Review: HP Pre3 105
out of 10
The HP Pre3. The best webOS smartphone that never was.
Inside this review...
Back on February 9, 2011, HP unveiled two devices that got two different groups of people worked up with anticipation. There was the HP Veer, which nobody was really excited about; the HP TouchPad, which the media was selling tickets to a knock-out fight against the iPad; and the HP Pre3, which was the flagship smartphone the webOS faithful had been waiting for all these years. The Veer came out and nobody cared, the TouchPad arrived and it disappointed so badly that HP cancelled webOS hardware development outright.
That left the Pre3 in the awkward position of being barely available. Just two days before HP canned webOS devices, the Pre3 had become available in unlocked form in Europe, with precisely zero carrier support. The cancellation was crushing to North American webOS fans that had been eagerly waiting for the Pre3 for months, especially since we had already seen the device running on both Verizon and AT&T.
When it was unveiled, the Pre3 was state-of-the art. The single-core 1.4GHz processor that beat inside its body was more powerful than anything else on the market, and it packed what should have been a more-than-adequate 512MB of RAM and the option of 8GB or 16GB for storage. The screen measured 3.6-inches with a resolution of 480x800, a marked improvement over the 3.1-inch 230x480 screens of the Palm Pre, Pre Plus, and Pre 2. It was thinner, finally packed an autofocus camera, and the CDMA variant was even due to be a globe-trotting world phone.
The above was written in the past tense for a reason – the vast majority of webOS fans are likely to never get their hands on a Pre3, since the device has been all but cancelled. We were able to import a QWERTY Pre3 from the UK (the Palm Eurostore sold only the French-keyed AZERTY version) and have spend the better part of two weeks putting the phone through its paces. We came away impressed, and disappointed (in more ways than one) at the best webOS phone you’ll never get to use.
Dimensionally, the Pre3 is a hair less than a millimeter thinner than the preceding Pre phones, while at the same time being taller, wider, and heavier. It certainly feels bigger in the hand and in the pocket, but it doesn’t feel heavier (for the record, the weight difference between the Pre 2 and Pre3 is 11 grams/0.39 ounces). If the Pre phones before it were inspired by river stones, then the Pre3 must have been left in the river for an extra few decades. The curves are smoother and longer, to the point of making the original Pre almost feel and look boxy in comparison. The result is a phone that fits more easily into both hand and pocket, but is actually a bit more difficult to get a good grip on.
The Pre3’s front is faced by an almost entirely uninterrupted sheet of glass, with only a small slit for the phone speaker and a barely visible dot for the front-facing camera breaking the flow. The soft-touch frame curves in towards the glass, forming a slightly lip around the glass. As with all previous webOS devices, the Pre3 is spartan and understated in appearance. It’s not sexy by any means, but somehow it’s still attractive despite being exceedingly plain. Phones don’t need to be physically exciting, do they?
A single-piece dark chrome volume rocker is on the left side. The top houses (from left to right) a 3.5 mm headset jack, ringer switch, and power button. The power button actually wraps around the top right corner, making it fairly easy to reach.
An unadorned and uncovered Micro USB slot is centered on the right side.
The smooth one-piece back is coated in the same soft touch finish as the front, with a bright chrome HP logo sitting in the center.
A 5 megapixel autofocus camera and single LED flash are at the top left, with a tiny slit for the noise-cancelling microphone centered at the top.
A wide but short grille for the speakerphone sits at the bottom. It’s barely perceptible due to its placement along the slider seam, but there’s a small gap at the bottom of the phone to expose the primary microphone.
Sliding open the Pre3 reveals two things: a mirror on the back (like the Veer, it’s blessedly almost entirely without bend, making it actually useful for more than signaling search-and-rescue aircraft) and the largest physical webOS keyboard we’ve had the pleasure of using. The seam edges of the sliding halves are a little less sharp than the older webOS phones, but you’re still unlikely to be pressing against them with any part of your body, unless you have the hands of a third grader.
The sliding mechanism seems to be fairly solid and has exhibited marginally insignificant “oreo” wobble (less than a millimeter). It snaps open quietly, with a sping-action kicking in to take it the final third of the distance. Similarly, the slider pushes itself the final third when closing, though it does snap shut with a rather satisfying clack (it reminds us of our old flip phones, though without the satisfaction of actually hanging up the phone call).
Though it doesn’t appear to be so outwardly, the entire back of the Pre3 is removable to get at the battery and SIM card slot. The removal process is much like with its Pre-series predecessors, except that you start by slipping a fingernail into the microphone slit, and then work your way around to undo the two clips at the bottom and one at each side. There’s a clip at the top to hold the back, but once you’ve got the sides unhooked the back just falls off.
