HP TouchPad £399
30th Jun 2011 | 01:30
HP webOS finally arrives on tablets, but how does it stand up to the competition?
HP TouchPad: Overview and design
When HP bought Palm, it was widely considered to have been mostly fuelled by the desire to acquire the webOS operating system.
In particular, the powerful and flexible multitasking that the Pre and Pixi were capable of was what got everyone so excited. We'll go into more detail later, but where multitasking has been something of an add-on to the iOS operating system used in the iPhone and iPad, it's always been at the core of webOS.
Check out our HP TouchPad video review:
Well, the wishes have finally been realised in the HP TouchPad, a 9.7-inch tablet running webOS 3.0. It's powered by a 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor, with 16GB or 32GB of storage. It comes in at £399 for the 16GB version and £479 for the 32GB model – a pound-for-pound match with the equivalent iPad models.
However, the TouchPad has a few tricks up its sleeve that separate it from the iPad. It's got support for Adobe Flash built in, a standard USB connector for charging or connecting to your computer, Beats Audio-powered stereo speakers and wireless charging using HP's Touchstone technology. The latter of these also allows you to simply touch the soon-to-be-released Pre 3 against the TouchPad to transfer websites back and forth between them.
Physically, the TouchPad doesn't stray far from the mould set by the iPad and adopted by the rest of the tablet world. An all-black glass front houses the 9.7-inch multi-touch screen, which has a resolution of 1024 x 768. Above it (in portrait) is a 1.3MP front-facing camera. There's no rear camera on the TouchPad.
Below the screen is a small, oblong Home button, which has a strip of light in it. This light flashes when you have a notification waiting, or stays on when you're using the device.
On the right-hand side of the TouchPad is a volume rocker, while the top houses the 3.5mm headphone jack and the Lock key which doubles as the on/off button.
The left-hand side has no buttons, but has the stereo Beats Audio speakers, the idea being that you'll generally hold the TouchPad in landscape when these are in use. On the bottom is the micro USB port.
Although it takes many design cues from the iPad, the main difference is that the TouchPad has a plastic rear cover. Inevitably, this features a little more give in the build quality than the aluminium of the iPad, but it's still excellent, and well up there with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
We do have some small gripes with the construction, though. The volume rocker rattles when touched, and the speaker grille holes are quite sharp, but the main one is that the glossy plastic picks up fingerprints and grease at a ridiculous rate. It can quickly become slippery and harder to hold comfortably as a result.
The same is true of the touchscreen front, and as soon as you get it into any kind of direct light, the smudges really impair your ability to see the screen. HP includes a cleaning cloth in the box that works really well, but who wants to carry that around with them all the time?
At 740g, the TouchPad is noticeably heavier than the iPad 2, but not so much as to be a make-or-break point. Obviously it is far heavier than most seven-inch tablets, such as the HTC Flyer. It's also a good 50 per cent thicker than the iPad 2, at 13.7mm, but the rounded edges mean that it's generally quite nice to hold – save for the problems we mentioned above.
HP TouchPad: Interface
HP webOS is all about the multitasking. Well, there are lots of other bits too, but the cards system employed means that it's this that stands out. The way it works is that any app you run is represented as a 'card', and more cards are added as you open more applications. You can then scroll through the cards to look through the apps you have open.
To help you keep track of things, cards can be grouped together in 'stacks'. You can do this manually by dragging the cards around, or the operating system will do it automatically when you, say, open a web link from an email. Instead of being kicked out to the browser, a new card simply sits on top of what's already open, so you can switch between them easily.
In this way, stacks tend to group things by task, rather than by app. They're a great way to work, and have always been one of webOS' biggest strengths.
When you're actually using an app it becomes fullscreen, and you minimise it down into a card again by pressing the Home button. There's no gesture area on the TouchPad as there is on the Pre 2, but you can also minimise apps by swiping up onto the screen from just below it.
When you minimise an app into a card, it actually keeps running visibly in its smaller form – videos and other dynamic elements embedded into web pages will keep playing, for example.
You close an app by simply swiping its card up and off the screen.
Our main complaint about the card system is that HP hasn't done anything to make use of the large area of a tablet screen. The cards themselves are larger, so you can see more of what's going on in them, but there's still only one on at a time (with a small peek of what's to the left and right of it).
