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TouchPad review

HP enters the tablet game with the webOS-powered TouchPad — but will it make a dent?

Palm faithful and newcomers alike, behold: the TouchPad review. For some, this has been years in the making, for others (honestly, for most) this is a new and potentially interesting blip on the tablet radar. The team that brought you webOS — for better or worse — has now graduated the platform to pad status, with the help (and cash) of HP. According to the company, the TouchPad marks the kickoff of its hard push into the hearts and minds of the slate-buying public, as well as a rebirth of sorts for Palm’s unrealized ambitions. The iPad-like device will be showing up on store shelves, online, and in advertisements meant to reintroduce not only webOS, but HP as a consumer brand worth knowing (and loving, presumably). The company hopes that the TouchPad will pave the way for its newly-acquired operating system to live on PCs, printers, phones, and more — all talking to one another in a self-contained and self-sustaining ecosystem.

The TouchPad has its work cut out for it, of course. The $499 / $599 10-inch slate is entering a market currently dominated by Apple’s iPad and crowded by me-too Android devices. HP believes the breadth of its reach in retail and the superiority of webOS as a platform will convince buyers and developers that the product can be more than just an also-ran. I’ve been putting the device through its paces for the last week or so (along with an early version of the Pre 3), and can tell you whether those claims are backed up by reality, or just an unanswered wish in HP’s hope-chest. Read on for all the details in my full review of the TouchPad!

Hardware

Hardware / design

The feel of the device is on the cheaper side of things
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Okay, I won’t beat around the bush. The TouchPad looks a lot like the original iPad. Sure, it’s missing the aluminum backing and some of the harder lines, but the general shape, button placement, and size just scream iPad — and it doesn’t help that the screen is the identical dimensions and aspect ratio. There are only so many ways to slice these devices, but it would have been nice to see HP get a little more daring on the look and feel of the general industrial design of this product. Of course, the TouchPad is rather thick — as thick as the original iPad and way thicker than the iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1. Comparatively, the TouchPad clocks in at 0.54 inches, while the iPad 2 and Tab both hit 0.34 inches. That may not sound like much on paper, but it’s a pretty hefty difference that you definitely notice when you have the device in hand.

You also notice the plasticky feel of the hardware. The TouchPad is made up largely of piano black, high-gloss plastic. A single piece of this material makes up the back and sides of the slate, while up front there’s a Gorilla Glass-coated LCD display, broken only by a small webcam at the top of the device (in portrait), and a thin home button at the bottom. Along the right side is a volume rocker, while you get two speakers on the left (the stereo sound is a nice touch). The bottom houses a Micro USB port, while a power / sleep button lives on the top right edge of the tablet.

In all, the feel of the device is a touch on the cheaper side of things; I certainly wouldn’t describe it as "premium." Even though the TouchPad has a substantial weight (1.6 pounds), the unit seems cookie cutter (for lack of a better term) in your hands. I also noticed some very slight squeakiness and movement with the plastic around the speaker grill on the lower left side of the slate, which didn’t inspire confidence (though build quality is far superior to previous Palm phones). A soft touch coating would have gone a long way to improving the feel of teehe device (something along the lines of what the company has done on the Pre 3) — or HP could have simply used a better material for the housing. It’s not a tragedy, but I walked away underwhelmed with the design on the tablet — it’s nice to look at, but does nothing to stand out from the pack.


Internals

Internals / Display / Audio

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The TouchPad is powered by a dual-core Snapdragon (the APQ8060) capable of speeds up to 1.2GHz — I doubt the tablet is actually burning that hot, but I can’t say for sure. Also inside you’ll find 1GB of RAM, 16GB or 32GB of flash storage (I tested the 32GB version), and a Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n radio. Also onboard is Bluetooth 2.1+EDR compatibility, a light sensor, accelerometer, compass, and gyro, as well as a 1.3 megapixel front-facing webcam. A 3G-equipped version of the tablet is coming, though I didn’t have access to that model while testing.

The speed of the device seemed solid during most tasks, and it certainly has enough horsepower to deliver great gaming experiences like Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. It’s clear the Qualcomm chip is no slouch, but I did see performance issues while using the TouchPad, though I believe that has more to do with buggy code than underpowered hardware (much more on that in the software section below).

The screen is a 1024 x 768, 9.7-inch LCD with capacitive touch. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s pretty much the iPad display to a tee. Compared side-by-side with the iPad 2, I was impressed with the clarity and color tone on the TouchPad, though it’s worth noting that brightness was noticeably dimmer on the HP device. Viewing angles were also comparable between the two screens.

