HP Pre 3

The HP Pre 3 is the latest in a line of similarly-styled handsets from the now defunct Palm division of HP. Each model has improved the original's excellent design and tweaked both the hardware quality and the way the operating system works too. There has also been a significant improvement in both battery and processor performance.

When HP bought Palm in April 2010 there was much excitement. Could this be a new era of investment and opportunity for the much-loved PDA company? Sadly, it seems not, as HP recently announced that it was shutting down production of both the Pre 3 and the only-recently launched Touchpad.

So this review comes to you at an interesting time. It's certainly going to be possible for you to get a Pre 3 from one of several suppliers. HP had announced that it would sell the phone at a loss for just £50, but as we're writing this there have been virtually no retailers actually offering the handset at this price. It is, however, possible to get it on a pretty cheap monthly tariff via Carphone Warehouse or buying it direct from online retailers.

So, the question has to be, if you can find one for a good price, should you invest in a phone that will have no successor and an operating system that is very likely on the decline.

Design

Originally announced around the time the iPhone was starting to make waves, the Palm Pre was always a lovely looking device. With a pebble aesthetic, it offered a small size along with a beautiful big screen and a full QWERTY keyboard which slid out from the bottom of the handset.

In early versions, this mechanism was clumsy and flawed. To get the slider to work smoothly, and not get caught half-way out, you needed to press the middle of the screen and use your thumb to slide the screen upward. This was fine if the phone was locked, but if it wasn't then you would end up messing things up in the quest to access the keyboard. Happily, HP's Pre 3 has fixed this entiely. The phone now has a smooth, beautiful action that works wherever you press and push. This means you can flip it out using the space at the bottom of the screen.

Also gone are the horrible, sharp, edges of the original that surrounded the keyboard tray. These were very unpleasant, and it was one thing that made the original Pre (and indeed, the Pre 2) feel cheap in comparison with rivals from Android manufacturers, and of course Apple's high-end iPhone.

Around the outside edge of the phone there is a USB socket for charging and data transfer, a screen lock button on the top-right corner of the phone, a silent mode slider and a 3.5mm headphone jack. On the left-hand side, there are two volume buttons too, which we found impossible to locate and operate during a call.

On the back there's a tricky cover which snaps off to reveal the battery and SIM card socket. You can remove the battery if you want, and HP has made this really easy indeed, providing a pull chord that lifts the battery out of its home. Very well thought-out indeed. There is also the option of getting the Touchstone which allows you to charge the Pre 3 without wires. Handy if you are used to dumping your phone on your desk. 

Keyboard

The Pre 3's keyboard is a contentious issue. Some people like it, and enjoy typing on it, and some people find it too small to use comfortably. However, when you learn the trick to using this phone's keyboard it's actually one of the nicest we've ever used on any phone. It's raised keys make it easy to locate the key you're looking for, and the rubber material means that you can dig a fingernail in to get some traction as you type.

We suspect that the Blackberry keyboard allows for faster typing long-term, but for a enjoyable process we actually think the Pre can't be beaten. We judge it this way: if a phone with a QWERTY keyboard makes you want to email more, on the move, then it's surely a success. And that's the case with the Pre. We found ourselves replying to more email, and in more detail, than we would on a touchscreen handset. The Pre is then, a success in its main field, which is as a rival to Blackberry's multitude of very capable business handsets.

We like the logic behind the keyboard too. There are 36 keys on the Pre 3. Mostly, these are letters with only backspace, return, full stop, space, shift, alt and sym taking up any other space. The alt button switches letters to a either numbers or symbols while the 'sym' button brings up a touch panel on-screen which gives more obscure offerings. There even emoticons included, in case you can't be bothered to type them in.

Interestingly, there's no on-screen keyboard. So if you want to type without the keyboard being extended, you're bang out of luck.

Screen

When it comes to the eye-phone interface, HP has got it licked. The screen on the Pre is an impressive 480 x 800 resolution squeezed into a 3.58-inch area. This means that text is crystal clear and incredibly easy to read. Web pages, in particular look incredible with massive detail. We even found browsing the Internet to be one of the best mobile experiences we've had.

