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.
TouchPad Apps: The Catalog, The Developers, The Same Old Story. HP's App Catalog for the TouchPad contains a few interesting elements. New to this tablet launch is Pivot, which is a digital magazine of sorts intended to help promote the work of application developers. Pivot exists in a tab on the catalog. That is, when you launch the catalog, it comes up in Pivot, but you can just go on to look at the application categories, finding what you need. It's still early for TouchPad apps, but there are about 300 of them in the catalog, according to HP. Although WebOS has been around for years, HP decided to bite the proverbial bullet and change toolkits--from Mojo to Enyo--to allow for a more robust application experience.
And yet, as with Mojo-based apps, HP claims that writing a WebOS application is simply a matter of using Web standards: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and so on. The toolkit just makes all of the code work in WebOS paradigms.

Mojo apps can still work. In fact, HP claims that 70% of previous WebOS applications have been quickly and easily modified to run on the TouchPad--a full 6,200 applications. (HP says the main reason the rest haven't been ported is that they need some sort of gesture area, or a physical keyboard.) Many of the Mojo-based applications I ran, like Pandora and Trapster and The New York Times app, all worked adequately. They're a bit like iPhone apps on an iPad, though you can't make them full screen. The New York Times one was anemic compared with the full-fledged version on the iPad, or even just in a Web browser.

HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
(click image for larger view and forslideshow)
These older WebOS apps run only in portrait mode, which completely screwed with my mind when flipping through my cards. I thought I had the tablet oriented wrong.

Additionally, HP (the Palm company specifically) has always encouraged a bit of renegade application access through the use of homebrew apps. These apps can be side loaded onto any WebOS device, and that's also true for this version of WebOS.

HP hopes it can encourage more developers to write apps for WebOS. It promises this will not be a fragmented OS, and it's working on bringing together the phone version and this tablet-based one. The company says it's investing in workshops for WebOS. More than 400 developers have come, and the company says it's sold out for the rest of the summer.

HP has talked about putting WebOS on top of Windows, giving application developers yet another entrenched target. HP says it's also working with Adobe, with the hopes that it can support Air applications on WebOS. Early on Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that HP was in talks to license WebOS, possibly to Samsung. HP responded that it has said for awhile that it would be willing to license WebOS to a strategic partner, but it's not looking to license it more broadly. This multi-pronged strategy provides some insight into what companies like HP are willing to do to make WebOS more attractive to developers. I hope it succeeds, because it's going to need the momentum.

HP's current application catalog list has a handful of useful titles (USA Today, NPR Reader,, but get beyond those and there's not much to choose from. This isn't much different from what's available from RIM, Microsoft Windows Phone 7, or, to a lesser extent, Android. There are no native Google apps, no Netflix, and none of the hundreds of productivity apps, or even vertical industry apps in the iTunes App Store.

Of the applications I tested, USA Today worked extremely well. The Facebook app, created by the HP team using the Facebook Partner Engineering Tools, worked fine. Fun games include Shrek Kart and Quell (which I had to put away, because it became an obsession), and I liked listening to local radio stations on iheartradio.

MoodAgent is pretty slick. It takes all of the music you load onto the TouchPad, and then with colored, labeled sliders, lets you choose a mood mix (happy, passion, romance, etc.), and it builds a new playlist based on that mood. The NPR Reader is a shell of the iPad version (it lacks the beautiful graphics, among other things). This is going to be a long, tough road for anyone named RIM, HP, and Microsoft.

I wasn't enthralled with QuickOffice for WebOS. Using it on Android or the iPad (at least the Pro version), I can access any document anywhere, from, DropBox, Google Docs, local documents, SugarSync, and so on. It is, of course, the default document viewing app for most mobile platforms these days, or when it isn't, you can make it so. I brought up a series of documents on all platforms, just to compare, and while complex documents (say Excel worksheets with graphic elements) didn't render correctly on any tablet, the WebOS version was the most challenged.

Everything was simply too big, and there didn't seem to be a way to change that, other than awkwardly trying to pinch it smaller, which worked only up to a point. In fact, I wonder if there was a performance issue, or maybe you just can't pinch or zoom in this app on WebOS. On the iPad and Galaxy Tab, I could see a good portion of the spreadsheet, and pinching and zooming worked smoothly.

QuickOffice works great on spreadsheets and PowerPoint files on Android and the iPad, but I had all sorts of trouble with it on the TouchPad. A PowerPoint document, for example, required a few quirky moves to display all of the slide thumbnails; these just display naturally on Android. I couldn't open some of my Google spreadsheets on the TouchPad, but they worked fine everywhere else. In the other tablet versions, I'm able to drag and drop files from one service to the other (DropBox to, for example), but this doesn't work on the TouchPad.

Finally, I had trouble viewing my DropBox folders (some of them appeared empty). There were some initial problems with GoogleDocs, but in my most recent testing, those seemed to be worked out.

Syncing iTunes music was pretty easy. It requires installing HP Play (in Alpha mode, according to the app) on the PC or Mac, connecting the TouchPad via USB, and then the application pretty much takes over. I yanked out the USB and it gave me a "OWWW! That hurts! Next time, please unmount the drive from the desktop." Nothing like a snarky system message.

At launch, Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and People apps will be available for the TouchPad, HP said. You'll also be able to buy and rent movies and TV shows from the HP MovieStore at some point after the TouchPad launch. There will be a third-party music purchasing service at launch, HP says.

Accessories. I used three TouchPad accessories during my testing. The Touchstone dock, which lists for $79.99, is a recharging stand that doubles as a stand for using the device. Just like the Palm Pre Touchstone, you just set the tablet on the stand and it charges; however, the tablet charges only when resting on two of its four surfaces--a lesson I learned the hard way. When the TouchPad rests on the Touchstone, it goes into what HP calls Exhibition mode. You can display certain Exhibition applications while the TouchPad is docked, like a clock, your calendar agenda, and so on. Developers can take advantage of the Exhibition feature in their applications.

The Wi-Fi keyboard, priced at $69.99, was particularly useful when I was using the TouchPad constantly. Most people will opt for the soft keyboard (you can select the size you want it to be), but I found the hard keyboard to be a huge time saver. Finally, I used the protective case, $49.99, to keep nosy airplane neighbors from seeing what I was working on, but honestly, any tablet owner needs to protect that investment. A case is hardly optional.


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Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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