As noted, the TouchPad has a set of stereo speakers (only truly stereo when you hold the device in landscape mode with the home button on the right). The Beats-related sound is quite good when you’ve got the tablet in the right orientation. The stereo field was particularly noticeable with some of the music I listened to on the unit, even when the TouchPad was laying flat on a desk. It’s not going to thunderously rock anyone, but it’s some of the better audio output that I’ve heard on a tablet or phone. In particular, sound was crisp and clear when using the device for phone or Skype calls (more on that in the software section). One knock: when I held the device in portrait, I found that I covered the speaker at the bottom with my hand inadvertently, causing audio to be muffled.

Sound was crisp and clear
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Battery

Battery life

Battery life seems outstanding on the TouchPad
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So far in my testing, battery life seems outstanding on the TouchPad. While I haven’t yet had a chance to run our full suite of battery tests on the tablet, I can tell you that in day-to-day, very heavy use, it performed excellently. On a typical day of rigorous testing (app downloads, 3D gaming, Skype calls, lots of web browsing, constant email work, Twitter, messaging, and more), the TouchPad went from 9AM in the morning to 12AM that night and still had 20 percent of its battery life. In lighter use, I left the device off the charger for 3 days straight and still had plenty of juice. HP says that the tablet is capable of 8 hours of web browsing, 9 hours of video playback, and 3.4 days of audio playback, and those estimations seem right on to me. As with the iPad and some of the Honeycomb devices, you won’t be reaching for the dock constantly.


Software

Software

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Of course, as with most screen-only devices these days, the big story isn’t necessarily about the hardware — it’s all about what’s running on that hardware. With the TouchPad, that story is even more significant given the history — and potential — of webOS. Having reviewed every major version of the operating system, I was particularly excited about and interested in where HP has taken the platform with the latest incarnation, 3.0. It should come as no surprise that this is a major shift for the OS, but it might also help to hear that much (if not all) of the spirit of webOS has survived the transition to the tablet.

User interface / OS look and feel

The same basic building blocks which made webOS so attractive a few years ago are almost completely intact in the new version. Cards, Synergy, the launcher, notifications, universal search (now dubbed Just Type), and the new Quick Actions are all here. If you’re coming from a Palm phone, you’ll feel right at home… save for one minor detail. In an effort to squeeze the OS into tablet form, HP has removed some of the gestures which you may be familiar with. The swipe up gesture which tossed away cards and brought up the launcher is still present, but the back and forward gestures and the Quick Launcher gesture (which brought up the "wave" of app icons) are long gone. Instead, you get back buttons in apps — which is familiar but not nearly as intuitive. After a few hours of use, I didn’t find myself missing those pieces too badly, however, and it’s safe to assume that most TouchPad users will have never seen them in the first place.

The whole thing flows more naturally than probably any other mobile OS on the market

General navigation through the OS continues to be carried out through app cards and stacks of cards, which both work beautifully to create a clutter-free multitasking experience. As I said in my original Pre review, cards feel like "half application switcher and half active widget," and that hasn’t changed much on the TouchPad. Stacks add an even better sense of an overview of your work, and the whole thing flows more naturally than probably any other mobile OS on the market. Palm nailed this the first time, and it still feels wonderful to use.

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As I mentioned, other pieces have come along in webOS 3.0, such as Synergy, which has now been exaggerated to encompass all manner of accounts and applications, including MobileMe, Dropbox, Skype, and many more. Likewise, those great unobtrusive webOS notifications are here, though presented in a slightly cleaner (and frankly more usable) manner. They appear on the right side of your status bar and can be managed no matter where you are on the tablet — even nicer, you can manually swipe your way through a stack of email notifications or messages without having to jump into the application to get an idea of what you’re dealing with.

HP has added some new features to the bag of tricks in webOS that make a lot of sense. In the mail app and many other applications on the device, "panels" are now employed to make viewing larger or smaller areas of content easier. That means that in complex programs where you need to navigate multiple levels, you can slide right or left on columns to reveal or hide sections of the app. In mail, you might start out with a three panel view — accounts and folders would be one panel to the left, then your inbox listing is level two in the center, and finally the message you’re reading lives on the right side of the screen. If you want to see more of the email you’re looking at, you simply grab a handle at the bottom left side of that panel and drag to the left, so that the two right-most panels slide over the accounts list. This works again if you just want to look at the email itself. If you’ve used Twitter on the iPad, it’s a similar concept, but here it’s always clear where you can pull a panel back or push it forward. This is employed across the OS to great effect in places like photos, the native Facebook app, and messaging. It’s deceptively simple and feels extremely natural.

It seems to me that the general tenets of the webOS philosophy have always been based around speed, simplicity, and finding the shortest and most organic steps to getting things done, and webOS 3.0 doesn’t seem to have lost those principles. HP has certainly tightened up much of what Palm started, and navigating the TouchPad quickly became not only second nature, but an experience I found myself missing going back to the iPad or a Honeycomb device. It’s good enough that it sticks with you — like a catchy song you can’t get out of your head; but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any out of tune moments with this device.

