Review Date: 8/3/2011
Top-notch, intuitive user interface. Fast performance. 9.7-inch, 4:3 screen excellent for video and photos. Synergy features make integrating with social networks and websites easy. Strong Facebook app.
App is selection is limited at launch. No rear-facing camera or video-recording capabilities. Screen sometimes needs multiple taps. Almost twice as thick as the iPad 2.
With solid hardware and a user-friendly operating system based around multitasking and intuitive organization, the HP TouchPad is the best non-Apple tablet we've tested. There aren't a lot of apps yet, but Android Honeycomb tablet manufacturers should be a little nervous.
With all the attention lavished upon would-be tablet competitors to the Apple iPad, like the Motorola Xoom ($599, 3.5 stars) and the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook ($499, 3 stars), HP's webOS-based TouchPad has mostly flown under the radar. That should change rather quickly, though. HP, which has allegedly been designing the TouchPad since day one of its Palm acquisition more than a year ago, did something rare: The company waited until the product was ready to release it. The TouchPad is the antithesis of the PlayBook or the Xoom, which were both initially released with major features missing. The TouchPad, on the other hand, is a fully formed, well-conceived, well-designed tablet with a graceful operating system, and a unique approach to multitasking, and it comes with all of its features activated. There's room for improvement—a wider app selection and a rear-facing camera would've been nice—but the TouchPad offers a more enjoyable user experience than any of the current wave of Android Honeycomb tablets. It's no iPad, but it's the best non-Apple tablet we've seen yet.
Currently, the TouchPad is available with Wi-Fi only (16GB, $499 or 32GB, $599). HP says the tablet will eventually be offered on AT&T, but connectivity details, pricing, and timing have yet to be announced.
Measuring 7.5 by 9.5 by 0.6 inches, the TouchPad is almost twice as thick as the iPad 2, but otherwise similar in its dimensions and display size. The 9.7-inch, 1,024-by-768-pixel touch-screen LCD matches the iPad's size and resolution. And it has the same 4:3 aspect ratio, rather than the longer and thinner 16:9 screen many tablets, like the Motorola Xoom, use. The display is surrounded by a logo-free, flat black bezel, which also houses the front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera lens up top and the Home button below. The glossy black plastic on the back panel attracts fingerprints and features little more than the HP logo—there is no rear-facing camera. Rounded side panels house the few controls and connections on the tablet: a Power/Wake button, Volume controls, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a micro USB connection for the syncing/charging cable. There's also a pair of integrated stereo speakers. It's nice that there is stereo separation here, but, as is typical with tablet speakers, they don't sound great very good. Also typical (and unfortunate): The TouchPad doesn't come with earphones, but you do get a cleaning cloth and a USB sync cable that plugs into the included wall charger.
As far as what's under the hood, the TouchPad is the first tablet we've tested built around the Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-core APQ8060 1.2GHz processor. All Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) tablets thus far have used Nvidia's dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2. At 1.2GHz, the Qualcomm processor is more powerful in theory, but there aren't any benchmark apps like the ones we use to test Android tablets right now, so there's no way to prove this. In actual use, there wasn't an obvious processor performance difference between the TouchPad and other Honeycomb tablets. (More on overall performance in a minute.) The TouchPad also integrates 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, as well as Bluetooth 2.1+ EDR.
HP's webOS 3.0 takes an original approach to multitasking, and this functionality is at the core of the TouchPad's impressive user interface. Everything—apps, browser windows, videos, photos, and more—can be minimized to "card" size with a downward swipe or a tap on the Home button. When in card-viewing mode (which is how the home screen is configured), you scroll through live thumbnails of every app, window, or file you have open. If you want to close an app, just flick the card upward, and it flies off your screen.
A quick note: HP released an update to the TouchPad, webOS 3.0.2, in early August. The update fixed a number of minor performance issues, like lags in autocorrection and in scrolling. It also improved, slightly, the TouchPad's HTML5 video playback (more on that below). It didn't, however, do much to solve the TouchPad's two primary performance issues: applications that take several seconds to load, and a significant lag when rotating the device between portrait and landscape modes. These issues seem to be software- rather than hardware-related, and HP will hopefully fix them in future software updates.
