HP's Jon Rubenstein told us that his company wanted to veer in a new direction, and veer it surely did -- the HP Veer 4G will arguably be the smallest fully-functional smartphone on the market when it goes on sale May 15th. In a nutshell, it's a Palm Pixi Plus in the guise of a Pre, only in a delightfully downsized package with webOS 2.1 and thoroughly modern functionality. What does it feel like to Just Type on its tiny keyboard or throw app cards across its itsy-bitsy 2.6-inch screen? How is it as a pocketable HSPA+ hotspot, and will that extra G decimate its miniscule 910mAh battery? These are the questions that drove us when playing with the Veer 4G this week, and you'll find the answers shortly after the break.
When first we saw the HP Veer, it was a miniature Pre 2 in most every appreciable way -- deep black coatings, soft-touch plastics and buttons in all the same places. AT&T's new white version, however, looks and feels like a jumbo chicken egg. It's still cute as a button and that hinge still slides shut with a superbly satisfying snap, but the ultra thin, lightly textured white plastic shell is a little bit creaky and cheap. (Note: the soft-touch black model will also be available.) We found it a little uncomfortable to hold flat against our palms for this very reason, actually, but the fingertip grip is risky too -- like the aforementioned egg, the Veer is relatively easy to drop, and we don't suspect that Humpty will take kindly to many falls. At the same time, we're not at all worried about the screen -- it's covered with a nice big piece of curved Gorilla Glass, and it takes a substantial, weighty press between thumb and forefinger to make any kind of impression on the liquid crystals underneath. There's a little speaker on top, and Palm's gesture area (with LED landing strip indicator) on the bottom.
Circling the phone's edge clockwise, you'll find the volume lock and power button flanking the top right corner -- both solid, metallic, and easy to find and actuate by touch alone, and three-quarters of the way up the right edge, there is Palm's proprietary magnetic charge / sync port. This requires a special USB cable to use, unfortunately, though you do get that fancy MagSafe effect, and the port does double duty by hosting the included headphone adapter -- because there's no dedicated 3.5mm headphone jack. It's a chore to carry around an easily misplaced little nicknack like the adapter, but it does work here, and the magnets are strong enough to hold up the Veer by your headphone cables (not that we recommend anything of the sort). It's also a little annoying the way the software pauses your music whenever you connect or disconnect the adapter since it seems wholly arbitrary -- when you attach it, the phone rapidly transfers from speaker to headphones, then puts a sudden halt to the tune three seconds later. There's nothing on the phone's bottom edge, but you'll find a well-built silvery volume rocker on the left side, a lanyard loop at the upper-left-hand corner, and a five megapixel EDoF camera and speaker around back.
Slide open that slick little hinge with your thumb and it'll snap into place before long, revealing a tiny backlit QWERTY keyboard with roots buried deep in the genealogy of Palm. The Treo 600 all but finalized the layout in 2003, the curved rows arrived with the Treo 650 in 2004, and 2007's Palm Centro ushered in the transparent, jelly-like buttons that the Pre and Pixi are now famous for. In short, you'll be right at home here if you're a Palm junkie, but if not, learning could be a chore. The keys are small and set quite close together, which makes it easy to press more than one at once, and unlike the portrait keyboards on most BlackBerrys, there's barely room for two thumbs. That said, the small size and low weight makes the Veer fairly well suited for single-handed text entry, and it makes sense if your missives are short -- flick open the phone, respond and deftly flick it closed, all with a single thumb. The challenge is keeping a firm grip on the keyboard end of the tiny device while doing so, to avoid flicking it onto the floor.
Small definitely has its advantages, though. There's something to be said for dropping a phone in a pants pocket and barely feeling a bulge.
Display / audio / connectivity
The miniature design is hit and miss, and we could say the same about other hardware characteristics too -- the Veer's screen, for instance, gets bright enough to occasionally use outdoors, but the colors wash out a tad when angled, and while apps and UI elements designed to run natively at the Pixi-matching 320 x 400 resolution looked crisp, zoomed-out websites, card stacks and a few games (particularly Angry Birds) showed loads of jagged edges. The actual capacitive digitizer is responsive to a fault, which makes tossing around cards a breeze, but we found that we could accidentally trigger a variety of actions with stray fingertips, if we didn't make sure to grip the tiny device well away from the screen.
The Veer's speaker is as small as you'd expect, at least judging from the grille around back, but we were actually pleasantly surprised with its capabilities. It's not suited for serious listening or a portable party, but it handles the occasional tune quite nicely -- you can fit a little over 6GB of them here -- and it's plenty loud, just the opposite of the Palm Pixi. Good stuff.
Call quality and reception were fairly average for AT&T in San Francisco, with a few interesting quirks -- despite its size, the Veer has a pair of mics for active noise cancellation, and they work moderately well, drowning out light car engine noise, and a variety of background disturbances. Likely because of its size, however, those mics don't drown out one important distraction when the Veer is closed: since the speaker and mic are so close together when the keyboard isn't extended, we found the person on the other end of the line could sometimes hear themselves. Data speeds were fairly reasonable though -- we averaged around 2Mbps downloads and 1Mbps uploads with three bars of service, and topped out at 5Mbps down in a particularly generous (and rare) five-bar coverage zone. We wouldn't be terribly comfortable calling those 4G, but they are in line with what we've seen from the Atrix and Infuse in the same zones, and whether on our handset or a laptop (via the Veer's mobile hotspot) it made for quick page loads. We also didn't have much trouble getting a GPS lock.
