HP TouchPad review: Hands on with the iPad killer

Those of you with a hankering for an alternative to Apple's iPad should hanker no more. We've sat down with the HP TouchPad and it is, quite frankly, amazeballs.

Rory Reid
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Update: Our full HP TouchPad review is now live on the site. You should read it as many things have changed since this article was originally published. 

If you've been hankering for a credible alternative to Apple's iPad, hanker no more. We've sat down with the HP TouchPad, a new contender to the tablet throne -- and it is, for desperate want of a better word, amazeballs. It promises a host of advantages over the all-conquering iPad, including a dual-core CPU, no-nonsense media handling and, joy of all joys, Adobe Flash playback.

Our first impressions of the device were very positive. It lacks the snazzy aluminium rear and outer bezel of the iPad, so it doesn't feel quite as solid, and its edges are noticeably fatter than its Apple counterpart's, but it's definitely a looker. Around its chubby edges, you'll find volume buttons, a micro-USB port, a pair of stereo speakers and a single, user-facing 1.3-megapixel webcam.

Hey, decent lookin'

The HP TouchPad doffs its cap to the iPad -- repeatedly. The two devices are damn near identical in size, although HP's machine tips the scales at 770g versus the iPad's 680g. The TouchPad also features an iPad-like 9.7-inch capacitive display, which runs at the same 1,024x768-pixel resolution, and has a physical 'home' button on the lower bezel.

We were impressed with the TouchPad's screen quality. The display is bright and has a wide viewing angle, so there's no noticeable picture distortion even when viewed from obtuse angles. Two people sat side by side, perhaps in a car or curled up in bed, will enjoy a perfect image despite not being completely central to the screen.

The HP TouchPad's screen uses toughened Gorilla Glass. This, as the name suggests, is a chemically treated cover designed to withstand scratches, drops and just about anything us weedy nerds can throw at it. Unfortunately, as is the case with all devices of this sort, the screen's glossy finish means it's rather reflective, which can make it difficult to use outdoors unless the brightness is cranked up to maximum.

Smooth operator

Where the HP TouchPad differs from the iPad (and every other tablet device) is its use of the Linux-based webOS operating system, which was initially developed by Palm and purchased by HP in 2010.

If you've ever used a Palm Pre mobile phone, you'll be instantly familiar with the graphical user interface. Applications are launched by tapping graphical icons in the usual fashion, and tapping the physical home button on the bezel displays all active apps as 'activity cards'.

Swiping horizontally cycles between cards and tapping a card restores that app to full-screen mode -- unless that app was originally designed for a smaller webOS device such as a phone and not the TouchPad tablet specifically. In that case, the app isn't displayed in all its glory. Instead, it's shown in the relative confines of a card, which takes up only about a quarter of the screen.

Once you're accustomed to the user interface and the ridiculous foible that states legacy apps can't ever run in full-screen mode, there should be no nasty surprises in using the HP TouchPad. Its Web browser is as intuitive as the iPad's -- perhaps even more so. It supports all the customary pinching, stretching and swiping gestures, and supports HTML5 and Flash, so your ability to view content on the interwebs is restricted only by your own taste, or lack thereof.

Application denied

The HP TouchPad's app store, the App Catalog, has a mere 8,000 apps at the time of writing. That's pathetic in comparison to the 120,000 or so in the Android Market and the 300,000-plus available on Apple's App Store, though the number of apps is growing all the time.

That's a good thing, as the HP TouchPad delivers fabulous performance. It uses a dual-core Qualcomm CPU and has a dedicated graphics processing unit that, together, make the device very responsive to use. Document scrolling and app switching are quick and smooth, and it'll even run 3D games. HP had no full games available for test, but it did show an impressive, if occasionally jerky flying game that showed the device's OpenGL graphics capabilities in a positive light.

The entertainer

We were, unfortunately, unable to test the HP TouchPad's video and audio playback, but both these areas promise to be impressive. The device will natively play a variety of video formats so you'll never have to transcode your files beforehand. It'll also let you watch movies and TV shows purchased via the HP Movie Store.

Music playback isn't forgotten, either. The TouchPad has a Beats by Dre headphone audio system, which is designed to improve the sonic fidelity of audio tracks ripped at a low bit rate.

The TouchPad's connectivity is potentially very impressive. HP tells us its micro-USB port will likely feature a range of accessories that will, among other things, allow the tablet to connect to your TV. The device also has Wi-Fi for connecting to the Web and Bluetooth, which serves a range of purposes.

Firstly, it allows the TouchPad to connect with your mobile phone, so you can receive texts, voice and video calls on the tablet. Bluetooth also and helps facilitate HP's Touch And Share feature, which lets you pass data and entire, fully loaded Web pages wirelessly from the TouchPad to compatible Palm phones simply by bringing the two devices in close proximity. In future HP's said it's working on a way to transfer photos, music and movies between devices in the same manner.

Coming soonish

The HP TouchPad is a hugely promising tablet that has several advantages over the market leading iPad, notably its dual core power and more accomplished Web browser. Its relative lack of apps and unconfirmed price could be its Achilles heels, but all signs point to this giving the iPad a serious run for its money.

The HP TouchPad will launch this summer for an as yet undisclosed price with 3G- and 4G-equipped versions to follow. The tablet will come with either 16GB or 32GB of integrated storage.

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The HP TouchPad's screen is made of toughened Gorilla Glass and has a wide viewing angle.
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The device isn't quite as thin as the iPad, but it's still a gorgeous piece of kit.
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Users can customise the size of the virtual keyboard, which has a dedicated row of numerical buttons.
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This physical button takes you back to the main menu.
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This 1.3-megapixel webcam lets you do video calling.
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The screen is highly reflective if not used in perfectly diffuse lighting.
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Choose your keyboard size!
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There are only 8,000 or so apps for the TouchPad and most won't run full-screen because they're designed for phones.
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The Touch To Share feature lets you load a Web page on to your Palm phone simply by holding it against the TouchPad.

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