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6/29/2011
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Fritz Nelson
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HP TouchPad Review: OS Beauty Vs. Design Bulk

HP's TouchPad won't make you put down your iPad 2, or Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, but it will make you wish those tablets had the TouchPad's software innovations and user experience.

HP rates the TouchPad battery life at eight hours of browsing over Wi-Fi, nine hours of video playback, and 3.4 days of music playback. This was via HP's own testing using pre-production TouchPads, with the display on the default setting, power off time-out at 10 minutes, and the ambient light sensor off, among other variables.

BYTE.com
In my own everyday testing, under various conditions, I was able to get as much as 11 hours with the TouchPad running almost continually, playing music, accessing the Web, and running multiple apps. On days with less frequent (but still significant) use, I got more than 16 hours. I kept the screen brightness at medium, which is more than adequate.

WebOS for TouchPad. WebOS for TouchPad is a work in progress, but it has boundless promise. In fact, I would call it addictive. No lie: I sometimes found myself trying its gestures, uselessly, on the iPad or an Android tablet. In short order, I was hooked. But WebOS isn't new. Its card-based interface has been around for a couple of years on Palm Pre phones, and yet it's that much better on the TouchPad. The ability to organize apps into stacks of cards (sometimes having them organize themselves that way, as when you launch a website from a link in an email message) lets you open and manage many applications at once--an easy thing to do on the desktop, but not so much on the tablet.

HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
(click image for larger view and forslideshow)
Just swipe between cards or stacks, swipe up to minimize an app, swipe the card up and off the screen to quit the app, hold and drag a card onto another, and so on. It's a wonder others don't just copy this approach. Oh, wait, RIM already did in the BlackBerry Playbook. I can't help but wonder whether there's a lawsuit in the offing here; HP wouldn't comment on that possibility.

But where the PlayBook stops, WebOS is just beginning. For one thing, the PlayBook's QNX doesn't let you pin cards together to make a stack.

WebOS is multitasking, so the apps keep running if they need to. That is, apps that must run in the background, like music apps or email, don't suspend, whereas things like games do.

The card interaction isn't the only trick up WebOS's sleeve. For example, if you have created a WebOS account, that account information--your profile, some of your settings, your apps--comes with you from device to device. When I started up the TouchPad, it was already populated with a few applications I had downloaded onto a Pre phone. It already had all of my contacts and pulled in other relevant information.

Speaking of which, Synergy is another amazing innovation begun under the Palm regime but with very little follow-up. With a little setup information, Synergy pulls together your contacts, using whatever services you might keep them on. For example, for many of my contacts, I have phone, address, and SMS information, but also Yahoo instant messaging, Google Talk, Microsoft Exchange, LinkedIn, and Skype details. I could access my contacts using any of these methods, right from the contact application (well, it connects me to the Messaging app, but more on that later). You even get your contacts' Facebook photo if they have one.

OK, all of that was already part of WebOS (except for the Skype part), but now HP has taken it further (finally!), extending Synergy to photos and calendars. In the Photo app native to WebOS, you get all of your photos on the device (like screen captures), from Facebook and photo sharing services (for now, that's only PhotoBucket and SnapFish). In the Calendar app, Synergy pulls calendar information from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Exchange, and others into a single, central calendar. You can customize it to just show the services you need to see.

All tablet OSes have their notification tendencies. HP's WebOS puts them in the upper right part of the screen. When a new email or Skype message comes in, for example, you get a noticeable icon along with some of the text of the message. Some messages, like calendar reminders, pop open a small notification window. When I ran Pandora and a new song played, the song's name and artist appeared in text at the top of the screen for a few seconds. All message icons, including Facebook, stay atop the screen until they're dealt with. It's no better or worse than other notification systems (though I often find the BlackBerry PlayBook's a tad cryptic), just different, and it works.

One last magic trick: "Touch to Share." Take a Palm Pre phone (Palm Pre 3, to be exact), pair it with the TouchPad using Bluetooth, and you can pass Web pages or SMS messages between them. Simply touch the Pre 3 to the home or center button of the TouchPad, watch the fun little ripple on screen, and suddenly the Web page you have open on the TouchPad is now on the Palm Pre 3. Touch to Share uses not only Bluetooth, but also the capabilities of an A6 chip, which is also used with the Touchstone charging doc (discussed later). It not only looks cool; it's handy, too ... well, if you have a Palm Pre 3, that is. You have one of those, right? All right, maybe not so handy just yet.

The TouchPad runs services that let applications print to HP printers that use the company's e-Print connectivity. HP says that's about 90% of printers purchased in the past five years. Our company only has a six-year-old mongo HP plotter, so I couldn't test this feature. HP says that if you print photos from the TouchPad photo app, the printers are smart enough to detect that and use the photo tray (assuming it's set up).

The TouchPad, like most other tablets, supports VPN connections. It includes VPNC, an open source IPSec VPN client that's pretty standard on today's VPN concentrators; and Cisco AnyConnect, which is also Cisco's VPN client for Android. On the surface, these are fine, but the real test will be how well they work on concentrators from the likes of Cisco, Juniper, and Checkpoint, or any commercial IPSec VPNs.

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