Editors' note: HP has announced that it is discontinuing the development of WebOS products and Australian sales partner Harvey Norman has suspended sales of the TouchPad. The following review was completed prior to these decisions being made, references to pricing and availability were correct at the time of writing.
HP could have taken the easy way out. Like many computer manufacturers today, HP could have easily jumped on the Google Android bandwagon, lobbed out a Honeycomb tablet, and called it a day. Instead, through hard work and some key acquisitions (most notably Palm), it set out to create an entire ecosystem of mobile hardware and software that could truly rival Apple's.
The HP TouchPad is Australia's first evidence of this effort. In a tablet market that is more or less split between Apple and Google, the TouchPad offers a refreshing alternative with a distinctly different take on how these types of devices should work, and how users interact with them.
Priced at AU$599 (16GB) and AU$699 (32GB) with no option for 3G data service, the HP TouchPad isn't priced like an underdog. It has the app catalogue of an upstart, though, with a selection of native tablet apps that numbers in the hundreds and around 8000 WebOS apps in total.
Is the TouchPad the perfect option for those fatigued by the iPad's app-centric tablet, or did HP miss its mark? Let's have a look.
While the TouchPad's WebOS software is inspired and unique, its design is quite the opposite. Half an inch thick and wrapped in high-gloss plastic, the TouchPad's look and feel share more in common with a kitchen cutting board than the svelte designs of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 or iPad 2.
To be fair, the TouchPad's construction feels solid and worthy of HP's reputation for quality. It's the thickness and choice of materials that's throwing us off. After a few minutes of handling, the slippery plastic backing feels like a plate at a pizza party.
The HP TouchPad looks the part, but the plastic construction doesn't feel great.
We suspect HP's choice of materials has something to do with the TouchPad's special Touchstone-inductive charging dock, which uses an electromagnetic field to transfer power through the back of the tablet. Still, a textured finish like the one found on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer, would have gone a long way to diminish the ick factor. Sorry to be so fickle about the TouchPad's feel, but there's no way around the fact that tablets are handheld devices. This stuff really does matter, and frankly, not harping on it would be a disservice to all the great tablets out there that get it right — from the iPad all the way down to the Barnes & Noble Nook Colour.
HP does nail down some of the standard design elements, such as the dedicated buttons for screen lock and volume control, along with an ample (though somewhat invisible) home screen button. Two slim speaker grilles are found on the left edge, making them unlikely to be covered by your hand while holding the tablet in landscape view. A standard headphone jack is located on the top edge, and a micro-USB port is located on the bottom for charging and syncing.
The choice of using a broadly compatible micro-USB port is both refreshing, and surprisingly short-sighted. With so many of today's tablets making use of their dock connections for video output and other accessories, HP seems content to leave those features for version 2.0. On the upside, it's very easy to find a replacement charging cable.
We should also note that the TouchPad lacks a hardware switch for the screen rotation lock. The rotation lock function can be activated using a simple pull-down menu, but given the device's sensitive accelerometer, a dedicated switch like the one on the Acer Iconia Tab or iPad would have been more satisfying.
Beauty is more than skin deep, and those desperate for new flavour of tablet may be willing to overlook our aesthetic gripes. You want to know if the TouchPad can deliver the goods — so here you go.
In terms of hardware, the TouchPad runs a Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-CPU APQ8060 1.2GHz processor and comes with 1GB of RAM. There's no option for memory card expansion, so you'll need to make do with either 16GB or 32GB depending on the model you select. The front panel is a 1024x768-pixel resolution capacitive display blessed with multi-touch and connected to a graphics chip capable of rendering 3D graphics. Your location can be approximated using the integrated Wi-Fi (802.11n), but no GPS is included.
Another feature missing from the TouchPad is a rear-facing camera. Now, we take the camera criticism with a grain of salt, since the idea of capturing photos or videos on a tablet still feels absurd, even under the best circumstances. Still, it's nice to have the option, and it's one more spec the competition can point to.
You do get a 1.3-megapixel camera on the front, but good luck finding a use for it. Even with the stock messaging app synced with our Skype account, it was unclear how to initiate a video call. A task as basic as taking a self portrait seems impossible using only the pre-installed software. Our vanity may never recover.
To more practical matters, the TouchPad's core features revolve around the five main apps tucked in the home screen dock. These include the web browser, email, messaging, photos and calendar.
The TouchPad's ability to triage email is one of its standout features. During set-up, the TouchPad prompts you to enter any and all of your email accounts, including Gmail, Microsoft Exchange, Yahoo and more.
The TouchPad is an impressive tool for email.
A three-pane view follows, which allows you to view your accounts, email list and email preview all in a single view. Email replies pop out of the three-pane arrangement as a new window floating above your inbox, where it can be addressed immediately or toggled behind your inbox to deal with later. It's a distinctly different approach to email than you'll find on the iPad, and one that better resembles the desktop computer method of multitasking and window juggling. For us, it's a natural fit, and composing email and managing multiple inboxes feels intuitive.
In many ways, the TouchPad takes the metaphor of the desktop more literally than any Mac or PC. On a conventional computer, every window represents a separate application or document. For the TouchPad, windows are gathered into stacks that are tied to their common task. For example, in the course of reading email you may find yourself clicking links to the web. The resulting web page is grouped together within the same stack as the email that contained the link. This automatic continuity of associations between windows allows for a less schizophrenic kind of multitasking. In theory, at least.
