The tablet wars are heating up, and we all know the contenders by now. The leader by a wide margin is the iPad from Apple, who makes a living from the wide selection of apps available on the iOS platform. Say what you want about the boring interface, the closed ecosystem, and the limited utility of the hardware; Apple has a winner on their hands. Next up is the Honeycomb army from Android. This is where selection rules above all else and the differences across the lineup are immense. Trailing far behind is the BlackBerry PlayBook from RIM, who in my opinion have been caught with their pants down. The crippled nature of the Playbook was a let down from the start. But RIM was smart and
stole injected a lot of WebOS into their system design. Now it’s HP’s turn to bring their own platform to the party. How well does the TouchPad battle with the other tablets? Read on to find out.
Hardware & Design
The new TouchPad is a familiar beast when compared to the iPad. To be more specific, the first generation iPad. This thing is pretty beefy, weighing in at 1.65 pounds (750 grams) making it the heaviest of the consumer friendly tablets. For comparison’s sake, the XOOM clocks in at 1.6 lbs, the iPad 2 at 1.3 lbs and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 at 1.26 lbs. It’s a fatty and there’s nothing you can say to deny it. Not only is this a chunky beast, it isn’t the slimmest of the bunch either. You can say the two go hand in hand, but coming in almost twice as thick as the iPad isn’t a good thing.
Even though the tablet can become a contestant on the Biggest Loser, it actually feels pretty nice to hold. That’s because HP’s used the added thickness to their benefit by rounding off the glossy edges. The sides sit comfortably in your hand, lending to a soft and comfortable feeling. Despite the added weight, I prefer the feel of the TouchPad in my hand over the iPad 2. The rounded and smooth edges make that difference. The iPad 2, being extremely thin, has sharp edges which tend to dig into your hand a little. Using the two side by side really shows the difference between them with the edge going to the TouchPad.
The glossy piano black plastic which wraps around to the front of the TouchPad tends to disappoint though. Mine actually creeks and cracks on the left side and actually feels like there’s an air pocket or misalignment. This might not be the situation with every tablet, but it is with my production model. Most tablets on the market now have aluminum housings or a rubberized coating, perhaps some nicely textured premium matte plastic as well. HP ditched all of the above for a fingerprint friendly dose of glossy plastic. It’s a shame because it really has a nice feel to it when you’ve got it in your hands. Think iPhone 3Gs from a texture standpoint. The rear concave glossy shell smudges almost immediately after picking it up. Cleaning the front of an all glass screen isn’t fun, but we’ve all grown accustomed to the sacrifice we must make for a touch centric device. By no means did we want to do the same with the rear. Not only that, but scratches started showing up immediately (the first day) simply by resting the TouchPad on a desk. Unacceptable for any device, especially at this price point.
The rest of the TouchPad comes across with mixed feelings as well. The power button and volume rocker feel nice, with enough feel and travel to not annoy you like some tablets. There’s a front-facing 1.3 MP camera (no rear facing) directly under the pinhole sized microphone located on the top of the tablet. To the left of the mic is the standard headphone jack. On the left hand side lies stereo speakers which HP likes to tout their Beats by Dre
marketing upgrade. Following along the sides, we have the micro USB port on the bottom, just under the home button a la iPad. HP added a nice notification light to the home button, which is an excellent and quite useful addition. On the right hand side of the TouchPad, you’ll notice a cutout the same size as the volume rocker and the speaker cutouts. Apparently, HP decided to mass produce the shell casing and went the cheap Chinese knockoff route by leaving a generic cutout on a $500+ tablet. Maybe the TouchPad 2 will have a SIM card slot or an SD card, but I don’t want this generic cutouton my TouchPad. Again, disappointing for a $500 device.
Display & Audio
As I stated earlier, the TouchPad uses a 1,024 x 768 IPS display. Quite simply, it looks great. It’s very close to the iPad 2 in terms of quality, if not identical to the naked eye. Pictures look silky smooth and true to form. Viewing angles, contrast and really anything else imperative to display quality all get high marks. You don’t have the cheap harshness like the XOOM has. It’s all just buttery smooth.
