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HP TouchPad Review: OS Beauty Vs. Design Bulk

Jun 29, 2011 (04:06 PM EDT)

Read the Original Article at http://www.informationweek.com/news/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=231000739


At long last, Hewlett-Packard, maker of printers and servers, desktop and laptop computers, test equipment, and big data appliances--well it, too, now has a tablet, the HP TouchPad, the culmination of exactly one year of effort between HP and Palm, which it acquired on July 1, 2010. The TouchPad follows Apple's iPad 2, several new Android-based tablets (from Motorola, Samsung, Toshiba, LG, and HTC), and RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook as, more or less, second-generation tablets.

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I've been testing the HP TouchPad for several days. What has a year produced? A solid entry that's behind on the hardware (let's call it generation 1.5) but advanced on the software (generation 2.5 when HP works out a few significant performance kinks). It's an innovative tablet with some fantastically juicy surprises that will make you want it now, but it carries enough disappointments that you'll probably wait for the next version. It's not enough to make you put down your iPad 2, or its near-equivalent Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, but it will make you wish those tablets bestowed the TouchPad's user experience and included its other innovations.

Specifically, the TouchPad is beautiful, but it's much bulkier than the neurotically slender iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. It has a single front-facing camera, which is probably just fine for most users, but most new tablets have a rear-facing camera as well. It's also missing HDMI out. And it's far behind Apple and Google on the apps.

HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
(click image for larger view and forslideshow)
The TouchPad's WebOS is particularly appealing. WebOS was appealing on Palm Pre smartphones, and it's that much better on a tablet, though underlying operating system changes and a new developer toolkit will require application changes to take full advantage of the TouchPad. In the days leading up to launch, HP engineers have been working to optimize the OS to improve performance. I've stumbled across some quirky and unproductive behavior. HP says an OS update is coming.

Sound familiar? See also: RIM BlackBerry PlayBook.

HP has worked hard to bring multimedia communications together, whether through additions to its underlying Synergy technology, a parlor trick called Touch-to-Share, or in the TouchPad's native email, instant messaging, audio, and video collaboration tools. But most of all, the user interface is smart, simple, and sublime. The card-based user interface is magnified (figuratively and literally) on the tablet.

The TouchPad begins shipping Friday through a variety of retail outlets (Best Buy, Office Depot, and Staples, and directly from HP), but only in its Wi-Fi mode. At first, HP will ship 16-GB and 32-GB configurations, priced at $499 and $599, respectively--comparable to similarly configured iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablets. HP has announced only AT&T as a carrier partner, providing no timeframe for a 3G or 4G version.

The TouchPad Hardware. This device hardware is going to disappoint some people, especially those spoiled by the newest, thinnest models from Apple and Samsung. First, a tale of the tape. The TouchPad has a 9.7-inch XGA capacitive, multi-touch screen, with 1024 x 768 resolution (pretty much the equivalent of what's in the iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1). I'm no ocularphile (yes, I made that up), but it looks fantastic--just as bright and vivid as the iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. The TouchPad is 9.45 inches wide, 7.48 inches high-about the size of an iPad 2.

The biggest differences: It's 0.54 inches thick and 1.6 pounds. Although the TouchPad is only slightly heavier than the iPad 2 and Samsung tablets (which are about 1.33 and 1.25 pounds, respectively) and thicker (by 0.2 inches), these differences are immediately noticeable. HP hasn't kept up with the Joneses here, but the TouchPad is beautiful in its glossy black finish. It feels almost a little delicate compared to other tablets, but its cover and back surface are polyurethane rubber, its outer bumper is thermoplastic elastomers (no, I didn't make that word up), and the inner surface is microfiber. I'm not going to go around drop kicking this thing, or pulling out the Craftsman drill to see what it can withstand, but I'm guessing you don't really want to drop any tablet, even the brick-hard BlackBerry Playbook.

I definitely prefer the thinner tablets, but over time the TouchPad's girth didn't even register any more. Still, I suspect HP will work to thin the TouchPad out over time.

Like most new tablets (but not all), the TouchPad uses a dual-core processor, in this case Qualcomm's SnapDragon APQ8060 1.2 GHz, with the integrated Adreno 220 graphics processor. It can max out to support 16-megapixel cameras, support 1080p HD, stereoscopic displays, and more. In short, it screams, and since HP hasn't put many of these capabilities to use, there's room for growth in future versions. On more than one occasion, HP representatives snuck in the idea that this is just the first in a line of tablet products.

