HP TouchPad review

It has been exactly 140 days since Hewlett-Packard first unveiled the TouchPad, and I think of it as the first device to emerge from a post-acquisition Palm team that has really been tested over the past few years. To be fair, it will actually be the third webOS device to launch since HP took over Palm, but the the Pre 2 was a leftover from before the deal went through and the Veer never should have been been released. But yes, the Palm team has been through a lot: from botched acquisition talks, to the brink of collapse, to resurrection through Elevation Partners’ investments, to a brilliant new web-based mobile operating system, to the announcement of the phone that would save the business from the brink of collapse, to BGR exclusively reviewing the phone that would save the business from the brink of collapse before any other site on the planet, to the launch of the phone that would save the business from the brink of collapse, to the failure of the phone that would save its business from the brink of collapse, and finally, to HP. Can a company that once lead the industry come back to regain mind share, market share and profit share following a roller coaster ride like that? Hit the break to find out if the TouchPad pushes the company’s mobile business in the right direction or if it is another dud from a company that could be dominating the market.

The Inside

Not everyone realizes it, but Apple did the smartphone industry a massive service in a very particular way when it launched the iPhone in 2007. Yes, the device changed a lot of things of course, but it also removed a very thick layer of complication and made applications the focus of the device. There was no home screen oozing information and blocking users from accessing the functions they wanted to perform. Even before apps were “apps,” Apple’s mobile software team understood that these individual subsections of the smartphone operating system were the key to the user experience, and therefore should be laid out front and center. To see how this impacted the industry, look no further than Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform, which does an outstanding job of carrying this concept forward in an elegant, unique way.

WebOS was the next evolutionary step of the smartphone OS in terms of the user interface. Instead of putting apps front and center like Apple’s iOS platform did, it painted a living, breathing picture right before your eyes. “Apps,” in their general sense, were no longer the star of the show. Instead, webOS put the task manager front and center — and this was a very smart move. It lets the user concern himself or herself only with apps that are being used actively, and all else can be disregarded.

So right from the onset, webOS is ahead of the pack. Mix in gorgeous graphics and powerful apps, and you’re cooking with gas. WebOS doesn’t have the largest selection of applications of course, but it definitely has some high-quality apps that are a joy to use. The HP-built Facebook app, in fact, is the best interpretation of Facebook I have seen on any mobile device.

At launch on July 1st, HP’s App Catalog will be home to between 300 and 400 applications optimized for the TouchPad (though all 8,000+ webOS apps will run on the TouchPad in compatibility mode). That number is expected to ramp up quickly, and from what I’ve gathered during conversations with the company, HP appears very focused on quality over quantity, which is a good thing. HP has been hosting developer training events in cities across North America and hundreds of eager developers have turned out. What’s more, because webOS uses programming tools and languages that are very familiar to a wide range of developers such as HTML 5 and JavaScript, the learning curve far more favorable than it is with other mobile platforms.

The HP TouchPad will ship with version 3.0 of the OS, and the refinements have not gone unnoticed. The build is very similar to webOS 2.2 on HP’s smartphones — feel free read about some of the basics in my review of the HP Veer 4G — but there are a number of refinements that do the TouchPad a great service. For one thing, new Synergy services have been added… including MobileMe… and Synergy seems much smoother overall. Synergy is HP’s PIM aggregator, which allows users to link data from Exchange accounts, Google accounts, Yahoo accounts, Facebook accounts, LinkedIn accounts and much more. Messages, contacts, calendar entries and so on are then synchronized constantly and individual contact information from various accounts is merged into a single entry.

Another nice addition is Skype integration. Right out of the box, the user can open the Messaging app, enter a user name and password for Skype and be typing, talking or video chatting within seconds. My only complaint is that voice and video calls require the phone app to open, though this is only a minor annoyance. I do like how the phone app card is automatically stacked with the Messaging card, however.

Powering the party is a dual-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, which packs a good deal of power, though it does get tripped up at times — more on that shortly. Also buried within the TouchPad is a Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n radio, GPS, a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video chats, and a 6,300 mAh battery that should last several days for the average user.

The Outside

The hardware is a little odd, but incredibly easy to describe. Imagine someone removed the chrome-look bezel from an iPhone 3GS and put it on a marble slab. Then imagine someone took a rolling pin to it and went to town. The TouchPad looks exactly like a widened, lengthened, flattened iPhone 3GS.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se, but it’s odd. For anyone who has ever held an iPhone 3GS, it’s impossible to not make the connection instantly. The shape and contour are the same, and the TouchPad even has the same exact power/lock button as the iPhone 3GS. It’s uncanny. With that out of the way, I would call the TouchPad hardware fair.

