HP is the latest PC maker to jump into tablets - and in entering the market, it has immediately become the latest tablet maker to land under Apple's shadow. The HP TouchPad is the first tablet based on the WebOS mobile operating system, which HP acquired when it purchased Palm a year ago.

The Wi-Fi TouchPad comes in two versions at launch, with a 16GB model costing £399 and a 32GB model costing £479 – price tags that put it on a par with the iPad 2.

As the first WebOS tablet HP's TouchPad is obviously playing catch-up with the Apple iPad, despite the fact that it has several distinguishing features. Chief among them are the immersive meshing of contacts from multiple Web services and sources, the ability to print, Touchstone inductive charging, and touch-to-share (a Web, phone, and messaging transfer capability that will eventually work with the HP Veer and the upcoming HP Palm Pre smartphones).

HP TouchPad: Physical Design

The HP TouchPad has a 9.7-inch IPS touchscreen display, with 18-bit colour and 1024-by-768-pixel resolution. Though it matches the iPad 2 in offering IPS and that particular resolution, Apple's tablet has 24-bit colour. Android tablets with 10.1-inch screens have a higher resolution (1280 by 800), but Android renders in 16-bit colour.

Encased in glossy piano-black plastic, with rounded edges, the TouchPad has a less appealing look and feel than competing tablets do, including those that have plastic edges and backings. The TouchPad's plastic backing makes it very easy for the tablet to slide around, and the surface accumulates fingerprints very quickly (more rapidly than I recall the similarly designed Apple iPhone 3GS getting covered in fingerprints, to be honest).

The TouchPad weighs 740g, about the same as the heaviest Android tablets we've seen, and a little heavier than the iPad 2. It's also a smidgen more than a half-inch thick, matching the thickest of the Androids and the first-gen iPad, but two-tenths of an inch chunkier than the 0.33-inch iPad 2.

Overall the design strives for minimalism: It has just one button, a flat oval centered beneath the display that returns you to the home screen, and just one port, a MicroUSB connector on the bottom (both positions assume portrait mode). The port works for charging, as well as for transferring data to the device from your PC; the included wall charger is compact, and as with Apple's iPad, you use the USB sync cable to connect with the AC adapter.

The only other controls are the prominent, pleasingly contoured volume rocker (at the right side in portrait mode or the top in landscape), the power/wake button (top right in portrait), and the headphone jack (top left in portrait). Also positioned for use in portrait mode is the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video chat, which is centered above the display. Unlike the vast majority of competing tablets, the TouchPad lacks a rear-facing camera for still-photo and video capture.

In contrast, the stereo speakers are optimally located for use in landscape orientation; they're positioned out the bottom, and designed to maximize the audio by vibrating against the plastic backing. The audio sounded terrific with my test tracks, the best I've heard on a tablet so far. I can't say that the inclusion of Beats Audio made any difference, though; my tracks sounded the same whether that feature was enabled or disabled.

HP TouchPad: A Slow Start

Inside, the TouchPad has a 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. But its performance was anything but snappy: The tablet lagged behind my expectations in more operations than not. The one area it did keep up was in touch typing, as my fingers flew over the on-screen keyboard.

In my tests, the TouchPad felt slow from the initial boot-up. Out of the box, it took 1 minute, 50 seconds before the HP logo yielded to the first setup screen. In the clear but multistep setup process, you start by choosing the language: English (US, Canadian, UK, or Irish), French, German, or Spanish. Next, the setup drops you into Wi-Fi setup. You then agree to the HP terms of service, and set up an HP WebOS account (assuming that you don't have one already as a previous Palm Pre or Pixi owner) for backup and data restoration (including apps, settings, and accounts) and HP services. Finally, you can name your device--a handy bit of customization that's nice to see up front.

The thing is, setup felt as if it took more effort than starting up a tablet should require. Even this early in the process, WebOS distinguishes itself with clear language and big, colour-coded buttons--but it also continues the slow-response trend, introducing the spinning circle.

The sluggish performance was enough of a concern to me that I tried a second TouchPad to make sure that the problem wasn't isolated to the unit I had. But the second TouchPad fared little better: The spinning circle and pulsating app icons (two indicators that the tablet is busy loading something) became very familiar to me as I opened new apps and files, and loaded Web pages. Even scrolling through items (such as the list of zillions of Wi-Fi networks in the neighborhood) and flicking left or right among open items looked jerky, not smooth.

