The Last of Us review

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Naughty Dog’s apocalyptic epic “The Last of Us” has received huge critical acclaim since it’s release on the PS3 back in 2013. After playing the game to completion, I can see why – it elevates gaming beyond anything else I’ve experienced. Some games – Halo for example – have a backdrop that would make a great basis for a film (a Halo film has been mooted for years now), but you could make an Oscar-winning film from TLOU simply by filming shot-for-shot remakes of the cutscenes and game scenes with real actors. The quality of writing really is that good. The characters are complex, carrying huge emotional baggage and their moods perfectly suit the theme of the game – a study of human behaviour during a desperate struggle for survival.

Is it a zombie story? Well, of sorts. The Cordyceps fungi (which is real but thankfully only affects insects in real-life) mutates and infects humans. Growths in the brain quickly affect behaviour, turning people into extremely aggressive zombie-like killers. In the opening scene of the game, society disintegrates rapidly as the the outbreak takes hold. At this point many modern games would start with bombastic scenes of terror and explosions, but TLOU knows how to build up tension. It starts with you controlling a young girl who has just woken up in the middle of the night and is searching the house for her father. Something is definitely wrong – there’s a distant explosion and as you move downstairs an ambulance races past the house. Move into another room, and Joel (the father) leaps in through a patio door and slams it closed. An infected neighbour bangs against the window a few times and soon smashes through. By now Joel is armed and shoots him dead. Shooting someone means very little in the hollywood-style opening scenes of games like Call of Duty, but here it has real impact.

Once the opening credits have finished, it’s 25 years later and very bleak. Think of the worst urban decay you’ve seen in an inner city – and imagine everywhere looking like that. From now on, the main part of the story involves Joel escorting Ellie across country. It’s a mix of exploration and the most nerve-wracking gun battles ever seen in a game. There’s always too many baddies and never enough ammo. On the infected side, there’s a number of variations which differ by the severity of their affliction. Clickers are blind and search by sound alone, and this is where the stealth element comes into play. Press the right trigger and Joel goes into stealth mode. Everything turns black and white, and the location of enemies is overlaid on the screen based on being able to hear their movements. Creeping through areas overrun with baddies is heart-poundingly tense, but it does suffer from one of my frequent annoyances with the stealth element of gaming – creeping around is frustrating when you’re not sure where you’re supposed to be going.

If there is a problem with TLOU, it’s that it cannot really be described as fun or enjoyable in the sense that many games are. My resolve as a gamer was definitely tested – at 55% complete I was (like the characters) starting to ask myself whether it was just too hard to keep struggling on. After a few days off, I returned to the game back in a difficult sewer section and got killed repeatedly. The answer to this – for me at least – turned out to make a real difference in my experience of the game. I turned on aim assist and dropped the difficulty to easy. Shameful I know, but at least it gave me the resolve to keep fighting. In easy mode there’s a few less baddies in each section, and the aim assist means you can get on with the job of blowing opponents away instead of struggling to line up a cross hair with the Dual Shock stick.

As you might expect from a Naughty Dog game, TLOU is a close technical relative of the Uncharted games, which is of course a good thing. Even on the PS3 there’s enough polygons on screen to impress a PC gamer, as well as some gorgeous lighting effects. The PS4 remake ups the visual quality and runs it at 60fps which makes an enormous difference to responsiveness. I found with the PS4 version there was no need to drop the difficulty or use aim assist.

TLOU is like one of the best films you’ve ever seen, except you get to play the main character throughout a story that runs to something like 15 hours. It’s gruelling, touching and the final scenes will linger in your memory for a long time to come.

If you’ve not played it yet, I highly recommend it.

Nokia Lumia 800 review

Since leaving the world of iOS in February 2010 I’ve not managed to settle in anywhere else. The HD7 I tried first was exciting to begin with but quickly became frustrating due to the lack of decent apps and the limitations of the pre-Mango Windows Phone operating system. After that it was a visit to the world of rooting and constant flashing with Android, thanks to the Samsung Galaxy S. TO be fair, the unofficial CyanogenMod builds of Ice Cream Sandwich were starting to look very good, but the hardware wasn’t proving very durable.

