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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.

At long last, Hewlett-Packard, maker of printers and servers, desktop and laptop computers, test equipment, and big data appliances--well it, too, now has a tablet, the HP TouchPad, the culmination of exactly one year of effort between HP and Palm, which it acquired on July 1, 2010. The TouchPad follows Apple's iPad 2, several new Android-based tablets (from Motorola, Samsung, Toshiba, LG, and HTC), and RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook as, more or less, second-generation tablets.

I've been testing the HP TouchPad for several days. What has a year produced? A solid entry that's behind on the hardware (let's call it generation 1.5) but advanced on the software (generation 2.5 when HP works out a few significant performance kinks). It's an innovative tablet with some fantastically juicy surprises that will make you want it now, but it carries enough disappointments that you'll probably wait for the next version. It's not enough to make you put down your iPad 2, or its near-equivalent Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, but it will make you wish those tablets bestowed the TouchPad's user experience and included its other innovations.

Specifically, the TouchPad is beautiful, but it's much bulkier than the neurotically slender iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. It has a single front-facing camera, which is probably just fine for most users, but most new tablets have a rear-facing camera as well. It's also missing HDMI out. And it's far behind Apple and Google on the apps.

HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
HP TouchPad: A Visual Tour
(click image for larger view and forslideshow)
The TouchPad's WebOS is particularly appealing. WebOS was appealing on Palm Pre smartphones, and it's that much better on a tablet, though underlying operating system changes and a new developer toolkit will require application changes to take full advantage of the TouchPad. In the days leading up to launch, HP engineers have been working to optimize the OS to improve performance. I've stumbled across some quirky and unproductive behavior. HP says an OS update is coming.

Sound familiar? See also: RIM BlackBerry PlayBook.

HP has worked hard to bring multimedia communications together, whether through additions to its underlying Synergy technology, a parlor trick called Touch-to-Share, or in the TouchPad's native email, instant messaging, audio, and video collaboration tools. But most of all, the user interface is smart, simple, and sublime. The card-based user interface is magnified (figuratively and literally) on the tablet.

The TouchPad begins shipping Friday through a variety of retail outlets (Best Buy, Office Depot, and Staples, and directly from HP), but only in its Wi-Fi mode. At first, HP will ship 16-GB and 32-GB configurations, priced at $499 and $599, respectively--comparable to similarly configured iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablets. HP has announced only AT&T as a carrier partner, providing no timeframe for a 3G or 4G version.

The TouchPad Hardware. This device hardware is going to disappoint some people, especially those spoiled by the newest, thinnest models from Apple and Samsung. First, a tale of the tape. The TouchPad has a 9.7-inch XGA capacitive, multi-touch screen, with 1024 x 768 resolution (pretty much the equivalent of what's in the iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1). I'm no ocularphile (yes, I made that up), but it looks fantastic--just as bright and vivid as the iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. The TouchPad is 9.45 inches wide, 7.48 inches high-about the size of an iPad 2.

The biggest differences: It's 0.54 inches thick and 1.6 pounds. Although the TouchPad is only slightly heavier than the iPad 2 and Samsung tablets (which are about 1.33 and 1.25 pounds, respectively) and thicker (by 0.2 inches), these differences are immediately noticeable. HP hasn't kept up with the Joneses here, but the TouchPad is beautiful in its glossy black finish. It feels almost a little delicate compared to other tablets, but its cover and back surface are polyurethane rubber, its outer bumper is thermoplastic elastomers (no, I didn't make that word up), and the inner surface is microfiber. I'm not going to go around drop kicking this thing, or pulling out the Craftsman drill to see what it can withstand, but I'm guessing you don't really want to drop any tablet, even the brick-hard BlackBerry Playbook.

I definitely prefer the thinner tablets, but over time the TouchPad's girth didn't even register any more. Still, I suspect HP will work to thin the TouchPad out over time.

Like most new tablets (but not all), the TouchPad uses a dual-core processor, in this case Qualcomm's SnapDragon APQ8060 1.2 GHz, with the integrated Adreno 220 graphics processor. It can max out to support 16-megapixel cameras, support 1080p HD, stereoscopic displays, and more. In short, it screams, and since HP hasn't put many of these capabilities to use, there's room for growth in future versions. On more than one occasion, HP representatives snuck in the idea that this is just the first in a line of tablet products.

Unlike many of the newer tablets, however, the TouchPad has only a front-facing camera, and it runs at 1.3 megapixels. I'm torn about the lack of a rear-facing camera. Although it's hard to imagine running around with a tablet shooting video and taking pictures, I've seen plenty of people doing it; the BlackBerry Playbook has been the best of the lot here so far. Still, I see the tablet as more of a video chat or videoconference tool, so the lack of a rear-facing camera is only a minor drawback. Even so, why not put one in? Others have managed to do so, and sell their tablets with the same price tag.

Just to round it out, the TouchPad has most of the rest of the necessary hardware: full Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, micro-USB connection, stereo speakers, 3.5-mm headphone jack, and 16-GB and 32-GB internal storage options. But no HDMI out--a pretty major omission. Sensors are there in full regalia: light, compass, gyro, and accelerometer. There is a "Center" button on the device; if you click it, it changes the on-screen view from WebOS cards to the application launcher (more on those later).

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