Unlike many of the newer tablets, however, the TouchPad has only a front-facing camera, and it runs at 1.3 megapixels. I'm torn about the lack of a rear-facing camera. Although it's hard to imagine running around with a tablet shooting video and taking pictures, I've seen plenty of people doing it; the BlackBerry Playbook has been the best of the lot here so far. Still, I see the tablet as more of a video chat or videoconference tool, so the lack of a rear-facing camera is only a minor drawback. Even so, why not put one in? Others have managed to do so, and sell their tablets with the same price tag.

Just to round it out, the TouchPad has most of the rest of the necessary hardware: full Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, micro-USB connection, stereo speakers, 3.5-mm headphone jack, and 16-GB and 32-GB internal storage options. But no HDMI out--a pretty major omission. Sensors are there in full regalia: light, compass, gyro, and accelerometer. There is a "Center" button on the device; if you click it, it changes the on-screen view from WebOS cards to the application launcher (more on those later).




HP rates the TouchPad battery life at eight hours of browsing over Wi-Fi, nine hours of video playback, and 3.4 days of music playback. This was via HP's own testing using pre-production TouchPads, with the display on the default setting, power off time-out at 10 minutes, and the ambient light sensor off, among other variables.

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In my own everyday testing, under various conditions, I was able to get as much as 11 hours with the TouchPad running almost continually, playing music, accessing the Web, and running multiple apps. On days with less frequent (but still significant) use, I got more than 16 hours. I kept the screen brightness at medium, which is more than adequate.

WebOS for TouchPad. WebOS for TouchPad is a work in progress, but it has boundless promise. In fact, I would call it addictive. No lie: I sometimes found myself trying its gestures, uselessly, on the iPad or an Android tablet. In short order, I was hooked. But WebOS isn't new. Its card-based interface has been around for a couple of years on Palm Pre phones, and yet it's that much better on the TouchPad. The ability to organize apps into stacks of cards (sometimes having them organize themselves that way, as when you launch a website from a link in an email message) lets you open and manage many applications at once--an easy thing to do on the desktop, but not so much on the tablet.

HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
(click image for larger view and forslideshow)
Just swipe between cards or stacks, swipe up to minimize an app, swipe the card up and off the screen to quit the app, hold and drag a card onto another, and so on. It's a wonder others don't just copy this approach. Oh, wait, RIM already did in the BlackBerry Playbook. I can't help but wonder whether there's a lawsuit in the offing here; HP wouldn't comment on that possibility.

But where the PlayBook stops, WebOS is just beginning. For one thing, the PlayBook's QNX doesn't let you pin cards together to make a stack.

WebOS is multitasking, so the apps keep running if they need to. That is, apps that must run in the background, like music apps or email, don't suspend, whereas things like games do.

The card interaction isn't the only trick up WebOS's sleeve. For example, if you have created a WebOS account, that account information--your profile, some of your settings, your apps--comes with you from device to device. When I started up the TouchPad, it was already populated with a few applications I had downloaded onto a Pre phone. It already had all of my contacts and pulled in other relevant information.

Speaking of which, Synergy is another amazing innovation begun under the Palm regime but with very little follow-up. With a little setup information, Synergy pulls together your contacts, using whatever services you might keep them on. For example, for many of my contacts, I have phone, address, and SMS information, but also Yahoo instant messaging, Google Talk, Microsoft Exchange, LinkedIn, and Skype details. I could access my contacts using any of these methods, right from the contact application (well, it connects me to the Messaging app, but more on that later). You even get your contacts' Facebook photo if they have one.

OK, all of that was already part of WebOS (except for the Skype part), but now HP has taken it further (finally!), extending Synergy to photos and calendars. In the Photo app native to WebOS, you get all of your photos on the device (like screen captures), from Facebook and photo sharing services (for now, that's only PhotoBucket and SnapFish). In the Calendar app, Synergy pulls calendar information from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Exchange, and others into a single, central calendar. You can customize it to just show the services you need to see.

All tablet OSes have their notification tendencies. HP's WebOS puts them in the upper right part of the screen. When a new email or Skype message comes in, for example, you get a noticeable icon along with some of the text of the message. Some messages, like calendar reminders, pop open a small notification window. When I ran Pandora and a new song played, the song's name and artist appeared in text at the top of the screen for a few seconds. All message icons, including Facebook, stay atop the screen until they're dealt with. It's no better or worse than other notification systems (though I often find the BlackBerry PlayBook's a tad cryptic), just different, and it works.