The TouchPad took 69 seconds for a cold boot-up, in contrast to the iPad 2's 26 seconds; it also took nearly twice as long as most of the competition did in our SunSpider JavaScript test. Loading apps felt interminable; Quickoffice repeatedly took a full 10 seconds to launch to the file-browser page, as opposed to the near-instant launch of Apple's Pages.

I found that the TouchPad had a frequent tendency to get a bit toasty at the back, too--not warm enough to start roasting marshmallows, but noticeably so. The battery life didn't impress, either: In our continuous video playback test, the battery drained in just 5 hours, 25 minutes--nearly half the time the Android 3.1-based Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 lasted, but about the same as the Acer Iconia Tab A500, Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101, and T-Mobile G-Slate.

See also: Group test: what's the best tablet PC?

NEXT PAGE: designed for multitasking >>

WebOS on TouchPad: Designed for Multitasking

The important thing to remember about the TouchPad is that WebOS, in many ways, is different from Apple's iOS and Google's Android 3.1. At the heart of WebOS's approach are the Just Type search bar (present on every home screen) and the concept of "activity cards" to represent each open item.

Just Type ties into WebOS's Synergy approach to aggregating contacts, calendar items, and other personal data from multiple services. Simply by entering those accounts, you can find someone - in my tests, for example, the TouchPad loaded profile pictures, so when I searched on a friend listed only in my Facebook profile, her info came right up in a Just Type search. Just Type can search across the Web, and across different services, as well. Adding services is simple: Many accounts, including Gmail and Yahoo, are preconfigured, and the menu designs are clean and straightforward.

The activity-card metaphor works well for navigating open items - be they Web pages, individual e-mail messages, or apps - although newcomers may be confused about how to open cards, fan them out, and stack them. To move among cards, you simply swipe along the left-right axis. You tap a card to open it full-screen, tap and hold to select a card and drag it somewhere else, or tap and slide up to dismiss it. To move out of a card to another one, you swipe up from just beyond the bottom bezel to minimize the card and return to the home screen.

I like this arrangement--the centered design makes it easy to navigate, as well as to group together similar things from different apps (such as a map that shows a restaurant location, plus the open email message that confirms the time for the lunch meeting). You can also group together multiple Web pages on a single topic. Some apps, such as the Facebook app, have a menu option that lets you open an additional activity card, so you can have several pages open at once. HP hasn't indicated a theoretical maximum for the number of activity cards that users can have open simultaneously; at one point, however, when I had numerous cards open, the TouchPad suddenly rebooted--and afterward it had no open cards at all. I couldn't tell whether that occurred because I overtaxed the tablet or because some other issue cropped up.

The TouchPad has lots of other interface niceties built in. A quick tap in the upper-right corner reveals the settings shortcuts; this is extremely handy, and one of the best tablet-interface tweaks I've seen, rivaling those of Android 3.1. With that simple tap, a menu pops down to show the date, the percentage of battery life remaining, the brightness control, Wi-Fi, VPN, and Bluetooth connectivity, the airplane-mode setting, the rotation lock, and the audio mute. The rotation-lock button became important for me, since the TouchPad grew easily confused and was sensitive to shifts in angle; once it even flipped rotation with no provocation.

Directly to the left of the status pop-down are notifications, which you can flick through one by one. This unique approach is especially useful for scanning inbound text messages and email.

Another design point done well is the nicely thought-out keyboard design. With a dedicated number row at the top and conveniently situated buttons for "@" and ".com," this keyboard ranks among the most usable and touch-typist-friendly I've seen (not counting custom Android keyboards on some tablets). My only gripe with the keyboard is the lack of pop-up letters, or a larger halo effect around the letter keys to indicate which one I pressed.

Yet one more thing that HP got right: printing. The TouchPad is the first tablet to make printing directly from the device viable and simple--if you have an HP wireless printer. I tried this function out on the HP Envy 100 e-All-in-One printer, and it worked smoothly. From an app that supports printing, you just select the printer icon or choose the print command from the drop-down, select the wireless printer, and go through the built-in print-driver options, including the choice of black or colour ink for text, and different sizes for photos (on the picture I tried, it let me pick between 4-by-6 and 5-by-7). I printed a photo (a bit darker than it ought to be, but this was on plain paper), a document, and a Web page, and the feature worked as billed.