Under the battery cover is just as clean as the outside. There’s a flat slab of a battery (rated at 1230 mAh – previous Pre phones shipped with 1150 mAh batteries) with a horizontal SIM slot above it. With the back off you can see the tiny holes for both microphones and a secondary interior grill for what looks like a surprisingly small speaker underneath (about half the surface area of the Pre – Pre 2). Also exposed are the actual buttons for the power button and volume rocker; the chrome bits are integrate with the back cover and push down on little black squares on the phone body itself. If you look at the exposed back of the Pre3 in the right light, you can make out the lines of the printed radio antennas underneath precisely-place black stickers around the back.
Borrowing from the Pixi-series, the Pre3 finally does away with the nearly dead-center Touchstone back contact points (the back is standard with the Pre3), instead moving them to the side. New here is that there are four connection points – two for the inductive Touchstone charging, and two for triggering Tap-to-Share with a TouchPad. Those four points are mirror on the back itself, with a covered ribbon leading to a big black rectangle under which the Touchstone and communication coils reside. The back actually adds a surprising amount of thickness to the phone – without the back it’s 14.5 mm (0.57 inches) thick, while with it measures 16 mm (0.63 inches).
Not that we’re complaining, but by current standards the Pre3 is on the rather chunky side. Of course, it’s handicapped to a degree by being a smaller-screened (by modern standards) slider phone, but when we’re seeing 4.5-inch phones clocking in at less than 10 mm thick, we have to wonder if there wasn’t any space for HP to do some additional trimming.
All around, the Pre3 is about as understated as a phone can be. It lacks the super gloss of the original Pre and Pre plus, the defined corner between the screen and body and the less-matte button ring of the Pre 2, and even the fancy connector and speaker grill from the Veer. But yet, it’s still quite attractive. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something to be said for the sheer simplicity of the design. In fact, the simplicity is part of the allure – by being so minimalist the Pre3 succeeds in hiding its functionality well, and just observing it on a desk it almost seems more like what a conceptual ideal smartphone might look like instead of one that’s designed to stand out on a carrier store shelf.
The Pre3’s screen is hands-down the best screen to ever display webOS. Seriously, it’s worlds above and beyond all previous webOS devices. At 480x800, it packs 2.5 times more pixels than the Pre 2, while clocking in with a ppi of 260, so close to the magical 300 ppi “retina” threshold that we couldn’t even tell a difference between the Pre3 and iPhone 4 screens as far as pixel count was concerned. For comparison’s sake, the Pre – Pre 2 had 186 ppi screens, while the Pixi and Veer have 195 ppi screens.
Color reproduction with on Pre3 screen is incredibly accurate, with images popping with saturation, but not unnaturally so. Viewing angles are fantastic – there’s marginal black brightening at about sixty degrees off-center (that’s just thanks to the nature of polarized LCD panels), but apart from that the screen is perfectly viewable all the way to horizontal. Brightness-wise, the Pre3 is quite bright even at its minimum setting, but not as blindingly bright as a Pre 2 at full blast. Sunlight viewing is acceptable, but you might find that darker pages/images wash out under direct sunlight.
All-in-all, the Pre3’s screen, despite being an old-fashioned LCD, has quality on par with the latest AMOLED screens from the likes of Samsung, while matching the iPhone 4 for perceived pixel density (yes, it’s lower, but the phone has to be less than four inches from your eyes to see the pixels). It’s a great screen, better than anything else ever seen in the realm of webOS.
Touch sensitivity on the screen and the gesture area below it was on par with what we’d expect. Any and all taps and swipes were promptly recognized, so long as webOS was up to the challenge. The indicator light on the Pre3 has been upgraded from the triple-LED light of the previous phones to a bright smoothly graded series of lights that are difficult to count. They still pulse the same way and react to swipes in the same manner as before, but do so with a touch more polish.
The whole front of the Pre3 is faced by a continuous panel of chemically-hardened Gorilla Glass. Considering the trouble we had to go through to import this phone (seriously, we had to file paperwork with the FCC), we’re not going to give it any kind of scratch testing, but it’s worth noting that the durability of Gorilla Glass has been proven on millions of other smartphones. It’s a given that it’ll stand up well to just about anything but a direct impact.
Like the Veer, the Pre3’s glass features a subtle convex curve. It’s not quite as drastic as the curve of the Pre and Pre Plus, but it’s definitely there. The curve in this case is only from top-to-bottom (the Veer also curved off to the sides) and results in half a millimeter of deflection at best. It’s nothing we noticed when using the device or comparing usage to flat-screened phones, which makes us wonder why it was done at all, if just to continue the curves.
What’s more noticeable is the beveled edge around the edge of the glass and the speaker slit. The curling of the edge is really only evident in reflections, but once you see it you can’t stop seeing it. It’s nothing that had to be done – the Veer’s glass goes straight to the edge and meets almost seamlessly with the body – but we can’t help but like it. Like the curve of the glass, the rounded edge was entirely unnecessary, but it gives the Pre3 a touch of class in comparison to its slab rivals. Plus it reminds us of the original Pre (in a good way). The curved edge does give a noticeable corner to the soft-touch body that surrounds the screen and creates a tiny trench around the glass that surprisingly collected very little lint during stays in pants pockets.