One last magic trick: "Touch to Share." Take a Palm Pre phone (Palm Pre 3, to be exact), pair it with the TouchPad using Bluetooth, and you can pass Web pages or SMS messages between them. Simply touch the Pre 3 to the home or center button of the TouchPad, watch the fun little ripple on screen, and suddenly the Web page you have open on the TouchPad is now on the Palm Pre 3. Touch to Share uses not only Bluetooth, but also the capabilities of an A6 chip, which is also used with the Touchstone charging doc (discussed later). It not only looks cool; it's handy, too ... well, if you have a Palm Pre 3, that is. You have one of those, right? All right, maybe not so handy just yet.

The TouchPad runs services that let applications print to HP printers that use the company's e-Print connectivity. HP says that's about 90% of printers purchased in the past five years. Our company only has a six-year-old mongo HP plotter, so I couldn't test this feature. HP says that if you print photos from the TouchPad photo app, the printers are smart enough to detect that and use the photo tray (assuming it's set up).

The TouchPad, like most other tablets, supports VPN connections. It includes VPNC, an open source IPSec VPN client that's pretty standard on today's VPN concentrators; and Cisco AnyConnect, which is also Cisco's VPN client for Android. On the surface, these are fine, but the real test will be how well they work on concentrators from the likes of Cisco, Juniper, and Checkpoint, or any commercial IPSec VPNs.




Now the ugly stuff ... WebOS has been plagued during testing with performance problems. The worst of them is a sluggishness that starts to creep in over time. I'm not sure whether it's due to memory leaks (which HP confirms is happening) or running too many applications, or perhaps (in the case of Quick Office, according to HP) misbehaving applications, or all of the above. Regardless, I often found myself rebooting. I got frustrated by the more-than-minor annoyance of having to wait for, say, a cursor to appear in an email message body, or for a Web page to scroll, among other simple tasks. Music, either from Pandora or playing on the device, would start getting interrupted by the simple loading of a Web page.

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Also, the TouchPad is extremely slow to start up, sometimes taking two minutes--twice as long as other tablets.

Some applications would bring up a ghosted dialog box. I'm not sure what they said, because they were blank, and they stayed until I finally figured out that if I could just find the invisible "OK" or "dismiss" button, I could solve the problem. But in these cases, often applications would just refuse to launch. (With early, shipping versions of the BlackBerry PlayBook, applications constantly started and then crashed, so pick your poison.)

HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
(click image for larger view and forslideshow)
HP says it has been working on OS updates that it will send over the air a few weeks after launch. Where have we heard that before? Oh, right, with Android Honeycomb, and most certainly with RIM's QNX on the PlayBook. It just seems to be the way: Ship the tablet on time, ready or not, and assure everyone that over time these things will get worked out and stabilized. Without an update, the WebOS problems are just too frustrating and prevalent for long-term use. In other words, wait.

Native WebOS Apps-Browser, Email, Messaging. The TouchPad comes with all the usual native applications: contacts, calendar, maps, YouTube, Facebook, etc. But there are three that matter most for productivity: Web browser, email, and messaging.

The TouchPad's Webkit browser performed fairly well. The state of Web performance benchmarks is a bit muddled these days, but I did run some of my standard website testing suite on it, and the browser didn't have a problem with any site I threw at it. For example, on one site that shows up miserably in the native Honeycomb browser (even in version 3.1), the TouchPad browser was flawless.

On the Acid 3 test, however, the browser scored a 92 out of 100, with some significant artifacts. HP says this browser isn't up to the very latest Webkit standard, and that it's working on updating it soon.

The TouchPad browser supports Adobe Flash 10.3, and it managed every Flash site I threw at it. For example, just for fun, I like to see if I can run our video publishing system, Brightcove, on tablets. Much of Brightcove's console is written in Flash. I could preview videos, edit metadata, and publish video, though I couldn't use controls like the scroll bar. I tested another application in my daily toolset: Adobe's Omniture, whose console is also in Flash. Again, I had no major challenges. The performance was even fast. Flash video played just fine as well, especially on porn sites (just wanted to see if you were still paying attention).

