Hands-on: HP's TouchPad has great features but is no show-stopper

The new webOS tablet offers a slick interface and features, but won't be able to compete with the iPad

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Working with webOS

Based on a Linux kernel, Palm's webOS 3.0 is finger-friendly. Unlike iOS and Android, it doesn't offer users small icons arranged in a grid on the Home page. Apps are represented instead by a row of large rectangular icons -- you find them on a traditional app screen called the Launcher, which is divided up with tabs for Apps, Downloads, Favorites and Settings.

Active apps are represented on the home page by a row of large rectangular icons (looking a bit like playing cards) that can be arranged in a horizontal row (where you see one full card and a half card on either side) or stacked. You swipe across the row to get to the "card" you want and tap on it to bring it to full screen. If you want to close the app, you can swipe toward the top to dismiss it.

HP TouchPad
The TouchPad's webOS interface makes it easy to deal with multitasked apps.

It's like a breath of fresh air for tablet users tired of squinting at small icons. While you can't see as many icons at a glance as with Android or iOS, it's more visually appealing. On the other hand, I found it to be a bit tedious scrolling through a slew of apps to find the right one.

And you can't see all of the secondary cards. For instance, when I was looking at the calendar view as the center card with CNN on the half card to the right and BBC as the half card to the left, I couldn't see an ebook downloading in the background.

Because the TouchPad multitasks, the programs remain active; in a nice touch, some data will be visible on the home-screen card. I was able to listen to an Internet radio station while the TouchPad was downloading an ebook, showing my calendar and displaying a Web page.

The TouchPad's multitasking felt quite liberating; it made using several apps on a tablet much easier. I was able to open an app, use it, send it to the background and bring it back to the surface as needed, without the hassles of closing and then opening it. I generally had two or three apps running simultaneously, but even when I kept as many as eight apps open at once, it only occasionally slowed to a crawl. To my mind, it's the way all tablets should operate.

By the way, if you happen to have a webOS smartphone, like the Palm Pre or Pixi, HP's pad does a cool trick. Place the phone near the TouchPad to pair the two devices with Bluetooth and move items, like appointments and text messages, between them.

Other features

The Touchpad offers the ability to play Flash movies, audio and interactive content. I found that it worked well with Flash-heavy sites like YouTube or the BBC World Service.

I was especially impressed by the TouchPad's onscreen keyboard. There are four keyboard sizes available that let you customize how much precious screen real estate it occupies. There's even an extra row for numbers and symbols on the virtual keyboard, which lets you stay on the main keyboard screen, even if you need to use symbols such as * or &.

The tablet comes with apps for email, calendar, viewing photos, listening to music, Web browsing, messaging, writing quick notes as well as FaceBook and Adobe's Acrobat Reader. The missing link, though, is the variety of add-on apps that the iPad so effectively delivers. At the moment, there are only 300 TouchPad programs, including Time magazine, WeatherBug, Angry Birds and Skype (but not Netflix, much to my dismay).

As far as business apps go, the system lacks a true Office suite. The system comes with QuickOffice, but it can only display Office documents and doesn't allow editing them, vastly limiting its usefulness. Plus, HP's pad doesn't have the security hardware that the corporate world demands. It does without a Trusted Platform Module, Smart Card reader and fingerprint reader.

Bottom line

In the final analysis, the TouchPad is caught in a no-man's land for tablets. On the plus side, it supports full multitasking, plays Flash and has the best onscreen keyboard around, making typical tablet tasks easier. However, it's also chunky, overweight and lacks the apps that are needed to compete with the iPad. As a result, the TouchPad risks being lost in the crowded tablet market.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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