This means there are large areas of the screen with nothing happening in them, as you can see in the screen grabs above. This strikes us as just being totally wasted space, and it seems as though HP could have done a lot more here.
If you have a lot of cards open, you still have to scroll through one by one. We said in our Pre 2 review that we wished HP would implement something just like HTC's Leap View, which first appeared on the HTC Desire and Legend and an approximation of which has been used on many other Android phones since, including the LG Optimus 2X.
In it, you pinch a Home screen to zoom out on all your screens. Being able to do this with the cards and choose between them quickly would be great. Alas, we can only dream.
The rest of the webOS Home screen hasn't changed much for this tablet-ised version of webOS 3.0, with notifications being the exception. Instead of icons appearing at the bottom, they now sit in the status bar at the top, each separated into its own little drop-down message.
Tap one and you can see a little more information about the email or whatever else needs your attention. Tap the message to be taken to the app in question. You can swipe to the right to dismiss and notification without actioning it.
If you have more than one message from an app, they stack up on top of one another, so if you dismiss the most recent one, you'll be shown the one that came before, until they've all been dismissed.
It's an elegant way to do things, but means that you can't see something like a list of new emails just from the notifications service, which is a shame.
Also in the status bar is a mini quick-settings menu, which you access by tapping the right-hand corner. It offers most information about the date/time and your connections, as well as quick controls for adjusting the brightness, turning on the rotation lock and muting the sound.
Below the status bar on the Home screen is the Just Type bar. This was a clever feature on the Pre and Pixi phones because you just typed (yes) on the Home screen using their physical keyboards and were able to do lots with what you'd written, such as search for it online, turn it into an email or Facebook message, select a contact, look through content on your device or launch an app.
The TouchPad only has a software keyboard, so you have to select 'Just Type' before you can actually type, which seems to miss the point somewhat. It can still be a useful quick feature, offering what the Spotlight function on the iPhone does, and much more besides, but it's not quite as handy a feature as on the phones.
At the bottom of the Home screen is a kind of dock. You can choose what goes here, with the exception of the arrow icon, which stays no matter what. You use this arrow to open the Launcher, which is where you'll find the rest of your apps listed, along with the settings options.
All of this operates in both landscape and portrait, flipping automatically thanks to the built-in accelerometer. However, this is slow. Really really slow compared to what we expect from the iPad and Android 3.0 tablets such as the Asus Eee Pad Transformer and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
The reason seems to be that the OS changes the cards from portrait to landscape along with everything else. This means that all of the apps (which are running live in the cards, remember) also need to be flipped to landscape. As a result, you simply get several seconds of nothing after rotating, then everything changes together.
As you might expect, this goes slightly faster when you've got an app open in fullscreen, but is still far too slow, particularly since the sensitivity to turning is quite high compared to other tablets. Tip it slightly while in portrait and you can find yourself waiting between five and ten seconds to get back to portrait from landscape.
The TouchPad's keyboard is one of its strongest points, generally. There are two things that really recommend it: the numbers bar across the top, and the ability to change its size to suit you. Having been used to the generous proportions of the iPad's keyboard, we preferred the largest size on offer, but it's up to you.
You can change the size by holding the keyboard minimise button (which isn't very intuitive, but is fine once you know it's there) and choosing a new size. It's quick to do, and you may even find you prefer different sizes for different tasks.
Having the separate number keys even when typing in QWERTY is great for entering passwords and things. It takes up a little more room, yes, but it's a small feature that goes a long way.
Typing is comfortable, and the autocorrect does a good job of amending typos. However, it's not so smart with updating missing apostrophes. We understand that "lets" is a real word – although we think the default should probably be to add one in there – but why wouldn't it add one to "youre"?
While the keyboard does change slightly in different fields (adding '.com' and '@' buttons when in an email address field, for example), it doesn't quite change enough. Why doesn't the forward-slash key become prominent when typing in a URL? It's not a huge problem, but it seems odd to put the focus on convenience with the dedicated number keys, then not bother with stuff like that.
HP TouchPad: Apps
As you might expect from a modern tablet, the HP TouchPad comes loaded with several apps, with the AppCatalog available for expanding your arsenal.