Sometimes the logic breaks down. Let's say you open more than one web link contained in an email. Just like the previous example, the first page will be grouped together with your email. If that page remains open, though, each succeeding page will open as a separate stack, breaking its association from the email that spawned it. Maybe there's a rationalisation for it, but to us it seems inconsistent.
Fortunately, WebOS affords you full manual control over managing and organising stacks however you see fit. You can pull an email reply out from its stack to deal with as a distinctly separate task. You can create a document in Quickoffice and stack it among important emails and web pages. Ultimately, if you are someone who naturally organises life into little piles (bills, to-dos, correspondence, etc) then you will feel right at home in TouchPad's interface.
That said, some of the TouchPad's apps don't take full advantage of the card stack metaphor. Calendar, for example, is never more than a one-window view. There's no pulling appointments out as separate windows or managing separate calendars as separate views. In HP's defence, the TouchPad's ability to meld together all of your various calendars (Facebook, Google, Exchange and others) into a unified view is no easy feat, and shouldn't be overlooked.
The TouchPad's photo app is another missed opportunity for taking advantage of the home screen stacks. One can imagine spreading out multiple photos on the home screen or stacking relevant images with presentations. Instead, the TouchPad's photo app is a single window that comes across as a low-budget imitation of the iPad's photo viewer. To add some confusion, the main view of your photo library displays your collection as a series of photo stacks, but doesn't actually provide any of the stacks functionality found on the TouchPad's home screen. You can't pull them apart or reorganise them — they're really just a fancy way to dress up what is essentially a folder. It's a disconnect — and ultimately a minor one — but it points again to a lack of consistency.
The photo app does an impressive job pulling in photos from your online accounts, but it fails to leverage the unique card stack capabilities of WebOS.
Now, there are some great things to say about the TouchPad's photos app. Just as HP infuses its email and calendar app with all of your online accounts, so, too, does the photos app. Your photos from Facebook, Photobucket, Snapfish and others are all pulled in and cached to your TouchPad, alongside any photos you may have stored locally. Even comments for Facebook photos are pulled in and displayed alongside your images. Some big names were missing from the account synchronisation list, such as Picasa and Flickr, but HP plans to extend compatibility with "Synergy Services", which users can download from within the app store. Only time will tell if anyone develops a Synergy plug-in for your favourite service, but at least the door is open.
The included Messaging app also does a decent job of integrating several of the more popular instant messaging services on the web. At launch, HP builds in compatibility with AIM, Google Talk, Skype and Yahoo. If you also happen to own an HP webOS phone, you can pair the devices over Bluetooth and both send and receive SMS messages through the app, as well.
As for the rest of the included software, a pop-up menu from the home screen reveals more apps, including Bing Maps, an HP-authored Facebook app, Quickoffice, contacts, memos, Amazon Kindle and more. Tabs running across the top of this menu can take you to device settings, a customisable listing of favourite apps, and a section for downloaded content that includes a link to HP's webOS app store.
HP offers a new way to think about buying and browsing apps.
The TouchPad can directly download third-party apps through the built-in HP App Catalog. Here again, HP took a chance to distinguish itself from the app-buying experience on the iPad or Android Market. As a platform, webOS does not have the volume of apps to match its competitors, and at this point in the game, there's probably no catching up. Instead, HP has designed a curated buying experience on the TouchPad as a way to highlight quality content and to give the developers behind those apps a chance to shine.
Upon opening the HP App Catalog, users are presented with the digital magazine called Pivot, which acts as a kind of shopping guide front end to the app catalogue. The magazine content changes out each month, and each page highlights a particular app or a genre of apps. For example, a page extolling the benefits of listening to internet radio offers direct links to three hand-picked music apps, which users can either purchase or bookmark to consider later.
A series of tabs running beneath the Pivot digital magazine offers a quick means to jump into the full app catalogue, either browsing by category, or as a keyword search. The catalogue includes apps designed for both webOS smartphones and the TouchPad, and lists each apps compatibility on the app description page. Apps designed for the smaller-resolution screens of HP's line of Pre phones are mostly compatible with the TouchPad and run on the tablet in their native size.
We've talked a lot about the TouchPad in relation to the iPad and the army of Android tablets on the market. When it comes to performance, though, we couldn't help comparing the TouchPad to RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, which bears the same price, and is fighting HP's same battle to define a new tablet platform.
We had our criticisms about the PlayBook, but as a tablet that promised Adobe Flash compatibility and powerful multitasking capabilities, RIM delivered in spades. It also threw in HD video capture and 1080p HDMI output, just to make things interesting. With that in mind, the HP TouchPad doesn't match the horsepower of its fellow underdog. The Adobe Flash compatibility for the browser is there, but in a few instances it had a hard time running if multiple web pages with Flash content were open. We also found it generally sluggish when launching apps, compared with the iPad or the Galaxy Tab 10.1, and a cold boot took a full minute and eight seconds. It's certainly not the slowest machine out there, but it's not going to make anyone take notice.
HP rates the TouchPad's battery life at eight hours of web use, or 10 hours of video playback.
The TouchPad is an important tablet. It's important for HP, and important for consumers to have another option out there beyond what Apple and Google are offering. At the end of the day, though, the TouchPad feels like a well-orchestrated competitor to the original iPad and not the forward-thinking alternative we had hoped for.