Even the app navigation is fairly straightforward. On the dock, five apps--Web, Mail, Calendar, Messaging, and Photos & Videos--come preconfigured, but you can put in any apps you wish. The only fixed icon there is a cleanly designed up arrow that takes you to the Launcher. In the Launcher you'll find just four tabs, for apps, downloads (meaning downloaded apps), favorites, and settings. The preinstalled apps include Maps (powered by Microsoft's Bing Maps), Contacts, YouTube, Adobe Reader, the music player, and a Memos app (which I never got working).

HP TouchPad: Software Limitations

WebOS offers a lot to like on the TouchPad: I found both the design and the navigation to be intuitive. But it suffers from a lot of rough patches and bugs, too, including graphical hiccups and organizational frustrations in the Photos & Videos app, Web-page display issues in the browser, and fuzzy photo and text rendering. Add in the fact that the preinstalled version of Quickoffice will support only reading Microsoft Office and Google Docs files, not editing them (editing is due "midsummer"), and the fact that you can't download files from the Web directly to the device, and the TouchPad clearly has some drawbacks. Sure, being able to edit a document in Google Docs on my laptop, and then see the document appear and refresh on the tablet, was cool. At launch, however, the TouchPad's usability feels highly limited.

Part of the limitation lies in the dearth of available apps, a familiar complaint for anyone who may have considered the first Android 3.0 tablet (the Motorola Xoom) or the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook. For all of the potential that WebOS certainly has for being a viable tablet OS, HP faces the same app-availability challenges that RIM and even Google face (see "Mystery of the Missing Honeycomb Apps" for more). At launch, HP says, the TouchPad will have at least 300 apps--a far cry from Apple's 100,000+ apps for iPad, but about comparable to the number of Honeycomb-specific apps on Google's Android Market. Nonetheless, a perusal of the App Catalog, as HP calls its app marketplace, reveals even fewer big-ticket, eye-catching apps than Android 3.0/3.1 Honeycomb has.

NEXT PAGE: our first look at the HP TouchPad, from MWC in February >>

The HP TouchPad launches in the UK in July 2011, and will cost £399 for the 16GB version and £479 for one with 32GB storage. We got to play with a TouchPad at MWC in February, and here is our first-look review. Updated, 9 June 2011.

HP is rightly proud of its TouchPad, the large screen offering based upon Palm's critically acclaimed, but commercially underwhelming, WebOS operating system first seen in the Palm Pre.

Getting a hands-on test with the HP TouchPad is something of an achievement in itself. On the MWC show floor HP is adamant that nobody is allowed to touch the TouchPad; instead they can only watch demonstrations performed by experts.

While this doesn't bode particularly well for the development status (hands-off is a sure sign that things aren't finished), behind closed doors we managed to get a brief amount of hands-on time along with a good discussion with HP's Sachin Kansal, director of software management. Kansal, who worked on the original Palm Pre project and is now working with HP, spoke about the TouchPad and its place in the market.

HP TouchPad: the most interesting tablet at MWC

First, the good news. It's obvious that this is by far the most interesting of all the tablets on display, at least judging by the crowds of people gathered round taking photos and video from all angles.

HP TouchPad

Unlike the BlackBerry PlayBook and Samsung Galaxy Tab, the HP TouchPad has a 9.7in display (although it's somewhat smaller than the 10in Motorola Xoom). It is, however, in the same aspect ratio as the Apple iPad, which we prefer on a tablet device to the widescreen format being used by Android tablets.

Inside is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 1.2GHz CPU (as opposed to the iPad's 1GHz A4; and how this will compare to the Motorola Xoom with its GHz Tegra 2 dual-core processor remains to be seen). Performance - insofar as we could tell - was fine.

The case is stylish, and it has a slightly curved exterior that means it faces slightly towards you when placed on a flat surface.

Next page: The TouchPad's interface, performance and verdict >>

See also:

HP TouchPad: Can HP compete with the iPad?

In pictures: HP TouchPad

Tablet Advisor

 

We got our hands on the HP TouchPad tablet at Mobile World Congress for a first look review.

The HP TouchPad's interface is suitably snazzy and responded quickly to all touches. Instead of displaying a home screen with icons, it has a coverflow-style area displaying open documents. HP seem particularly proud of the devices ability to multi-task more effectively than the iPad. In email, in particular, you can write multiple mail messages at the same time, switching between different drafts; each appears in a stack on the display when you press the home button.

