Review: HP TouchPad

It's going to be in New Zealand only very briefly, but if you get the chance to buy one, here's our guide.

NameTablet: HP TouchPad
At a glance:Very few apps designed for WebOS, and no paid apps yet in NZ,Recent price drop makes it affordable,Great audio and solid design
Summary:In design and OS, it's a standout, but overall it feels like it's less than the sum of its parts.
RRP:$679 (16GB); $819 (32GB)

From a distance, it’s easy to mistake the HP TouchPad for the iPad. The attractively curved design, rounded corners, piano black rear, central home button and camera all add to the effect, as does the 9.7-inch IPS screen offering crispness and brightness that is the hallmark of Apple’s flagship tablet. But once you pick the TouchPad up, you start to notice the differences. It feels heavy compared to the iPad 2, and the lozenge-shaped home button is distinctive.

Also noticeable is the lack of a hardware-based lock switch, though the HP TouchPad does have the ubiquitous micro-USB charger slot in its favour.

Once you start to use the TouchPad however, you may be surprised to find that WebOS is closest in feel to BlackBerry Playbook’s BlackBerry OS for Tablet, rather than iOS.

On the home screen, you either view or scroll horizontally between minimised open apps. At the top of the screen is an informational and settings-adjustable menu bar, and at the bottom you can access common apps such as the browser (IE 9), mail, calendar, messaging, photos and the Launcher.

The Launcher pops up a four-tabbed interface. Pre-installed apps appear in the main tab, with downloaded apps on a second tab, and you can drag favourites into a third tab. Settings are listed on the fourth tab, in icon-based form. We found some settings hard to locate (a list is easier to identify settings within). Working out where to find an app was occasionally tricky, was it pre-installed or an app I’d downloaded? The Launcher remembers the tab you last had open, so it can also be confusing if you haven’t checked in a while and find yourself on a tab you weren’t expecting.

Navigating between open apps is straightforward. You swipe up from the bottom of the screen to show the home screen – with minimised apps – and from there just touch an app to open it, or swipe it upwards and off the screen to close it. Multiple windows from a single app (such as the browser) appear as a stack, from which you can select any of the “cards” within the stack to open.

Sometimes slow and unresponsive UI

I found WebOS slow and unresponsive at times. Angry Birds, for example, occasionally loaded only the main screen, and I had to swipe out of the app, then back in to get it to load properly. Similarly, the water-droplet effect that occurs when you touch the screen could at times be frustratingly unclear. I sometimes wondered whether I had actually pressed a button – unlike in other OSes where the button appears to depress immediately, but may then lag, in WebOS there was sometimes no noticeable response to pressing, and I found myself waiting up to ten seconds for the response.

When browsing, I found that some Silverlight-heavy pages reloaded constantly without ever fully loading the page. It’s not a dealbreaker, but I hope my experience wasn’t representative.

The slowness can’t be blamed on the processor: a 1.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-core processor is plenty capable. There’s plentiful RAM, too, with 1GB available for the OS to use. Other specifications are similarly top-notch. For connectivity, there’s Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth 2.1. Audio, powered by stereo speakers and HP’s Beats Audio, is impressively rich and makes games, music and video surprisingly immersive. For video, H.263 and H.264 MPEG-4 is supported. On the audio side, it supports DRM-free MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR, QCELP and WAV, but it seems a shame that no lossless compression formats, such as FLAC, are supported given the overall audio quality.

Screen resolution is 1024 x 768, and the screen itself is a bright, clear IPS panel. The resolution is identical to the iPad and looks great for big screen games such as Angry Birds HD. However, glare was quite high in bright, sunny conditions, making it hard to read text or view apps properly.

The on-screen keyboard feels slightly sluggish, but is accurate and presents good options for autocorrect, making typing a good, if slightly frustrating experience overall.

The TouchPad comes in 16GB and 32GB versions. Experience with the iPad suggests that most people will manage with 16GB, with the exception of video and audio hoarders. There’s no space for expansion cards, so what you buy upfront is all you’ve got.

The good points

Battery life was excellent – I used the TouchPad as my only computing device for five days on a single charge. I'd estimate the battery life at around 20 hours for its 6300mAH Lithium-polymer battery.

Minor quibbles with the OS aside, there are some lovely touches in the design and usability of both the TouchPad and WebOS that make it appealing.

The mail app is far and away the best tablet mail application I’ve seen, as is the Facebook app. I also found card-stacking apps one of the most intuitive ways to present multiple windows. The TouchStone dock, which provides charging on contact with the TouchPad, is the most elegant docking solution I’ve seen. App updates are also handled very smoothly via a prompt on the menu bar. But that brings me to the major flaw with the TouchPad.

The bad points

In New Zealand, only free apps were available at the time of writing (paid apps will be available from August 24). In the meantime, I installed everything that was labelled “Designed for TouchPad” in the HP App Store. With that done, I started installing some of the apps without that label – which are designed for the Pre or other ex-Palm devices.

Sadly, there are so few free apps designed for the TouchPad that I was barely able to get a screen full of them, and most of the big guns are missing at the moment. There’s no tablet version of Evernote for WebOS yet, and DropBox is also missing. Springpad? Remember the Milk? Flickr? Nope. Kindle only has a beta app as yet.

It’s a shame, but it also sums up the TouchPad – there’s a lot of potential here, but so little of it is being realised. HP did have big plans to attract developers, but now HP has halted production of all WebOS tablets and smartphones. It seems that the TouchPad’s potential may never be realised, and unlike BlackBerry’s Playbook the TouchPad lacks the ability to add Android Apps.

We can't rate it highly when there's very little you can really do with it. It is likely to be very cheap, however.

Zara Baxter

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Zara Baxter

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