Hands on with the HP TouchPad

HP's TouchPad.
I spent half an hour in a meeting, using HP’s new TouchPad tablet, before someone realized I wasn’t using an iPad. That says a lot about this product—due to be released Friday—and not just in superficial ways.

Physically, yes, the TouchPad is the most iPad-like tablet I’ve seen. Like the iPad, it’s a $499 10-inch tablet with a 4:3 aspect ratio. There’s even a single hardware button on the front (it’s a rounded rectangle, not a circle), a front-facing camera, and a sleep/wake button at the top. It’s not quite an iPad 2, though: the TouchPad is thicker, and heavier. But at a glance most people wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Where the iPad has a metal back, the TouchPad is curved black plastic. There’s a mini-USB port instead of a dock connector. There are stereo speakers instead of a single mono speaker, and there’s no rear-facing camera.

HP’s playing Apple’s game

The TouchPad’s physical appearance isn’t the only evidence that HP is playing a different game from most tablet competitors. HP’s acquisition of Palm a year ago gave the company complete control over a mobile platform. Like Apple, HP controls the hardware design, the software design, and the app-development platform. While most other competitors craft hardware (and sometimes software add-ons) to house Google’s Android operating system, HP has the same level of control over its product as Apple and RIM.

The mere mention of those two companies shows you the different directions in which this sort of story can head. There’s no telling where HP’s going, but I have to say that I’m optimistic. The TouchPad is a first-generation device that’s clearly behind the iPad in a number of areas, but it’s running a thoughtfully designed operating system (webOS) that has a lot of potential, both on smartphones and tablets. I don’t know if the TouchPad will take the world by storm—after all, no other non-Apple tablet has to this point. But I’m not sure that the TouchPad needs to do all that. If it can just give HP and webOS some momentum, it has the potential to eventually be the iPad’s most serious rival to date.

What’s good about the TouchPad

From the beginning, many observers of smartphones have considered webOS to be a promising operating system hamstrung by limited phone hardware. With the TouchPad, webOS gets a chance to shine—and a lot of it is up to the challenge.

In general, I like the webOS interface. It’s similar to iOS and Android, yes, but it has some personality of its own. It’s a tasteful design, and it’s easy to use—my daughter figured it out in about a minute, if that.

I’m also intrigued by the fact that most webOS apps can be built using the standard web technologies of HTML and JavaScript, meaning that HP won’t have to convince people to learn an entire new development approach in order to build webOS apps. Still, the HP App Catalog store isn’t exactly full of apps (there will be more than 300 tablet-optimized apps available at launch, according to HP), and the size of Apple’s App Store gives it a major advantage over tablet competitors such as the TouchPad.

One clever thing HP is trying: It’s created a digital magazine, Pivot, and embedded it inside the HP App Catalog app. Think of an airline magazine entirely about webOS apps, and you’ve got the idea. It’s an outside-the-box approach to encouraging app discovery, and while I have no idea if it’ll work, it’s certainly worth a try by an upstart platform looking for a way to show off its apps.

This is the first webOS device to rely on a software keyboard, and that on-screen keyboard is a good one. It’s reminiscent of the iPad’s, but with an extra row at top for numbers, so there’s generally less need to press modifier keys to keep typing. The height of the keyboard is user-adjustable, so if you’re particularly adept you can shrink down the keyboard and gain more screen real estate. I don’t think HP’s got its autocorrect system working quite right, because I had to make a lot of corrections as I typed, but in general, I was encouraged by the software keyboard. It would sure be nice to see a webOS smartphone without a slide-out hardware keyboard sometime soon. (There’s also an optional Bluetooth keyboard for the TouchPad that is, like all of HP’s accessories, an impressive, solid piece of hardware.)

webOS’s Synergy feature, which stitches together data from disparate sources into your address book (and really, throughout the entire operating system) is an idea that I wish Apple would appropriate. Apple made a big deal at this month’s Worldwide Developers Conference about Twitter being integrated into iOS 5, but just about every service you can think of—AIM, Skype, Google Calendar, MobileMe, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace—is available in webOS, and developers of other services can add support via plug-ins. Then the system, as well as other apps, can use that information.

One of the accessories you can buy for a TouchPad is the Touchstone Charging Dock, which wirelessly charges the TouchPad when it’s set in the cradle. It’s a cool and solid bit of hardware, but the software integration makes it even cooler. Once the TouchPad realizes it’s docked, it immediately launches into “Exhibition Mode.” Any developer can write apps that work in this mode, which passively projects information—clock, photos, calendar, Twitter stream, you name it—onto the device’s screen while it’s docked. Once you remove the TouchPad from the dock, the apps vanish. And if you have one Charging Dock at work and another at home, the device knows they’re different and can be configured to run different Exhibition apps in either place.