The tablet has a solid feel to it, though at 26.1 ounces it might be a bit on the heavy side for some. I don’t mind the weight personally, but I do take issue with the materials. We’ll get to that shortly. The 9.7-inch display on the TouchPad sports a 1,024 x 768-pixel resolution and while it gets nice and bright, the picture quality is not great. I would place it somewhere above the Galaxy Tab and below the BlackBerry PlayBook.

Holding the device in portrait mode, the bottom edge of the TouchPad is home to a microUSB port and a 3.5-millimeter audio jack can be found on the top along with the lock/power button. The left side of the device holds stereo speakers that sound surprisingly good thanks to tuning by the “Beats by Dr. Dre” team, and the right side has a volume rocker in the top corner. The back is a smooth plastic fingerprint magnet and the front is entirely smooth glass, save for a plastic home button near the button. Thanks to the lack of an oleophobic coating, the screen is also a fingerprint magnet.

The Upside

In BGR’s first ever podcast, I mentioned my fondness of HP’s touch-to-share feature. This Touchstone technology married with Bluetooth (we mistakenly said in the podcast that HP used NFC for the feature, however this is not the case) allows a user to tap a Pre 3 smartphone to a TouchPad in order to take a web page being viewed on one device and open on the other. HP gave me a Pre 3 to test out the functionality and it works reasonably well. I found that there was a bit of a delay in opening passed URLs on the receiving device, but the ripple animation is nifty and this service, to me, is all about potential.

BGR Editor-in-chief Jonathan Geller responded to my cooing by mentioning Apple’s end-to-end iCloud solution, which, in part, synchronizes data on an iOS device across all iOS/Mac OS devices a user owns. It’s pretty great. But as elegant as Apple’s solution is, it’s not perfect. Today — or at least, once Apple releases iCloud to the masses — iCloud might be the simpler solution, and it also encompasses a wider range of data. Moving forward, however, I can see several areas where HP’s solution could provide clear advantages over iCloud. One such example is sharing.

In a bubble, syncing data effortlessly across all of your devices is all a user might be concerned with. But we live among other people, and we want to share things with those people. Can iCloud instantly and effortlessly share a v-card with an associate? Can iCloud share a photo or three with my wife? Can iCloud send a song or video to a buddy’s phone? Can iCloud mirror a task calendar entry on a coworker’s phone? The answer in all of these cases, and in countless others, is no.

ICloud is thorough, elegant solution for personal data management that will change the way we use our devices. But if HP doesn’t drop the ball, touch-to-share has the potential to change the way we interact with people in the physical world. You know, IRL.

There are other ways HP’s technology trumps iCloud — I love that I can make and receive calls and exchange text messages using the TouchPad when paired with the Pre 3 — but there are always plenty of ways iCloud’s utility far exceeds that of Touchstone. The ideal solution is unquestionably a combination of both technologies. And unless NFC rumors were accurate and Apple does indeed have some innovative NFC-based features coming to the iPhone in the near future, I think HP could get there first. HP is making big investments in cloud-based technologies — trust me, I constantly get press releases about said investments.

HP is in an interesting place right now because despite the fact that it has a lot of catching up to do in the mobile space, it finds itself in a position that perhaps most closely represents Apple’s. It builds hardware and it owns the software, so it can dictate the end-to-end user experience across desktop and mobile devices. HP does not own Windows on its computers, of course, but it will be adding webOS to its PCs on top of Windows so there is endless potential there. So HP could, for example, add Touchstone capabilities to its desktop computers with a simple peripheral. It could also use the bezel around a display or it could build the technology into the case around the keyboard. This would add a whole new dimension to Touchstone and really extend it to places we haven’t even considered. Then drop a cherry on top with a set of APIs that would allow third-party developers to build apps that employ Touchstone technology on smartphones, tablets, notebooks and desktop computers, and the potential is limitless.

A lot of my other praises were sung in the software section, but a few more need to be mentioned. The keyboard is great, for example, and I love that it includes numbers in the main view. On the iPad, the PlayBook and in Honeycomb, the user must jump away from the main keypad to a separate view in order to type numbers or special characters. Put plainly, that is stupid and unnecessary. The TouchPad’s virtual board places a row of numbers right above the letters just like a desktop board, and the shift key pulls up the standard special characters associated with each number key.

Another nifty feature comes along with the optional $80 Touchstone stand accessory that can be purchased separately. Like other webOS devices, the TouchPad features an Exhibition mode that can be invoked when the device is placed on a Touchstone dock. Exhibition mode can do a variety of different things depending on a device’s configuration. In the TouchPad’s case, a great feature is that the tablet can be configured to launch different Exhibition modes when it is placed in different Touchstone stands. So for example, the Touchpad can automatically become a giant clock when placed in the stand on your night table, or it can automatically start a slideshow when placed in the stand on your desk.