HP is really trying to differentiate from the market on the audio front with their Beats by Dre branding. They’ve successfully marketed their laptops with the Beats by Dre “enhancements” the last couple of years and aim to bring the same idea to the TouchPad. Having used an HP DV6 with Beats Audio, it’s really nothing outstanding. It’s a nice feature on a laptop considering it gives you a system wide EQ to tweak and generally get the sound to your liking. Very nice to have, but by no means is anything comparable to BBE enhancements found on Cowon players, which are world leading. We aren’t here to discuss laptops though, so how’s it sound with the TouchPad? For starters, there’s no customizable equalizer. HP ditched this for a simple Beats button that you can toggle on and off in the settings menu. The stereo speakers really aren’t anything to brag about. They sound decent considering there are two of them, but they don’t get loud (iPad 2 is louder), and they don’t defy physics. With headphones plugged in, the Beats Audio basically bring out a little bass boost at best. However, the overall sound gets slightly muddier and doesn’t enhance the quality of music by any means. Basically the TouchPad gives you lifeless sounding audio with the Beats turned off, and digitally altered (harshly) audio with the Beats on. Take your pick.
Back in 2009, Palm launched an excellent mobile platform which focused on multitasking like nobody had seen at that time. It was smooth, good looking and dead simple to navigate. Things looked bright for Palm, but unfortunately the mediocre hardware (at best), poor app selection, and complete lack of updates kept WebOS looking like the little engine that could. The platform never really took off with consumers, and carriers were never really 100% behind the product. HP’s looking to change that mindset and intends to put WebOS on everything from laptops and tablets, to microwaves and dishwashers. As for the tablet version of WebOS, it’s a pleasure to use. They haven’t really changed it much from the phone version at all. Heck, even the options menu has phone settings (ringtones and vibrate options) which won’t work on the tablet.
To unlock the tablet , press the home button on the bottom of the screen. This will give you a similar Honeycomb style swipe to unlock gesture. Immediately you’ll be greeted with the famous WebOS card view, and from here you start to see things are a little different. The bottom of the screen holds no more than 5 applications for quick access. These are completely customizable and can configured in any order you please. From here, you can tap the arrow icon which brings you to their app launcher. Scroll through apps, downloads, favorites and settings to open up the WebOS software. Once an app is selected, it’ll launch into full screen mode for you to get your news fix, Groupon deals, or to update your Facebook page with the only official Facebook app on the market. To switch to the next app, press the home button again to be brought into card view.
Card view is very different from simple multitasking or different home screens. This is where WebOS gets its mojo. You have one real home screen which shuffles through any of the open applications, which act as cards, to pick or dump at your own will. If you want to keep one open for later, swipe to the next app. Done with listening to music for the day? Swipe up and throw it off the screen. Unless you’ve allowed a certain app to run in the background (email), the app is discarded when swiped off the screen. No more wasted RAM clogging up your system (Google, are you listening?). It’s a refreshing way to get things done, and gives you more control of the resources your tablet is using.
At the top of the screen (in card view) you’ll notice an area to “just type.” This is the WebOS way to do a system wide search with a little extra thrown in for good measure. For example, if you type in a family member’s name in the search bar, you get instant access to their contact information, previous emails from your email account, and so on. You can search google, add to the calendar, send an email, open/find an app, search Wikipedia/Twitter/Amazon/etc, or even look up emails with a keyword. It really almost gives you a limitless possibility of use. This is way better than any other system wide search because it scours through your entire tablet, the web, apps, and then some to give you instant access at your finger tips. It’s the best I’ve used yet, and I love it
Notifications with WebOS 3.0 are also handled better than ever. Similar to Honeycomb (but a little slicker), they pop up into the notification bar at the top of the screen, which houses the typical information you’ll find anywhere (battery life, Wi-Fi signal, etc). The notification system utilizes a smooth way to alert you of new emails, updates or anything else you want to know about. For example, you get a little icon when a new email arrives, perhaps 2 or 3 emails. You tap on the email app to see what you have. It tells you who the email is from as well as the subject line. You swipe to the right to discard email #1. Email #2 is boring as well, so you give that a swipe to the right as well. The 3rd is a work memo about a meeting, so you tap it and the email app is launched bringing you to the company memo telling you donuts aren’t allowed in the break room anymore. It’s simple, but it’s smooth. Frankly, it’sthe way WebOS works.