The screen also has the advantage that it has been mounted as close to the surface of the phone as possible. This gives it a feeling of high-technology. It's easy to forget it's just an LCD screen, and assume it's some sort of surface projection from a brand new type of technology.

The touchscreen is responsive too. WebOS users will know how important gestures are in this OS, and they only work on a nice sensitive screen. Flicking around cards, or apps as most people call them, is super-fast and amazingly smooth. To get rid of an app, you just swipe up from the bottom of the screen, and it flies off never to be seen again. All of this works with at least as much style and finesse as the iPhone.

And like the iPhone will have in iOS5, deleting things or dismissing notifications is just a matter of swiping to the right. It's logical, and works brilliantly.

The camera

The Pre can shoot video at resolutions of 720p and the 5 megapixel camera produces some very nice photographs. On the built-in screen, images look stunning, and happily when you email them to friends, they still look great too.

What's more, the Pre's camera app is incredible simple. There aren't a lot of customisable options, so it's really just a matter of pointing and shooting. You can turn the flash off or switch to video mode, but that's about it.

Even better though, the camera has the little to no lag. Press the shutter button, and the photo gets taken straight away. This is a much more important feature than an array of idiotic picture modes, and we have to applaud HP for spending the time getting this phone to work as it should.

In many ways, the camera app is a good example of what's good and bad about the whole phone. It's simple, and works smoothly and as you'd expect. The problem is, it's not got much room for growth, and keen users will struggle to get the control they desire. Deep stuff.

Notifications and multi-tasking

It's worth mentioning the HP notification system too, because it's a mixed bag. On the one hand, information about incoming mail, tweets and social media updates all appear at the bottom of the screen as a little icon. This works well, as you can see everything that's happening.

The problem with notifications is that they generally aren't updated on a push basis. This means that they only arrive when the application polls the server. This is far from a major issue, but email junkies will want their notifications to appear as soon as the mail hits the server, and it's not our experience that the Pre can deliver this.

The thing we really like about notifications is that there's real consistency with how they are presented. On Android, apps can provide notifications in seemingly very random ways. The dropdown bar on those phones can often become a mess of things you're being told about. And with iOS 4 the iPhone system is horrible, popping up messages in the middle of the screen is very unsophisticated compared to the HP WebOS system. The good news for Apple fans is that notifications are soon going to get a lot better.

The other strength of WebOS is that it does multi-tasking properly. And by properly, we mean the way most people expect it to work. In Android, apps run much like they do in a Linux environment. This means that closing an app doesn't necessarily close it. Google's apps, on Android for example don't close when you switch out of them. On WebOS it's handled slightly differently. Apps can be closed by the user and when they are closed they really are closed. It's more like a PC or Mac really, where you are in charge of what is open and closed.

Lag and running out of memory

And there's one clear reason that the company has done this. Memory. The phone has just 512Mb of RAM. That means that having too much open at once can cause real problems. So much so that if you have too many "cards" or applications open, the phone will moan at you, and demand you get rid of some open apps.

This happens quite inconsistently though, so you can't really plan to only have a certain amount open at any one time. This is a minor issue though, as for the most part the phone is quite good at managing its limited memory.

Another infrequent, but annoying, problem is that of lag. We notice that web pages with Flash embedded were a particular source of trouble for the plucky Pre 3. Several times the phone just locked up, and took several minutes before allowing us to close anything. This slowdown, once started seemed hard to reverse too. In the end, when the handset gets like this, you need to consider restarting it. It's also worth pointing out that restarting the Pre 3 takes longer than the creation of the entire universe. We have no idea what the phone is doing during boot, but we can only assume it's really difficult.

Email is excellent

The Pre excels when it comes to email, although it doesn't have as many service provider options as Android seems to. If you're a Hotmail user, then you'll also have to jump through hoops to get that service to deliver email to your phone. Unlike other handsets, there don't seem to be many pre-loaded presets for other mail providers.

On the plus side, Gmail works out of the box, and you can have multiple accounts too. We use both personal and Google Apps accounts, so this is very helpful indeed. You can also add Exchange accounts which makes it ideal for those in corporate environments. Yahoo mail is also provided for, which is nice, although makes us wonder why Hotmail isn't offered the same luxury.

