HP is the latest PC maker to jump into tablets, and in entering the market, it has immediately become the latest tablet maker to land under Apple's shadow.
The HP TouchPad is the first tablet based on the WebOS mobile operating system, which HP acquired when it purchased Palm a year ago. But although WebOS shows some flashes of finger-friendly brilliance (it seems far better suited for a tablet than for the small screen of a phone), the TouchPad suffers from cumbersome design, performance lags and a poor app selection.
The Wi-Fi TouchPad comes in two versions at launch, with 16GB and 32GB models, both with price tags that put them on a par with the iPad 2.
Had the TouchPad shipped a year ago, soon after the first generation Apple iPad, it might not have felt so behind the curve. But at this point it seems to be playing catchup, despite the fact that it has several distinguishing features. Chief among them are the immersive meshing of contacts from multiple web services and sources, the ability to print, Touchstone inductive charging, and touch-to-share (a web, phone and messaging transfer capability that will eventually work with the HP Veer and the upcoming HP Palm Pre smartphones).
TouchPad: Physical design
The HP TouchPad has a 9.7-inch IPS touchscreen display, with 18-bit colour and 1024-by-768-pixel resolution. Though it matches the iPad 2 in offering IPS and that particular resolution, Apple's tablet has 24-bit colour. Android tablets with 10.1-inch screens have a higher resolution (1280 by 800), but Android renders in 16-bit colour.
Encased in glossy piano black plastic with rounded edges, the TouchPad has a less appealing look and feel than competing tablets do, including those that have plastic edges and backings. The TouchPad's plastic backing makes it very easy for the tablet to slide around, and the surface accumulates fingerprints very quickly (more rapidly than I recall the similarly designed Apple iPhone 3GS getting covered in fingerprints, to be honest).
The TouchPad weighs 1.61 pounds, about the same as the heaviest Android tablets we've seen, and very slightly heavier than the iPad 2. It's also a smidgen more than a half-inch thick, matching the thickest of the Androids and the first-gen iPad, but two tenths of an inch chunkier than the 0.33-inch iPad 2.
Overall the design strives for minimalism. It has just one button, a flat oval centred beneath the display that returns you to the home screen, and just one port, a MicroUSB connector on the bottom (both positions assume portrait mode). The port works for charging, as well as for transferring data to the device from your PC. The included wall charger is compact, and as with Apple's iPad, you use the USB sync cable to connect with the AC adapter.
The only other controls are the prominent, pleasingly contoured volume rocker (at the right side in portrait mode or the top in landscape), the power/wake button (top right in portrait), and the headphone jack (top left in portrait). Also positioned for use in portrait mode is the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video chat, which is centred above the display. Unlike the vast majority of competing tablets, the TouchPad lacks a rear-facing camera for still photo and video capture.
In contrast, the stereo speakers are optimally located for use in landscape orientation. They're positioned out the bottom, and designed to maximise the audio by vibrating against the plastic backing. The audio sounded terrific with my test tracks, the best I've heard on a tablet so far. I can't say that the inclusion of Beats Audio made any difference though, as my tracks sounded the same whether that feature was enabled or disabled.
A slow start
Inside, the TouchPad has a 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. But its performance was anything but snappy: The tablet lagged behind my expectations in more operations than not. The one area it did keep up was in touch typing, as my fingers flew over the onscreen keyboard.
In my tests, the TouchPad felt slow from the initial boot up. Out of the box, it took 1 minute, 50 seconds before the HP logo yielded to the first setup screen.
In the clear but multistep setup process, you start by choosing the language: English (US, Canadian, UK or Irish), French, German or Spanish. Next, the setup drops you into Wi-Fi setup. You then agree to the HP terms of service, and set up an HP WebOS account (assuming that you don't have one already as a previous Palm Pre or Pixi owner) for backup and data restoration (including apps, settings and accounts) and HP services. Finally, you can name your device, a handy bit of customisation that's nice to see up front.
The thing is, setup felt as if it took more effort than starting up a tablet should require. Even this early in the process, WebOS distinguishes itself with clear language and big, colour coded buttons, but it also continues the slow response trend, introducing the spinning circle.
The sluggish performance was enough of a concern to me that I tried a second TouchPad to make sure that the problem wasn't isolated to the unit I had. But the second TouchPad fared little better: The spinning circle and pulsating app icons (two indicators that the tablet is busy loading something) became very familiar to me as I opened new apps and files, and loaded web pages.
Even scrolling through items (such as the list of zillions of Wi-Fi networks in the neighbourhood) and flicking left or right among open items looked jerky, not smooth.
I found that the TouchPad had a frequent tendency to get a bit toasty at the back too, not warm enough to start roasting marshmallows, but noticeably heated.
The battery life didn't impress, either: In our continuous video playback test, the battery drained in just 5 hours 25 minutes, nearly half the time the Android 3.1-based Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 lasted, but about the same as the Acer Iconia Tab A500, Asus Eee Pad Transformer and T-Mobile G-Slate.
WebOS on TouchPad: Designed for multitasking
The important thing to remember about the TouchPad is that WebOS, in many ways, is different from Apple's iOS and Google's Android 3.1. At the heart of WebOS's approach are the Just Type search bar (present on every home screen) and the concept of "activity cards" to represent each open item.
Just Type ties into WebOS's Synergy approach to aggregating contacts, calendar items and other personal data from multiple services.