We’ve already covered how great the Pre3’s screen is – best on a webOS phone to date, remember? Well, we can say the same for the keyboard. Like every other webOS phone, it’s a portrait style keyboard, sliding out from below the screen like every Pre and Veer before it. Seeing as the Pre3 is the largest webOS phone we’ve seen, we reasonably expected it to have the largest keyboard, and blessedly it does. In fact, the Pre3’s keyboard is an entire column wider than the Pre-series. To put numbers to that, the original Pre’s keyboard is 50.5 mm wide, while the Pre3 is 53.5 mm across. It’s a small difference on paper, but it results in keys with nearly 40% more surface area. Those with big thumbs will still find it cramped, but that’s the sacrifice you have to make for a portrait slider.
The layout and design of the keyboard is yet another evolution of the keyboard style that we can trace all the way back to the old Palm Centro, and we’d wager that this is the best iteration yet. It’s certainly better than the Pre-serious, especially the original Pre. Travel distance is minimal (less than a millimeter), but is met with a satisfying tactile and audible click with each press. Click probably isn’t the right word, as it’s somewhat gummy sounding without feeling gummy. The keys are still glossy, and still brightly backlit. HP’s continued with tying keyboard brightness to screen brightness, and despite the homebrew patch having been around for over a year, still hasn’t switched to the more logical inverse brightness scheme.
webOS 2.2 on the Pre3 still does not have a virtual keyboard, which means you’re still required to be in portrait orientation with the keyboard out to complete text entry. Well, technically you don’t have to be in portrait orientation – the screen still rotates with the keyboard extended, but you go ahead and try any serious typing with the keyboard sideways.
The camera on the Pre3 is the best camera we’ve ever seen on a webOS device. Noticing a trend here? Best screen, best keyboard, and now best camera. There’s something to be said for better specs resulting in a better experience. Of course, to say that the Pre3’s camera is better than the camera on the Pre 2 or Veer is pretty faint praise. Why? Because every other webOS phone came with a camera that was utter crap.
We’re a bit finicky when it comes to camera quality, and we’ve never been happy with the Extended Depth of Field digital enhancement/butchering trickery used on older webOS phones, and that’s because it never resulted in quality shots. Sure, they usually looked alright on the Pre’s small screen, but as soon as you looked at the picture on a computer screen (or Thor forbid, printed), the quality degraded to the point of wanting to gouge one’s eyes out. There’s no substitute for a proper lens, quality sensor, and actual physical focusing.
Thankfully, the Pre3 has improved on at least two of those three counts. The lens has been raised to be flush with the back, which while adding to the clean look also makes it exposed to fingerprints and scratching. Any time we went to take a test photo with the Pre3, we were sure to give the camera lens a quick wipe on a sleeve or pant leg to take care of the inevitable fingerprints. At least the lens isn’t raised and even more exposed like it is on some other devices (hey there, HTC and Samsung).
The Pre3 is also the first webOS device to have an autofocus camera, and we have to say it’s about damn time. We’ve been lusting after an autofocus camera in a webOS phone since day one (remember that the iPhone 3GS with its autofocus camera launched just before the original EDoF-packing Pre?), and we’ve finally got it. The verdict? Not bad, but not great either. Focusing range is from about four inches to infinity, which is certainly better than the 18-inch minimum for the older EDoF sensors.
Focusing from minimum to maximum range takes about half a second, which isn’t bad – the second-long delay, however, can be a little infuriating. The camera also sometimes has trouble adjusting focus when already focused on a background and the moved onto a foreground subject. The camera does also support tap-to-focus, just tap a point on the screen and the crosshairs will move there and the camera will attempt to focus on that point.
Once you’ve moved the focus point and the camera has found focus, you have five seconds to take a picture before the camera redirects its focusing attention to the center of the screen. Here’s hoping you’ve already got your photo composed when you do that. The autofocus does make a quiet ratcheting click noise as it runs through its steps. It’s loud enough that those with sensitive hearing will notice it in quiet environments, but once you get outside where there might be country breezes or urban noise, you’re not going to be able to hear it. Inside taking a picture of your dog in a compromising position, however, it’ll bother you every time.
While some might bemoan the lack of “pop” to the Pre3’s pictures, it’s actual about as accurate of color reproduction as one can get. We take photos to capture the reality of something – if you want to screw around with the saturation of the photo, there are apps for that (even on webOS). The Pre3 has just a five megapixel sensor in a time where quality eight megapixel cameras on smartphones are fast becoming reality. But the truth of the matter is, with a camera phone it usually won’t matter. It’s rare that you’ll take a picture worthy of printing even with the best camera phone, so all that’s going to matter is how good it looks on the phone’s screen and on the screens of the devices your friends will be using to view the photos (i.e. other smartphones, tablets, and desktops). The vast majority of the time, the photo resolution is going to far outstrip the monitor resolution.