Related to Touchstone are two other clever proximity-based technologies built into HP’s webOS devices. To pair the TouchPad with a webOS Phone, you can actually just lay the phone down on the bottom of the TouchPad next to the home button. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work—I had to do the Bluetooth pairing manually. There’s also a “touch to share” feature that lets you quickly transfer data (such as a web page URL) from one device to the other via a tap, but I couldn’t get that to work either. Oh well.

I especially appreciated webOS’s app-switching interface. Tap the hardware button (or run a finger from off screen to on) and the app you’re using pulls back, becoming one card in a strip of cards arranged horizontally. Each card represents a running app (or a set of related app windows), and you can swipe backward and forward to pick which app you want to use. Flicking a card upward causes it to fly off the screen, quitting the app.

It’s a far more intuitive system than Apple’s, which requires a double-tap to invoke an icon-only app switcher, and to quit an app you have to tap and hold, then press an X. (I’ll grant you, Apple’s approach to app closure is to make it for emergency use only, while webOS encourages the user to open and close apps directly. When a lot of apps were open on the TouchPad, things could get poky, but like iOS, webOS is not shy about putting apps into a hibernation state when it’s running short of memory.)

Game performance on the TouchPad seemed solid. I played a few games of that old classic Angry Birds and was impressed with the extremely smooth animation and high frame rates. Clearly the TouchPad hardware is capable of superior performance, when the right software is set to the task.

TouchPad odds and ends

The TouchPad comes with built-in media playing apps, but my review unit didn’t include any way to buy music or buy or rent videos. This is one of the strongest parts of the iOS story, and a place where all other tablet vendors are struggling to catch up. HP says that there will be an HP MovieStore app (powered by RoxioNow and available in the U.S. only) available on the device “shortly after launch,” and that a third-party music purchase service (Amazon MP3, perhaps?) will be available when the product launches. I was able to play music from Amazon Cloud Player in the TouchPad web browser, and stream music from Pandora. (The TouchPad’s stereo speakers are definitely a cut above the iPad’s, though I wouldn’t exactly use a TouchPad to provide music at a party.)

HPPlay for Mac syncs iTunes music (but not Smart Playlists) with the TouchPad.
The good news for Mac users: HP has built its own Mac app, HPplay, that will automatically sync your iTunes library to a TouchPad. (It also poses as a media player in its own right, but seriously, don’t even bother.) I tried a beta version of the app and it worked, though it doesn’t support syncing Smart Playlists.

Then there’s Flash. Yes, the TouchPad comes with Adobe Flash built in. You can set Flash to load automatically in the browser, or load when you tap. I don’t really have much to report about Flash on the TouchPad that you haven’t read somewhere else in the context of an Android tablet: the performance isn’t very impressive. When I connected to MLB.com’s Flash-based video stream of a live baseball game, the TouchPad managed to play about four frames per second, and it was difficult to get it to respond to my touches to pause the stream. I tried to play the Flash-based Lexulous game on Facebook, but was completely unable to move my tiles onto the board. A visit to ESPN.com loaded a Flash ad that played so slowly that it basically locked up the browser. So: I can confirm that Flash runs on the TouchPad, but I can’t confirm that it runs well.

I didn't have time to run comprehensive battery tests on the TouchPad, but it seems to have a good battery. It's not as long-lived as the iPad, so far as I can tell, but neither is it going to die out after a couple of hours. HP claims eight hours of video-playback life with Wi-Fi turned off.

What’s bad about the TouchPad

The TouchPad’s specs are state of the art, right down to the dual-core Snapdragon processor that powers it. Yet at times I found the TouchPad puzzlingly sluggish. (I had the same complaint when I used the dual-core Motorola Xoom Android tablet, to be fair.) Sometimes I think one of the most important achievements of Apple’s iOS development team is completely overlooked by most reviewers: the fact that on iOS devices, when you move your finger, the on-screen objects under your finger move along with it. No lag, no judder of dropped frames, just a pure illusion that you’re physically manipulating an object. Almost every time I have tried a new Android phone or tablet—and when I tried the TouchPad—I am surprised to find that the interface just isn’t as responsive as Apple’s.

