TouchPad impresses, but it's no show-stopper

The new webOS tablet offers a slick interface and features, but won't be able to compete with the iPad

Over the Fourth of July weekend, while most of America was grilling burgers, watching parades or viewing fireworks, I was exploring HP's new TouchPad tablet. It arrived on the Friday before the holiday weekend and I spent much of the long weekend trying to see how it would fits into my life and work style.

The TouchPad combines the innovative webOS operating system with impressive hardware. The lack of add-on apps, however, means that it will have trouble taking on the iPad and risks being considered an also-ran in the increasingly crowded tablet market.

A great-looking tablet

The device itself is a stunner. Its shiny black case, rounded edges and minimal buttons add up to an elegant look (although the glossy surface picks up fingerprints easily). There are cool design touches, like the backlit Home button, which is the only thing that mars an otherwise clean surface. When an app occupies the full screen, the button lights up.

It felt good in my hand, whether it was being used in portrait or landscape mode, but its surface was so slippery that I nearly it dropped once. I much prefer the rubberized surface of Fujitsu's Q550. I also tend to prefer the option of a pen for more exact work; the TouchPad doesn't come with one.

At 9.5 x 7.5 x 0.6 in. and 1.6 lb., the TouchPad is 0.2-in. wider, nearly twice as thick and 5 oz. heavier than the iPad 2. As a result, it felt a little heavy compared to the iPad 2, but despite that I was able to comfortably hold it for long periods of time. There's a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera, but no rear-facing camera.

The TouchPad's display is very like that of the iPad 2. Both have rich and sharp 9.7-in. 1,028 x 768-pixel screens, although I found the iPad's to be brighter. Both also offer a capacitive multi-touch screen that works with two-finger gestures. They're both second-best, however, when compared to the 1,280 x 800 resolution boasted by the slightly larger Samsung Galaxy Tab.

The TouchPad is well equipped with a 1.2GHz Qualcomm dual-core Snapdragon processor and 1GB RAM. You can buy a model with 16GB of storage for $500 or 32GB for $600, but there's no 64GB version that matches the top-of-the-line iPad 2.

The TouchPad offers 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi networking; I easily connected with my office's Wi-Fi network as well as one at a library and with a mobile hotspot. The more itinerant among us won't be happy that there are no 3G mobile data options; HP says these will be available later this year.

You can use the included USB cable to connect the TouchPad to a PC or Mac and move files back and forth. It doesn't have an SD card slot or a USB port for plugging in a memory key or keyboard. It does, however, have Bluetooth.

To charge the Playbook, you either plug in the micro-USB connector or place it on the optional $75 dock, which conveys electrical current to the tablet inductively while the tablet is held upright. It works like magic, but only when the pad is in the dock with the Home button facing down or to the right, which means users will have to be careful to get it right.

In tests, the 6,300 milli-amp hour lithium polymer battery played online videos for 5 hours and 50 minutes, nearly two hours longer than an iPad 2 (which ran for 4 hours and 3 minutes). Unfortunately, the battery isn't user-replaceable, and there is no battery gauge such as the one that graces Motion Computing's CL-900.

Working with webOS

Based on a Linux kernel, Palm's webOS 3.0 is finger-friendly. Unlike iOS and Android, it doesn't offer users small icons arranged in a grid on the Home page. Apps are represented instead by a row of large rectangular icons -- you find them on a traditional app screen called the Launcher, which is divided up with tabs for Apps, Downloads, Favorites and Settings.

Active apps are represented on the home page by a row of large rectangular icons (looking a bit like playing cards) that can be arranged in a horizontal row (where you see one full card and a half card on either side) or stacked. You swipe across the row to get to the "card" you want and tap on it to bring it to full screen. If you want to close the app, you can swipe toward the top to dismiss it.

It's like a breath of fresh air for tablet users tired of squinting at small icons. While you can't see as many icons at a glance as with Android or iOS, it's more visually appealing. On the other hand, I found it to be a bit tedious scrolling through a slew of apps to find the right one.

And you can't see all of the secondary cards. For instance, when I was looking at the calendar view as the center card with CNN on the half card to the right and BBC as the half card to the left, I couldn't see an ebook downloading in the background.

Because the TouchPad multitasks, the programs remain active; in a nice touch, some data will be visible on the home-screen card. I was able to listen to an Internet radio station while the TouchPad was downloading an ebook, showing my calendar and displaying a Web page.

The TouchPad's multitasking felt quite liberating; it made using several apps on a tablet much easier. I was able to open an app, use it, send it to the background and bring it back to the surface as needed, without the hassles of closing and then opening it. I generally had two or three apps running simultaneously, but even when I kept as many as eight apps open at once, it only occasionally slowed to a crawl. To my mind, it's the way all tablets should operate.

By the way, if you happen to have a webOS smartphone, like the Palm Pre or Pixi, HP's pad does a cool trick. Place the phone near the TouchPad to pair the two devices with Bluetooth and move items, like appointments and text messages, between them.

Other features

The Touchpad offers the ability to play Flash movies, audio and interactive content. I found that it worked well with Flash-heavy sites like YouTube or the BBC World Service.

I was especially impressed by the TouchPad's onscreen keyboard. There are four keyboard sizes available that let you customize how much precious screen real estate it occupies. There's even an extra row for numbers and symbols on the virtual keyboard, which lets you stay on the main keyboard screen, even if you need to use symbols such as * or &.

At a Glance

HP TouchPad

Hewlett-Packard

Price: $500 (16GB), $600 (32GB)

Pros: Multitasking, elegant design, "card" format, plays Flash, flexible on-screen keyboard

Cons: PLack of apps, relatively thick and heavy, no 3G/4G data options, 32GB max storage

The tablet comes with apps for email, calendar, viewing photos, listening to music, Web browsing, messaging, writing quick notes as well as FaceBook and Adobe's Acrobat Reader. The missing link, though, is the variety of add-on apps that the iPad so effectively delivers. At the moment, there are only 300 TouchPad programs, including Time magazine, WeatherBug, Angry Birds and Skype (but not Netflix, much to my dismay).

As far as business apps go, the system lacks a true Office suite. The system comes with QuickOffice, but it can only display Office documents and doesn't allow editing them, vastly limiting its usefulness. Plus, HP's pad doesn't have the security hardware that the corporate world demands. It does without a Trusted Platform Module, Smart Card reader and fingerprint reader.

Bottom line

In the final analysis, the TouchPad is caught in a no-man's land for tablets. On the plus side, it supports full multitasking, plays Flash and has the best onscreen keyboard around, making typical tablet tasks easier. However, it's also chunky, overweight and lacks the apps that are needed to compete with the iPad. As a result, the TouchPad risks being lost in the crowded tablet market.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

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