It’s worth noting that you’ll always get the best photos in bright lighting conditions. Once you start getting into subdued lighting or even darkness you’ll see image quality drop rapidly, and that dinky single LED flash isn’t going to help more than a single bit (not that two of this same LED would be any better – it’s just not that bright to start with). The darker your subject with the Pre3, the worse the image noise is going to be (and the harder a time it’s going to have getting a good focus).
Speed with the Pre3 camera is actually pretty good, once you’ve got a focus point you can capture an image about once a second with the on-screen controls, but you’ll have to deal with the camera wanting to check its focus each time. Hold down the space key and it’ll capture an image every half second for ten seconds before it starts to stutter with buffering the processing of several images at once. Of course, there’s no focus adjustment when capturing images this quickly, but if you’re doing two photos a second, chances are your subject’s not going to be moving in and out of your focus plane a lot.
The Pre3 is the first webOS phone to shoot HD video, clocking in at 720p (1280x720). That’s with a camera with the same full resolution as the 5 megapixel shooter in the Pre 2, but with an admittedly better sensor and autofocus. Except that autofocus doesn’t matter when taking videos, as the camera defaults to maximum range focus. There is no option for on-the-fly focusing or focusing at a distance of your choosing. Granted, focusing on a subject several feet away is how most people will record video with their phone, but to not have the option is irritating.
While the video recording may not allow for focus adjustment, it does feature one thing that we’ve yet to see on any other smartphone: video stabilization. There’s a new button in the video recording interface: a little crossed-out hand. Tap it and a second later the recording interface returns, ready to smooth out your video with the assist of the accelerometer (we’re assuming it works by actually using more pixels to record the video, allowing the phone to pick offset frames to compensate for the accelerometer-detected bumps).
The effect isn’t that noticeable until you record the same video twice, once with stabilization off and the other with it on. Check out the simple video of walking down the path below to see the difference. The stabilization isn’t dramatic, but it works well enough to smooth out some of the jitters inherent in moving video capture.
What they haven’t managed to smooth out is the “jello” wobble (oreo, jello… maybe there’s something to techies and food comparisons?) that comes with moving the camera too quickly from side to side.
That’s because, like practically every other camera phone on market (iPhone included), the Pre3’s camera doesn’t capture a complete frame every 25th of a second, because doing so would require more processing power and bandwidth than the phone can handle, so you get a bit of a wobble effect if you try too much running or panning with the phone. So don’t do that if you want decent video. Of course, you have to deal with the video you’re given, and the Pre3 doesn’t exactly excel in this department. While photos are pretty accurate (if unexciting) representations of real life, videos seem to be pretty dulled in comparison.
After using a Veer, there was one area I was expecting disappointment in the video recording department, but instead ended up pleased. Both the Veer and Pre3 have front facing microphones for calls and rear microphones to assist with noise cancellation. The two work pretty well in that regard, but the Veer frustratingly did not switch to the rear camera when recording video. Thankfully, the Pre3 does, though we can’t quite confirm or deny if there’s any pickup from the front/bottom microphone (if there is, it’s quiet enough that if heard by the front it’ll be picked up by the rear). On the subject of sound, it’s still enormously annoying that webOS doesn’t mute system sounds when you start recording a video. Nothing ruins a video like the ding of an email.
All of this has focused on the Pre3’s rear camera. It’s a pretty decent shooter, and while nothing to write home about (unless you’re a webOS fan), it also doesn’t deserve to be pitched into Mordor like the cameras on every other webOS phone. But there’s another camera – a tiny VGA sensor on the front that you can use for Skype video chat and nothing else. It really is nothing to write home about – the picture isn’t fantastic, but it’s better than nothing (though it’s a little confusing that the notification comes in portrait mode and the video is only in landscape).
Video calls are handled like any other phone call, you get a ringer just like it’s a phone call (except it’s coming through as Skype), and then a second ringer-like prompt to switch or deny video. Once you’re in video chat, the phone goes sideways, with a little image of your feed in the bottom left and your caller’s video filling up the rest of the screen. Tapping will make mute audio and kill video buttons appear, as well as a big red end call button. Confusingly, even though you’re chatting with the front camera (there’s no option to use the rear), Skype would switch to the rear microphone, which is a little annoying if you happen to be cupping the phone with your hand.
As webOS is a multitasking beast, you can actually go to card view and use other apps while continuing to stream out your video for chatting (you, of course, won’t be able to see the other end’s video until you switch back to the phone app). There’s also the issue with the Skype chat only being in landscape, while most of the apps you’ll use on the Pre3 are going to be in portrait mode (see: physical keyboard). Implementation of multitasking video chat isn’t quite perfect, going into card view temporarily halts the video chat before resuming, which (at least on the Skype client for Mac) required the other end to restart their video broadcasting when we returned to the app.
There’s one glaring problem we had with Skype, though: logging into Skype from any other source, such as your computer, will log you out of Skype on the phone. And it doesn’t automatically log back in, even if you try to place a call. Instead you have to open the Accounts app (or Preferences & Accounts from the Phone app menu) and reenter your password to long in. It’s a pain in the tookus that really defeats the purpose of having a Skype log in. You could create a secondary account for use on your phone, but then you didn’t read the previous sentence about tookuses.
