Enrico Dall and Meghan Short contributed to this review.

Hardware

From the Palm Pre’s debut on June 6th 2009, to the ignominious non-release of the HP Pre 3, the “polished river-stone” design of flagship webOS phones has been controversial. The vacillation between criticism and praise has been astounding. The design has been lauded for its understated class, and derided for its ability to cut cheese, yes, really. The HP Pre 3 is the final chance for the form factor to silence its critics. Whether it does so, is a question the mass market will never have a chance to answer. Fortunately, we were lucky enough to get our hands on an AT&T branded Pre 3. After spending a few days with the device, one truth has become clear: Unequivocally, this is the best hardware webOS has ever run on. Unfortunately, that isn’t saying much.

Enough about what isn’t though, what exactly do we have here with the HP Pre 3?

Hardware: Getting Bigger, Getting Better

The Pre 3 feels lovely to hold. The whole phone, excluding the sheet of chemically hardened glass that covers the front is soft to the touch. It’s plastic, to be sure, but never feels plasticy. This lends the device  a premium feel that the original Pre lacked. The phone has no straight lines. Even the screen has a very subtle convex curve to it. This helps the phone feel extremely ergonomic in the hand, and slide in and out of the pocket naturally. Let’s just say, in the best way possible, that it won’t add much bulge to your jeans.

The outside rim of the phone contains the power button, ringer switch, 3.5 mm headphone jack, and volume rocker. The buttons and switches are all chrome. At first, I was put off by the shine on an otherwise understated design, but I grew to like them. The three switches announce themselves to your fingers because of the different feel of the chrome as opposed to the soft touch material. On the rear, there is the recessed lens of the 5MP camera, an LED, one noise cancelling microphone, a chrome embossed HP logo, a silk-screened AT&T logo, and a speaker for conference calling/Pandora.

The Pre 3 slides vertically to reveal a full qwerty keyboard. It is comparable in quality to the slide-out keyboard on the Blackberry Torch, but is out-classed by the Blackberry Bold, which is the best portrait keyboard on the market. The keys themselves are a soft plastic. They click satisfyingly, and have good travel. The keyboard, seeing as this is a larger phone than any in the Pre family, is the largest, most spacious, and the only genuinely comfortable keyboard that HP/Palm has produced.

Screen: Well, hello there

The 3.6 inch WVGA LCD is nothing short of a dream come true for a user coming from another webOS device.  WVGA resolution (480×800) at that screen size gives the Pre 3 a 260ppi ratio. In other words, the screen is exceedingly comfortable to read on. The Pre 3 comfortably compares in eyes-on quality to iPhone screens, and the lauded Super Amoled screens Samsung produces. That isn’t to say that those other screens aren’t actually better. It’s just that the Pre 3, with its quiet spec sheet, has a surprisingly competitive screen.

Sunlight, to consumers eternal rage, is normally a bane to any sort of productivity on a smartphone. Happily, this isn’t quite true with the Pre 3. When turned to high brightness the phone is usable in the great outdoors. However, the high brightness will take its toll on your battery.

The actual screen size on the Pre 3 strikes a nice balance. It’s slightly larger than the iPhone’s screen but clocks in much lower than some of the 4.3” (and getting bigger,) monsters that are becoming the norm in high spec Android/WP7 devices. It’s certainly miles ahead of the rest of the Pre series which clocked in at 3.1”. So the best way to put it might be this, if you are coming from another webOS device, this screen will blow your mind. If not, the Pre 3’s screen is certainly up to par.

Speakers, Jacks and Mics: Can you hear me now?

The loudspeaker on the back of the Pre 3 is the best I have ever heard on a smartphone. It is even better than the strange, slide out speaker on the HTC Surround. It’s so loud, and so crisp sounding that it leads me to believe that the Pre 3 was actually slated to be branded with Beats Audio a la the Touchpad and HP’s various Beats computers. This crisp sound translates to great performance when using headphones through the phones 3.5mm jack. If Beats truly was included in the Pre 3′s development, then obviously, the branding would have been axed as HTC secured the exclusive rights to Beats Audio on mobile devices two months ago. Industry movements aside, we do have conjectural ideas as to why we surmise Beats engineers had a hand in the Pre 3′s development.