We've said our piece on EDoF (Extended Depth of Field) smartphone cameras, and the 5 megapixel imager in the Veer is definitely one of them -- in short, everything's in focus, everything looks practically flat as a pancake, and you can't take macro shots, just like with the Pre and Pre 2. Not only that, the sensor isn't terribly good -- it snaps passable pictures in daylight, though the exposure compensation is pretty aggressive and makes it difficult to take well-lit shots, and in darker environs, well... it's grainy as all get-out.
We kind of wish the Veer had a nice hardware camera button for single-handed photos of opportunity -- responsiveness aside, it's one of the few things we liked about the similarly-sized Kin One -- as the software button and keyboard shortcuts aren't terribly convenient for a single hand, and can jar the camera when you press down. But who are we kidding here? There's no excuse for a social phone without a good camera to begin with. Why not trade a couple of those megapixels for a better sensor, HP? The Sidekick 4G retails for the same $100 price on contract, but comes with a wonderful little 3 megapixel autofocus module.
webOS and performance
Of course, the Veer is more than just a tiny phone -- it represents the first real push for webOS 2.0. We dedicated over 2,000 words last year to how intuitive and functional the operating system is, and we won't repeat all of them here, but suffice it to say that the Veer blazes because everything you can do is simply a swipe or two away.
If you're unfamiliar with webOS, it works a little something like this: every app and settings page is represented by a virtual playing card, and your phone is the deck. Swipe open the app drawer and select an app, and it will launch in a little card-shaped window. Swipe down to make it appear full screen, swipe up to minimize again. Add another, and the second will appear as another card next to it -- instant, intuitive multitasking. Repeat as many times as you'd like (we had 48 cards open at once and apps still worked fine, though they took additional time to load), then swipe them all the way up to the top of the screen, one by one, to deal them into the ether and free up system resources.
Say you've got related tasks -- perhaps you're planning a date? Stack your Yelp restaurant recommendation card, Google Maps location card, and your date's contact information card in a miniature "hand" -- and when your date texts you that they'll be late, you can swipe up the unobtrusive notification that appears in the lower-right-hand corner to view it, swipe it aside to dismiss it (or tap to reply) and continue with your plans. Slide out that keyboard on the homescreen and press a single key, and Palm's Just Type universal search engine will compare your entry against your contacts, email and a host of custom search engines quite rapidly, and slide further down the screen and you'll find buttons to immediately make your text input into a new memo, email, task, SMS, calendar event or social network status. Oh, and copy / paste shortcuts don't require any long presses here, just one finger on the gesture area and a tap of the appropriate letter.
What's astounding is that -- except for some occasional hiccups and apps that take a moment to load -- all of this happens as quickly as your finger moves. That's how seamless this UI is, and it makes the mini Veer look mighty powerful. Truth be told, there is some potent silicon underneath -- the same 800MHz Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM7230 you'll find in the likes of the T-Mobile G2 -- and 512MB of RAM, but we've used "faster" Android devices that didn't feel nearly this fluid.
In fact, we almost wonder if the MSM7230 might be overkill here, at least without some additional throttling when it's not under load -- we enjoyed its power in a variety of apps, but it can suck down battery juice. You'll want to charge the battery nightly just as you would for most larger smartphones.
Just because everything you can do is speedy doesn't mean everything you want to do is there. The Veer comes with a fairly decent set of the basic necessities that make a smartphone smart, and it can get Google Maps, Facebook, YouTube, Pandora, Evernote, Yelp, a couple of emulators and Twitter clients, the aforementioned Angry Birds and our own Engadget app. Generally speaking, however, the webOS App Catalog is downright sparse and you don't even get the full enchilada here, as not all webOS apps are compatible with the Veer. We found we could scroll through entire categories of apps without finding things that caught our eye, and it was usually just a couple of minutes before we reached the bottom of a list, often no richer for the experience. Our Google calendar, contacts and Gmail were easily added, and while push email worked great -- after we found the manual switch to have it update in real time -- conversations still aren't threaded, which can really make reading a chore. Oh, and... not that there'd be any room for it here... there's still no software keyboard.
What are you looking for in a smartphone? Is it a tiny handset that turns heads? The Veer is no Zoolander phone, but it'll fill the bill if fashion is your prerogative (especially the black one) and do far more than that one-inch StarTAC. If you're looking for a capable multimedia or productivity device, you can probably tell this isn't the one -- the Veer's scaled-down screen and keyboard aren't well suited for browsing the web or interfacing with mobile software for long durations. No, the Veer is a quick, at-a-glance reference handset for keeping tabs on your world, and at present, it appeals to a user who knows what they want before they whip out their phone.
The streamlined, swipe-based nature of webOS is what makes the Veer's tiny screen and keyboard actually somewhat viable, as while you may only be able to see a little piece of a webpage or a few status updates at a time, webOS cuts out enough of the scut work between point A and B for you to get where you're going. The question is -- with a $100 on-contract price -- whether you'd really want to purchase a Veer when the larger, faster, more capable Pre 2 can easily be found on Verizon for less money.
There is one more use case where the Veer makes sense, and that's with an HP TouchPad tablet alongside. Then, HP likes to imagine, you'd have your large screen for serious work, your small screen for portability, Touch to Share for a rudimentary take on the Continuous Client, and the Veer's HSPA+ hotspot serving up speedy WiFi. Everything in perfect harmony, right? It's definitely a compelling idea, and one we plan to test when the TouchPad actually comes out, but for now the Veer is a single tiny smartphone charging the Apple / Google beachhead... albeit one modestly well-armed.