Also worth noting: Skype video chat is a good way to kill your battery extra fast, especially if you do it over cellular (which it does support, at least in this unlocked state). Skype over Wi-Fi actually looked good. Skype over 3G was not so good, with framerates of 2-3 per second on our end and one frame per second on the other if they were lucky.
As was noted earlier in this review, the Pre3 was state-of-the-art when announced back in February, at least as far as the processor was concerned. The 1.4GHz single-core Qualcomm chip is still blazingly fast, especially when compared to the 1GHz Pre 2 (it’s just cruel to compare with the 600MHz TI chip in the original Pre). Like the Veer, Pre 2, and Pre Plus, the Pre3 includes 512MB of RAM, which before this phone was plenty of memory.
Now we’re not so sure. Thanks to having to fill a bigger screen, handling both Enyo and Mojo frameworks at the same time, and the nature of the Qualcomm chipset, we ran into memory issues more often than we would have liked with the Pre3. The problem is that in two weeks we never received the much hated “Too Many Cards” error. Instead the phone would just bog down and lag for a minute or more while it attempted to clear space in the RAM. This was most evident in the web browser, where having three or four cards open would slow the phone to a crawl while we watched each card go to a giant gray spinner. It’s disheartening.
While the Pre3 probably could use more RAM (768MB and 1GB are becoming more and more common these days), the processor seems to be more than up to the challenge. Everything opens faster than when compared to even its next most speedy webOS brother, the Pre 2. Apps like Email and Calendar fly up into view as if they were never closed, seemingly forgetting to stop in the pulsating card view for even a second. Even PDK apps properly sized for the screen (more on that later) load faster than the lower-resolution counterparts. The only thing that didn’t happen faster was email notifications, even when both were connected to the same Wi-Fi network.
As the Pre3 used in this review was imported from the UK, we weren’t entirely optimistic about our 3G coverage chances. After all, despite being similar GSM networks, AT&T uses different bands for their HSPA than all of Europe, but there’s at least one in common: 1900MHz. At least in the cities where we test the Pre3 we were able to get good 1900MHz coverage, with download speeds usually right around 4 Mbps and uploads around 1 Mbps. The Pre3 was more willing to drop off of 3G and down to EDGE than our AT&T Veer 4G, but then again the Veer can access more of AT&T’s 3G/4G frequencies than this UK Pre3. Your mileage may vary, but by and large we received adequate coverage in our testing. Would we like to try it out on an unreleased AT&T Pre3 4G? You betcha, but those are beyond hard to come by.
Call quality while on 3G was typically extra clear, and if stuck on 2G not so much. The speaker was adequately crisp and loud, though we usually had it turned up towards the high end of the volume range. With two microphones, one on the bottom and one high on the back, the Pre3 is able to manage decent noise cancellation without being too aggressive. Even though the front-facing microphone is at the bottom of the slider, we found that callers reported no difference in voice quality with the slider open or closed. In fact, the difference in distance between the two positions was practically negligible, with the microphone just behind our mouth when closed and just ahead of it when open.
The speakerphone on the Pre3 was actually a very pleasant surprise. Located towards the bottom of the back of the phone, the speaker grille is strip some 17mm wide and 2mm tall. Once the back is off, there’s a smaller but taller grille on the body beneath, with an even smaller circular speaker (maybe 5mm across) hiding behind it. It’s a tiny speaker, especially when compared to the 8mm diaphragm on the older Pre phones.
Somehow, this tiny speaker has managed to be both surprisingly loud and clear. It’s not going to fill in for a proper stereo at a party, but for sharing videos or music with a group of friends, it’ll actually do just fine. You just have to be careful not to cover that speaker grille – just like on the Veer, HP did a fine job of sound isolation (something they apparently learned from their experience with Beats) and not a lot of sound leaks out from anywhere but where it’s meant.
The headphone jack’s placement on the curved back might give you bad memories of the original iPhone, but never fear, it’s not recessed. In fact, you might say that it sticks out too far – there’s a few millimeters of headphone contact exposed around back when you plug in. But pull the headphones out and you can see the topmost contact is there and making contact when you plug in. HP seems to have learned a few lessons from Beats here as well, as audio getting pumped out through the Pre3’s audio jack is clear and rich. There’s not even a hiss of static and both high trebles and deep basses come through beautifully. Also, this headphone jack is loud (like the speakerphone), but in a good way. We couldn’t coax any distortion out of this jack that wasn’t the fault of the headphones.
Combine the stellar audio with the fantastic screen and you find that the Pre3 is actually an incredibly capable media machine. Which is frankly a surprise, considering that all of the preceding webOS phones, including the most recently released Veer, were nothing exciting in the multimedia department.