The home screen/multi-tasking card view is by itself a smart way of dealing with the tablet's simultaneous functions, but the stacking feature is one of webOS's more useful tricks. If you're browsing multiple windows online, they can either be shown next to each other for easy scrolling, or be stacked on top of each other. All of this is done with simple swipes, and it's hard to accidentally stack or unstack cards. Any card can be stacked with any other card, and stacking a photo with a note, an email message, and a Web page is dead-simple. Apple's iOS allows for grouping apps into folders, but all you see in these folders is icons representing the apps you put in them. In webOS, you see whatever the actual window is showing. If you have a presentation you're working on and you need to do research online and organize some photos for it, all of these different windows—the photos, the Word docs, the websites—can all sit in one tidy stack. It's easily the best multitasking layout we've seen in a tablet OS thus far. On a Honeycomb tablet, you see (very) minimized snapshots of your open apps in the multitasking bar. In webOS, the cards are large enough to see what they contain, there's a card for every file or window rather than one for every app, and cards can be organized to an extent that neither Honeycomb nor iOS allows.
Visually, webOS is probably most similar to RIM's BlackBerry Tablet OS. Despite our overall rating of the released-too-soon PlayBook, the tablet's OS is well-designed and easy on the eyes. Apple's iOS remains the most intuitive of the tablet user interfaces, but it's becoming clear that Apple will need to feature more real-time multitasking views and organizational tools in future iOS versions. Honeycomb is quite customizable, but can feel cluttered at times. WebOS 3.0 is a much cleaner approach. It's almost ironic, since one of Google's great strengths has been rethinking how users approach organization, such as with conversations in Gmail. HP's webOS stacks are downright Googlian.
A homepage toolbar is found at the bottom of the screen. It comes with Web (the browser), Email, Calendar, Messaging, and Photos & Videos preloaded alongside an arrow button which opens up the Launcher window. This is where you'll find all of your apps, downloads, the Settings menu, and access to the HP App Catalog. The bar can be customized to show whatever apps you want, but it holds a maximum of five apps at once.
Notifications are designed to be less invasive on the TouchPad than on Honeycomb tablets, but the end result is very similar: When you get an email message, a notification appears in the margin of your window, not in the middle of your screen where it could block content (which is the iPad's way of handling notifications). WebOS groups like notifications, letting you scroll through different email subject lines in the notification area.
Setting up the tablet can be a bit of a hassle at first—you end up logging into several accounts multiple times when you open certain apps or perform certain tasks for the first time, but this is all in the name of getting all of your apps to work together on the device, or, as HP describes it, "Synergy." Your Facebook photos, for instance, will appear in your Photo gallery as if they are on the device—but we'll discuss this in more detail later.
HP keeps the number of preloaded apps on TouchPad mercifully low: Web (the browser for webOS), Email, Calendar, Messaging, Memos, Quickoffice (the webOS equivalent of the not-preloaded Apple iWork suite), Adobe Reader, Maps (not from Google, from Bing!), Contacts, Phone & Video Calls, Music, Photos & Videos, Amazon Kindle, Facebook, and You Tube.
The WebOS Facebook app, developed internally by HP using facebook Partner Engineering Tools, is one of the deepest mobile Facebook implementations we've seen. Along with the usual scrolling news feed, it has a Flipboard-style full screen, tiled presentation of what your friends are up to, along with a map of where they've checked in with Places, a very email-like messaging interface and calendar access. Of course, you can tag things, write on Walls and read notes to your heart's content. And the aforementioned integration of your Facebook photos into the tablet's gallery, along with the ability to comment on them from within the Photo section and not directly in the Facebook app itself, is an excellent feature. It would be nice to see Facebook Chat, but overall, this is a very strong Facebook experience.
Under the Downloads tab in the launcher menu, the HP App Catalog is your portal to HP's selection of apps for purchase and download. HP has plenty of work to do if it hopes to compete with Apple's App Store selection for the iPad, but the company is making a strong effort out of the gate. There are roughly 260 apps specifically designed for the TouchPad, but more are due at launch (HP promises 300) and that's more than the meager number of Honeycomb-specific apps from major developers, even several months after Honeycomb tablets hit the market.