The unified inbox works well too, as you'd hope, and is far better than any we've seen on Android. The one feature missing is the ability to exclude an account from this combined inbox. This isn't a major pain, but it's a feature coming to the 7.5 update of Windows Phone 7, and it makes a nice change. 

Like other smartphones, there's the ability to sync contacts, calendars and mail. We found this system elegant, and the way the Pre handles your calendar is unique too. Although the layout is quite compact, the company has managed to extract a lot of mileage from it, and your complicated calendar is greatly simplified by the Pre 3.

Apps

It would be remiss of us not to mention apps here, so allow us to explain the situation. There aren't any. There aren't likely to be any and the few there are either cost a lot of money, or just aren't that good.

The disgracefully named 'Spaz' is a must-have, purely because it appears to be the platform's only Twitter client. It's an okay piece of software that has several quirks. It is, however, better in every way than the official Twitter Android client, so that's good news.

Other than that, a few games and a pretty decent Facebook app you won't feel the need to fire up the app catalogue all that often. With HP withdrawing all its WebOS devices, we'd wager app support will get even worse from now on, unless another company licences the OS for its phones.

By far the best option for owners, or potential owners, of this phone is to buy it and assume that it's feature complete. We often call the Pre a feature phone, rather than a smartphone, which is a little mean. In fact,  apps really only supplement functionality missing from the device, it could be argued that the Pre does everything most people need, so what's the point of an app store, but try telling that to an iPhone or Android user. 

Music and media

It's fair to say that most people won't be buying this handset for music or video. Its storage capacity is really sub-standard at 8GB. The biggest let-down is that there's no external storage option. You can't simply add a 16GB microSD card to increase storage capacity, because there's no mircoSD card slot.

And, with a normally configured phone, with a few apps and some photos taken on the built-in camera, we only had around 6GB of usable storage. This isn't anywhere near enough for most music-loving smartphone owners. 

Copying files over USB is quick though, and it's hassle-free. When you plug the phone in, it asks you if you'd like to switch to USB mode, or simply charge the phone. In USB mode, the phone shows up as an external drive, like any other USB storage device. The problem is, when it's in this mode, you can't make or receive calls or text messages. In fact, all you can do is copy files, and look at a USB logo. 

Once you've got music on the phone though, it does sound pretty good. There's no EQ settings, but the default sound is pretty flat, which means you'll pretty much hear the music as it was recorded. The only problem with that is, MP3s are often sub-standard quality. We listened to some Jennifer Lopez (it's best you don't ask) and it had a good range, although it was a little too bright without much low-end. The mid-range was fine though, but nothing much to write home about.

Verdict

There's no point pretending that the HP Pre 3 is a contender in the smartphone arena. Apple and Google have that sewn up with worth contributors in the form of BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7. What the Pre 3, and WebOS can offer is one of the simplest, most beautifully designed user interfaces, a nice likable keyboard and for the first time, reasonable battery life.

If you buy the Pre accepting that it's got little or no real developer support, the apps are pretty much universally rubbish and you'll end up using the phone pretty much in the state it came out of the box, then you'll relax and start to enjoy the handset a lot more.

For phone calls, email and text messaging it's just about the best all-rounder we've used. Social network applications cover Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter, which, for the time being, is good enough. There are a smattering of games and apps in the App Catalogue, but we found ourselves not really caring all that much. This isn't a phone designed at gamers, it's a phone aimed at business users who want something with terrific email support and that works well as a phone and don't want to be just another BlackBerry user.

It's hard to really moan about much on the Pre, as long as you walk into buying one with your eyes open. We've used ours instead of an Android handset, and the honest truth is we don't actually miss the dozens of apps we had installed. Obviously, a time will come when we do, but for most use, the Pre has it all.

So it's with a tinge of sadness that we conclude that this worthy, pleasant little phone will be the last of its kind. HP has absorbed Palm for its patents rather than for its products, and that means a good opeating system is probably going to die a death.

Get one while you can, even if its just for posterity.

The Palm Pre 3 was kindly loaned to us by Handtec.co.uk