The TouchPad often seemed quite slow at launching new apps, leaving me staring at a pulsating, glowing icon. When a lot of apps were running, everything could get especially laggy. Occasionally, everything would freeze for a few seconds and then resume. The TouchPad also seemed to get confused about its orientation regularly—every time I laid it down flat on a table, it wanted to flip into portrait mode. More than once I got in a situation that would have been comedic if it weren’t so frustrating: I’d be holding the TouchPad in landscape mode, but its interface would remain in portrait. When I turned the TouchPad back to portrait, it would rotate to landscape. A few times, the apps within the multitasking interface appeared rotated correctly, but the overall UI was rotated incorrectly. Suffice it to say, there are some bugs affecting performance and usability.

The TouchPad couldn’t connect to my secure corporate Wi-Fi network (which requires a user name and a password), complaining that it didn’t have a certificate—but my iPad and iPhone connect to that same network with no trouble. The Calendar app picked up my Google Calendar settings and automatically subscribed me to my calendars, but I found the app remarkably slow at times and when I edited events, the changes never seemed to propagate beyond the TouchPad itself.

I liked the fact that Skype and IM services were both integrated directly with TouchPad; however, that integration had some weird side effects. My TouchPad kept me logged in to IM even as I slept, and one night when I forgot to mute the TouchPad’s volume, a co-worker on the East Coast sent me an IM (“Are you awake this early?”), thereby waking me up. As for Skype, calls I made using it seemed to be strangely quiet and muffled, and I was unable to video chat with anyone who’s still on the good version of Skype rather than the less-good Skype 5. Almost every Skype user I know has opted not to upgrade to Skype 5, so that was a bummer.

I tested a beta version of an Amazon Kindle app for TouchPad, and was surprised at the jagged quality of the book text, which was present in both of the available display fonts. The text is much crisper on the iPad edition of the Kindle app. Text in the web browser was better, though still not as readable as I’d like, and I found the browser particularly slow when I tried to scroll many different pages. The browser also displayed the Macworld.com home page incorrectly, something I’ve never seen on any other browser, mobile or desktop, on any platform.

The TouchPad e-mail app is reminiscent of the iPad's Mail app, and it's well designed. But it, too, could be slow and sometimes e-mail messages simply wouldn't display when I tapped on them.

Though HP is kind enough to provide an app, called Quickoffice, that lets you browse common office document types and even load them from services such as Google Docs, I found the app a disappointment. It often failed to connect to my Google Docs and Dropbox accounts, and when it did connect, I found that it frequently did not display the document faithfully. One Google Document full of text was reduced to a single line. (HP acknowledged that there are issues with Quickoffice and Google Docs and that the company is working on a fix, with plans to add editing for Word and Excel files by mid-summer.) On the bright side, Google Docs loaded just fine in the TouchPad’s web browser, and I was able to view and even edit documents from there.

Rooting interest

I have to admit, I’m kind of rooting for HP, the TouchPad, and the webOS. Apple needs strong competitors in the tablet market to help push things forward, and I think companies with control of both hardware and software are more likely to produce high-quality products. For years I’ve wondered why nobody was trying to replicate some of Apple’s product-creation success, and that’s exactly what HP is doing with its webOS strategy.

That said, the TouchPad is clearly a first effort. I don’t really have any complaints about the hardware. It’s bulkier than the iPad 2 but not unpleasantly so, and I think Apple’s proven the appeal of a tablet with a 10-inch screen and a 4:3 aspect ratio. HP’s accessories are solidly built, its Touchstone wireless-charging technology is clever, and even the product packaging is elegant.

HP has gotten a lot right here, but on the software side, it’s just not all there yet. The interface isn’t responsive enough, app launching is slow, and there are too many other quirks that scream that this is a 1.0 release of a tablet operating system. (Even HP seems to acknowledge this: The company says it is already readying an over-the-air update to webOS that will fix bugs and improve performance.) Some aspects of what HP is doing with the webOS are really interesting, including the Synergy feature that brings all online-service data together into a unified interface and the superior app-switching interface.

Is there any reason for a prospective iPad user to buy a TouchPad today? I can’t see it. In a head-to-head comparison with the original iPad on launch day, the TouchPad might win out due to its dual-core processor and multitasking support. But today’s iPad 2 has both, along with tens of thousands of tablet-optimized apps and almost none of the quirks that the TouchPad currently exhibits.

So what I’m saying is, I’m glad that HP finally shipped the TouchPad. If it can get developers engaged in its platform and iron out all the bugs while also growing webOS as a smartphone operating system, it might really have something here. But that’s a story about the future, and about potential. For now, the TouchPad is just another iPad competitor that can’t measure up.

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