Probably the single most significant app these days is the browser, which features all the mod-cons we're after. Mostly.
It's all multi-touched up, with pinch-to-zoom and general scrolling responding as fast as you'd hope. Even on pages with Flash elements playing, the general browsing experience wasn't really affected. This is an issue that still plagues Android, so HP has the edge here.
Or it would, if Flash was consistently good. Most simple Flash navigation elements run fine, but video is hit and miss. Sometimes it's great, playing smoothly whether it's embedded in a webpage or opened into fullscreen. It tends to get a bit choppy when minimised into a card, but can still be followed.
At other times, however, it starts choppy and stays choppy, or navigation elements don't scale up to fullscreen properly and you end up with black bars across the video which are actually how you control it.
On the whole, Flash is a positive addition, don't get us wrong. But it's an irritatingly imperfect addition still.
The browser itself is fairly typical in terms of layout. At the top you have your address/search bar with back and forward buttons and a Share button for adding bookmarks, adding to the Launcher or sharing a link (although this only does it over email for some odd reason, totally foregoing the HP Synergy social networking integration).
You also have a bookmarks/history pane that slides in when you press the button, and there's an option to add a new window. This actually comes in as a new card in the stack, rather than a tab or anything like that. While we have no problem with HP making the most of its OS, we do think the option to open in a tab in the current window or open a new window as a card would be nice, particularly since both Android and iOS will offer tabbed browsing by the end of the year.
The Email app works in a split-pane mode, much like Android 3.0's or the iPad's, but it's a little more fiddly. You can drag panes back and forth, sort of like the Twitter for iPad app, but only by using the little lines symbol at the bottom. If you try to drag a pane over by touching one of the messages, you'll inadvertently delete that email: you clear each message by swiping it left or right.
While it's a setup you can get used to, it's not what we'd call immediately intuitive. Its responsiveness is a little inconsistent, too. Sometimes it's fine, but sometimes it's quite sluggish.
There's also a Calendar app for keeping yourself organised. It's well laid out and will automatically bring through online calendars for your account, although it didn't automatically bring through our Google calendars for some reason. We had to add the account manually. It did everything for us after that, but it was a bit odd.
Again, it can be quite sluggish, particularly when switching from one view mode to another (say, going from month to week).
There's a Messaging app, which can be used with some chat services on the TouchPad alone, or can be used with a connected Pre 3 to answer your texts. The Phone & Video Calls app serves a similar purpose, allowing you to connect to Skype on the TouchPad, or make and answer calls from a Pre 3.
There are a few apps for looking at documents and the like. Quickoffice can link to online storage accounts, including Dropbox, to enable you to view your files. Alas, it's viewing only: no editing here. Adobe Reader offers similar functionality for viewing PDFs.
The Memos app simply enables you to write sticky note-style messages to yourself, which can be emailed. Contacts is also standard, bringing through information from Facebook and Google accounts, among others, if you allow it. It doesn't give any live updates from social networks, though, and you can't even click through to someone's profile from it.
You might think that tapping on the Linked Profile entry for someone's Facebook would take you to their profile, but it just gives you the option to unlink that information. Again, it's a bit disappointing for an OS plastered with 'Synergy'.
Maps is powered by Bing, and proved to be very responsive and smooth. Bing's local searching is usually excellent, and switching from a search to directions was instant and accurate, although it did cause the app to freeze for a few seconds afterwards.
Music has its own app, and you add music most easily by just dragging and dropping it when the TouchPad is plugged into your computer. Again, we're going invoke our two most-used words in this review: inconsistent and sluggish. Album art that's recognised in one view will disappear from other views, and the whole app can be quite slow to respond.
Once you minimise the Music app and switch back to, say, browsing the web, there's supposed to be a small control that appears in the notifications bar. However, we found that this didn't appear on occasions, for no discernible reason.
Incredibly, you can actually dismiss this control like any other notification, but music will keep playing, so you'll have removed your shortcut. Annoyingly, it also doesn't act as a shortcut to the Music app, so if you want to change album, you'll have to minimise your app and scroll through manually.
Videos and photos are handled by the aptly named Photos & Videos app. Again, it can link to your online profiles, including Facebook. Sadly, it only brings through your uploaded photos, and not other ones you're tagged in.
