HP TouchPad review:

HP TouchPad

In many ways, the TouchPad takes the metaphor of the desktop more literally than any Mac or PC. On a conventional computer, every window represents a separate application or document. For the TouchPad, windows are gathered into stacks that are tied to their common task. For example, in the course of reading e-mail you may find yourself clicking links to the Web. The resulting Web page is grouped together within the same stack as the e-mail that contained the link. This automatic continuity of associations between windows allows for a less schizophrenic kind of multitasking. In theory, at least.

Sometimes the logic breaks down. Let's say you open more than one Web link contained in an e-mail. Just like the previous example, the first page will be grouped together with your e-mail. If that page remains open, though, each succeeding page will open as a separate stack, breaking its association from the e-mail that spawned it. Maybe there's a rationalization for it, but to us it seems inconsistent.

Fortunately, WebOS affords you full manual control over managing and organizing stacks however you see fit. You can pull an e-mail reply out from its stack to deal with as a distinctly separate task. You can create a document in Quickoffice and stack it among important e-mails and Web pages. Ultimately, if you are someone who naturally organizes life into little piles (bills, to-dos, correspondence, etc.) then you will feel right at home in TouchPad's interface.

That said, some of the TouchPad's apps don't take full advantage of the card stack metaphor. Calendar, for example, is never more than a one-window view. There's no pulling appointments out as separate windows or managing separate calendars as separate views. In HP's defense, the TouchPad's ability to meld together all of your various calendars (Facebook, Google, Exchange, and others) into a unified view is no easy feat, and shouldn't be overlooked.

The TouchPad's photo app is another missed opportunity for taking advantage of the home screen stacks. One can imagine spreading out multiple photos on the home screen or stacking relevant images with presentations. Instead, the TouchPad's photo app is a single window that comes across as a low-budget imitation of the iPad's photo viewer. To add some confusion, the main view of your photo library displays your collection as a series of photo stacks, but doesn't actually provide any of the stacks functionality found on the TouchPad's home screen. You can't pull them apart or reorganize them--they're really just a fancy way to dress up what is essentially a folder. It's a disconnect--and ultimately a minor one--but it points again to a lack of consistency.

The photo app does an impressive job pulling in photos from your online accounts, but it faiis to leverage the unique card stack capabilities of WebOS.

Now, there are some great things to say about the TouchPad's photos app. Just as HP infuses its e-mail and calendar app with all of your online accounts, so, too, does the photos app. Your photos from Facebook, Photobucket, Snapfish, and others are all pulled in and cached to your TouchPad, alongside any photos you may have stored locally. Even comments for Facebook photos are pulled in and displayed alongside your images. Some big names were missing from the account synchronization list, such as Picasa and Flickr, but HP plans to extend compatibility with "Synergy Services," which users can download from within the app store. Only time will tell if anyone develops a Synergy plug-in for your favorite service, but at least the door is open.

The included Messaging app also does a decent job of integrating several of the more popular instant messaging services on the Web. At launch, HP builds in compatibility with AIM, Google Talk, Skype, and Yahoo. If you also happen to own an HP WebOS phone, you can pair the devices over Bluetooth and both send and receive SMS messages through the app, as well.

As for the rest of the included software, a pop-up menu from the home screen reveals more apps, including Bing Maps, an HP-authored Facebook app, Quickoffice, contacts, memos, Amazon Kindle, and more. Tabs running across the top of this menu can take you to device settings, a customizable listing of favorite apps, and a section for downloaded content that includes a link to HP's WebOS app store.

HP offers a new way to think about buying and browsing apps.

Third-party apps
The TouchPad can directly download third-party apps through the built-in HP App Catalog. Here again, HP took a chance to distinguish itself from the app-buying experience on the iPad or Android Market. As a platform, WebOS does not have the volume of apps to match its competitors, and at this point in the game, there's probably no catching up. Instead, HP has designed a curated buying experience on the TouchPad as a way to highlight quality content and to give the developers behind those apps a chance to shine.

Upon opening the HP App Catalog, users are presented with digital magazine called Pivot, which acts as a kind of shopping guide front end to the app catalog. The magazine content changes out each month, and each page highlights a particular app or a genre of apps. For example, a page extolling the benefits of listening to Internet radio offers direct links to three hand-picked music apps, which users can either purchase or bookmark to consider later.

A series of tabs running beneath the Pivot digital magazine offers a quick means to jump into the full app catalog, either browsing by category, or as a keyword search. The catalog includes apps designed for both WebOS smartphones and the TouchPad, and lists each apps compatibility on the app description page. Apps designed for the smaller-resolution screens of HP's line of Pre phones are mostly compatible with the TouchPad and run on the tablet in their native size.

We've talked a lot about the TouchPad in relation to the iPad and the army of Android tablets on the market. When it comes to performance, though, we couldn't help comparing the TouchPad to RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, which bears the same price, and is fighting HP's same battle to define a new tablet platform.

We had our criticisms about the PlayBook, but as a tablet that promised Adobe Flash compatibility and powerful multitasking capabilities, RIM delivered in spades. It also threw in HD video capture and 1080p HDMI output, just to make things interesting. With that in mind, the HP TouchPad doesn't match the horsepower of its fellow underdog. The Adobe Flash compatibility for the browser is there, but in a few instances it had a hard time running if multiple Web pages with Flash content were open. We also found it generally sluggish when launching apps, compared with the iPad or the Galaxy Tab 10.1, and a cold boot took a full minute and 8 seconds. It's certainly not the slowest machine out there, but it's not going to make anyone take notice.

The same can be said of the TouchPad's screen quality. It's not the brightest, and the black levels aren't great, either.

Tested spec HP TouchPad Apple Ipad 2 Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Maximum brightness 292 cd/M2 432 cd/M2 336 cd/M2
Default brightness 85 cd/M2 176 cd/M2 336 cd/M2
Maximum black level 0.38 cd/M2 0.46 cd/M2 0.30 cd/M2
Default black level 0.11 cd/M2 0.19 cd/M2 0.30 cd/M2
Default contrast ratio 772 926 1,120
Contrast ratio (max brightness) 768 939 1,120

HP rates the TouchPad's battery life at 8 hours of Web use, or 10 hours of video playback. We'll update this review with independent test results from CNET Labs.

Final thoughts
The TouchPad is an important tablet. It's important for HP, and important for consumers to have another option out there beyond what Apple and Google are offering. At the end of the day, though, the TouchPad feels like a well-orchestrated competitor to the original iPad and not the forward-thinking alternative we had hoped for.

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