From the start of using this tablet, it was clear to me that HP had some work left to do on tuning and tightening the OS, and that lack of polish created frustrating and disappointing moments while using the TouchPad. In particular, I found touch sensitivity and general fluidity of the user interface to be wanting badly at times. Presses to buttons on the screen would go unanswered, applications would suddenly pause, lists I was scrolling moved intermittently and erratically (or would just disappear altogether). Sometimes the device felt smooth and light, while at other moments it locked up or sputtered to a point of complete aggravation. More than once I had the entire system freeze and then reboot while I was in the midst of navigating (or trying to navigate) my way out of some weird UI fender bender. All across the OS I found myself discovering dark corners of unfinished or untested chunks of the UI, like when I would use the upward swipe gesture to bring up the launcher, and accidentally open an app instead.

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HP has some work left to do on tuning and tightening the OS

And it wasn’t just about speed or smoothness. The new virtual keyboard provided here — while very capable at times — would often not respond or respond slowly to key presses, making for messy emails and messages. Spelling mistakes didn’t seem to autocorrect properly, with some mistyped words automatically fixing themselves, while others that seemed obvious (dont or wont for instance) would just sit there unchanged. More frustrating, words which were clearly mistyped and underlined — picked up by the spellchecker, that is — would offer you the correct spelling as a first choice when the word was tapped on. Worse still, the contextual menu that lets you choose words to correct could be unresponsive or disappear at my touch!

Skype, while integrated into the core of the OS for calls (more on this below), was generally buggy, frozen, unable to connect, or just downright awkward to use. Rotation on the device was a pain too, as it would often change direction unexpectedly, or alternately fail to respond to orientation shifts when it was asked.

But — and this is a big one — there is some real light at the end of this tunnel. I spoke with Jon Rubinstein and others at HP, and was assured that nearly all of the bugs and issues I’ve been experiencing will be fixed in an OTA update coming shortly after the device launches. In fact, I went piece by piece down my list of complaints, and on every point folks at the company said that they were aware of the issue and that if it wasn’t already fixed in the latest build of the OS, it would be before the update rolls out. Of course, the issue here is that the shipping product will contain much of what I’ve been dealing with, making for a flakey experience for early adopters. I can’t review the device that the TouchPad will be, only the one that it is right now — and that device has some real issues.

The other issue HP has right now is the lack of developer support. Although the company says 300 tablet apps will be available at launch (more than Honeycomb could boast), the level of really high quality applications is still few and far between.


Notable apps

Most of the native apps present on previous webOS phones have been ported and tweaked for the larger real estate of the tablet. The calendar, mail, notes, and others have all been revamped and look quite handsome on the bigger screen, but a few included apps stood out to me, and I felt they were worth a deeper look.

Mail

Mail on webOS has been a so-so experience since the very first Pre was released. Even back then I was griping about the lack of obvious features like multiple message management or threaded conversations. Well, in the 3.0 version of webOS mail, it’s a relatively brand new ballgame, and while it still (annoyingly) does not have threaded messages, you do get the option to delete or move in a batch fashion. As I mentioned in the section above, the experience is really quite different and intuitive compared with not only older versions of the mail app, but mail for other mobile devices. The use of panels to hide or reveal content makes flowing through your messages simple and elegant, and HP has added nice little visual touches like the old-school style stamp that appears when you flag an email.

That’s not to say the app is perfect. As I’ve already said, it’s prone to the kind of slowdown and freezing that occurs in other areas of the OS — the only problem is that when you’re trying to hustle through a day’s worth of emails, you really notice the pauses.

And here’s my personal plea to HP: can you please add threaded messaging to all of your mail applications? Don’t you have long conversations? Don’t you want your email to make sense? As it stands, you’re years behind the curve on a simple addition that many people find to be a crucial part of their mail experience.

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Flash is on board and mostly functional on the TouchPad

Browser

There have been some big changes to the browser for webOS 3.0, and while you won’t necessarily find anything heart-stopping, there are a couple of nice points worth noting. First off, Flash is on board and mostly functional on the TouchPad, and I was able to play back Hulu clips and shows with little trouble. Sometimes video would stutter or freeze at the beginning of play, but that usually cleared up quickly and made for fairly decent viewing. The browser has also been redesigned for use on the bigger screen (and sans gestures) meaning more of the controls are exposed, which I found to be more to intuitive than previous versions. Performance was snappy though not quite up to par with the iPad or even Honeycomb levels when it comes to Sunspider testing (the TouchPad came in at 4040.6ms overall), but it’s quick enough that it doesn’t feel like a drag in use.