The videos we loaded onto the device weren't handled that well. No name is presented, and no thumbnails were pulled from the footage, so you're just guessing which is which. However, we couldn't fault it for playback. 1080p video was as smooth as you like, as was 720p. The TouchPad didn't seem to do quite as good a job upscaling our standard-definition film as some other tablets, but it was still perfectly watchable.
The Facebook app isn't actually loaded on the device, despite appearances, but tapping it the first time will take you to the AppCatalog (eventually – it just kept taking us to the Email app for a while, until we quit all running cards).
Once downloaded, you open it and see your news feed in a really nice, clear scrolling list. It stutters a little here and there, but is an easy way to absorb your friends' witterings. Quite annoyingly, tapping anything in the menu on the left will close the other pane over it, even though this just leaves a bunch of empty space on the right of the screen, so you have to drag the pane back to the right every time.
The place to get your apps on the TouchPad is the AppCatalog, but it's had one major change in coming to the larger screen. The traditional Featured page, like you might see on the iPad's App Store, has been replaced with Pivot, a digital magazine/app promoter.
Instead of just giving you a list of cool new apps, Pivot creates small articles around them, with great use of layout and photography. There are features where someone involved in an app talks about it, and a section where famous people (and we use that term loosely for the first issue, at least) give their recommendations for the Kindle app. A calendar shows what events are on this month and what apps might complement them.
It's a fairly impressive digital magazine in its own right – not too fancy, not too traditional – but the fact that you can buy or bookmark an app from right inside it makes it a genuinely brilliant addition to the AppCatalog. Adding some context to these hot new apps really makes it more interesting to explore them.
The only disappointing thing about it is that it's monthly, so you won't get as many updates on things to look at as you would in other app stores.
One advantage of Pivot is that it only features TouchPad apps, whereas the rest of the store features both tablet and phone apps. However, you can still tell which is which, thanks to the little "For TouchPad" wording above the price.
The app selection is adequate, with the usual suspects such as TuneIn Radio available, but it simply lacks the stand-out apps the iPad has. The top apps in the Productivity category here are for unit conversion or torrent monitoring. On iOS, the top Productivity apps are the Likes Pages, Numbers, Keynote and Penultimate.
No matter what anyone says, tablets can be (and are) used for proper busywork, but not without the apps to do it. We just hope that the TouchPad can gain enough support to bring great equivalents of these apps, because the AppCatalog itself is impressively easy to use, and apps download quickly and painlessly.
However, the AppCatalog is quite slow to load and stutters hugely when you're scrolling through its lists.
HP TouchPad: Performance
With its 1.2GHz dual-core processor, the HP TouchPad is one of the most powerful tablets around. In theory, this should translate into some superfast operation, especially with the 1GB of RAM onboard.
As you may have already worked out from this review, though, this isn't really the case. At least, not consistently.
There are many times when the TouchPad will run just as fast as you'd hope. As we said, the browser is quite smooth, and the card interface is usually flawless, as long as you haven't been rotating the device.
But other apps don't really bear this out. The AppCatalog's scrolling is appallingly juddery, the Email and Music apps can be quite unresponsive and many third-party apps can have major lag issues when performing just about any task.
We'll forgive the third-party software to a certain degree, since it's a new platform, and some still consider themselves to be in beta. Those that are slow could improve drastically, and it has to be said that there are many that are already very good. We were playing the free game Robotek HD and it couldn't have run any better.
But it just seems that the TouchPad is trying to do too much a lot of the time. The huge delays when changing rotation are an indication of this, but launching just about any app is also a much slower process than on other tablets. The AppCatalog in particular regularly took as long as 15 seconds to load.
If you think this doesn't sound like a long time, just try sitting and staring at a screen, doing nothing, and count it out. It's a shockingly long time considering how generally fast the iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 do things.
As we said, though, there are areas where the power does seem to be used properly. 1080p video played back perfectly smoothly, but our pleasure at that fact is reduced somewhat by the lack of a video-out port. It's something we've become used to in tablets, and the iPad 2 will even be able to do it wirelessly in the future, so it stands as a glaring omission from the TouchPad's spec sheet.
The TouchPad's screen is responsive when it comes to multi-touch, but we have two small problems with it. When you press hard on the screen, the image warps. Yes, it's unlikely you'll need to press this hard, but it's something that other high-end tablets don't have a problem with, and we worry what this would mean if you were to drop the TouchPad.