The native email application is fairly typical. It provides a universal inbox, or you can view your Micrsoft Exchange (via Microsoft Direct Push with Exchange Active Sync), Yahoo, and Gmail inboxes separately. You can place messages in folders or mark multiple messages for action (like deleting). Unlike with the Android Honeycomb email client, there's no message drag-and-drop into a folder. Also, entire message threads aren't kept together in a single conversation view, so you have to rummage through your inbox email by email. Not good.

I couldn't see inside nested folders (folders within folders). HP provided a few remedies in the short term, and they're working on a fix. Early in my testing, I wasn't able to see HTML-based email content, though that got fixed quickly in a system update. I still occasionally get emails with links but can't see those links on the TouchPad.

What is good is that the email window panes are flexible. In one view, you can see all of your inboxes, lists of messages, and then the text of an individual email. Or if you want to give better screen real estate to a single message, you can pull away some of the list views. This capability is also available in other applications and is similar, in some ways, to Android's fragments.

Finally, the Messaging app built into WebOS is a centralized way to communicate and collaborate and, like many WebOS treats, it uses your existing messaging services, like Yahoo IM, Skype, or SMS. It even detects presence in the app and across messaging systems. Type in a contact and connect via any of the existing services--send a text, send a Skype message. In fact, you can make Skype-to-Skype calls using the TouchPad, or, better, conduct video chats over Skype. Unfortunately, the video performance was horrid. While I could easily hear and see the person on the other end of the call, my picture came through pixelated and like a series of still pictures. HP said it's working to remedy this issue. (I tried Skype on a laptop, and the video worked perfectly.)

There's also a phone/video app, which links either with Skype or with a Palm Pre 3 (paired to the device) for regular phone calls.




TouchPad Apps: The Catalog, The Developers, The Same Old Story. HP's App Catalog for the TouchPad contains a few interesting elements. New to this tablet launch is Pivot, which is a digital magazine of sorts intended to help promote the work of application developers. Pivot exists in a tab on the catalog. That is, when you launch the catalog, it comes up in Pivot, but you can just go on to look at the application categories, finding what you need. It's still early for TouchPad apps, but there are about 300 of them in the catalog, according to HP. Although WebOS has been around for years, HP decided to bite the proverbial bullet and change toolkits--from Mojo to Enyo--to allow for a more robust application experience.

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And yet, as with Mojo-based apps, HP claims that writing a WebOS application is simply a matter of using Web standards: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and so on. The toolkit just makes all of the code work in WebOS paradigms.

Mojo apps can still work. In fact, HP claims that 70% of previous WebOS applications have been quickly and easily modified to run on the TouchPad--a full 6,200 applications. (HP says the main reason the rest haven't been ported is that they need some sort of gesture area, or a physical keyboard.) Many of the Mojo-based applications I ran, like Pandora and Trapster and The New York Times app, all worked adequately. They're a bit like iPhone apps on an iPad, though you can't make them full screen. The New York Times one was anemic compared with the full-fledged version on the iPad, or even just in a Web browser.

HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
(click image for larger view and forslideshow)
These older WebOS apps run only in portrait mode, which completely screwed with my mind when flipping through my cards. I thought I had the tablet oriented wrong.

Additionally, HP (the Palm company specifically) has always encouraged a bit of renegade application access through the use of homebrew apps. These apps can be side loaded onto any WebOS device, and that's also true for this version of WebOS.

HP hopes it can encourage more developers to write apps for WebOS. It promises this will not be a fragmented OS, and it's working on bringing together the phone version and this tablet-based one. The company says it's investing in workshops for WebOS. More than 400 developers have come, and the company says it's sold out for the rest of the summer.

HP has talked about putting WebOS on top of Windows, giving application developers yet another entrenched target. HP says it's also working with Adobe, with the hopes that it can support Air applications on WebOS. Early on Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that HP was in talks to license WebOS, possibly to Samsung. HP responded that it has said for awhile that it would be willing to license WebOS to a strategic partner, but it's not looking to license it more broadly. This multi-pronged strategy provides some insight into what companies like HP are willing to do to make WebOS more attractive to developers. I hope it succeeds, because it's going to need the momentum.

HP's current application catalog list has a handful of useful titles (USA Today, NPR Reader, Box.net), but get beyond those and there's not much to choose from. This isn't much different from what's available from RIM, Microsoft Windows Phone 7, or, to a lesser extent, Android. There are no native Google apps, no Netflix, and none of the hundreds of productivity apps, or even vertical industry apps in the iTunes App Store.

