The Verizon Hub is unstuck in time. It’s a 2006 device that’s just getting here, now, in 2009, begging the question, “Is it better to be late than never?”
The Hub is a landline slayer launched in a wireless world, where the landline is almost dead. It’s a fertile garden behind a red-painted wall—red ’cause it’s Verizon, har har—found when most people are trying to break down those walls. It’s a Verizon Wireless VoIP phone coming about at a time when AT&T is killing their VoIP service entirely. It’s the phone we imagined before the iPhone, tethered to our home broadband connection for instant-pizza-ordering awesomeness. In other words, it’s a lot of interesting things, appearing in the wrong place and at the wrong time.
That’s not to say it’s bad. It’s just unfortunate. The Hub makes sense in a very specific context: If you’re a lock, stock and barrel Verizon customer, from wireless to TV to internet to, obviously, landline phone service. That’s where the “Hub” name comes in—it brings a bunch of different Verizon services together in one spot: You can monitor cellphone locations using Verizon’s Chaperone, send maps and directions from the Hub to phones running VZ Navigator, and manage a central calendar that your entire family’s phones sync to. Eventually, you’ll be able to do more, like manage your Verizon FiOS TV DVR. While a minor point, in a sense it’s a very sore point with the Hub, since you can already do that from many Verizon cellphones this very second. Why do I need a Hub again?
The garden walls reach their greatest heights when you try to text or picture message to a non-Verizon phone—you can’t. The calendar isn’t open, using a standard like CalDAV for easy export—it’s squarely in Verizonland. A surprising amount of managing the Hub actually takes place on Verizon’s website, like uploading contacts (via CSV files) and photos. Thankfully, the Hub’s pages are better designed than the rest of Verizon’s website—there’s legit eye candy in the photo gallery, for instance. And nearly anything you can do on the Hub itself, you can do from the website remotely, like manage voicemail or check your call history. But it’s odd you can’t do something very simple like upload photos via the Hub’s USB port.
It doesn’t really matter if there are walls around the garden if you’re never tempted to leave. Unfortunately, the Hub isn’t enough of an attraction. Pretty much anything you can do on it—buy movie tickets, send text messages, check traffic or watch videos, you can do faster or better on your computer or cellphone. The virtually useless selection of VCAST videos make the average YouTube video feel like HD in comparison, and the “traffic report” isn’t a map with live traffic info, but a canned audio briefing from Traffic.com that you have to sit through an ad to hear.
The Linux OS itself isn’t particularly a joy. God knows, Verizon’s committed some horrible user interface atrocities over the last few years, but at least the Hub’s is alright—usable, not mind-blowing. I wish it moved faster. The keyboard is annoying to type on, but it’ll get better in the next software update, which adjusts the spacing and adds pop-up letters. A persistent set of buttons on the left gives you constant, instant access to the two main menus: The phone and the uh, menu, where you get to your apps. In the top right corner is the home button, which takes you to the desktop, where your widgets, like for weather, time, voicemail, etc. hang out. Applications tend to have a two-pane layout that’s framed by buttons on three sides, which doesn’t sound like a problem, but it becomes one since the touchscreen is not so responsive around the edges. I’ve accidentally called two people at 3 in the morning while trying to press the menu button. Not cool.
Actually, that’s one of my more concrete frustrations with this phone: The hardware feels cheap and shitty. The handset, which costs $80 a pop, is a plastic piece of garbage with a shoddy build quality and terrible screen. (It doesn’t help that you can’t do much from the handset either, like send text messages.) The touchscreen isn’t as responsive as it should be, and it distorts with even the slightest bit of pressure, adding to the whole crappy feeling. A screen designed to be touched shouldn’t freak out when you touch it. The speakers really harsh, crappy and tinny too. I couldn’t stand using it for loudspeaker calls.
There are a few bright points. While the directory isn’t as precise as say, MenuPages, it is fairly painless to find a nearby pizza place and call them in a single stroke. The synergistic—I know, that word provokes a gag reflex—stuff works well. Directions quickly went to the Samsung Sway test phone I got with it, which promptly fired up VZ Navigator and pointed to wherever I pointed it. (Too bad VZ Navigator is slow and sucky, but that’s somewhat besides the point.) And the call quality itself is pretty good—or at least I sounded “loud and clear” to the people I called.
The brightest light may end up being the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel—the promise that developers will be able to create their own apps for this thing in the future. The included ones, for the most part, just aren’t that hot, and some of the newer ones in the pipeline are definitely more head-turning. But it’s hard to see how this product can sustain itself long enough to engender a solid third-party developer community. More likely, it’ll get slightly better, then go extinct.
It’s pretty ballsy to charge $200 for a landline phone with $35/month VoIP service right now, one that does the same thing you can do on an iPhone or G1, but is tied to your desk. Which is a lot of the reason I like it. But it’s just as ridiculous to ask that much for a phone that’s built with subpar hardware and doesn’t live up to its full potential in a world where it’s already horribly outmoded. Time was up two years ago.