Name: TouchPad (HP)
Type: WebOS Tablet
Specs: Click here for full specs
Price: 32GB £449.99 from Amazon
16GB £387.99 from Amazon
HP’s acquisition of Palm bears its first tablet fruits with the HP TouchPad, the latest contender to step into the ring with Apple’s iPad. Its WebOS operating system sets it apart from the Android masses and the iOS showboat, but is stellar multitasking enough to deliver a knockout slate punch? Read on to find out.
Hardware and Build
HP’s TouchPad doesn’t stray drastically from the blueprint laid down by Apple’s iPad. Measuring 240 x 190 x 13.7 mm and weighing roughly 740g, it’s a fair bit heavier and thicker than the iPad 2, despite rocking a similar 9.7 inch, 1024 x 768 display. Slight curves on the chassis make it no less comfortable to hold though, even if the gloss black backing and screen are particularly susceptible to picking up smeary marks. The plastic backing build is good, though inevitably feels a little flimsy when compared to metallic rivals.
A black bezel, around half an inch thick, sits around the screen, with a “Home” button embedded in one of the 4:3 scale tablet’s shorter sides and a 1.3MP HD-capable front facing camera in the opposite bezel edge. The TouchPad doesn’t have a rear facing camera, though their genuine usefulness is questionable anyway. That Home hardware button has thin strip of light that pulses when a notification is awaiting your attention, with a fixed glow showing when the tablet is on and in use.
A microUSB port is used for charging the TouchPad (though it also works with a wireless TouchStone charger too, which can be seen like HP’s take on the PowerMat), while USB drag and drop file support over a PC is also possible. TouchStone technology also allows the TouchPad to share web pages and other information with the Pre 3 smartphone, simply by placing one on top of the other. This produces a nice ripple visual effect, and is useful if you want to quickly transfer web details or similar before pocketing them and heading out on the road.
A volume rocker and lock button for the screen accelerometer also feature, while HP’s use of Beats Audio-powered speakers continues from their laptop and notebook lines into the stereo pair found here.
Under the hood you’ll find a 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-core APQ8060 processor. On paper, this much processing power should put the HP TouchPad easily among the fastest tablets on the market. But as you’ll find as you read on, the performance doesn’t quite match the numbers touted here.
Wi-Fi versions of the TouchPad hit stores first, though 3G versions are also to be available.
If there is one stand out feature that sets HP’s TouchPad apart from the tablet pack, it’s the WebOS operating system. After HP acquired Palm, it seemed a given that the under-achieving smartphone OS would be tweaked and land on a tablet. And it has here, with mostly excellent results.
Multitasking is where WebOS really excels. Open up a string of apps at once, and each will be represented by a “card”, sitting side by side on the main tablet homescreen, which can be swiped through at will. Tap a card to make the app go full screen, and hit the hardware Home button to go back to the mainscreen where all your cards sit side by side. These cards are not merely a list of recently used apps either; each is “live”, and as you swipe through the carousel-like interface you’ll see any active videos or real-time messaging continue to bop along in the background, even if it isn’t the active card. When you’re done with a task, just swipe the card up and it’ll disappear and close.
To keep the number of simultaneously opened apps manageable, each card can be also grouped into stacks. If an app requires a pop-out window to say a web browser link or an email message, these too will stack rather than take up a new card space on the mainscreen, which helps keep related tasks nice and organised.
For the most part, this multitasking system is great, but we had two rather major complaints which sullied the experience a bit. Firstly, as you’re encouraged to multitask so freely with the TouchPad, you can quickly build up a very large number of cards, which can take an age to scroll through if you don’t stay on top of what apps you have open. An exploded view, similar to that offered by the HTC Sense UI, which would allow you to see miniature panes of all open cards at once from a pinch multitouch gesture would have been very useful here.
Of more concern however is the slowdown that multitasking seems to cause. For the most part the tablet handles multiple opened tasks well, but for some reason takes a shocking amount of time to adjust its orientation when you spin it around with the accelerometer active. With all the live cards needing to be flipped from landscape to portrait mode or vice versa, the tablet screen hangs for an age when turned around. On one hand the multitasking saves a lot of time, but in this instance at least it caused lots of frustration. It’s a real shame, considering the 1.2 GHz dual core.
WebOS does impress elsewhere though, most notably with a superb, adjustable keyboard. You can tweak the size of keys, as well as the number bar sitting above the standard QWERTY offering. It’s great to be able to have the option of a smaller keypad when less text entry is needed, say when web browsing, and then expanding it when punching out a lengthy email. It’s surprising how much of a difference having number keys as a constant presence helps the flow of typing on a tablet too, even if the auto-correct HP has employed isn’t all that good.
Though not quite as customisable as Android, a dock bar sits at the bottom of the homescreen, onto which you can drag and drop your most used apps for easy access. You also get a slim status bar along the top, which offers visual cues as to battery life, the time, Wi-Fi connectivity and the like. Notifications sit up here on the right hand side too, displayed in the order they came into. It’s a tidy way of organising the many notifications you’re likely to get from social networks and email accounts, but is limited in the way that only one notification can be viewed at a time, rather than expanded to see multiple ones.
