no purpose. It is a gimmick and nothing more. And it’s not even a good gimmick, in my eyes. Tiny phones had their day in the sun, but that day has passed — and the tiny phone craze didn’t even occur in any of the Veer’s launch markets.
The Veer 4G would be a blast to use if it was the size of a normal phone. Professionals might enjoy it more if they were actually able to see the text within emails. Children might enjoy in more if they were actually able to see the birds as they are flung toward pigs. Commuters might enjoy it more if they were actually able to see videos as they play (or listen to music without needing an adapter to connect their ear buds). Instead, 20/20 vision doesn’t even cut it with this minuscule mobile phone, and the expense HP incurred to build and ship it might not even be wholly recouped.
This concept of “build it small and cute” is one more thing that spilled over from the pre-acquisition Palm team that most definitely should not have. People didn’t bite with the Pixi and they won’t bite with the Veer.
Beyond that — though I’m not sure there really is a “beyond that,” unfortunately — there are some things that really cause the phone to choke, as I mentioned previously. Google Maps, the Contacts app and email are a few examples, but the Web browser is another area where the Veer can definitely use a boost. Even while connected to my home Wi-Fi network with download speeds in excess of 30Mbps, web pages sometimes feel like they take forever to load. Even mobile versions of sites, built specifically so low-performance browsers can pull them up quickly, have trouble loading on the Veer 4G. This is a problem, of course, and it’s compounded by the fact that the webOS App Catalog is still quite light.
The Bottom Line
In the end, I’m having a hard time figuring out who HP built this phone for. It’s obviously not for power users, so to think of it from the perspective of a tech savvy smartphone lover is a waste of time. Is it for tweens and teens? Maybe. AT&T’s $15 smartphone data plan makes this phone a great affordable option for parents looking to save some money but still get a cute and capable smartphone for their child. Is it for high school or college students? Possibly. Affordability is still a huge factor with that demographic, and the Veer can can definitely keep up with a fast crowd, though the lack of apps could be more of an issue here. Is it for young professionals? That’s doubtful. WebOS is strong where productivity and PIM are concerned, but the tiny display on the Veer 4G is not good at all when it comes to email and other text-heavy functions.
As a fashion accessory, the Veer is great. It’s a cute phone phone that will definitely attract attention when it’s pulled out. The problem is that people looking for a smartphone and a fashion accessory typically opt for the iPhone, and I’m not sure there are many valid arguments for the Veer 4G over an iPhone in the eyes of a consumer looking for a fashion accessory.