Hands-On Review of HP's TouchPad

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HP’s glossy TouchPad tablet has a lot to recommend it. Notably, the innovative webOS operating system manages multiple tasks simultaneously. It treats all your open applications as cards that you drag across the screen. Related cards are grouped as stacks. So, you can have your email app, calendar, browser, YouTube, Picasa photo app—even a webOS-based Facebook app (eat your hearts out, iPad people!)—all open and running at the same time. Just pull a card over and tap it to go full screen. You delete a card with an upward flick of the finger. With the card metaphor dominant, you’d think there’d be a ready-to-launch Solitaire app. Instead, you’d need to download the Solitaire Collection, $1.99 from the HP App Catalog. I did download the free and addictive version of Angry Birds.

From a developer’s viewpoint, the ability of webOS to run multiple applications at once enables them to design apps that talk to each other. For instance, information from Facebook can be shared in users’ contact lists.

Booting up a TouchPad the first time requires Wi-Fi access. Without it, you cannot activate the device. So, you should peel away the protective sheaf from the screen only where you know the network password or don’t need one. I later found that starting the TouchPad from a powered-off state takes just over a minute, so I rarely powered completely down. HP claims that a fully-charged TouchPad offers at least eight hours of continuous use, no holds barred. Turn off Wi-Fi or let the screen go dark for audio play, and the battery lasts much longer. My own experience was in line with HP’s claims.

One of the joys of the TouchPad is the HP App Catalog, not because it’s a match for the iTunes Apps Store—it’s not—but precisely because you can get in and out quickly without being distracted by 90,000 choices. All the usual categories are there: books, business, education, entertainment, finance, food, games, health and fitness, lifestyle, music, navigation, news, photography, productivity, reference, social networks, sports, travel and weather. Photographers, for example, can choose from among Flickr, Photo Effects, Picasa and others. Prices range from free to $10 or above, but most are $2.99 each.

Currently, some of the downloadable apps, including the HP MovieStore and Amazon Kindle are merely teasers. Tap the Kindle app you just installed and you’ll get a “coming very soon” message. And others like the Engadget app and The Rottweiler Dog Guide are displayed only slightly larger than SmartPhone-size. Unlike an iPad running an iPhone app, there’s no 2x display option. A spokesman said that simply enlarging an app designed for a smartphone would degrade the resolution too much. HP is working to expand and deepen the App Catalog.

Though HP clearly has a lot of Apple-catching-up to do, the TouchPad offers some immediate advantages. It can play Flash video, an Adobe format popular with many website developers. (Apple’s iOS devices are incompatible with Flash.) It also plays HTML 5 files.

In terms of audio, the TouchPad’s dual speakers deliver stereo sound, versus the iPad’s mono speaker on the bottom or the iPad 2’s single rear-facing speaker. The TouchPad’s speakers are situated nearly six inches apart along the wide bottom edge of the screen, so that video in landscape mode is heard from speakers where they should be. In contrast, anyone using an iPad speaker may as well be listening with one ear shut.

Even before introducing the TouchPad, HP boasted that the Beats Audio system built into many of its computers offered superior high-fidelity playback. With the inclusion of the hardware- and software-based technology on the TouchPad, I was curious about whether or not Beats was more than marketing. So, I set the TouchPad next to my iPad to compare a variety of identical music sources. First, I listened using each tablet’s built-in speaker(s). Though the iPad was louder and the TouchPad provided modest stereo separation, there wasn’t much difference between the two in tonal quality. Then I switched to a pair of Bose headphones. The difference was dramatic. Even after adjusting the iPad’s EQ settings, the TouchPad by default delivered much more sumptuous sound with deeper, richer bass. It was like listening with thumping studio monitors next to my ears.

An HP spokesman explained that the TouchPad’s insulated headphone jack eliminates the ground noise otherwise delivered by metal contact. And there’s a discrete headphone amp to cut down on crosstalk. Also, the Beats software compensates for data loss due to audio compression, and an equalizer algorithm is intelligently automated. The Beats Audio system adds up to a better listening experience whether you’re watching a movie or enjoying music from YouTube. You do, however, need to be wearing a good set of headphones.

With the TouchPad I encountered human tech support. How refreshing! I received immediate answers via a live chat window. I also could have taken advantage of phone support, free for 90 days. HP calls it “webOS Butler Service.”

Then, there’s the “innovative” onscreen keyboard. You’re not made to switch to an alternate keyboard for numbers. HP figured out a way to accommodate a fourth row with numbers and symbols together. Too bad Apple can’t grasp the concept of alphanumeric combinations.

Another thing HP does better than Apple is bumping and charging. If you bump webOS smartphones (they don’t include iPhones or Android phones) against the TouchPad, a Web page will copy itself over to the phone’s screen or a screen on the phone will copy itself to the TouchPad. That’s a nice touch for transferring directions, handing over a picture or sharing any information directly between devices.

My favorite accessory is the easel-like Touchstone Charging Dock. Once you plug it into an electrical outlet,  you never have to attach a cable or line up pins with a dock connector in order to charge the TouchPad. You simply place the TouchPad upright or sideways on the easel, and the tablet recharges via magnetic induction. So perched, the Touchstone can automatically go into slideshow mode or put on its best clock face. And if you own multiple Touchstones, the TouchPad can be set to show a different display according to location: an appointment calendar at the office; family photos at home.

Without Touchstone, you recharge the TouchPad with the included cable that plugs into the microUSB docking port on the tablet and a standard USB port on your computer, or supplied AC adapter. The TouchPad’s docking port is not proprietary like the one on an iPad, so with the appropriate adapter (none offered by HP), you can connect a flash drive or memory card, and it will appear as an external drive. Otherwise, HP has followed Apple to a fault: A/V ports limited to an earphone jack; hard controls confined to Power, Volume and a Home button.

The TouchPad’s 9.7-inch screen and 1024 x 768-pixel resolution are the same specs as the iPad and iPad 2. Placed adjacent to an iPad 2, the TouchPad is noticeably thicker. But the TouchPad almost could be mistaken for the original iPad. “Almost” because unlike the iPad, there’s a 1.3-megapixel webcam above the screen for Skype video call use. However, unlike the iPad 2’s front and rear cameras, the TouchPad lacks a second camera. I discovered that without a Skype account, I couldn’t get the camera to turn on. A future app will likely enable non-Skype uses.

A few comments about some free apps I installed:

  • My favorite streaming music player was TuneIn Radio, which among other things, let me listen to WFUV from Fordham University, in the Bronx, and catch the names of artist and song in play.
  • The AudiophileHD player displays an arm straddling a spinning record while you listen to music stored in the tablet—a bit of analog class in the digital tsunami.
  • The most bizarre app I downloaded was Death by Caffeine. You enter your body weight and select the poison of your choice. I choose A&W Cream Soda. Who knew that a 12-ounce can contains 29mg of caffeine? Touching the Kill Me button returned the following: “At that body weight it would take 4,776 to 6,384 ounces of cream soda to die from the effects of the caffeine.”

The HP TouchPad is available now with 16- or 32-Gigabytes of internal storage. Each incorporates a Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-CPU clocking in at 1.2 GHz. The Bluetooth-equipped TouchPad is compatible with dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n networks. At 1.6 lb, the TouchPad weighs about the same as the original iPad. The company now plans to ship 3G- and 4G-capable versions this fall.

The TouchPad exudes potential. I found HP’s newest tablet a pleasure to use and fun to show off. HP has entered a worthy contender in the tablet chase.

For more details about the feature-rich TouchPad, see our previous article, Bump Your webOS Device with the New HP TouchPad Tablet.