Bear in mind that these tests are far from scientific. We are merely comparing the Pre 3 against devices that do and do not have Beats Audio, and against Beats Audio’s various claims of improving aural performance. All tests are performed with one set of high quality headphones, Ultrasone HFI-580′s. The devices tested were the HP Pre 3 (non-Beats,) an HTC EVO Shift (non-Beats,) an HP Touchpad (Beats,) and an HP Envy 14, 2010 model, (Beats.) Beats Audio claims to do a few things on the hardware side, but for brevities sake they all combine to do one thing: To keep the audio signal as pristine, full, and powerful as possible from the digital sound processor, to the jack, to your ears. If that sounds like marketing speak, it is, but it also provides an excellent benchmark to test against.

The results were not muddled in the case of the Pre 3. In a test against HP’s own Beats branded Touchpad, the Pre 3 played back at both a higher volume, and with a more rich full sound. The song we chose to test was Diddy’s Coming Home for its varied vocals, piano samples, and deep bass. The chords on the piano had a full enveloping sound that surprisingly outclassed the larger, better-specced device. The case of the Pre 3 against the EVO Shift was even more stark. The HTC device, while keeping up in volume, failed to deliver any effective bass, and mid-level tones sounded a bit harsh. This simply isn’t the case when listening to the Pre 3. Predictably, the full size, and high-end Envy 14 outclassed the Pre 3. Even at 40% volume the Envy 14 had a notably more full sound throughout the soundscape. While it’s impossible to determine for sure whether or not the Pre 3 was designed with Beats Audio in mind, it is indisputable that the phone’s audio performance, by speaker, or headphones, is incredibly good.

The speaker used for phone calls is competent. Voices had little, if any, pop or hiss. While it’s difficult to quantify what an excellent phone call should sound like, know that the Pre 3 delivers an earpiece that isn’t a nuisance. The Pre 3 has dual microphones, one noise-cancelling on the rear, and the traditional microphone on the bottom lip of the slider. In our three weeks using the device, no one has complained about volume, or clarity. Again, this is territory where excellent is difficult to define, and competence goes unnoticed.

Camera: Aperture Science

If you have used any webOS phone that isn’t the Pre 3, you know that the camera modules on those devices are trash. The Pre 3 kicks it up a notch to ‘passable’ by industry standards. The camera is five megapixels, auto-focus enabled (another first for webOS devices,) and the software supports tap-to-focus. There is an LED flash that will destroy skin tones if ever used. Pictures are crisp, and generally look good, but the camera is not good at color reproduction. Notably, red roses turned out purple in a Pre 3 picture.  The auto-focus is a great addition, and finally (seriously,) enables webOS users to read QR codes. It is not issue free though. Sometimes the auto-focus has difficulty deciding exactly what to focus on, and we were forced to try to snap a picture when the camera fluctuated to the focus we were looking for. That said, tap-to-focus can help to alleviate this, but a problem inherent to the feature, the tapping, will move the phone and throw off the camera’s aim.

Videos, recorded at an admirable 720p, produce similar results. Color reproduction actually seems to be better in videos. The resolution looks great on the Pre 3′s WVGA screen, but the auto-focus sensor still has trouble settling itself on a target. The microphones also do an admirable job of clearly picking up sound from roughly six feet away, anything farther than that is pushing the limit. Basically, the video recording will work in a pinch, but a dedicated video device would obviously be more reliable.

Battery: Of Tests

For battery tests, we will evaluate the merits of the phone on strictly real-world, every day use terms. Each of these tests assumes a few things already: There are three email accounts (Live, Yahoo, and Gmail) syncing to the device every twenty minutes, data (through AT&T’s HSPA+ network) is always running, Facebook is pulling notifications from one account every thirty minutes, and GPS is always on. This is a glimpse at battery performance on three separate days of real-world usage. This is essentially, how the Pre 3 handles being a daily driver.

Day 1: The Pre 3 comes off of the charger at 2:15PM with a 67% charge. The phone absorbed ten minutes of cellular calls. The phone navigated a 30 minute drive through Bing Maps while constantly polling for real-time GPS location. SMS messaging saw heavy usage. Returning home at 6PM, the battery had 35% of its’ life remaining. The phone bore light SMS messaging until 1130PM, when it was returned to the charger with 12% remaining. The screen brightness remained at 100% throughout the day.