Bing Maps

I was pleasantly surprised by Bing Maps on the TouchPad. Historically, I haven’t been a fan of Microsoft’s take on mobile mapping, but the implementation here feels pretty solid. In particular, the refresh and framerate of the app is top notch, and the bird’s eye view — while not nearly as cool as Android’s 3D maps — is a somewhat useful way to view the topography. Compared to the current Google Maps app for older webOS devices… well, there is no comparison. Bing Maps is much, much better. Traffic info still can’t match what Google is doing, and this app is relatively short on bells and whistles, but it gets the job done cleanly and smoothly, and for that, I’m deeply thankful.

Skype integration / Video calling

HP has smartly integrated Skype calling into the TouchPad as a native service, meaning that you need only enter your account info into Synergy, and your Skype contacts populate the device. That means that you can make and receive Skype calls with the tablet in a relatively seamless manner… provided you connect at all. I had a lot of trouble getting calls — particularly video calls — to connect when I was testing the TouchPad. HP says there is a known issue with video calling to Macs, and I certainly saw some of that rear its head. TouchPad to TouchPad calls had more luck, and the video and audio quality was good enough for a chat, but not nearly as smooth as what you’d see on a laptop or desktop. If the company can work out the kinks with this software, this is kind of a killer feature to have fully integrated into the OS. Since I use Skype for a majority of business calls during the day, being able to quickly and easily tap into my contacts list and have conversations is powerful.

One other note about Skype and all the other messaging services in webOS 3.0; there doesn’t seem to be any way to log out of individual accounts, meaning that you’re always connected or disconnected. That can be pretty annoying when you’re at your laptop and your phone and tablet are also logged in to Skype. Having three devices ring at the same time is not really a lot of fun. This seems like an easy fix to make — here’s hoping it happens.


Touch To Share

Touch to Share / Phone pairing

Right now it's mostly a gimmick
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We’ve seen a few demos of Touch to Share previously (I demoed it on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, in fact). The technology is interesting if not completely useful right now. As I said at the beginning of the review, I had a Pre 3 to test alongside the TouchPad, and I used the combo mainly to play around with this feature. Right now, all you can really do is swap a webpage from the tablet to phone, or vice versa. That’s nice, but it doesn’t exactly feel like a necessity. The concept of being able to touch a phone to another device and transmit something is interesting, but it will really come into its own when you can share documents, contacts, or images, video, or audio files. Right now, it’s mostly a gimmick (though a cool gimmick).

More interesting was the Bluetooth pairing between the Pre 3 and the tablet, which allows you to not only take calls on the TouchPad when it’s in range of the phone, but also lets you send and receive SMS messages on the device. This is a pretty cool prospect for owners of both units — scarce though they may be at first — and I found it legitimately useful. One caveat: this is text only, so if you receive an MMS on the phone, you’re simply alerted to its presence. Hopefully this will be expanded on as it solves a real problem.


Accessories

Touchstone / Wireless keyboard

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Admission: I’m not really an accessories guy. Typically, I get the bare minimum for a product and leave all the extra baggage on the shelf — but I liked what HP has done with the Touchstone dock and wireless keyboard for the TouchPad a lot. For starters, the dock is fantastic because you can place the device on it in either landscape or portrait with no plug to line up or cable to fiddle with, and that makes throwing the device casually on the dock to charge or just use a much more seamless experience than other products on the market. Secondly, webOS’s Exhibition mode is actually handsome and useful (imagine that!), making for charging sessions that still give you something of value. That fact that this piece of the OS is extensible for developers also raises the bar.

I was also surprised by how much I like the pairing of the wireless keyboard and the dock — together the system feels like a surprisingly functional micro PC. The keyboard is outfitted with a variety of special function keys which can whip you out to card view or open the launcher, drop down your notification window, control the volume, brightness, or audio playback, and pop you into search. One point about the keyboard did bother me, however. When you use the card view key, you can only view your cards or open the launcher; you still have to navigate on the screen. I don’t know why the company didn’t opt for arrow key navigation with return tap to enter the card you’ve selected, as it makes perfect sense.

I’m not sure this combo will win everyone over, but if you’re planning on doing heavier email sessions and the like, it’s a pretty solid mixture of the familiar and the new.

Exhibition mode is actually handsome and useful
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The TouchPad is far from perfect — really, not even close right now. Still, there is DNA here that is amazing, and the device deserves to be given a second look. What HP has done in just a year with webOS is commendable, and if the fixes for some of these big, ugly bugs come as fast as the company is promising, the TouchPad could be the contender everyone over there thinks it is.

Still, the bottom line here is that the stability and smoothness of the user experience is not up to par with the iPad or something like the Galaxy Tab 10.1, even if many of the underlying ideas are actually a lot better and more intuitive than what the competition offers. That, coupled with the minuscule number of quality apps available at launch make this a bit of a hard sell right now. If HP can convince developers to get behind this product, and the company can laser focus on the end-user experience, becoming the number two player in tablets isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Really.

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