This is a review of a phone that was never actually released to the public on AT&T. Despite the unfortunateness of the prior statement, we felt obligated to run this device through the wringer as a final farewell to Palm, the Pre line and webOS on consumer devices.


Man, what a weird, labyrinthine life this device has had. European carriers didn't even want the Pre 2, and for whatever reason, those folks were the only ones to even get the Pre 3. Excluding this guy, of course. This guy, as you've probably gleaned, is one of only a handful of AT&T Pre 3 handsets to make it out of the factory unscathed, and we couldn't be happier to be putting it through the paces. Well... we could be happier, but that would require Meg Whitman undoing Leo's departing shot through the webOS heart.

All that aside, it's been a strange few days with the final webOS-based phone, and in a sense, the final phone that'll ever have Palm's DNA running through its circuitry. Not even two months ago, HP was telling developers to get their Pre 3 app submissions in for approval, and a mere four weeks ago, the same company affirmed that this very phone wouldn't ever arrive on US shores. You know, despite that whole "being announced for AT&T" thing. Turns out, a few of those units actually did pass the requisite QA tests, and if you've got the right connections (or a quick enough trigger finger on eBay), you too can land yourself what'll undoubtedly go down as one of the most highly sought after pieces of Palm / webOS history. But should you? Find out after the break.
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Palm Pre 3 for AT&T hands-on and unboxing


Hardware


Remember the Pre 2? How's about the Veer 4G? If you're even remotely familiar with either, you're intimately familiar with the Pre 3. By and large, the third incarnation of the Pre is identical to the variant that came before it, save for the loss of a millimeter in the thickness department and the addition of a few with regard to height / width. The latter two, of course, were required to make room for the 3.6-inch (800 x 480) display, which is unquestionably one of the biggest improvements here compared to the unit's predecessor. Overall, however, the Pre 3 is shockingly similar to the Pre 2, and in far too many ways, the original Pre.


Shortly after Palm's comeback began on that fateful January day in 2009, we immediately began to question the Pre's ability to shine in the same way webOS could. Put simply, the software has always outclassed the hardware, and the same could be said here. The Pre 3 -- while solid in the hand, quick on its feet and soothing to the touch -- is all but totally devoid of innovation. Granted, it's not that we expected things to radically change -- after all, the Droid Incredible 2 isn't a dramatic departure from the first one -- but nothing about this hardware can be seen as immediately superior to what's already on the market.
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Palm Pre 3 for AT&T versus Veer 4G... fight!


The keyboard, for instance, is exceedingly cramped, and we found ourselves longing for a virtual counterpart on more than one occasion. The buttons themselves, though delightfully sticky, lacked any appreciable travel or impact, making the learning curve for touch typists quite steep. In fact, we found ourselves surprised at how little room we had for two thumbs -- though the Veer 4G's keyboard is markedly smaller, this one's not large enough to make a noticeable impact in comfort or precision. Palm aficionados probably won't mind, but those coming over from a BlackBerry or one of the many virtual options could easily find themselves in a displeasing situation.

It's not all bad news, though. The rounded, soft-textured back is lovely to hold, and it manages to both stick firmly whilst in-hand while sliding effortlessly out of one's pocket. It's the best of both worlds. The rear casing, however, proved to be quite the bear when time came for removal -- thankfully, you probably won't be tasked with such a thing too often after the initial SIM insertion is complete. The conventional micro-USB socket was a welcome change from the Veer's magnetic abomination, and the stock 3.5mm headphone jack was well-positioned for everyday listening. It's worth noting, however, that HP doesn't toss in any earbuds, so it's on you to provide the missing link.


Much like that of the Pre 2, the edges here are curvaceous and clean, with a solid volume rocker, mute switch and power button rounding things out. Around back, there's an absolutely lackluster 5 megapixel camera (which manages 720p movie captures), an LED flash, a chromed HP logo, a non-chromed AT&T moniker and a rear speaker for alerts and ringtones. The WVGA capacitive touchpanel is flanked by a gesture area below it, which allows folks to swipe to and fro within webOS -- again, just like the Veer 4G and Pre 2 before it.