Of the applications I tested, USA Today worked extremely well. The Facebook app, created by the HP team using the Facebook Partner Engineering Tools, worked fine. Fun games include Shrek Kart and Quell (which I had to put away, because it became an obsession), and I liked listening to local radio stations on iheartradio.

MoodAgent is pretty slick. It takes all of the music you load onto the TouchPad, and then with colored, labeled sliders, lets you choose a mood mix (happy, passion, romance, etc.), and it builds a new playlist based on that mood. The NPR Reader is a shell of the iPad version (it lacks the beautiful graphics, among other things). This is going to be a long, tough road for anyone named RIM, HP, and Microsoft.

I wasn't enthralled with QuickOffice for WebOS. Using it on Android or the iPad (at least the Pro version), I can access any document anywhere, from Box.net, DropBox, Google Docs, local documents, SugarSync, and so on. It is, of course, the default document viewing app for most mobile platforms these days, or when it isn't, you can make it so. I brought up a series of documents on all platforms, just to compare, and while complex documents (say Excel worksheets with graphic elements) didn't render correctly on any tablet, the WebOS version was the most challenged.

Everything was simply too big, and there didn't seem to be a way to change that, other than awkwardly trying to pinch it smaller, which worked only up to a point. In fact, I wonder if there was a performance issue, or maybe you just can't pinch or zoom in this app on WebOS. On the iPad and Galaxy Tab, I could see a good portion of the spreadsheet, and pinching and zooming worked smoothly.

QuickOffice works great on spreadsheets and PowerPoint files on Android and the iPad, but I had all sorts of trouble with it on the TouchPad. A PowerPoint document, for example, required a few quirky moves to display all of the slide thumbnails; these just display naturally on Android. I couldn't open some of my Google spreadsheets on the TouchPad, but they worked fine everywhere else. In the other tablet versions, I'm able to drag and drop files from one service to the other (DropBox to Box.net, for example), but this doesn't work on the TouchPad.

Finally, I had trouble viewing my DropBox folders (some of them appeared empty). There were some initial problems with GoogleDocs, but in my most recent testing, those seemed to be worked out.

Syncing iTunes music was pretty easy. It requires installing HP Play (in Alpha mode, according to the app) on the PC or Mac, connecting the TouchPad via USB, and then the application pretty much takes over. I yanked out the USB and it gave me a "OWWW! That hurts! Next time, please unmount the drive from the desktop." Nothing like a snarky system message.

At launch, Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and People apps will be available for the TouchPad, HP said. You'll also be able to buy and rent movies and TV shows from the HP MovieStore at some point after the TouchPad launch. There will be a third-party music purchasing service at launch, HP says.

Accessories. I used three TouchPad accessories during my testing. The Touchstone dock, which lists for $79.99, is a recharging stand that doubles as a stand for using the device. Just like the Palm Pre Touchstone, you just set the tablet on the stand and it charges; however, the tablet charges only when resting on two of its four surfaces--a lesson I learned the hard way. When the TouchPad rests on the Touchstone, it goes into what HP calls Exhibition mode. You can display certain Exhibition applications while the TouchPad is docked, like a clock, your calendar agenda, and so on. Developers can take advantage of the Exhibition feature in their applications.

The Wi-Fi keyboard, priced at $69.99, was particularly useful when I was using the TouchPad constantly. Most people will opt for the soft keyboard (you can select the size you want it to be), but I found the hard keyboard to be a huge time saver. Finally, I used the protective case, $49.99, to keep nosy airplane neighbors from seeing what I was working on, but honestly, any tablet owner needs to protect that investment. A case is hardly optional.

RECOMMENDED READING:

High Expectations For HP Tablet

HP Says TouchPad Will Win Tablet Market

HP Pivot Repackages App Store For TouchPad Tablet

HP's iPad Competitor Faces Tough Odds

WebOS Plans Put HP On Collision Course With Microsoft

HP Nixes Windows For New Tablets, Phones

Slideshow: HP Tablet Announced

Apotheker Paints An HP Cloud Vision

Android 3.0 Honeycomb First Impressions

Where Are All the Honeycomb Apps?

iPad 2 Rolling Review: Web Performance

Apple iPad 2 3G Teardown

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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