The stock browser is based on the same WebKit browser that Android and iOS use. There isn’t any tabbed browsing like on Honeycomb, rather you get the WebOS card view instead to switch between tabs. The different windows will sit upon each other like a stack of cards waiting for you to open or dismiss them. You can shuffle pages to the top or bottom of the pile if you just hold the card for a second. Pinch to zoom works just like anything you might be used to. Flash is ready to go out of the box too. It actually works pretty well throughout most sites I’ve seen. It’ll occasionally get a little choppy, but it’s the best I’ve seen Flash work on a tablet yet.
Not all is rosy in the browser though. In everyday use it never seems to spring into action. Pages are loaded with no conviction (with Flash enabled or disabled), and it just seems to barely get moving. Safari is a much quicker experience. Once your patience is tested and the pages are loaded however, you get a very snappy browsing experience. You can scroll through media rich sites with ease, and the pages bounce back when you hit the edges of the webpage like you just made contact with some imaginary spring. Things do tend get bogged down a little when opening up multiple pages, but again, it’s not the quickest browser to begin with.
Like it or not, apps are a make or break feature. WebOS for the TouchPad is in its infantile stages (as are the rest of non Apple tablets), but there are already some decent ones available in the marketplace. Of course the ones that are preloaded on the TouchPad aren’t too bad either. Email for example brings out an excellent experience. This is where HPs Synergy starts to shine. You get a unified inbox, which can also be separated by accounts as well. If you have Google, Yahoo, Exchange, MobileMe, or POP3 / SMTP, you’ll be good to go. Once in the email app, you get to work with 3 sections of information which are all movable to make larger or smaller. Account info (inbox, drafts, sent, trash, etc), All Inboxes, and then the actual selected email can all be displayed at the same time if you choose. From here, you can slide these sections left or right to make them bigger or smaller depending upon your needs. Go full screen if ya like it old fashioned!
The rest of the in the box apps are all well designed as well. The built in calendar app works just as well as the email. Anything using your Synergy information is kept in sync here. The UI looks great. There’s also a memo app from HP which is a nice simple way to keep track of little notes and things to do. Google Maps looks great, but isn’t as snappy as the Honeycomb tablets. QuickOffice is your standard Office reader, which is unfortunately the entry level version. It gives you a glorified Office reader, without the ability to modify or edit Word documents or PowerPoint. Really a shame to not have a full Office editing suite built in.
One very interesting aspect of the TouchPad launch is the exclusive official Facebook app that came pre-installed on the tablet. It’s one heck of a good looking app that also utilizes the multiple window panes to bring you more relevant information. You can tap on your friends profile which opens inn the right pane, and still remain on your wall without going anywhere. Slide left and right to make each window pane bigger or smaller depending on what you feel is more relevant information. Things work pretty well, but again get a little slowed down in normal use.
HP App Catalog
The App Catalog is one of the reasons WebOS never really took off. There simply aren’t many developers interested in the platform because consumers aren’t interested. One available phone with poor hardware will do that to you. HP’s looking to do things differently now, and that starts with the App Catalog. Upon opening, you’ill be greeted with their built in “magazine” called Pivot. This is essentially an online magazine to showcase the TouchPad and all of the things you can do with it. Apps are highlighted as well as feature articles and informational columns. It might seem a little gimmicky, but it works. There’s definitely something more interesting about flipping through a digital magazine that highlights some apps you have or haven’t heard of. Oh, and the pictures look amazing in it.
