HP TouchPad, First Take: Some kudos, some cynicism

After checking out HP's TouchPad, Eric Franklin and Donald Bell say it should be able to hold up as a tablet contender. But they've got some gripes.

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The TouchPad is an exciting reveal for HP, but how does its hardware compare with the current and future competition? Let's dive in and find out.

Hardware

First the display. The HP TouchPad's 9.7-inch capacitive touch display has a resolution of 1,024x768 pixels. That matches the resolution of the current Apple iPad but is trumped by the Motorola Xoom's announced 1,280x800-pixel resolution. In person, the TouchPad delivers a pleasant picture, but we were unsure whether the screen uses an IPS panel like the iPad or a TN panel like most tablets. An IPS panel would provide much better, clearer viewing of the screen at off angles.

The TouchPad uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-core 1.2GHz processor as its brains. In comparison, the iPad has 1GHz ARM and the Xoom has a dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 1GHz. Now when it comes to CPUs, specs and numbers are one thing, but what those specs actually deliver is another thing altogether. During our limited time watching an HP rep navigate through the OS today, we did notice some sluggishness, but until we actually get our hands on the final hardware with a fully optimized OS, we won't know just how fast the TouchPad is.

The TouchPad includes only a single 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera, with no back-facing camera (the Xoom has a 2-megapixel front-facing camera, and a 5-megapixel shooter in the back). The current iPad has no camera. With front- and rear-facing cameras becoming the norm on smartphones and tablets, we're quite surprised HP doesn't offer more here.

HP also demonstrated a new level of synergy between its WebOS devices. The TouchPad can instantly sync to your Palm Pre 3. Let's say you're visiting a site on your TouchPad and realize you have to leave in a hurry. Simply touch your Pre 3 to the TouchPad's sensor. The Pre 3 will instantly open the same URL you're visiting on the TouchPad. Using this feature, you'll also be able to receive (and answer) texts and phone calls on your TouchPad.

Though definitely a neat feature that seemed to work well, to use it you'll have to fully buy into the HP WebOS ecosystem. This may be more than what some are planning for.

One thing we appreciated was the TouchPad's wireless Bluetooth keyboard (sold separately) that will allow you to bypass the virtual keyboard and type like a person who means business. Also, the cellular models of the TouchPad will include support for A-GPS.

Looking at the TouchPad, we saw no evidence of a video-out feature. This is another curious omission in a world in which even smartphones are pushing out 1080p content onto 50-inch screens.

The touchstone charging station will function similarly to the Palm Pre's version; according to HP, you'll simply place the TouchPad on the touchstone and it will begin charging, without connecting any wires.

This brings us to the question of battery life. Our guess is that HP isn't happy with what it's currently getting in its internal labs testing or it would have at least alluded to a number. A dual-core CPU will likely draw a lot of juice, but of course it will depend on what the tablet is doing and more importantly, the luminance level of the screen during those activities.

WebOS

A tablet's hardware specs are critical for a smooth user experience, but ultimately, the best tablet hardware should feel invisible. It's really all about your interaction with the OS and how well the interface gels with the way you work, browse, and communicate.

HP's WebOS (originally developed by Palm) looks right at home on the TouchPad's 9.7-inch screen. Its core apps, such as e-mail, Web browser, photos, calendar, media playback, and chat are all optimized to make the best use of the large screen size, using a system of panes and collapsing menus similar to what we've seen on the iPad, BlackBerry PlayBook, and Motorola Xoom. It feels like a proper tablet OS--not a rushed repurposing of smartphone software.

The home screen, which has changed little from the original Palm Pre, uses a refreshingly simple interface. For better or worse, you're not dealing with screen upon screen of apps as you would on the iPad. Instead, the TouchPad's home screen is more like a conventional desktop, allowing you space to flip between open applications. As many devoted Palm Pre owners will tell you, it's a smart system, and one that nailed multitasking on mobile devices long before the iPhone and iPad.

That said, in spite of the history behind WebOS, it's still a fairly young operating system compared with the rapid development of Android and iOS. From the looks of it, HP has clearly spent some time polishing the software, but it will have to contend with the increasingly sophisticated demands of today's consumers. There's only so much we can glean from the best-case-scenario product demo we saw today. Every OS has its weaknesses, and HP's will undoubtedly come to light sooner or later.

One of the easiest jabs to take at WebOS is app support. With the platform treading water for the past year, HP's WebOS app catalog hasn't experienced the same explosive growth as Apple's or Google's. HP will need to play catch-up quickly, and like Google, will need to find a way to fork development of apps for both tablets and the smaller screens of smartphones. HP has aligned itself with some big-name partners, such as Time Warner, Facebook, Last.fm, Rovio (Angry Birds), and the NBA, promising some high-end apps for launch, but only time will tell if the company can spark interest with the larger developer community.

HP's TouchPad has the makings of a successful tablet, a year ago. HP

Apart from the limited selection of apps and the predictably iPad-esque core features of WebOS on the TouchPad, there are some unique features worth calling attention to. The one that drew the most applause from the crowd during the unveiling was the synchronization of text messages between the TouchPad and a WebOS smartphone.

Provided that both your smartphone and TouchPad are on the same home network, you could theoretically receive and reply to text messages on your Wi-Fi-only TouchPad from the comfort of your couch. Granted, it's a neat feature, but it's likely to be a rare user who finds himself early-adopting both a WebOS phone and tablet this year. This same combo of kudos and cynicism can be laid against HP's touch-to-share technology, which allows you to share URLs between your TouchPad and WebOS phone by placing the gadgets on top of each other.

Another unique feature we're both hot and cold on is the adjustable touch-screen keyboard sizing. HP included the option to resize the keyboard directly from a contextual menu on the keyboard. It's a nice customization, and the demo drew plenty of "ooohs" from the audience. On further consideration, though, we wonder how often we'll really find ourselves changing this setting, and whether its customization might be better kept out of the way in some general Settings menu. We'll see.

The keyboard also has the notable distinction of including a row of numeric keys across the top, similar to a conventional computer keyboard. These keys are smaller than the text keys, and take a pill-like form--but they should save you the headache of switching between dedicated letter and number keyboards.

HP's "Just Type" feature for WebOS. HP

The last WebOS feature we'll call out here is one HP calls "Just Type." The premise is that users can simply pick up the device and start typing anything--the name of a restaurant, a status update, a song name--and the TouchPad will present you with a list of options for the text, such as performing a Web search, posting to Facebook, searching through e-mail, and more. It's a neat feature, in theory, that dovetails nicely with the instant-on appeal of tablets.

Conclusions

We're definitely seeing the potential for a new device and a new tablet OS to challenge the iPad, and there's no reason the TouchPad can't do the job. It will face some heavy competition from Android Honeycomb tablets such as the Motorola Xoom, and RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, but it should be able to stand on its own as a viable competitor.

That said, as with any new mobile device these days, the unknowns of pricing, battery life, and availability, plus possible carrier lock-ins, could all possibly derail customer enthusiasm. Let's hope HP has the brand power and the good judgment to navigate these potential pitfalls.

 

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