When HP announced the TouchPad this spring, we got pretty excited. We’ve been fans of webOS since it debuted on the Palm Pre, and when HP acquired Palm in 2010, the operating system seemed like a natural fit for a tablet. The TouchPad is also the only tablet to have the exact same screen size and aspect ratio as Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad. Sadly, HP’s first attempt at capitalizing on webOS doesn’t quite live up to our expectations.
The TouchPad’s hardware is a mixed bag. The tablet is a bit hefty at 0.54 inches thick, putting it in the realm of the Toshiba Thrive and Acer Iconia Tabs, two of the bigger units on the market. Yet, HP is clearly trying to compete with the iPad 2, which is one of the thinnest and lightest tablets on the market (the Samsung Galaxy Tab actually edges the iPad out on both counts, barely). From the minimalist rounded design to the screen size and single button on the bottom, it’s very clear that HP wants this tablet to look good sitting next to Apple’s market leader. Unfortunately, this tablet competes better with the original iPad than the thinner iPad 2.
The TouchPad has a very responsive 9.7-inch screen with a nice 3-by-4 aspect ratio, which more resembles the shape of printing paper than the envelope-like widescreen Android tablets that crowd the market. It also happens to be the exact same shape as the iPad. The design also comes with a light-up, (and somewhat useless), button on the bottom. We’re not sure why this is here, other than the fact that the iPad has one. It’s not needed. Unlike the iPad though, the TouchPad has a microSD charging and connection port, which means you can charge it using any cell phone charging cable.
The shell of the unit is a shiny, bulky plastic material with four outward-facing indents, one at each corner of the screen. Two of these have speakers in them and one houses the volume toggle, but the last one just sits there, an indent where none should be. Did HP have a button or something to put there at one time, but removed it at the last minute? Either way, it’s not exactly annoying or an eyesore, but it is odd, as are many things about the units design. HP has chosen to use its shiny black laptop plastic to cover the tablet, but it attracts fingerprints and scratches at a terrible pace. There is no way to pick up the TouchPad without fingerprinting the hell out of it. Strangely, the screen repels more fingerprints than the case.
We’re also puzzled why the TouchPad has no rear camera. We know that the original iPad had no cameras, but every tablet currently on the market now has a front and rear camera. There’s little reason why HP couldn’t have included a rear camera. Perhaps it didn’t think it necessary. We miss the feature.
Finally, we began by talking about the thickness of the tablet, but we should also comment on its weight. While it’s not a whole lot heavier than the competition, this is the heaviest tablet we’ve seen yet. It outweighs the bulky PC-like Toshiba Thrive and Acer Iconia Tab and it actually feels a bit heavy at 1.6 pounds.
The specs on the HP TouchPad are the most impressive on a tablet yet. It runs on a dual-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon APQ8060 processor, though HP remains mum on the amount of RAM included. The screen is an XGA capacitive touchscreen with a 1024×768 resolution, which is on par with the iPad 2. As for internal memory, the unit comes in 16GB and 32GB models (both Wi-Fi and with no expandable memory), which were originally $500 and $600, but have since been lowering in price due to different promotions. We suspect that HP may officially lower the price of the TouchPad soon in an effort to compete with Android tablets, which are aggressively lowering in price. The iPad 2 remains $500 to $820, depending on the model you choose.
webOS Operating System
The TouchPad’s biggest differentiator is definitely webOS, the custom mobile operating system that powers all HP products. Unfortunately, webOS’s first venture into tablets has not gone smoothly. We are big fans of the Card-based multitasking style of HP tablets, which let you swap between apps like swiping between a hand of playing cards. The idea seems like a natural fit for a tablet — so natural, in fact, that RIM copied the idea wholesale in its new BlackBerry PlayBook OS. Sadly, RIM did a better job adapting webOS ideas to the tablet than HP in its first go-round.