When pictures first appeared of the Nokia Lumia range of phones, I was really taken in. The Lumia range consists of two new handsets – the entry-level 710 and the premium 800. It was actually preview pictures for the Lumia 900 some months later that got me thinking about getting another WP7 handset. The design of the handset was something I found really appealing, and even though I had ditched it once already, I remembered quite a few aspects of WP7 that I really liked. So I sold the Galaxy S and traded up to a second-hand Lumia 800 in as-new condition. The decision to go with the 800 rather than wait for the 900 was mainly because I found the 4.3″ HD7 phone a but unwieldy to use in practice and thought the Lumia 900 would have the same issue.

Initial impressions of the Lumia 800 were good – the combination of a very high quality piece of hardware design and the stylish Metro user interface do work very well together.  I believe that after the iPhone, the Lumia 800 is the best phone on the market today for design and build quality. The case and curved glass screen have a real quality feel – unlike HTC phones there’s no hollow clacking noise when you tap the screen with your fingernail. The Lumia glass is much thicker and feels super-smooth to glide your finger over. The bright tiles of the Start screen look amazing on the rich black background, and it’s often impossible to see where the case ends and the screen starts. Turn on the screen and put the phone down at the side of you and it can be a little bit surreal to look at – the way the bright interface elements glow from the deep black laminated screen is really eye-catching. You can see effect to some extent in the main picture at the top of this post. The effect is probably more noticeable on black phones rather than the blue/pink/white colours.

A less impressive aspect of the phone was the well-publicised firmware issues that did their best to ruin the ownership experience. Terrible battery life due to a power drain problem meant that the phone wouldn’t last a day even when hardly used, and music playback quality through the headphone socket was very disappointing. Both of these issues are now fixed – battery life is much improved although still not brilliant, but audio quality through my Sennheiser earphones is excellent – noticeably better than the iPhone 4 and a bit better than my Galaxy S.

Other reviews have criticised the folding door that covers the power socket, which is understandable because it looks easy to break and could be considered inconvenient. Personally, it hasn’t bothered me. I am more bothered by the amount of buttons down the right hand side of the phone – in practice is not as bad as it might look but can be cumbersome. The fact that Microsoft dictate there must be a physical camera button is annoying when on-screen buttons work perfectly well.

The Lumia 800 has a single-core processor – low-end compared to the latest Android phones but the single-core Lumia flies along with it’s well-optimised operating system. Windows Phone makes heavy use of GPU acceleration to relieve the workload on the CPU, and everything is silky smooth. Android phones need a lot more CPU power to run smoothly, and even then you will still see stutters if you look closely enough.

The Mango update is a strange beast – at first it doesn’t seem any different to the earlier release but in fact it’s much more usable. There are still glaring omissions like not being able to paste a phone number into the dialler screen (the web browser rarely picks up numbers to make them clickabe), but on the whole it’s much better. The biggest improvement is the appearance of a proper task switcher that is called up by long-pressing the back button. This fixes the terrible task switching system in earlier versions, which  caused awful usability problems in certain scenarios. Another improvement is the IE9 browser which has a significantly better rendering engine. Almost all web pages now look great which could not be said of IE7 on pre-Mango. IE9 also has a great feature – the address bar is at the bottom. This simple difference from other mobile browsers makes a big difference in practice. I develop mobile web sites and when testing them the experience of using them on WP7 is made much more app-like by this nifty little user interface feature – the header bar of the mobile site appears right at the top of the screen, just like a real app.

The software catalogue is also much improved since the early days of Windows Phone. Most major apps are now present, and the best ones make their iOS/Android equivalents look dated and simplistic. When publishers really get to grips with the Metro UI the results can be fantastic – the Windows Phone version of LinkedIn is by far the best, and a real surprise was the brilliantly-designed app that Oxfam have released. Even so, there are still some missing apps. Top game titles from iOS and Android are either not ported over or take forever to arrive. My biggest annoyance is still the lack of a native Amazon (UK) app – the mobile site works but is pretty crappy. And prices are still silly – especially for game titles. How would you like to pay £3.99($4.99) for Pacman?

