HP TouchPad goes on sale to mixed reviews

Firmware, UI win praise; hardware seen as uninspired

The initial review of HP's webOS TouchPad tablet paint a somewhat confusing picture. But one thing is clear: It's no iPad 2.

The initial reviews of HP's TouchPad tablet are in and they paint a somewhat confusing picture. But they all agree this much: TouchPad (1) is no iPad 2.

Overall, many reviewers liked the webOS operating system and user interface, especially the way it makes use of multitasking, notifications, and integration with an array of online services and websites via the HP Synergy synchronization feature.

BACKGROUND: Analysts lukewarm on HP TouchPad chances for success

The device itself is where it suffers most in comparison with the iPad: a glossy, black 1-inch plastic case that's slightly thicker and heavier and far more prone to fingerprints, than the sleek, aluminum unibody iPad 2 housing, or of the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, running Android 3.1 firmware. The 9.7-inch touchscreen is the same size, resolution and aspect ratio as the iPad 2.

It comes in two Wi-Fi only models (3G models with assisted GPS are coming later), based on internal storage capacity: a 16GB model for $500, and 32GB for $600, the same pricing as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the iPad 2 (which is also available with 64GB, for $700).

There are, of course, far fewer tablet-specific apps for TouchPad, about 300 at launch versus more than 90,000 for iPad. By one recent count, there are about 1,300 Android tablet apps.

Engadget's Tim Stevens sums up a common set of impressions. 

"The shortage of apps is a problem, no doubt, but that will change with time," he writes. "What won't change is the hardware, and there we're left a little disappointed.

"Holding this in one hand and either an iPad 2 or a Galaxy Tab 10.1 in the other leaves you wondering why you'd ever be compelled to buy the HP when you could have the thinner, lighter alternative for the same money. Meanwhile, the performance left us occasionally wanting and, well, what is there to say."

UI and operating system

TouchPad has a distinctive UI, based on the webOS firmware originally created by Palm.

"I like the interface a lot," writes Walter Mossberg, reviewing the tablet for The Wall Street Journal. "Instead of a screen full of app icons, the main screen of the TouchPad's operating system, called webOS, presents running apps as "cards" -- large, live rectangles that you scroll through in a horizontal row."

The cards are easy to size, move and close using finger swipes. They can combine both local and offline content, and cards with related functions are "stacked" atop each other.

"It seems to me that the general tenets of the webOS philosophy have always been based around speed, simplicity, and finding the shortest and most organic steps to getting things done, and webOS 3.0 doesn't seem to have lost those principles," says Joshua Topolsky, reviewing for ThisIsMyNext. "HP has certainly tightened up much of what Palm started, and navigating the TouchPad quickly became not only second nature, but an experience I found myself missing [after] going back to the iPad or a Honeycomb [Android] device."

"It works beautifully, and conveys far more information than the iPad's application switcher (which is just a row of icons)," says David Pogue, reviewing TouchPad for The New York Times. He notes that HP argues the tablet offers "real multitasking" with all open apps always running, compared to iPad, where only selected apps can run in the background, and the rest are suspended until the user returns to them. "Apple argues that true multitasking runs down the battery -- and the battery-life stats prove it correct," says Pogue.

But Case Johnston, for Ars Technica, noted one problem with the card metaphor: The screen can get cluttered. "We wish there were some way to see an overview of what applications are open without having to swipe between them all," he writes.

Based on various reviews, TouchPad seems to get from just over six hours to more than 8 hours of battery life, depending on the mix of apps, tasks, and whether the tablet's Wi-Fi radio is turned on, and if so, for how long. The iPad 2 consistently gets about 10 hours.


Some reviewers consistently reported uneven application performance, which they found surprising because TouchPad runs a powerful 1.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU with 1GB of RAM.

"[I]t should be fast ... but too often left us waiting," Engadget's Stevens writes. "Bootup, for example, takes 1:15, which is an eon compared to 30 seconds or so on both the Galaxy Tab and the iPad 2."

Johnston, at Ars Technica, says "performance was in general quite snappy. Swiping between cards and opening applications is quick and smooth, and we rarely saw a jittery action from the TouchPad except when Adobe Flash reared its ugly head." On occasion, he adds, an app freezes or becomes unresponsive.

Web browsing is pretty snappy most of the time, but inexplicably bogged down on some Web pages, Stevens found. "Online video plays in the browser, but rarely well," Stevens writes. Most applications load quickly and run responsively. But some, such as Weatherbug, are very slow.

Several reviewers reported a gradual slowdown in the system over a day or two; they rebooted to restore performance.

"It's clear the Qualcomm chip is no slouch, but I did see performance issues while using the TouchPad, though I believe that has more to do with buggy code than underpowered hardware," writes ThisIsMyNext's Topolsky. Several reviewers say HP told them the company is aware of these bugs and has either already addressed them or will soon in a webOS firmware update.

The bottom line

Here's how a number of reviewers wrap it up:

"The HP TouchPad, if it were less expensive, could be an extremely strong, if slightly less polished, alternative to the iPad. But like other recently released high-profile Android tablets, it's determined to take on the champ. And just like those Android tablets, it's hard to recommend over an iPad at the same price." - Casey Johnston, Ars Technica

"[T]he stability and smoothness of the user experience is not up to par with the iPad or something like the Galaxy Tab 10.1, even if many of the underlying ideas are actually a lot better and more intuitive than what the competition offers. That, coupled with the minuscule number of quality apps available at launch make this a bit of a hard sell right now. If HP can convince developers to get behind this product, and the company can laser focus on the end-user experience, becoming the number two player in tablets isn't as crazy as it sounds." - Joshua Topolsky, ThisIsMyNext.com

"If the Pre 3 were out today and if the TouchPad were $100 less we could maybe see giving it a go, if only to root for the underdog. But, as it is, you have to put your heart and two decades worth of Palm obsession ahead of any buying rationale. With such compelling alternatives readily available, that's asking rather a lot." - Tim Stevens, Engadget

"Just like Google, HP will likely work out many of the [TouchPad's] kinks with its first over-the-air update -- at which time we'll revisit our rating -- but right now the TouchPad is a tough sell." - Mark Spoonauer, Laptop Mag

"Overall, HP's TouchPad offers a great user experience on hardware that's top of the line. It makes an appealing tablet choice to those who want to work it into their workflow. But the drawback of a more limited app selection and lack of a rear-facing camera will see some consumers passing on it for the iPad 2." - Brian Jackson, ITBusiness.ca

"WebOS and the Palm TouchPad are nearly perfect, an excellent amalgamation of everything that was ever right about Palm. But is even perfection, in this market, enough? Without a strong app base and some work on performance issues, the TouchPad may be the most beautiful dead end we have seen yet. But there is hope." - John Biggs, CrunchGear

"I actually prefer webOS to early Android tablets and believe it compares favorably to iOS in many respects. It's actually a terrific operating system for tablets. And the TouchPad, which I generally like, has a world of potential. Potential means things are missing (movie and music stores, true GPS). I also encountered frustrating snags ... [T]here's a lot to like about the first webOS tablet. But before HP can hope to challenge Apple, it needs to supply more apps and exterminate a few bugs." - Edward Baig, USA Today

You can find an extensive list of review links at the reCentral.Net forums.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

Email: john_cox@nww.com

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