The PlayBook OS is fast and responsive and has an awesome slate of universal gestures that unify how you use all applications on the tablet. RIM actually went the distance and added touch capabilities to part of the black border around the PlayBook screen. Like webOS, you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen to minimize an app and flip between them like cards, and access menus by swiping down from the top of the screen, but RIM added more gestures for hot-swapping between apps, bringing up the keyboard, and even allows you to unlock the tablet by swiping from one side of the screen to the other. The HP Veer, which we reviewed a couple weeks back, has a similar touchable border area and fun universal gestures, but the HP TouchPad, which would benefit from them greatly, does not. Instead, it has some basics and then operates mostly like an iPad. HP seems scared to go all out with the TouchPad. We don’t understand why.
We can get over the iPad-like design of webOS 3.0.2, but we can’t get over how sluggish it runs on such powerful hardware. It takes a good five seconds to open up any app and the OS seems to lag behind our wishes at almost every turn. Even typing becomes difficult as the unit will fail to pick up a letter or two in each phrase, not because we didn’t press it, but because we were typing too fast for the operating system to pick up. And we are not especially fast touchscreen typers.
Apps & Web
If you can get over the sluggishness of webOS, prepare to deal with a severe lack of apps. While some of the basics, like Angry Birds, email, messaging, photos, Facebook, Pandora, etc., are present, don’t expect anything sophisticated from HP’s Apps Catalog anytime soon. We had a difficult time finding much of interest and many of the games and apps available are built for smartphones and don’t look great or operate correctly on the TouchPad’s large screen.
The apps that are included are a bit confusing and don’t utilize screen space well. Most seem to use a cascading dual- and triple-column setup where you can maximize or minimize columns at will, but we weren’t quite able to get used to where things were, and found the switching columns to be more clumsy than useful. The mobile email and Facebook apps were especially odd. Having said that, diehards will undoubtedly get the hang of it. We just hope that new apps will be easier to use than these. And faster. Please, HP, make them faster.
Finally, the Web works well enough for a tablet, better than the default Android browser. Unlike Google’s scaled-up mobile browser, the TouchPad’s browser loads pages in their full glory, and doesn’t have too much trouble loading a YouTube page either, but advanced Flash pages and fancy scripts tend to bog the tablet down, like any other. Give these tablets a year or two and the open Web will be more do-able. One cool feature of webOS, however, is that instead of only being able to have one instance of the browser open, now you can open multiple browser windows, which stack on top of one another in a nice neat pile. We look forward to the addition of tabs, but given the lack of power in today’s tablets, we’d rather have more than one browser window than a bunch of tabs.
Or the lack thereof. The TouchPad has a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera, but no rear camera at all. However, we do like the built-in support for Skype and video calling. You can even connect to a phone via Bluetooth, which is more than most tablets offer. Still, it would be nice to have that rear-facing camera. Come on, HP.
Though it has a battery with double the capacity of the Acer Iconia Tab, it gets about the same seven to nine hours of life, meaning HP is having to compensate for inefficiencies in its software. Still, in standby the tablet battery lasted us for more than a week and moderate use doesn’t seem to faze it, nor does keeping apps open. Overall, the TouchPad has good battery life, but we pay for the large battery in weight and thickness.
We’re not sure why the HP TouchPad was released; it simply is not ready for prime time yet. More capable than the BlackBerry PlayBook, which still has no email or calendar support, the TouchPad is bulky, heavy, and there isn’t a place on it that won’t get smudged to death by fingerprints. Don’t even bother cleaning it. While we can forgive fingerprints and even the lack of a rear camera, it’s obvious that webOS hasn’t yet been optimized to run on this machine. It’s slow and laggy. We also don’t care for the way HP is designing its tablet-specific apps. They tend to look a little too iPad-ish, but lack the intuitive and simplistic navigation design Apple implements in its software. The lack of apps available in the HP Apps Catalog also doesn’t help.
While we still have high hopes for webOS, we can’t recommend the HP TouchPad at this time. It’s just too sluggish. If HP can speed up the machine and build the app library up more, we think there is a future for the platform, but for now, we’d still opt for an iPad or Android tablet.
- Decent battery life
- Intuitive and unique OS
- Great screen size and shape
- No rear camera
- webOS is sluggish
- App design is sloppy
- Tries too hard to mimic the iPad
- Heavy and bulky
- Fingerprint magnet