The Downside

The smooth, shiny plastic HP used for the TouchPad case is less than desirable. That’s putting it very, very nicely. It feels very cheap compared to the competition — the iPad 2 is silky-smooth aluminum, the BlackBerry PlayBook is supple soft-touch rubberized plastic, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is ultra-thin and very solid. And I’ve never seen plastic attract so many fingerprints. Those who know me, know that I have a bit of an issue with dirt and germs (I probably use Purell about 350 times per day, and yes, I know I likely now have the immune system of a newborn), and just glancing at the back of the device after any period of usage is enough to turn my stomach. Unfortunately the glass display does not have an oleophobic coating, so it’s just as bad.

In spite of the grease factor, the worst part for me is the plastic edges around the speakers. HP’s TouchPad has stereo speakers on the bottom of the device when it is held in landscape mode, and the plastic of the case comes to a very abrupt end where the case opens to expose the speakers. Basically, the plastic edges around the speakers are sharp.

Those who used the original Palm Pre will remember the sharp plastic edge beneath the keypad, and this is the exact same issue. Exposed, unfinished plastic edges have no place on a piece of consumer electronics, and they make the device uncomfortable to hold in portrait mode. You can feel the edges digging onto your palm as you type, and it’s not pleasant.

As much as I love webOS and as well as it translates to a large-form device, there is still a lot of room for improvement. For one thing, the graphic elements seem like they weren’t optimized for a large display in some cases. For example, some icons look like they were just scaled up for the TouchPad rather than redrawn. This could be an issue with the graphics or with the display, but some lines that should be smooth are jagged and pixelated, and some elements are a tad blurry — one example is the digital clock that appears in the top right corner.

And the display, by the way, is not great. Manufacturers are in a tough position where they’re forced to keep the prices of these devices competitive by using affordable components. At the same time, the display on a tablet is probably the single most important piece of the puzzle. It’s the window, it’s the input method, and so on. The TouchPad’s display is not great. Colors are washed out and the low dpi means pixels are more visible than they should be. I have certainly seen worse displays on large-form devices, but I’ve definitely seen better.

But the bigger issues relate to performance, unfortunately.

As gorgeous as the software is on the TouchPad, I’m sad to say that performance leaves much to be desired. With a dual-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon processor, this puppy should be a screamin’ demon. Instead, I find that some apps are slow to launch — though the worst culprit, Google Maps, has thankfully been replaced by Microsoft’s Bing Maps in webOS 3.0 — and the device bogs just as often as lesser webOS devices. Scrolling stutters often in a number of applications, and the UI has a tendency to be a bit jerky at times. I will say, however, that multitasking seems to have a minimal impact on performance. In other words, I experienced the same level of jerkiness with just a few apps open as I did with 10 apps open.

The Bottom Line

Like most other tablets on the market right now, I’m far more excited about the device’s potential than I am about the product I have in my hands today. Honeycomb could be great with a visual overhaul, more attention to detail and some unique, defining features. The BlackBerry PlayBook could be great with, well, an email client (among other things). And the TouchPad could be great some day too, but not today.

Today, the TouchPad is a solid tablet that definitely exhibits what I have come to call tabletitis. It is a jack of all trades, master of none, that shows tons of potential but isn’t quite there yet. The hardware is lacking and the software needs a shot of adrenaline.

In a world where touch-to-share is based on NFC and fanned out to provide more function, the TouchPad is great. In a world where webOS can be found on HP desktops and laptops, thus offering deep integration and the opportunity for unique interaction, the TouchPad is great. In a world where webOS is smoothed out and free of stutters and stammers, the TouchPad is great.

In this world, the TouchPad is just good.

Looking past the device’s deficiencies, I found the TouchPad a pleasure to use during my testing. Even with the occasional bogging, the UI is gorgeous and webOS is a pleasure to use on a slate form factor. As sad as this statement may be considering the downsides I’ve listed, I definitely prefer the TouchPad over almost every tablet I’ve tested to date.

At $499.99 for the 16GB model and $599.99 for the 32GB model, the TouchPad is a solid buy for those with patience. If you’re looking for a tablet that provides a finished, polished, comprehensive experience from start to finish today, you might want to wait or look elsewhere. For the life of me, however, I can’t think of a single tablet that fits the bill. The market is in its infancy and so are the products that occupy it, and tablets must crawl before they can walk. The TouchPad is indeed crawling in its current state, but so is its competition.

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