It pains me to say this, as I was very excited to try HP’s TouchPad, but the combination of the webOS mobile operating system packaged in the form factor of the TouchPad tablet is far from being any sort of iPad killer. That’s not to say that webOS doesn’t have its perks – for example, the fast app switching involving stacks of “cards” you can swipe through on the homescreen, system-wide notifications that appear at the top right with just the right amount of interruption, a nifty “touch to share” feature that lets you move content between a Palm Pre and TouchPad.
But everything that’s great about webOS comes in a heavy, chunky, plastic-y and cheap feeling TouchPad. It’s a disappointing experience that detracts from the great features of the operating system. And this is only one of the problems with the tablet – it also has issues with its Web browser, Flash, a still paltry app catalog and more.
A Chunky, Heavy TouchPad
To be fair, the TouchPad is only a bit heavier than the original iPad (1.6 lbs vs. 1.5 for the iPad), but it’s much heavier than the iPad 2 (1.33 lbs). At 13.7 mm thick, it feels larger, heavier, and clunkier. And it is. The Motorola Xoom is a more apt comparison for the TouchPad (12.7 mm), while the thickness (or rather, the thinness) of the iPad 2 is 8.8 mm.
The problem with the TouchPad is that it was clearly positioned to compete with the iPad in its design – which it does, of course – but Apple had moved on to the iPad 2 before the TouchPad came to market. HP’s TouchPad, at launch, already feels out of date.
Size, weight and thickness are important factors when considering a tablet – even small improvements in this area lead to big jumps in terms of portability. As for the TouchPad, the overall feel is one of “computer without keyboard” or “better than a netbook,” not “cool, thin tablet.”
As for its other specs, the TouchPad is a better competitor when compared with both the Xoom and iPad, offering 1 GB RAM, 16 or 32 GB of storage, a 1.3 megapixel camera, 1024×768 resolution and 1.2 GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor. (Comparisons to other tablets are here).
But at the end of the day, the TouchPad fails on two key fronts: apps and, as noted above, portability. WebOS is lovely, but it’s not enough.
WebOS: Lots to Like
There are those out there who will prefer the TouchPad simply because it runs webOS. Created by Palm, now owned by HP, webOS is an attractive and functional alternative to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. It’s a bit more complex than Apple’s operating system, but not as geeky and technical as Android sometimes feels.
There are some very specific things that webOS does differently, and does well:
- Cards: Possibly the most notable feature of webOS, “card stacks” are how the operating system handles app switching. As you’re multitasking, groups of open applications are stacked together as cards (think: deck of playing cards). You can easily switch between these groups by swiping left or right on the homescreen. You can also shuffle the cards around in any stack, and, when finished, drag a card off the top of the screen to close the application.
- System-wide notifications: The OS updates you on things like new emails, social networking updates, events and more. For true webOS fans, the tablet pairs with a Palm Pre, allowing you to also receive your SMS and MMS messages on the TouchPad. Notifications are less obtrusive than they are on the current version of iOS, by appearing on the top-right of the screen, not as pop-ups in the middle. However, this feature probably seemed more innovative prior to Apple’s reveal of the soon-to-launch iOS 5, which brings with it a new notifications center that mimics the one in Android, and essentially ends the complaints about iOS’s disruptive notifications.
- Just Type: WebOS’s universal search features lets you search your device, the Web or perform common actions like starting an email, adding a calendar appointment, updating your Facebook status, and more.
- Synergy: This webOS feature pulls in your contacts, calendars, emails and photos from multiple services (Google, Exchange, MobileMe, Yahoo, Facebook, etc.), which makes the TouchPad function as a centralized hub for many of the services you want to use.
I would add the “Touch to Share” (content moving) feature to this list, too, as it’s certainly unique to the webOS experience, but it requires users to also have an HP Palm Pre. That’s not most people. For webOS fans buying into the whole ecosystem, it’s great, but it’s not a selling point for the average person debating a tablet purchase.
There are dozens of other good to great features in webOS, too, including its resizable keyboard with a number row at the top (thank you!), built in Skype support, curated app discovery service “Pivot” (a magazine style tool for finding apps), built-in printing support (for HP printers, of course), an included copy of QuickOffice, decent mapping via Bing, a music player called HP Play offering iTunes playlists and library import, and more.
There are several popular, well-known apps for the TouchPad, too, including Facebook, Bing Maps, Kindle, Skype, YouTube, QuickOffice, Angry Birds, TIME, USA Today, Weatherbug and others. Spaz HD is available to serve as a Twitter client.
But the TouchPad has only 300 native tablet apps at launch in addition to around 6,200 non-optimized apps designed for phones. What this means is that you won’t serendipitously discover those special apps like you’ll find on iPad, whether something like the iPad-only Flipboard social magazine, or the Apple-only iMovie and GarageBand. Nor will you find deeply integrated Google experiences, like Android users have with apps for Gmail, Docs and other Google applications and services.
The shortage of apps wouldn’t matter as much if the Web browser lived up to its claims. Recently, Sencha reviewed the HTML5 performance on the TouchPad and found it lacking, unfortunately. (You can read more on that here). This is disappointing for the Web developer community who had hoped that HP’s implementation of WebKit would mean an app platform built on standard Web technologies like HTML5 and CSS3.
In addition, the included Flash support didn’t work as well as one would hope (if you sit around hoping for things like Flash, instead of purposely avoiding it by purchasing Apple devices). Some sites take too long to load, others don’t load properly at all, and Flash performance is often choppy and stuttering. You can choose to disable Flash, at least.
Although this is far from being a comprehensive review of everything TouchPad (check your favorite gadget blog for that), we found webOS to be a promising mobile operating system with several unique features. However, in its current implementation and form factor, webOS is not delivering as stellar a performance as we would have liked. The hardware is heavy and dated, especially in comparison with the iPad 2, the app ecosystem isn’t large enough and the browser not functional enough to serve as a Web app platform. While webOS makes for a compelling alternative to the iPad alternatives, it’s not a compelling alternative to the iPad itself.