Along with many other owners, my Touchpad was bought in the crazy HP fire sale that made news around the world. As someone who works for an online retailer, I was able to place my order directly on the back office system, bypassing the barrage of customers fighting it out on the web site. On that day, traffic from deal sites like HotUkDeals bombarded our site – a huge amount of people were trying to bag the Touchpad for less than £100 (or slightly more for the 32GB version).
The Touchpad sale was an unusual event – it’s quite common for retailers to discount products that are end-of-line or don’t sell well, but when this happens the retailer usually takes the hit. In this case, HP subsidised the retailers on the sell-off, allowing them to give huge discounts without suffering any loss. In effect, HP paid people to buy the Touchpad – the sell-off price is estimated to be half of the cost of manufacture.
The Touchpad is a chunky, heavy piece of kit, even compared to the original iPad. It’s too heavy really, making it awkward to hold in one hand. The device feels sturdy but it falls a long way short of the razor-thin feel of the iPad 2. A major practicality problem I found with the machine is the smooth and glossy rear cover – place the tablet on top of some magazines on a table (or on a fabric sofa) and it will very easily slide off and head for the floor. My Touchpad fell off a table while on charge, and landed on the USB cable plugged into the bottom of the device. This could have been a disaster, but luckily the cable plug was damaged rather than the socket in the machine itself. This near-miss made it clear that the machine really needs a case. I ordered the official hp case, which is a slightly naff attempt to emulate the genius magnetic case of the iPad 2. It’s nowhere near as good but a velcro strip on the rear allows it to fold and stay in place, acting as a rest and making the machine a lot easier to use. Given the problems with trying to hold the device in your hand, the case is highly recommended. You can also find cheaper leather wallet-style cases on eBay.
As some compensation for the heft of the machine, there is good news when it comes to the screen. The LCD panel is an IPS type, just like the ones specified by Apple in the iPad 2 and their desktop and laptop computers. These panels are a fair bit more expensive than the more common TN and PVA types, but have great image quality and very good viewing angles. The capacitive touch screen is accurate and responsive, and it’s way better than the resistive screens you get on a China iPad for the same kind of money (as the fire sale price).
Although the build quality is perfectly decent, the hardware feels closer in engineering terms to a budget Android tablet, and it’s the main reason why the device wasn’t competitive when hp tried to sell it at the same price point as the iPad 2.
WebOS is where the premature end of the Touchpad becomes a more lamentable story – it’s an absolute gem of a system. Palm has always had knack of writing powerful but easy-to-use OS’s, and this was the biggest factor in the success of the original Palm Pilot back in the 1990’s. WebOS is effortless to use and it’s biggest achievement is making multitasking something anyone can use – and more important – will want to use. The home screen consists of cards – each one being a large preview of a running application. You swipe left and right to move between cards, and a really nice touch is the ability to throw an application away by swiping it’s card off the top of screen. If an application has multiple windows open, those cards are stacked one beneath the other – another simple yet powerful way of representing running applications. The bottom part of the screen contains a basic dock-style area for holding shortcuts to commonly used applications.
It’s impressive to see how much original thinking there is in WebOS. Another touch I really like is the design of the sliding horizontal panels used in applications like the built-in Facebook client. You slide the panels into view when you need to navigate to a specific area, then slide them out of view to gain more screen space for reading content. Interestingly, the iOS version of Facebook now uses this feature, but for reasons I can’t put my finger on it doesn’t feel quite right on that OS, and takes quite a bit of getting used to.
The onscreen keyboard is excellent to use and scores a big usability point over the iPad by having number keys across the top. Other useful features include a tab key for moving between form fields, and a dedicated key to hide the keyboard from view. Unfortunately, it lacks a few nifty time-saving features – in particular you can’t double-tap the space bar to print a full stop, which is disappointing given that every other major mobile OS supports this.
Given the short-lived nature of the Touchpad, native apps for big names eBay and Amazon may never materialise, making the quality of the inbuilt web browser an important factor. Generally, the WebKit-based browser works well, but isn’t quite as flawless as the iOS or Android browsers. The current version has an annoying bug where some long or complex pages don’t display fully, and performace is only average. On the plus side, it runs Flash which is a major benefit on a number of web sites, and will help future-proof the device to some extent.
Screens and panels in WebOS generally have a clean and stylish layout, with lots of use of grey gradient fills to give a classy appearance. One small area that stood out to me as being especially well-designed in the ratings area for apps in the App Catalog which uses green and red speech bubbles to indicate overall votes. Whoever designed this little feature should give themselves a pat on the back.
The control panel area of WebOS is very simplistic, with each icon simply being a shortcut which fires up the relevant control panel. I found this clunky to use, with the end result being that if you open every applet in the control there will be a whole bunch of windows open, and each one only has a small set of options. It would have been better if the control panel was a single app with a left navigator of options, with the shortcuts opening the app at the relevant page.
As you might expect, the App Catalog is a bit lacking but there are some treasures to be found. The legendary Angry Birds is available, and runs very nicely too. I’ve installed a great RSS reader called Tea Reader, and there’s a really cool Twitter client going by the questionable name of Spaz.
Overall performance of WebOS is acceptable, but you do get the feeling that the effortless multitasking could benefit from a bit more responsiveness. There is a rumour that the WebOS team hacked an iPad 2 to run their OS, and it ran like lightning, which seems plausible until you check on good old XDA Developers and they have a number of small hacks you can make to speed up the system. Apparently the system is very heavy on logging actions and events, and performance can be increased by turning this off. It’s also possible to turn off the unnecessary ripple effect that appears every time the screen is tapped, which sounds like a useful improvement and is said to improve responsiveness. Making these changes involved unlocking your Touchpad, which is as simple as typing a special code into the search box.
There are efforts underway to get Android running on the Touchpad, providing users with a longer-term option should WebOS stop being supported. It’s great to have this as a fallback, but I would be in no rush to flash Android onto the Touchpad because WebOS is a more polished and interesting system to use. If anything, I’d be more interested in hacking WebOS onto other devices, such as the iPad 2!
At the original retail price, the Touchpad is a substandard piece of hardware that is given a significant lift by the excellent WebOS. It’s to be hoped that communities like XDA continue to provide improvements to the system if hp does fully abandon it. Whether this will happen or not is currently uncertain – software updates are still being delivered to my device for both apps and the core OS.
If another batch of Touchpads does go on sale you’d be daft not to get one, and if we have already seen the end of the Touchpad lets hope it’s not the end for WebOS – it really does deserve better than this. hp’s original instinct to buy Palm was correct but they failed to do justice to their investment. Palm may well benefit from being sold off to another owner with the commitment to deliver a really competitive product.