The JustType bar found on WebOS smartphones also makes an appearance, but here it feels more like a legacy addition. With the hardware keyboards found on the old Palm smartphones, tapping away would give you instant search functionality of the many features, apps and files stored on the phone. Here it works more like iOS’s Spotlight feature, as you’re having to pull up the software keyboard before anything happens in the first place.
The TouchPad comes pre-loaded with all the usual native apps that any self-respecting tablet should, such as a browser, email client, calender, media viewing apps and maps, here powered by Bing rather than Google.
The browser is presented much like Safari is on the iPad. An address bar sits at the top alongside forward, back and email sharing buttons, as well as a history and bookmarks pane that pops out at the push of another software button. Rather than offering tabbed browsing, the browser adds each new page to the card stack outlined earlier. It makes sense in the context of the operating system, and is useful when sliding about the homescreen, but for the most part we missed the simplicity of regular tabbed browsing found on Honeycomb tablet browsers.
The browser also supports web-based Flash content, and while this should be a great boon over its iPad rivals, its appearance can be a little hit-or-miss. Flash animations and web navigation controls rendered perfectly nearly 100% of the time, even running without a judder in the multitasking cards views. Flash video on the other hand caused no end of problems, stuttering to a halt on many occasions and scaling up very poorly when pushed into full screen modes.
Email is set up in a similar column set up to anyone familiar with email apps on iPads or Android tablets. It’s a tidy interface with legible text and recognisable shortcut buttons, but organising each column was a bit of a pain. A small slider button has to be held and dragged about to move each pane, which is fine in theory, until you realise that swiping also deletes emails. In other words, miss the pane dragging icon slightly and you can inadvertently delete an important message. The Calendar app has no such problems, and was easy to link in multiple sources, organised by label colour.
It’s early days for the AppCatalog store, but already most of the big-name third party apps are in place such as Tune In Radio, Angry Birds and a superb Facebook app which seeps its sharing options into many of WebOS’s native elements. There are only a couple of hundred apps at the time of testing, but at the moment they appear to be of high quality, and covering all the productivity/entertainment bases that you’ll need to get going initially. Hopefully it’ll grow quickly enough to match the might of the App Store and Android Market. It’s worth noting though that scrolling through the store is again a stuttery affair, unresponsive to the touch.
The AppCatalog certainly has a great feature in Pivot. Much like a digital magazine, it’s an editorially focused take on “what’s hot” on the HP app store. Focusing on a dozen or so apps, it goes in-depth with developer interviews and highlights apps’ key features, linking to each apps’ purchasing page. It makes filling up your TouchPad with the finest the store has to offer very easy, and is a visually pleasing, informative read. It’s a pity then it’s currently slated as a monthly release, as a weekly one would surely drive more sales in the store, as well as helping newcomers navigate to the best stuff.
HP’s Touchpad handles media playback very well. Though the screen doesn’t display in full HD, the tablet does a sound job of downscaling 1080p and 720p content, and both played without a hitch, in multiple video formats. Whereas some apps and the accelerometer seem to cause the tablet to slow down, HD playback is surprisingly trouble-free. The Video and Photos app, while a good idea in terms of presenting family albums and the like, felt a strange place to store our Hollywood movies. It was a little jarring to find a video of my baby nephew next to a 720p Deerhunter movie file I’d been watching. Likewise, the lack of thumbnail images for video content was disappointing, so make sure your videos are legibly titled before pushing them to the TouchPad.
Despite the Beats Audio stereo speakers, sound quality was disappointing on the TouchPad. As with their laptop counterparts, they deliver solid bass, despite the slim chassis, but in terms of movie playback this comes at the expense of dialogue clarity. With tablets more a video consumption device rather than music in our opinion, this seems like a slightly misguided sonic stance to take. It’s not dramtically worse than other tablets we’ve seen, but definitely resulted in a muddy audio mix.
Battery life on the TouchPad is solid, but not quite as good as the iPad 2’s. You’re looking at around 6-7 hours of continuous video playback from a full charge, depending on what you’ve got running in the background, and the strength of your display’s brightness settings. It’s worth noting that the screen is also a little less bright than an iPads. Again, it’s not a dramatic difference, but the TouchPad is noticeably dimmer when put side-by-side with Apple’s offering.
We had high hopes for the HP TouchPad, and have been silently willing the tablet to be great since we first laid hands on it. In some respects it is; WebOS is a nifty operating system, and its take on tablet multitasking is as good (if not better) than that offered by Honeycomb flavoured Android. The TouchPad falls down though when it comes to performance. Despite packing a solid 1.2GHz dual-core processor, that extra CPU grunt is hardly ever in evidence. It may be a side-effect of the multitasking focus, but it all feels too sluggish, too often. The potential for the tablet is plain to see, and we’d love to see the TouchPad make enough money to justify a series of refined models. As it stands, we’ll be holding onto our iPad 2 as our go-to tablet for a while longer.