To be honest, it’s might not be fair to judge a European phone on its battery life performance while on a US network. But we’re going to do it anyway. The Pre3 ships with a 1230 mAh battery, barely bigger than the 1150 mAh batteries packed into the older Pre- and Pixi-series phones. And yet, despite having a significantly beefier processor and a larger and more pixely screen, the Pre3 manages battery life that’s fairly respectable.
We didn’t perform any battery rundown tests, because those never reflect real life use cases. The only time you’re likely to sit down and watch an entire movie on your phone without a power cable handy is going to be on an airplane, and then you’d be turning off the radios anyway. Our average daily use – 3-6 hours off Wi-Fi, approximately an hour of web browsing, thirty minutes each on the phone, Twitter (via Carbon), and Google Reader (via Feeder), twenty text messages, fifty emails, and randomly opening other apps like Weather Channel, Calendar, and Maps as needed – resulted in the Pre3 usually being around 40% at 8PM after coming off the charger at 8AM.
As usual, your battery life will vary depending on a variety of factors, with the screen as always being the biggest drain, closely followed by cellular data. There’s not much you can do about that, except for keeping the screen brightness down and hooking up to Wi-Fi whenever possible. But even so, we found that the Pre3 outperformed our admittedly low expectations. It’s not going to win any battery life contests with this measly of a battery and power-hungry of a screen and processor, but it surprised us by doing better than we anticipated for the size of the battery.
The operating system on the Pre3 is the third iteration of webOS 2.x to hit the wild: 2.2. The Pre3 is the only phone currently running 2.2, which only contributes to the fragmenting nature of the webOS base and the updates provided by Palm and now HP. There are at least eight different publicly-available versions of webOS out there, from 1.4.0 on the Telcel Pre to 3.0.2 on the TouchPad. The Pre3 only adds to the OS versions that developers must take into account when developing their apps.
On its surface, the Pre3 doesn’t operate any differently than the Pre 2 or Veer. It is webOS, after all. The only cosmetic user-facing made for webOS 2.2 were scaling the operating system up to the larger screen and higher resolution of the Pre3. Under the hood is support for the new Qualcomm chipset, the Enyo app framework, PDK scaling, Touch-to-Share, and TouchPad pairing.
The phone app was rewritten in Enyo and to support video calling, the Camera app got tap-to-focus support, and Maps was also coded in Enyo and switched to Microsoft’s Bing Maps (more on that in a bit). Apart from those three, there aren’t any noticeable changes to any of the other built-in apps. Even the Calculator app was merely scaled up to the taller screen, even though its TouchPad equivalent received all the same function keys in a layout that doesn’t require the space bar to switch (surely we thought that layout’s extra row would make it onto the Pre3, how silly of us).
With the Pre3 we have the bigger screen, but mostly in resolution and not so much in size. Simply expanding old Mojo apps at their 186ppi sizing would have resulted in excessively small user interface elements (image all of the buttons on your Pre being 2/3 the size they are now). So HP whipped up some magical 1.5x UI elements that would allow apps to stay finger-friendly on the higher resolution screen.
There’s just one catch. The write once, run on any device nature of Mojo development shows its limitations on the Pre3. First there’s the need larger high-resolution user interface elements (especially if a developer has built an app that uses a lot of images in the interface). And then there’s the aspect ratio of the Pre3’s screen. Where the Pre had a 1x1.5 ratio screen, the Pre3’s screen is 1x1.666. Mojo apps on the Pixi scaled down just fine. But when they’re scaled up on the taller Pre3 screen, there’s a black bar 38 pixels tall across the bottom of the screen, distractingly missing the rounded corners of everything else in webOS.
Here’s what happens: Mojo apps designed for the older 320x480 screens are scaled by a factor of 1.5 on the Pre3. That gives them the proper width of 480 pixels, and expands the height to 720 pixels. That’s enough to stretch from the bottom of the top menus bar to 38 pixels from the bottom. HP’s made it easy enough for developers to fix, all they have to do is add “” to the app’s index.html (hat tip to Hedami Software for the tip) to have the app go full-height on the Pre3. But the fact that the developer actually has to do that to make the app fully take advantage of the bigger screen is just disappointing. I’m not a developer, but it seems silly that super scaling webOS Mojo can’t handle a slightly different aspect ratio without extra coding.
There’s another note on Mojo apps, since those are going to be the vast majority of the apps you run: notifications suddenly aren’t good. They still work the same way – you get an icon/banner in the notification area, a buzz or sound if the app is set to do it, and then a full-size dashboard bar for the app’s notifications. There’s just one glaring issue – after the initial banner notification (if the app supports it), the notification icon disappears. The little raised black bar of the notification area stays there, but for your Mojo apps, there’s no icon. The built in notification apps (Email, Messaging, Calendar, etc) all work fine and have their icons appear and everything.