The main issue, though, is that the screen isn't bright enough. It's visibly less bright than the iPad 2, for example, and although you might not notice it if you only had the TouchPad, the iPad is easier to use in any bright light situation.
The low brightness also means that colours, while natural and appealing, don't look as good as they do on some other tablets.
The Beats Audio speakers are a bit of a non-entity, to be honest. In a head-to-head, they proved slightly better than the iPad's for music, giving it a little more punch, but were inferior when it came to dialogue. The two stereo speakers didn't offer any more volume than the iPad's single speaker, either.
As far as battery life goes, the TouchPad isn't at the head of the pack. We played a video from BBC iPlayer on the iPad 2 and the TouchPad at the same time for two and a half hours. After that, the iPad 2 was at 70 per cent, while the TouchPad was at 60 per cent.
We'd quit all apps on the TouchPad, so if you add in multitasking, you can probably expect battery life to come down a bit. However, we'd had the brightness and volume at full on both machines, so if you reduce those and perform less intensive activities than streaming video constantly, we think the battery life on the TouchPad will be adequate for most people, but not pack-leading.
The TouchPad also has the advantage of the optional Touchstone wireless charger, which works really well and is hugely convenient.
HP TouchPad: Verdict
The HP TouchPad has been eagerly awaited, so the question is whether it was worth it. The iPad's already on its second iteration, while Samsung has been fine-tuning the template it laid down late last year with the original Galaxy Tab and turning it into the Galaxy Tab 10.1. And Asus' Eee Pad Transformer just about blew us away, doing something really different.
Where does the TouchPad sit among these? It's got an appealing design, a revered operating system and enviable specs, but the challenge for many early attempts has been to create something that's more than the sum of its parts.
HP webOS is a genuinely impressive operating system. Although some tout it as being intuitive, we're not sure that's really its strength. With its multitasking and the way its cards and stacking features work, it can be a great working tool, grouping apps together by task.
The design of the TouchPad on the whole is nice, even if it's got some downsides. It's all nicely featureful, with plenty of social network integration being supplemented by the likes of 1080p video playback and Adobe Flash support. Other usability tweaks, such as the resizable keyboard, are very handy too.
The integration with other HP/Palm products is also a thoughtful touch. We didn't have a Pre 3 to test the touch-sharing technology or messaging/call sharing, but these are great little technological touches that should appeal to the webOS purists.
HP Pivot is also a really strong feature. Turning app discovery into an editorial experience is a great way to differentiate the AppCatalog from its equivalents on iOS or Android.
The reason the HP TouchPad hasn't got a higher score overall isn't due to some major flaw or missing feature. It's more of a 'death by 1,000 paper cuts' situation (although 'death' is a major exaggeration).
Performance is sluggish. It's not as bad as the worst budget tablets around, certainly, and not all of the time, but it's often enough that it doesn't come across that well for its price point.
The AppCatalog just isn't as fully stocked as its rivals. The most impressive apps are multi-platform, so the TouchPad struggles to stand out from this perspective.
There's 1080p movie playback, but no HDMI out to enjoy it. Similarly, the screen has fairly good viewing angles and is nice enough when viewed in isolation, but doesn't go as bright as its rivals, and just isn't as good under lights because of it.
The notification system is impressively unobtrusive, but isn't a lot of good for getting information at a glance. The video player didn't pull through thumbnails or names. The music player couldn't decide if it should show album art or not.
None of these is a deal breaker on its own, but they – and myriad other small niggles – add up to create an experience that feels more unpolished the more you use it.
Imagine the current crop of tablets side by side in a shop. Someone walks along and the question is "Why would I buy this one over the others?"
The HP TouchPad is less polished than the iPad, with a smaller range of impressive third-party apps. Yes, it's got features that the iPad lacks, but so do the Android tablets, and they have a bigger app selection, too. The interface appears more polished than many Android tablets, but in operation that doesn't really stand up. It's also lagging behind in many hardware features, such as HDMI output.
HP webOS is a very well thought-out operating system, and there's a lot to like about the TouchPad. But why would you buy it over the others? We're not sure many people will find an answer to that question.