Overall, I would recommend the Lumia very highly but it’s essential that you’re not heavily invested in iOS or Android. You need to be sure you can wean yourself off these ecosystems. It is difficult for many people to switch from iOS with it’s convenience and huge software catalogue. Moving from Android is probably slightly easier. If you own an older Windows Phone model though, the Lumia represents a great buy.

Things are very different in the world of WP7 compared to other platforms, but if the operating system appeals to you then the Lumia will show it off at it’s best. It scores highly by combining a great operating system with a very stylish and high quality piece of phone hardware. You also get a nice warm fuzzy feeling from owning a Nokia again after all these years.

Game Review: L.A. Noire

Thinking of picking up L.A. Noire preowned or discounted? Here’s a retrospective review of L.A. Noire, played to completion on the xbox 360 last summer.

I am a big fan of Rockstar and their open-world games. GTA IV has taken up huge amounts of my time – it might not be perfect but nothing else has come close to combining a convincing virtual world with a good storyline and solid gameplay. Red Dead Redemption is another Rockstar title I enjoyed enormously, once getting past the fairly slow early stages. Although a barren wilderness, the world of RDR still manages to be beautifully detailed and varied. The game does a great job of keeping you entertained while keeping something back to surprise you later. Towards the end of the campaign the action shifts from dry deserts to snow-covered hills lit by the winter sun, and it looks so good you’ll find yourself stopping just to admire the views.

When trailers for L.A. Noire were released onto the web, it was easy to get excited at how good this game was going to be. The setting of 1940’s LA in a film-noire style promises much in the way of atmosphere and immersion, and the ground-breaking facial animation technology promised the player they would actually be looking for signs of lies and truth in the faces of suspects and witnesses. Also present is a new lighting technology that provides much more realistic shadows and reflections, and was actually the genesis for the whole idea of the game. The demo showed two detectives chasing down a suspect, set in a brilliantly convincing post-war Los Angeles. It looked amazing.

Load the actual game up and things still look good – the title screen and Taxi-Driver-style music are very noire, and as you start to make progress it’s clear that the storyline and characters are not far off Hollywood standards. Driving round LA, gathering evidence at crime scenes and taking part in the occasional shoot-out is quite captivating. If you’ve ever wanted to get into a time machine and experience the past, this is game is for you. It’s fascinating to see Los Angeles before the urban sprawl of today took hold – you’ll be struck by how low the skyline is without all the modern high-rise office blocks and apartments. As you might expect, the police department is similarly under-developed, with questionable behaviour and practices, and corruption being commonplace among your colleagues.

Rockstar made it clear from the start that this game is not GTA. It is more of an adventure game with occasional action sequences, and is best suited to older gamers. The story is split into four sections as your character – Cole Phelps – is promoted (and demoted) around the LAPD. The game eases you in gently by having you work traffic before throwing you into homicide, vice and arson. Cole is ex-army and the back story of his time in the forces is inserted into the game via the use of flashbacks.

If you’re interested in modern history and culture, there’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate. You’ll get to see the large post-war housebuilding projects that took place in California, including visiting a stunning architects office. There’s references to the Black Dahlia, and other cases are inspired by real-life events. Some of the building interiors are a treat for Art Deco fans, and Union station is well worth some virtual tourism. On the flip-side, some of the murder scenes can be disturbing and there’s some other unpleasant subjects covered such as the exploitation of young girls. You’ll certainly see both sides of the city.