We’re not certain if this is a problem with the scaling or not, as the only Mojo apps we were able to test notifications on were apps that hadn’t been updated to fully support the Pre3’s resolution. If you can deal with the black bar (or nagging your favorite app’s developer to add a single line of code) and missing the at-a-glance notifications, then Mojo apps will work just fine for you. That said, these issues aren’t problems you should even be facing; we can’t imagine how all of this tweaking for the larger screen couldn’t have been handled by webOS itself, so the code once, run everywhere mentality could persist. Obviously, developers could make tweaks to their apps to better support the extra pixels, but scaling should be a purely automatic affair (especially when we’re talking about a measly 38 pixels here).
It’s a small bit to harp on, but it’s this lack of attention to detail around the minor aspects of the user experience that has plagued webOS from the start. When things don’t work exactly how a user expects (or worse, is used to) them to work, they notice. It removes them from the experience of using the device without thinking about using the device. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s incredibly important in building customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.
New, at least to webOS 2.x, is support for the Enyo app framework. Enyo isn’t quite an evolution of Mojo, but it’s based on the same web languages. The difference is that it’s obsfucated under a layer of easier-to-write Enyo code. This makes it easier to learn and write if you’re up for learning a new coding language, but it also removes the whole “if you can develop for the web, you can develop for webOS” angle that Palm was pitching. Not that it was an effective pitch (though it’s a pitch Microsoft is making with Metro apps for Windows 8).
Enyo saw the light of day with the release of the TouchPad. The big-screened webOS tablet is based almost entirely around Enyo, with all of the native apps rebuilt around the new framework. Enyo’s visual style is a bit cleaner and more subdued than the dimensional Mojo, but that’s not something you notice on the TouchPad, since everything is Enyo – it’s the Mojo apps that stand out.
HP has included basic support for Enyo apps in webOS 2.2 on the Pre3. Just as with unmodified Mojo apps, there are some caveats to Enyo on the Pre3. For starters, Enyo has to be scaled up by a 1.5x factor just like Mojo (the TouchPad’s screen is 132 pixels per inch, the lowest pixel density of any webOS device, and practically half that of the Pre3). There’s also the matter of the smaller and different-sized screen of the Pre3, and the differences in APIs between webOS 2.2 and webOS 3.0.
The end result is that there are only a few Enyo apps, at least apps that are evidently so on the surface. We’ve already discussed the video-enabled Phone app, which isn’t clearly Enyo on the surface. Visually and functionally (excepting new features), it works just like its webOS 2.1 counterpart.
Maps, however, has gotten the full Enyo treatment. In a way, it looks to have been pulled off the TouchPad and made to work on the Pre3’s screen. This means that Google Maps is out and Bing Maps is in. Functionally, they work pretty much the same, with Bing having the added layer of Bird’s Eye 45° view available, but with no ability that we could discern of rotating the view like you can on the TouchPad. Where things get interesting is when you get into the options. Tapping the not-at-all-obvious-what-it-does folded map and point marker icon slides in an Enyo panel from the side that gives the option to change the map view (road, satellite, and bird’s eye), and toggle traffic.
Maps on the Pre3 has inherited every feature from its big TouchPad brother, including the option to drop and move pins, and save bookmarks. Routing instructions are by default displayed in a swipeable bar at the bottom of the screen, though you can tap a button to view them as a list should you so desire.
Inexplicably, Maps still takes forever to load, especially over a cellular connection. But the functionality improvements brought in from the Enyo version make us a little less irritated by the wait. It’s also just nice to see and use Enyo on another form factor.
Third-party Enyo apps for the Pre3 in the App Catalog are a rare sight. In fact, there are only a handful, including Instapaper client Paper Mache and Google Voice app GVoice. Where Maps is smooth like butter, GVoice and Paper Mache struggle and stutter worse than a two-year-old original Sprint Pre. It’s especially frustrating in Paper Mache, since it’s a reading app and you’ll be scrolling a lot as you read. Each swipe through an downloaded article results in a frame rate of around two per second, a frustrating experience considering the smoothness exhibited by just about every other facet of the OS, including the Enyoriffic Maps app.
There’s another problem we’ve run into with Enyo apps, and it has to do with notifications. Paper Mache was the only third-party Enyo app available on the Pre3 with notifications that we’re aware of, so we can only draw conclusions from it. But what we saw wasn’t great. Paper Mache can be set to sync from Instapaper in the background, and to give you a notification when doing so (just so you can keep tabs on what’s going on). The icon appears just as you would expect in the notification area (meaning that it does), but if you happen to tap the notification area to expand the dashboard, the space set aside for Paper Mache is displayed as a big white blank space with just the Paper Mache icon. For the record, it looks nothing like that on the TouchPad when in action.
Remember that bit when talking about Mojo apps and their notifications? Yeah, the one about attention to detail and distracting from the user experience. That applies here too.
So we have mixed bags for Mojo and Enyo apps. What about PDK? Actually, what we have is pretty reasonable. Before the Pre3, every PDK game for webOS was made for the 320x480 resolution of the Pre (and occasionally the 320x400 Pixi). Unlike with Mojo and Enyo apps, PDK apps simply aren’t designed to scale automatically. Even the iPhone 4 and iOS 4 don’t scale apps elegantly up to the higher resolution display – it merely performs a “pixel doubling” of the older app, stretching a 320x480 app up to 640x960. It’s practically seamless.