The rest of the App Catalog works just like every other app store you’ve seen. Apps are arranged by most popular, featured, paid and free. There are categories galore leading to a pretty painless experience when browsing the Catalog. I really like that HP has done the right thing and added a bookmarking feature in their Catalog for those apps you might be interested in, but aren’t ready to pick up f or whatever reason.
The available apps all look excellent. Epicurious follows the WebOS feel through every ingredient. Groupon, Ted Talks, WeatherBug and every other one I have downloaded all look and feel great. Without going into detail for every one, you surely won’t be disappointed with the quality of the WebOS apps. HP is also launching their own video store sometime soon called the HP MovieStore. Expect it to be similar to the others with overpriced rentals that can’t be viewed on the big screen because the TouchPad doesn’t have video out capabilities. The quantity is still to be determined though.
As you can tell, the TouchPad has been an enjoyable tablet for me. Unfortunately, this is all great in theory. Similar to every other non iPad tablet, it just isn’t there yet. Perhaps that’s why HP is upgrading the Hardware already this summer. It all starts with the start-up, which took about 2 minutes to turn on. There’s an HP logo that just pulsates for you until you’re greeted with the beautiful card view. Once the sytem gets everything in order, accounts get synced and so on, you still get this feeling of sluggishness. Touches don’t register properly and you feel like you have to be exact when registering button taps. The browser is achingly slow quite often. Even web pages have completely stopped loading on me a couple of times. They just sit there with a loading bar idling, wondering if there is something you could do to just nudge it along. The same has happened with apps, some just take forever to load, and yet again others just decided not to load before I flicked it off the screen. I’ve even had 4 crashes in the last couple of days where the TouchPad just restarts on its own.
I have to say, even with these sluggish performance issues, I still enjoy the TouchPad. I never saw an issue using their multitasking card view or the “Just Type” search function. Swyping from card to card is effortless and smooth. The keyboard, which has some autocorrect spelling issues, is nicely laid out. WebOS includes a number row at the top for easy access, which takes away one less button tap that you would normally have to do in iOS. The WebOS platform isn’t customizable like Android, but doesn’t go the boring and dated app icon route that Apple still uses. It lies in the middle, and really just provides a visually pleasing, easy to use platform to work with. This effortless feel in WebOS just kind of works.
If there ever becomes an explosion of useful apps in the App Catalog, this thing can do business. This is real multitasking. I can manage my email accounts incredibly easy with the triple pane view, and much more efficiently than I can with iOS. Not only that, but just jumping from task to task, using copy & paste, inputting letters and numbers back to back, this stuff all adds up to a potentially incredibly useful tablet.
The TouchPad is a bit of a mixed bag. I really enjoy the experience I get from using WebOS. It’s a pleasant experience and brings multitasking power with the simplicity that rivals iOS. It just isn’t there yet, and this feels like HP jumped out there too early with this one, even though it’s one of the last to the dance. HP already knows this though, and swapped out the 1.2 GHz processor in the current form for a 1.5 GHz processor wireless version this summer to be released on ATT (US). Bummer for those early adopters. I hate to not recommend the TouchPad, but until the (known) firmware update gets released to fix these stability and lag issues, I wouldn’t drop $500+ on it. Not with what you get from other tablets that are better built and have more capable hardware and software. I hope HP gets version 2 right, because I really want WebOS to compete. It’s simply too good of a platform to get shelved.
- Stunning IPS display
- Notification light for alerts
- While it looks cheap and has downsides, the glossy rounded edge plastic feels excellent to hold in your hands
- WebOS is fantastic to use
- Multitasking is simple and awesome
- Beautiful apps
- Generic, cheap and easily scratchable plastic outer shell
- Stereo speakers don’t get very loud
- No video out capabilities
- Sluggish, buggy and crash prone
- Browser generally loads pages slower than other tablets
- App store has a lot of catching up to do