Unfortunately L.A.Noire is flawed in a way that detracts from the overall experience quite significantly. Rockstar’s new facial animation technology might be a step forward but it’s still not as good as they would have you believe – I just couldn’t get to grips with interviewing. In many cases the evidence isn’t substantial and the facial expressions aren’t conclusive enough to be able to really tell if a suspect is lying. Many people being interviewed give off misleading signs. A young girl who had been raped was one prime example – she seemed evasive as if covering something up, but pressing her to spill the beans was punished as the wrong option, making me feel guilty for not treating her more sympathetically. There is one intuition point available for when you can’t work out what to do, but in some parts I felt like I needed intuition for every question, and found myself dreading the interview and interrogation scenes. Something else bothered me as well – Cole Phelps looks odd. Something about his face doesn’t look right. Aaron Stanton, who is the actor for Phelps looks normal enough, so I’m not sure what the problem is. It’s a pity because all of the other characters in the game look fine.

Whilst working homicide, your patience and discipline will be tested when you realise that you’re solving murders by locking up innocent people – because you can’t find the serial killer who’s really behind the crimes. While this illustrates what the police could be like sixty years ago, it doesn’t do much for player morale. Of the four sections to the game, I found arson much more enjoyable than the others. There is a common story running throughout, and the cases rely more on evidence gathering at the crime scene rather than trying to work out if a wooden-looking suspect is lying or not.

When I look back on L.A. Noire now, it certainly left an impression on me – some sequences from the game are so memorable they feel like they are on equal footing with real-life memories, demonstrating how immersive a modern game can be. Sadly, the enjoyment and reward factor is lacking in some areas. Overall, L.A.Noire is a typically ambitious Rockstar game, and it nearly delivers. Experiencing a brilliantly realised 1940’s Los Angeles is worth the purchase price alone,  but one of the biggest parts of the game play can be very frustrating. If you’re looking for an atmospheric adventure game with a crime focus, this could be worth a look, but it’s a mixed bag.

How to fix your Nokia Lumia 800 battery problems

 

Update: Nokia has released another update that fully resolves the battery problem, and audio quality issues. As of 4th March, this update is making it’s way out to handsets. It’s best to wait for this update rather than follow the guide below.

When I first got my Lumia it was running the latest firmware and OS (11500 and 8107 respectively) so the battery life issues confirmed by Nokia shortly after launch should no longer have been present. Unfortunately this was not the case.

The only way to get through the day on a single charge was to avoid using the phone. By doing this I could get from 7.30am when I take it off charge through to 11pm when going to bed and plugging it in overnight. The problem is that the Lumia is actually a great phone – the combination of top-notch hardware and the much improved Windows Phone 7 mean that you will actually want to use it. But using it only moderately meant it would be completely dead before 10pm.

Clutching at straws

After reading the online XDA and Nokia forums, it seems many other people are still having serious battery issues. Quite a few users report things getting even worse after the update, and have been battling to roll it back. But at the same time, there are others who say everything is fine. To try and find some improvement I tried a few experiments – the first being to install the diagnostics app using the ##634# code in the dialler. But all this told me was power usage and battery stats. I disabled any background services, but this made no difference. I also tried turning off 3G, which did make a big difference although it’s  not really a solution and is an inconvenience when out and about, away from a wifi service. People were recommending to uninstall the Diagnostics app so this was also tried, but made no difference.

The fix

Eventually I made a breakthrough. One or two people on XDA were saying that they had done a hard reset on their phone and this had solved the problem. I was reluctant to try this because of the hassle of reinstalling all my apps, losing SMS messages and then finding  I’d wasted my time. After a busy weekend where battery life had been a real inconvenience, I decided to give it a try and deal with the chore of reinstalling everything.

The hard reset process is to use the Windows “reset phone” option in settings to wipe all data, then turn the phone off and use a “three finger salute” to factory-reset the phone. The exact procedure is:

  1. Wipe the phone using Settings > About > Reset your phone
  2. Turn the phone off
  3. While holding down the Volume Down and Camera buttons, hold down the Power button until the phone vibrates
  4. Release the power button
  5. Wait 5 seconds, then release the Volume Down and Camera buttons

The phone is now completely reset and will boot up from scratch, having to set up the OS and then install the Nokia apps.