On the higher end of the spectrum are apps like AngryBirds HD and USA Today—both of which are free, and look and work great on the TouchPad. Time, Sports Illustrated, and People were not available for us to test, but HP claims they'll be ready for launch. We were happy to see some high-end games such as Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Glu's graceful 3D swooper, Glyder 2. There's one Twitter client, the venerable (and very good) Spaz, which takes its cue from Tweetdeck and offers up a landscape of customizable search columns. But other social networks—especially location-based ones—are missing, as are any true navigation apps. Instead of a nav app you get the odd Beat the Traffic, which offers the traffic aspects of a driving app without the directions. (The Wi-Fi-only TouchPad doesn't include GPS, but the AT&T version of the tablet will.) You'll be able to purchase and download music and movies from the HP MovieStore shortly after launch, according to HP reps. In addition, you'll find plenty of apps designed for earlier webOS smartphones. And like Apple's iPhone apps on the iPad, they work, but don't fill the tablet's screen. Unlike Apple's tap-to-enlarge solution, however, HP's apps do not enlarge, but display in a phone-sized window in the center of the screen.
The biggest question: Are major developers going to take the time to make webOS versions of their apps? Apple has had no problem enticing developers to create iPad apps, but Google's Android market currently features a small, less-regulated selection of Honeycomb-specific apps. HP seems to be falling somewhere in between Apple and Google in terms of policing of its app selection. Apps are split into two segments: The standard App Catalog and Home Brew. In Home Brew, users are made aware that they're off the reservation, downloading apps that might not conform to HP's aesthetic and ideas. Like Apple, HP gently nudges developers to create layouts that are similar in look, operation, and feel to the apps that HP preloads on the device.
The Email app on the TouchPad is a good one, but it doesn't stand out, and if you use Gmail, Honeycomb's integration is better than any other platform. The TouchPad email app can retrieve messages for multiple accounts, from a number of email services, and display either individual inboxes or a unified inbox with all your mail. The app, like most of HP's built-in apps, uses a paned interface: One shows your folders, another your inbox, and a third your selected messages. You can show or hide panes at will by dragging the corner open or closed, so whether you want to focus on writing your email or see all your inboxes at once, you can. Buttons for common functions are easily accessible, and the ability to stack emails as cards, and thus have several open at once, is a nice feature.
Like its major tablet competitors, HP has figured out how to make a simple, intuitive web browser. Navigating to sites, or bookmarking them or perusing your history is as easy as tapping a field once or scrolling a pull-down menu. Any menu that appears can easily be hidden again with a quick swipe. Opening a new window takes a single tap, instantly minimizing the window you're in and creating a new one, which sits atop a stack of web windows. The stack function is useful here—you can see several windows open at once, and it's relatively easy to open a window even if it's in the middle of a deep stack. There seems to be no limit to how many windows can be stacked, but HP declined to offer an actual number. (I successfully stacked up to eight windows, each an open website in the browser.)
Video playback in the browser is the most accepting we've seen on a tablet yet, but not the smoothest. Regardless of whether it encountered HTML5 or Flash 10.3, the TouchPad was able to load and play any video file we threw at it. There were virtually no issues getting any site to play video, and all site animation loaded well. The iPad 2 has no Flash support, and in our tests, some Honeycomb tablets had issues with paying video on some major sites, like ESPN.com. However, video often took some time to buffer and choked up pretty easily. A video embedded on Radiohead's blog (by way of the BBC) stuttered several times during playback in my tests. ESPN.com's embedded videos played more smoothly, but the wait while they buffered was lengthy. Viewing web-based video on any mobile device is still a shaky proposition, and though the TouchPad does a good job of navigating the modern landscape of HTML5 and Flash, it won't feel the same as watching web video on a computer with a robust connection.
Messaging and Video Chat
There's a universal messaging app built into webOS 3.0 simply called Messaging. It lets you chat using AIM, Google, Skype, or Yahoo, and integrates all your accounts into one window and buddy list. It doesn't allow you to do much other than chat and initiate Skype calls. (If you have a webOS phone, you can also use the app to send text messages.) It's not as powerful or user-friendly as Honeycomb's Google Talk, but I expect a third-party app will outdo the stock Messaging app pretty quickly.
The single 1.3-megapixel camera on the TouchPad is clearly designed for video chat, and not much else. Video chatting takes place in a minimal, but useful Phone and Video Calls application that is just a skinned Skype app. If you have an HP webOS phone, you can use the TouchPad to make and receive calls, but otherwise you'll be using Skype. You can buy Skype credit and use it to call phones, or to make audio and video calls to other Skype users. Video chat works well, but only in portrait view. Despite the tablet's accelerometer, the camera doesn't rotate and neither does the Skype app, so everything shows up sideways if your TouchPad is held in landscape mode. Compared to other tablet front-facing lenses, however, the overall resolution and quality of images is more or less par for the course. The real issue is the lack of a rear-facing camera. While it's true that none of the rear-facing cameras currently on tablets (and least of all, the low-res camera on the iPad 2) are any match for even a standard point-and-shoot, they almost all have cameras of some quality level. The TouchPad's exclusion of a real camera is a dubious distinction. Luckily, HP makes up for this omission with several other positive features and implementations.