The Pre3 doesn’t have quite as many pixels as the iPhone 4, where iOS can perform a simple doubling of every pixel, webOS 2.2 on the Pre3 only has 1.5 times the pixels. So any “standard” PDK apps (Angry Birds, Need For Speed, Rednecks Vs Aliens, et al) are scaled up by a factor of 1.5x. Essentially every other pixel is doubled, so you get a game that’s excessively jagged. For apps with lots of simple high contrast stills, like Angry Birds, the jagged pixels are glaring and distracting. But it’s better than everything being scaled to blurriness. Given the situation (scaling 320 up to 480), it’s the best that could happen.
There are a handful of PDK games that have been updated or designed to support the Pre3’s higher resolution screen. That handful is at least a bit more plentiful than the Enyo apps available, counting among them Angry Birds Seasons, Quell, and Ground Effect. These games look fabulous on the Pre3’s screen and handle themselves as smoothly as any other. Quell and Ground Effect have been scaled up to fit the big screen while retaining the size of buttons, text, and the like.
Angry Birds Seasons, however, was scaled up awkwardly, with the game part of the app adapting to the bigger screen, but things like the level selector, current score, level cleared, and a few other elements are still displayed at the lower older resolution, meaning that they’re displayed at 2/3 size. It’s distracting (lost of that, it seems), but in this case it’s not the fault of HP – scaling up PDK apps to full Pre3 resolution is the job of the developer.
One of the cooler hardware features of the Pre3 is how it can pair up with an HP TouchPad. The pairing is initiated by pressing the back of the Pre3 against the center button of the TouchPad. The “communications coil” is located directly under the HP logo on the Pre3’s back. Pressing the two together triggers a giant ripple across the TouchPad’s screen and automatically pairs them over Bluetooth. The phone prompts you to allow Messaging sharing over that Bluetooth connection, you accept, and that’s it.
From there, your text messages to the Pre3 are automatically shared with the TouchPad, allowing you to easily reply to messages from either device. It’s a simple but genius arrangement. Also pretty awesome is Touch-to-Share: merely tap the phone to the TouchPad to send the URL of the currently active browser card on one device to the other over Bluetooth. It’ll work in both directions – the Pre3 can send a URL to the TouchPad, and the TouchPad can send a URL to the Pre3. A web browser needs to be the active card on either device, though you can have a browser card active on both devices and they’ll swap URLs and load them in new cards.
Disappointingly, URLs are the only thing that can be transferred, and they can only come from the web browser. If you tap the devices together with no active web browser open, you’ll get the Touch-to-Share ripple and nothing else. You can’t share photos, App Catalog listings, emails, memos, or even Map locations. It’s frustrating to have such a promising technology limited to such a confined to such a narrow use scenario. There’s an API for developers to add Touch-to-Share to their apps, but it’s only slightly more broad than the built-in option – you can send a URL from an app to the device to open a browser card. Exciting, we know.
There’s one more problem with the TouchPad pairing. When it works, it’s great. The problem is that if you take the Pre3 out of Bluetooth range with the TouchPad, the connection is lost (obviously) but is not restored when you return to range. You can tap the Pre3 and TouchPad together to reinstate the pair, do it manually via the Bluetooth menu, or by restarting the TouchPad. Strangely, restarting the Pre3 did not reconnect the devices, which makes us think that this might be a TouchPad problem (we’ve tried it with two different TouchPads, same result on both).
After two weeks with the HP Pre3, we’re left conflicted. It’s not the perfect smartphone, but it’s as close as webOS has ever gotten. It’s simple yet attractive, and there’s finally the hardware there to back up webOS. It’s the best webOS smartphone we’ve ever seen. And it’s also the best webOS smartphone most of you are never going to see.
That’s the depressing part of it. The Pre3 is likely to never be made available to 99% of the population, and even though there are plenty of webOS fans willing to jump through the flaming hoops to import one or grab one of the super rare AT&T versions off eBay for a massive premium. The Pre3 is not the most powerful smartphone on the market, nor is it the thinnest or biggest or fanciest. It doesn’t have NFC, LTE, USB host, or any number of other features.
But the Pre3 is what may be the last hurrah for webOS, and while it could have been a triumphant shout, it’s instead a whimper. It’s sad, because this is a good smartphone. Perhaps it’s even a great smartphone, but it’s never going to see any success. HP’s resigned themselves to taking a massive loss on webOS and trying to figure out how to recoup at least a portion of the billions they’ve spent by selling or licensing webOS and/or its related patents.
So we’re left here with this Pre3. It’s the epitome of the webOS smartphone – fast, gorgeous, and bridging the gap between the older phones and the TouchPad. It’s not without its flaws and annoyances, but it’s the one phone that’s finally worthy of webOS. Too bad they’re near impossible to get.