Simply by entering those accounts, you can find someone. In my tests for example, the TouchPad loaded profile pictures, so when I searched on a friend listed only in my Facebook profile, her info came right up in a Just Type search. Just Type can search across the web and across different services, as well. Adding services is simple: Many accounts, including Gmail and Yahoo are preconfigured, and the menu designs are clean and straightforward.
The activity card metaphor works well for navigating open items, be they web pages, individual email messages or apps, although newcomers may be confused about how to open cards, fan them out and stack them. To move among cards, you simply swipe along the left-right axis. You tap a card to open it full screen, tap and hold to select a card and drag it somewhere else, or tap and slide up to dismiss it. To move out of a card to another one, you swipe up from just beyond the bottom bezel to minimise the card and return to the home screen.
I like this arrangement, the centred design makes it easy to navigate, as well as to group together similar things from different apps (such as a map that shows a restaurant location, plus the open email message that confirms the time for the lunch meeting). You can also group together multiple web pages on a single topic. Some apps, such as the Facebook app, have a menu option that lets you open an additional activity card, so you can have several pages open at once.
HP hasn't indicated a theoretical maximum for the number of activity cards that users can have open simultaneously. At one point, however, when I had numerous cards open, the TouchPad suddenly rebooted, and afterward it had no open cards at all. I couldn't tell whether that occurred because I overtaxed the tablet, or because some other issue cropped up.
The TouchPad has lots of other interface niceties built in. A quick tap in the top right corner reveals the settings shortcuts. This is extremely handy, and one of the best tablet interface tweaks I've seen, rivalling those of Android 3.1.
With that simple tap, a menu pops down to show the date, the percentage of battery life remaining, the brightness control, Wi-Fi, VPN and Bluetooth connectivity, the airplane mode setting, the rotation lock and the audio mute. The rotation-lock button became important for me, since the TouchPad grew easily confused and was sensitive to shifts in angle. Once it even flipped rotation with no provocation.
Directly to the left of the status popdown are notifications, which you can flick through one by one. This unique approach is especially useful for scanning inbound text messages and email.
Another design point done well is the nicely thought out keyboard design. With a dedicated number row at the top and conveniently situated buttons for "@" and ".com," this keyboard ranks among the most usable and touch-typist-friendly I've seen (not counting custom Android keyboards on some tablets). My only gripe with the keyboard is the lack of popup letters, or a larger halo effect around the letter keys to indicate which one I pressed.
Yet one more thing that HP got right: printing. The TouchPad is the first tablet to make printing directly from the device viable and simple, if you have an HP wireless printer. I tried this function out on the HP Envy 100 e-All-in-One printer, and it worked smoothly.
From an app that supports printing, you just select the printer icon or choose the print command from the drop-down, select the wireless printer, and go through the built-in print driver options, including the choice of black or colour ink for text, and different sizes for photos (on the picture I tried, it let me pick between 4 by 6 and 5 by 7). I printed a photo (a bit darker than it ought to be, but this was on plain paper), a document and a web page, and the feature worked as billed.
Even the app navigation is fairly straightforward. On the dock, five apps: Web, Mail, Calendar, Messaging and Photos & Videos, come preconfigured, but you can put in any apps you wish. The only fixed icon there is a cleanly designed up arrow that takes you to the Launcher.
In the Launcher you'll find just four tabs, for apps, downloads (meaning downloaded apps), favourites and settings. The pre-installed apps include Maps (powered by Microsoft's Bing Maps), Contacts, YouTube, Adobe Reader, the music player and a Memos app (which I never got working).
WebOS offers a lot to like on the TouchPad: I found both the design and the navigation to be intuitive. But it suffers from a lot of rough patches and bugs, too, including graphical hiccups and organisational frustrations in the Photos & Videos app, web page display issues in the browser and fuzzy photo and text rendering.
Add in the fact that the pre-installed version of Quickoffice will support only reading Microsoft Office and Google Docs files, not editing them (editing is due "mid summer"), and the fact that you can't download files from the web directly to the device, and the TouchPad clearly has some drawbacks. Sure, being able to edit a document in Google Docs on my laptop, and then see the document appear and refresh on the tablet, was cool. At launch, however, the TouchPad's usability feels highly limited.
Part of the limitation lies in the dearth of available apps, a familiar complaint for anyone who may have considered the first Android 3.0 tablet (the Motorola Xoom) or the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook. For all of the potential that WebOS certainly has for being a viable tablet OS, HP faces the same app availability challenges that RIM and even Google face.
At launch, HP says, the TouchPad will have at least 300 apps, a far cry from Apple's 100,000+ apps for iPad, but about comparable to the number of Honeycomb-specific apps on Google's Android Market. Nonetheless, a perusal of the App Catalog, as HP calls its app marketplace, reveals even fewer big ticket, eye-catching apps than Android 3.0/3.1 Honeycomb has.
Many of the issues I've encountered--the performance problems, the bad Web-page handling, the poor text and graphics rendering, and perhaps even the off-base colors--may be addressable via software fixes in the future. Only HP's developers know the extent to which software updates can address the TouchPad's disappointments. Before today's launch, HP said that it had an update planned for a few weeks out, and that the update takes care of reported issues related to performance, autocorrection, device rotation, messaging, email rendering, and Web browsing. The company is also working with Skype to optimize performance.
I'll be keeping an eye on HP's over-the-air updates, and if the company addresses some of the launch issues, I'll update this review accordingly. Until then, the TouchPad will be a tough sell in comparison with Apple's dominant iPad 2, and even with the nearest Android rivals. Great-sounding audio output, a clean interface design, and the ability to print will not alone sell the TouchPad.