The release of HP's TouchPad tablet lagged the iPad 2 and Android tablets, and yet it still needs more work.
"Oww that hurts!"
Unplug the HP TouchPad from your computer without "ejecting" it first, and that's the message you get. And if the TouchPad had more touches of whimsical cleverness like that, I might have been more impressed.
That's a shame, because I really wanted to like the TouchPad more than I did. I've been a fan of its webOS operating system ever since the Palm Pre came out in 2009, and I liked what I saw of the TouchPad when HP first announced it back in April.
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But now that I've had a chance to play with TouchPad for a while, I'm kind of underwhelmed. There's nothing really wrong with HP's tablet offering exactly, but there's not much "wow" factor, either.
On the hardware front, the TouchPad is comparable to an original iPad, albeit with a black plastic "fingerprint magnet" case instead of the iPad's elegant aluminum enclosure. Yet the TouchPad is noticably thicker and heavier than the iPad 2 (see review) or the Android-powered Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (see review). Screen size and resolution exactly match the iPad, as well. HP makes a big deal of its "Beats" audio, and while the TouchPad's sound easily drowned out a Galaxy Tab, it wasn't better (or louder) than the iPad 2.
The TouchPad is powered by a 1.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-core processor, which is slightly faster than the chips inside the iPad 2 and leading Android tablets, although it didn't feel any faster in actual use. Pricing is also similar, starting at $499 for a 16GB WiFi-only model.
All of this means the TouchPad's competitve advantage lives or dies with its software. And here the TouchPad does offer some significant differences -- both positive and negative. HP's webOS works very differently than Apple's iOS or Google's Android, using a slick "Card" metaphor to let you quickly flick to navigate from one application to another. That works hand in hand with its highly touted "true multitasking" that lets multiple applications run at the same time and allows you to pick right up where you left off when you return to an app. (Apple's approach is closer to letting you shift from one app to another really fast.)
Like Android, the TouchPad offers support for Flash video playback. In my tests, however, some Flash videos didn't run smoothly enough for comfortable viewing, while the videos in TouchPad apps suffered far fewer hiccups. Even a limited ability to run Flash is better than Apple's pretending that Flash doesn't exist, but I'd have been more impressed if the experience had been better.
The TouchPad offers industry-leading integration with social networks, automatically pulling in contacts, photos, and other information from your Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media accounts. It also handles notifications nicely, informing you of incoming email and messages without actually interrupting you. And if you have other webOS devices such as a Palm Pre, you can touch them to each other to instantly view on one what you were looking at on the other. Like the "owww" message, it's really slick -- the kind of thing you'd show off to your friends, even if you'd hardly ever use it in real life.
Then there's the app situation. HP is making a big effort to entice developers to write webOS apps, but so far there simply aren't that many. (About 350 or so, compared to approximately 250 for Android Honeycomb, although those devices can run the hundreds of thousands of Android smartphone apps, just not very well. There are more than 100,000 iPad apps, not to mention the gazillion iPhone apps.) You can choose from a few big names, from TIME Magazine to Angry Birds, but there's very little depth in the TouchPad app catalog. You won't find anything major that's not available on competing platforms, and more to the point there's tons that's missing, from broadly useful essentials to the tens of thousands of the niche apps that make the iPad so versatile.
This situation may change as HP continues to roll out webOS devices and begins to deliver on its promise to put the operating system on all of its portable devices. But for now, Apple wins the Apps game in a 150-1 shellacking.
If the TouchPad had hit the market when HP first acquired Palm in July of 2010, it would be a truly competitive tablet. A year later, though, the form factor feels a generation behind the competition, and we're only now starting to see serious app development.
I have every expectation that HP will continue to pump money into development and marketing to help the TouchPad catch up, but its competitors aren't sitting still, either.
To feel fully confident in recommending the TouchPad to small businesses, I'd like to see HP sell them for $100 less than the competition (even if they lose money on every one), and back that up with a $1 billion marketing campaign. HP can afford it, and anything less than that may not be enough to close the gap.
In the meantime, I can't recommend that small businesses -- even ones using lots of HP equipment --invest in TouchPads right now. Far safer to sit on the sidelines and let someone else gamble on whether the TouchPad will become a viable tablet competitor.
MSRP: $499 as reviewed (Wi-Fi networking, 16GB flash storage, 1.2GHz dual-core processor).
- Advanced operating system with true multitasking
- Excellent social-networking integration
- Competitive hardware performance
- Thicker and heavier than leading competitors
- Limited app support
- No price advantage
THE BOTTOM LINE:
The HP TouchPad could be poised for great things -- given some time and a lot of backing from HP. In the meantime, however, it doesn't quite measure up to its top iOS and Android competitors.