HP Veer 4G: A supercompact WebOS phone
At a Glance
Picking up right where the Palm Pixi left off, the HP Veer 4G ($100 with a two-year AT&T contract as of May 5, 2011) is smaller than your average high-end smartphone. Not everybody wants—or needs—a monolithic 4.3-inch phone, though. And just because the Veer is smaller doesn’t mean that it misses out on all the heavy specs. The Veer’s tiny design is a nice change from the dozens of large Android phones we’ve seen over the past year.
Immediately, the Veer reminded me of Microsoft’s sad little Kin One, with its square, compact shape. But the Veer, sporting a curved back and edges plus soft backing, is a lot slicker than the Kin One. Fans of the Palm Pre and Pixi will be happy to know that the Veer (as well as the Pre 3, for that matter) retains the mirror on the back of the phone for all of your self-portrait needs. The Veer comes in black and white. (And thankfully, there’s no delay with the white model!) We got a white review unit, which looks quite stylish.
When the phone is closed, it is ridiculously tiny, measuring 3.31 inches tall by 2.15 inches wide by 0.59 inches thick. It weighs a light 3.63 ounces. It is so compact that I fear that it could get lost easily in a purse or backpack. If you carry your phone in your pants pocket, however, you’ll barely even notice it’s there. Holding it up to your ear is a bit awkward, just because it is so diminutive. Honestly, I felt a bit silly talking on a phone this small!
The Veer has a 2.6-inch, 320-by-400-pixel display, which is pretty small compared with the 3.5-inch or larger displays we see on almost all new smartphones today. The size threw me off a bit—you’re not going to watch video on this thing. But details looked sharp, and colors were bright and vivid. I will say that the screen felt slightly cramped as I opened and shuffled through apps; I wish that it was slightly larger for that purpose.
The keyboard—a vertical-sliding keyboard with Chiclet-style keys—is similar to those on the older Palm phones. Unfortunately, the soft, gummy keys (which I’ve griped about in the past) are still present. Gone is the sharp lip, making room for more space between the keys. The keyboard is still a little awkward to type on, though. If you have big hands, you will get very frustrated using this phone. My colleague reported that his fingers kept “pressing three keys at once.”
Unfortunately, the Veer has no on-screen software keyboard, so you’re stuck with the slide-out keyboard.
The Veer runs HP WebOS 2.1.1, which is similar to the version of WebOS we saw on the Pre 2. WebOS 2.1 basically enhances existing features in the WebOS platform. If you’re unfamiliar with the features and navigation basics of WebOS, be sure to check out our hands-on, which covers most of the basics. For the purposes of this review, I’ll be discussing only the new features in WebOS 2.1.
I’ve always been a huge fan of WebOS’s elegant way of handling multitasking. The OS uses a deck-of-cards visualization: You can view each of your open applications at once, shuffle them any way you choose, and then discard the ones you want to close by flipping them upward.
WebOS 2.1 brings a new element to the table: Stacks. In Stacks, WebOS 2.1 takes the card visual to the next level by grouping related apps into stacks. If you have two different Web pages open from the same site, for example, WebOS will stack them together rather than placing them as separate cards on your screen.
Another neat feature, called Just Type, lets you search, start an e-mail, update your status, and more without having to launch an app. Just Type is an enhancement built on top of the preexisting Universal Search feature. For instance, I wanted to update my Twitter status about the Veer, so I started typing “I have a…” This caused a list of options to pop up: the dialer, Google, and two new sections called Launch & Search and Quick Actions. Under Launch & Search, I picked Twitter from the list and updated my status with “I have a Veer 4G in house!” Easy. The Quick Actions section lists actions such as New Memo, New Calendar Event, and New Task. It is a really clever way to rapidly get something done on your Veer without having to mess with opening apps or menus.
Also new is something Palm calls Exhibition: When you dock your WebOS phone, it will be able to display widgetlike information apps for your calendar, Facebook, and other items. We didn’t have a Touchstone in house to test this feature, unfortunately.
WebOS 2.1 adds support for Adobe Flash Plugin 10.1, so you can finally play Flash games, watch Flash videos, and view other Flash content on the Veer. The browser features other HTML 5 enhancements, too, such as geolocation support.
Web pages loaded up quickly both over Wi-Fi and over AT&T’s network. The browser handled just about every site I threw at it.
My biggest gripe about the Web browsing isn’t really about the browser itself—it’s about the Veer’s display size. Reading text on such a small screen simply isn’t ideal, and scrolling through long pages of text and pictures can get a bit frustrating.
When the Veer debuted in February, it didn’t have the “4G” label attached to it. A lot of debate surrounds usage of the term “4G.” Without getting too technical here, the important thing that AT&T customers need to know is that if your phone has 4G attached to it, you’re going to be stuck on a more-expensive 4G plan. According to AT&T and Palm’s spec sheets, the Veer’s network specs are HSDPA Category 10 (for downloads) and HSUPA Category 6 (for uploads), which offer theoretical peak throughputs of 14.4 mbps and 5.76 mbps, respectively.
We were unable to test the Veer’s upload and download speeds, unfortunately, as no FCC-approved Speedtest app is available in the HP App Catalog (we use the Ookla Speedtest app to test Android phones and to conduct all of our 4G testing).
Powered by the second-generation Qualcomm Snapdragon 800MHz processor, the Veer might seem dated compared with the dual-core smartphones we’ve seen this year. I was pleasantly surprised by the Veer’s performance, however. It was only when I had an excessive number of apps open that the Veer started to slow down.
Call quality over AT&T’s 3G network in San Francisco was pretty good. To test voice service on the Veer, I made a few calls standing on a busy street corner in the city. One colleague reported that I had “radio voice,” meaning that my voice sounded a bit thin and distant, but he said he could hear me fine overall. Voices sounded good on my end, as well, and I experienced no dropped calls or static during my tests.
We didn’t get a chance to perform formal battery testing, but the Veer held up during a full day of use. In my previous experience with WebOS devices, it was clear that the more apps you had open, the faster the battery would run out. WebOS’s multitasking system makes it pretty easy to manage what you have open, but it’s a good idea to keep an eye on things.
The tiny Veer packs in a solid 5-megapixel camera, but unfortunately it does not have a flash. Photos that I took indoors with good lighting looked quite nice, with sharp details and natural color. Photos taken outdoors on a bright, sunny day in San Francisco also seemed very good. But photos taken in a dark restaurant at nighttime appeared murky and blurry without the flash.
Video capture wasn’t so impressive. My video clips had a lot of distortion and pixelation, and motion stuttered in a few shots. The Veer has an on-board video-trimming tool, which is incredibly simple to use (you simply drag and drop where you want your video to start and end).
It is really hard to say who HP has tailored the Veer for. Its petite, pocketable size, as well as its QWERTY keyboard, suggests that it is meant for a younger, social-networking-savvy crowd. The robust multitasking, account syncing, and search tools, however, would be suitable for business users.
In the end, the design really isn’t for everybody; people who want to watch a lot of videos or play graphics-intensive games should either wait for the Pre 3 or check out the iPhone 4 or an Android phone on AT&T. If the Veer’s small size appeals to you, be sure to spend some quality hands-on time with the phone first. The keyboard really is a pain to use, and with no software keyboard alternative, you’re stuck with it.
[Ginny Mies is an associate editor for PCWorld.]