As with the Palm Pre, the HP TouchPad's display is somewhat different to the iPad, displaying a preview of application windows and documents that you swipe left and right between.

HP TouchPad

Like WebOS on the Palm Pre the TouchPad still has a weird (to our minds) interface element where a circle flashes on the screen to let you know where your finger has just pressed. We're not quite sure why this is necessary - certainly none of the other pads seem to feature it.

One key advantage to WebOS is the way it enables you to tap directly into your online services (hence the name). Photos, for example, aren't just the ones on the device but also ones on your Flickr account, and other cloud services; the same goes for contacts and FaceBook and Twitter. Everything is integrated seamlessly into the operating system so it all works from the same place. Again, how well this works is something that will need to be tested thoroughly on launch.

WebOS was certainly a big "wow" factor in the original Palm Pre, though, and the big question is whether it'll work commercially this time around.

"I think it's fair to say that the original Pre met with considerable critical acclaim," said Kansal, "but what's different this time around is HP's scale and resources."

HP has a lot of clout in the market, from supply to distribution, and is especially large on a global market. Palm was integrated into HPs mobile division and now Palm, or rather HP, hopes that this increased muscle will help it drive the TouchPad into getting wider market share.

HP TouchPad

Like the iPad the HP TouchPad has a fixed-in battery, although there is no information yet regarding battery life. Connectivity is limited to one micro-USB socket, with no MicroSD card or DVI video output option.
There are two more marquee features worth mentioning. The first is inductive charging, which means you can charge up the TouchPad by attaching it to a stand (it clips on magnetically) and the stand can be angled up and down.

The second is wireless transfer. Kansal demonstrated this by opening a web page on the Pre and tapping the phone to the TouchPad, which instantly displayed the same webpage. Simple enough to begin with, but HP will expand on the technology and, we presume, will enable sharing of data, apps, and other content wirelessly between devices.

HP TouchPad

On the whole, the HP TouchPad is probably the most interesting of all the tablet devices being demonstrated at MWC, but whether that will translate into the most sales later in the year is debatable. We remember the massive interest from journalists and analysts in the Palm Pre, which turned into very few sales to the general public as the iPhone and Android cleaned up. Hopefully HP will get its message across though this time, though, as the former Palm team (now the HP mobile team) has too many good ideas to go to waste.

Next page: Our expert verdict >>

See also:

HP TouchPad: Can HP compete with the iPad?

In pictures: HP TouchPad

Tablet Advisor

HP TouchPad: Specs

  • 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-CPU APQ8060 processor
  • HP webOS operating system
  • 9.7in (1024x768) XGA capacitive multitouch colour screen
  • front-facing 1.3MP camera
  • 16GB or 32GB internal storage
  • rechargeable 6300mAh battery
  • 3.5mm stereo headset/headphone/microphone jack
  • internal stereo speakers
  • 802.11b/g/n WiFi
  • WPA/WPA2/WEP/802.1X authentication
  • Bluetooth
  • 240x14x190mm
  • 740g
  • 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-CPU APQ8060 processor
  • HP webOS operating system
  • 9.7in (1024x768) XGA capacitive multitouch colour screen
  • front-facing 1.3MP camera
  • 16GB or 32GB internal storage
  • rechargeable 6300mAh battery
  • 3.5mm stereo headset/headphone/microphone jack
  • internal stereo speakers
  • 802.11b/g/n WiFi
  • WPA/WPA2/WEP/802.1X authentication
  • Bluetooth
  • 240x14x190mm
  • 740g

OUR VERDICT

Many of the issues I've encountered - the performance problems, the bad Web-page handling, the poor text and graphics rendering, and perhaps even the off-base colours – should be addressable via software fixes in the future. HP said that it had an update planned for a few weeks out, and that the update takes care of reported issues related to performance, autocorrection, device rotation, messaging, email rendering, and Web browsing. The company is also working with Skype to optimize performance. Until then, the TouchPad will be a tough sell in comparison with Apple's dominant iPad 2, and even with the nearest Android rivals. Great-sounding audio output, a clean interface design, and the ability to print will not alone sell the TouchPad. But with HP behind it the TouchPad shows much promise.

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