All things considered, the Pre 3 is a joy to hold and touch, and it's equipped with a subtle flair that makes it darn near impossible to leave alone for any extended period of time. Perhaps it's the gliding mechanism that brings the keyboard to life, or maybe it's the desire to see webOS on a smartphone panel with a respectable resolution. In a way, we wish the Pre 3 were slimmer, longer and wider -- if only to provide a marginally bigger screen and a substantially larger keyboard. HP stuck to its guns here by just barely polishing the Pre 2's form factor, and in a world dominated by sleekness, churning out a third (or fourth, if you toss in the Veer) pebble while attempting to grab even a sliver of market share never did feel like the best approach.

Display / audio / connectivity

Let's go ahead and get this out of the way: the 3.6-inch WVGA touchpanel is the best display yet on a Pre. Colors pop from edge to edge, viewing angles are on par with any Super AMOLED Plus display we've seen and sharpness is superb. Granted, cramming an 800 x 480 pixel matrix onto a display this diminutive amps up the pixel density, but still -- there's no bad-mouthin' this guy. The touch sensitivity was largely on point, though we did encounter a few instances where presses were visually recognized, but didn't actually do anything. Hard to imagine that a 1.4GHz Snapdragon isn't powerful enough to manage webOS, but we definitely had to re-tap commands on a higher-than-average basis.


The gesture area beneath the panel is the same as it ever was, though we did notice a bit of insensitivity at times. We also couldn't help but longing for a button or two on each side of the middle gesture area -- sure, we're spoiled by the home, menu, search and back buttons that have become commonplace on Android handsets, but keeping up with the Joneses should probably apply to more than just lake houses and motorcars. We also found it frustrating that we couldn't activate the display with a long-press on the gesture pad; reaching for the power button is awkward at best (the location, that is), and sliding the keyboard out wasn't always preferred.


Audio-wise, the Pre 3 measured up to any other modern day smartphone in terms of ease-of-use and sound quality. Mercifully, there's a 3.5mm headphone jack right up top (hear that, Veer?), and while audiophiles won't get Cowon-like precision here, the average city commuter will be more than happy with the volume range and overall output. It's also worth pointing out that the built-in external speaker on the Pre 3 is well above average, making a quick YouTube showing a pleasant experience for all involved -- even aurally.

We had no qualms whatsoever connecting to local WiFi networks, but we can't help but point this out -- webOS should allow you to search for and connect to a network right away, before setup truly begins. Instead, you're forced to get your SIM settings situated before your phone will fully load webOS, which is completely unnecessary. Enabling a WiFi connection right off the bat would hasten that whole process, anyway. Neither here nor there at this point, but still -- seems an obvious oversight.


As for AT&T service? Solid, if you can believe it. We roamed around our usual haunts to test out both data and voice services, and the phone had no issues whatsoever with either. Snagging an HSPA+ signal was a breeze, and while pages didn't render quite as quickly in webOS as they do in Safari or on our Galaxy S II, it was brisk enough that all but the sticklers in attendance wouldn't notice. Voice quality was particularly fantastic, with the earpiece speaker being astonishingly loud while maintaining clarity and keeping distortion to a minimum. We also have to give Palm props for nailing the call design -- after months of using gargantuan Android phones, having something like this makes us remember when phones actually fit upside your head. The Pre 3 is totally anti-Sidetalkin', and if we didn't have to rely on an undersized keyboard, we'd be strangely okay with that.