Music, Video, and Photos
HP's music app is fairly basic, a nice-looking conduit to all your music and audiobooks. You can create playlists right on the tablet, and the TouchPad offers a Cover Flow-like feature that lets you scroll through album art and play music in a much more visually appealing way. (Cover Flow started with iTunes, and yet somehow it's not available on the iPad.) If you're an iTunes user, you can use an app called HP Play as a workaround to sync your iTunes library to your TouchPad. Download the app to your computer, and it scans your iTunes library to find files and playlists, and copies them to your TouchPad. If you use an iPod or iPhone in addition to your TouchPad, that's a key feature.
Photos and videos exist within the same app, simply called Photos & Videos. It's like Honeycomb's Gallery app in that sense, but the name is more of a giveaway this time. The default organization in the Photos & Videos app, though, leaves something to be desired; content is sorted by file type, which means photos and videos sit next to each other, and your MP4 movies live somewhere other than your AVI movies. You'll want to take some time to create and maintain a folder structure when you connect the TouchPad to your computer, because that's the only way to find things easily.
Other than the odd organization, Photos & Videos is a powerful app. As mentioned above, "Synergy" is a major concept with webOS. Connecting all your various social networking and online accounts to your tablet is emphasized, nowhere more so than inside the Photos and Videos app. Photos can be added via a computer, but more likely you'll want to connect to any of the dozen or so services that HP supports, from Facebook and Dropbox to Photobucket and Snapfish. If you've added, say, a Gmail account to Messages, your Picasa photos will be added to the app as well.
All the praise for webOS 3.0's user interface is tempered slightly by the system's occasional tendency to be a bit jumpy. Whether you're playing Angry Birds or viewing video, prepare for occasional stutters in the action and playback. This is not to say the tablet is slow: If you tap a card, it enlarges more or less instantly, and gestures result in quick actions. The grace of movement, however, when scrolling through a document, is not quite as fluid is it is on an iPad—text can drag or stall at times, lagging behind the speed of your swipe. The touch screen marks wherever you tapped with a tiny, quickly-vanishing dot. Sometimes the dot is not quite where you meant to tap—selecting menu items is not as surefire as it is on the iPad, and can require a couple of taps. As previously mentioned, we have no surefire method of testing the processor due to a lack of benchmarking apps in the HP App Catalog.
The TouchPad, by virtue of being an HP product, offers features like wireless printing that work right out of the box. HP reps claim that roughly 90 percent of connected HP printers made in the last three years will work with the TouchPad's wireless printing feature, which is a button that appears in the email app, the documents app, and others. Tap it, and you're presented with a list of printers on your network.
HP rates the battery life for the TouchPad at about 8 hours for Web browsing and 9 hours of video playback. Our battery test, which leaves Wi-Fi on while a video plays on a continuous loop, yielded a result of 5 hours and 26 minutes.
The HP TouchPad is the most worthy competitor to the top-of-the-tablet-heap Apple iPad. There's room for improvement, but webOS 3.0 has the secret ingredient that iOS has always had, and that Google's Honeycomb still seems to lack: It's fun and simple to use. "Cards" and "stacks" are a fresh approach to not only multitasking, but organization, and HP's Synergy allows for useful integration of files like photos, grouping together your various collections from Facebook and the tablet's photo gallery itself.
It remains to be seen whether the nascent tablet space will mimic the MP3 player category and eventually dissolve except for one strong leader, or if the realm of tablets is merely emerging and has yet to fully take shape. The HP Touchpad reminds me of the Microsoft Zune HD ($219.99, 4.5 stars) in that it is a very solid device, but may be too late to the game. We've already seen two iPads, and the third will likely arrive sometime around the TouchPad's nine-month birthday. Can HP convince developers to make enough meaningful apps for the TouchPad to help the tablet reach its full potential in the following nine months? I hope so.
Sascha Segan contributed to this review.