Day 2: At 9:30 AM the phone was removed from the charger at full charge. Throughout the day it was taxed with heavy internet browsing, with as many as five sites open at once. For a half-hour the phone streamed Pandora over HSPA+, and played it through the 3.5mm jack. The day included a high volume of SMS messaging as well. Returning home and to the charger at 4PM the Pre 3 had 40% of its’ battery life remaining. Again, the phone was used at 100% brightness.

Day 3: At 11AM the phone had a full charge. With Bluetooth on, the phone mirrored a smattering of SMS messages and calls to an HP Touchpad. The Bluetooth was shut off at 3PM with 75% of the battery’s charge remaining. The phone saw light browsing, SMS/MMS messaging, and Twitter checking until 11PM, when it was returned to the plug at a 10% charge. Brightness was at 40%.

 

 

Software: The Lament of webOS

Dead or alive, webOS is still a top-tier piece of software. The ‘cards’ metaphor that the entire operating system is built around is still among the most functional and easily the most fun way to interact with a computer, bar none. Over the years though, caveats to those claims have begun to crop up. That remains true on webOS 2.2 on the Pre 3, and in some cases it’s more true than ever.

Because of the virtual non-release of the phone, a portion of the already extremely limited selection of apps on the HP App Catalog are simply unavailable on the Pre 3. This isn’t a complicated problem to solve. Literally, all they would need to do is notify HP that their apps are compatible with the Pre 3, and mark them as such. That’s all it would take for the missing apps to show up in the Pre 3′s app catalog. While the actual app selection is poor, users will have their basic bases covered. All of the standard social networking sites are well represented, and the selection of games is ample. A good anecdote of what you will almost be certainly missing are apps for your bank, your school, or event-centric apps that are becoming a new trend.

The app situation is worsened on the Pre 3 by one of the phone’s biggest strengths. Because of the higher resolution of the Pre 3′s screen, most apps do not display correctly. There is a 38 pixel bar of black about the size of webOS’s notification window, on apps that have not been re-written to support the new resolution. While this sounds like a huge annoyance, we didn’t often notice it in every day usage. Should it be fixed? Absolutely, and to my knowledge, it’s a relatively easy fix for developers to make. However, this short coming is not a deal breaker. It should be said, that all of the standard HP apps like run at the correct resolution.

What could be a deal breaker for some is the complete lack of a software keyboard. It is rather annoying to use the phone in landscape and have to switch to portrait, slide out the keyboard, and finally type into a text field. While the physical keyboard is excellent to use, the utter lack of options is one of the largest holes in webOS. It seems a rather strange omission, as the virtual keyboard on the Touchpad is regarded as one of the best in use.

The Email app, while excelling at syncing any email account I could throw at it, does not support threaded messaging. Anyone familiar with Gmail will feel this failure as a punch in the gut. The convenience of threaded messaging, (supported in Android, Windows Phone 7, and iOS,) is undeniable.

The Messaging app is a dream though. It supports SMS, MMS, Gtalk, Yahoo Messenger, Skype (with video through the front-facing camera,) and even AIM. Further, through webOS’s excellent Synergy system a conversation with one contact will be threaded through different messaging services. For example, if you are on Gchat in class, you can switch to SMS seamlessly without losing your history or place in the conversation. Messaging becomes even more convenient if you have one of those fire sale Touchpads laying around. The Pre 3 will pair with the tablet over Bluetooth. Through this connection, the phone will forward phone and Skype calls to the tablet, along with SMS and MMS messages. In this fashion, it’s more than possible to leave the phone on a charger and vegetate on the couch with the Touchpad and stay social in nearly any way.

Final Words:

With clear examples of the operating system’s simple failures and flashes of brilliance, this is a good place to reflect. With the Pre 3, and webOS 2.2 HP had made a device that was worthy of competing on today’s marketplace. That can’t be said of any other webOS device, except for, maybe, the original Pre in June of 2009. Obviously, the Pre 3 won’t see the light of day. They have settled around two-hundred dollars for the AT&T branded, HSPA+ enabled version of the phone. A price that will invite collectors, and the sufficiently affluent curious. For webOS fans, the Pre 3 is a glimpse at what could have been. For the larger market, it’s the death knell of the first big name casualty of the smartphone race. Tragic, and telling of the industry’s enormous competition and pressures that promising software like this is what is left behind.