Camera


The 5 megapixel camera on the rear of the Pre 3 is perhaps the most shameful part of the whole ordeal. Much like the Veer 4G, the camera here is just outright lousy. Colors are lifeless, bokeh isn't even in the dictionary and grain is impossible to avoid. It's good for capturing splotches of hues that vaguely remind you of something you did in your life -- other than that, it's totally forgettable.
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Palm Pre 3 for AT&T camera samples


As for videos? They aren't quite "terrible," as was the case with the Veer, though you could certainly do better -- even for 720p. Jelly-vision is in full effect, and while colors were admittedly more vibrant than on photos, it's still not superior (or even on par) with the competition.


webOS and performance


Our test unit shipped with webOS 2.2.0 onboard, and we're guessing HP doesn't have any future updates in the pipeline (shocker, we know). It's a single point higher than the version found on the Veer, but there really aren't any fundamental changes included. Just Type works well, the email app still doesn't support threaded messaging, Synergy is accurate (for the most part), Gmail syncs are still just as sporadic as ever, and the App Catalog is still depressingly barren. The bottom line? There's no difference when using webOS here than on the Veer, but at least it's a wee bit quicker, and we've got more pixels to work with. We're throwing intentional emphasis on the "wee," though, as a number of applications -- Maps, Messaging and Mail, in particular -- still took two to three seconds to load up each time. That's pretty poor for a phone with a 1.4GHz chip and 512MB of memory, but we're guessing the few remaining webOS engineers didn't have a whole lot of motivation to optimize things as things were winding down.
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Palm Pre 3 for AT&T screengrabs


Fact is, the Pre 3 runs webOS as good as any phone in HP's lineup, but that's just not good enough. webOS looks as beautiful as ever, but it still feels hamstrung -- even after 2.5 years -- by underpowered hardware. For as elegant as the calendar is, the built-in mail app is a terrible excuse for one, and Gmail syncs were as irregular as the '86 Dolphins. Still, the OS finally had room to stretch its legs thanks to the heightened screen resolution, and we still found the promise of webOS growing into something special as real as ever -- it's a genuine shame that the parenting was so dreadful.

As for battery life? The bolstered 1,230mAh battery (compared to 1,150mAh in the Pre 2) enabled us to get a solid day's use before needing to charge up. That's a 7:00AM unplug, plenty of texts, around an hour of voice calls, countless browsing sessions and a plethora of notifications. By 9:00PM, though, we were down to around ten percent of remaining life, so heavy users would've obviously want to keep an AC outlet within reach. 'Course, it's not like you're actually going to buy one of these and use it as your daily (right?), but there's the score regardless.

Wrap-up


The harsh reality is this: even if HP would've gone ahead with the Pre 3's launch on AT&T, moving 'em would've been tough. The company showed minimal interest in moving the TouchPad (well, until they showed nothing but interest in moving the TouchPad), and attempting to hawk a tired, understated design for an on-contract price that aligns with the iPhone 4 and a vertible plethora of tremendous Android phones would've probably led to even more tears. HP stepped it up with the Pre 3's processor and panel, but almost everything else looks like it was directly ripped from a phone that first launched over two years ago. When you're the underdog, those kind of tactics don't do anything to further your cause.

webOS 2.2, much like the pre-NoDo build of Windows Phone 7, is simply too far behind Android and iOS in too many basic aspects. No threaded email app? Unreliable syncs? A stagnant app market? Middle-of-the-road hardware options? Not exactly a fine list of accolades. But for all of its faults, the Pre 3 still wins big on charm. It's cute, it's a darling to hold, the call quality is exceptional and we never did have enough cards open for it to politely ask that we close a couple. But with no long-term dev support, company support or emotional support bundled in, it's impossible to recommend the AT&T Pre 3 to anyone outside of collectors and Palm loyalists. It'll be a tough (and expensive) endevour to find one, and even then, you're probably better off financially to just keep it sealed up in the box.


'Tis a shame, too. The Pre 3 is living proof that Palm had it in 'em, but perfect storm of misfortunes kept both the OS and the associated hardware from developing into something that could steal market share from the established leaders. And with that, the AT&T Pre 3 floats off to join the Foleo in a place where bottom lines don't matter, recessions have no reach and gadgets are appreciated for what they are -- not what they aren't.
HP

Pre 3

Pros

  • Stunning display
  • webOS is beautiful to use
  • Extraordinarily rare

Cons

  • Difficult to find
  • Not on sale to the public
  • webOS is dead
Summary

The Pre 3 is living proof that Palm had it in 'em, but with webOS all but dead, it's left to be an amazing collectible.