After this I noticed a massive improvement in battery life, to the point where the remaining percentage doesn’t drop below 50% in a full day of moderate use. It looks like the phone could stand a day of heavy use and still have plenty in reserve. My current battery stats are 75% remaining after being off charge for 14 hours! Estimated time remaining is another 1 day and 5 hours. It’s not just estimates either, because the phone now lasts till bedtime without shutting down.

Something is wrong with the last Nokia update. I believe it doesn’t install correctly even though the version numbers in the Settings page look correct. This is based on me noticing another change introduced in the latest update that has only take effect on my phone since the hard reset. The soft buttons under the screen no longer light up on full brightness, which some are reporting as a bug, although I think it’s a power saving measure – the phone is usually only at full brightness when outside in the sun, when the soft buttons would be clearly visible without being lit.

If you’re fed up with your Lumia, try the hard reset. It’s a great phone, don’t let yourself get disillusioned by the awful battery life.

Technology that changed gaming #1: The Sony Playstation

It’s hard to imagine today, but there was a time when Sony wasn’t a part of the gaming industry. The company had launched a series of MSX computers in the late 1980’s, but that was about it. The situation changed in 1991 when a deal with Nintendo turned sour, leaving Sony determined to take a slice of the marketplace for itself. The two Japanese companies had signed a deal to produce a CD-based version of the Super Nintendo that would be manufactured by Sony, but Nintendo didn’t like the terms of the deal and cancelled the project – signing up with Philips instead. The first Sony knew of the deal falling through was when a senior Nintendo front man announced it on stage at the 1991 CES – ouch.

Sony was left with a CD-based gaming console based on SNES technology, but decided to re-engineer it to make it their own design. The product saw the light of day at the end of 1994 as the PlayStation (PSX) – a machine that caused massive disruption to the gaming industry. In a forward-thinking move, the system had class-leading 3D graphics capabilities and the timing couldn’t have been better – polygon-based games were quickly becoming the norm, replacing the classic 2D scrolling and sprite-based genre.

The launch of the PSX was a huge deal – I remember going to a launch party at a town-centre pub where the system was plugged into the venue’s huge TV wall. People took their turn to sit on a tall bar stool in front of the screens and play Ridge Racer, featuring graphics that seemed arcade-perfect at the time.

Although the PSX was borne out of a failed Nintendo project, it was arguably Sega who suffered more in the marketplace. They’d already upset customers with the poorly-supported MegaCD and 32x addons for the 16-bit Megadrive, and the new Saturn console struggled to compete – it was a 2D graphical powerhouse but couldn’t match the PSX for 3D titles. It was also expensive to produce, making it hard to undercut Sony on price.

As well as being a leap forward technologically, the PSX had another significant attribute – the Sony brand and the classy appearance of the machine pushed gaming upmarket and – crucially – made it more acceptable for older audiences. Perfect for the demographic of gamers who had grown up with gaming and wanted a more mature experience. Software houses responded with games that appealed to older audiences, featuring complex story lines, adult themes and frequent 18 certifications. The effect lasts to this day, with the PS3 and Xbox360 continuing to offer adult-themed games which sell in huge numbers to first-generation gamers now in their thirties and forties.

Looking back, the list of important gaming titles on the PSX is huge and covers every genre. There’s Tombraider, Grand Theft Auto, Ridge Racer, Metal Gear Solid, Crash Bandicoot and Gran Turismo, plus many more.

In it’s lifetime the PSX was hugely successful, with production only ceasing in 2004 and commercial games still being released a year later. The PS2 cemented the reputation of the brand, although by the time of the PS3 there was significant competition from Microsoft.

For the huge changes it brought to the gaming industry, I put the PlayStation in first place in my list of technology that changed the gaming industry. As a loyal Xbox fan it’s a difficult choice, but the influence of the system is too great to ignore. We are where we are today because of what the PSX gave us.

PSX retro

How many people own and use a PSX regularly today? The platform still has many great games to offer – although a downside is that the system is now dated graphically due to the massive advances in 3D rendering. Somehow, 2D titles fare better in this respect.

There is also the common problem of older consoles looking substandard on modern TV’s – requiring the use of either a bulky CRT TV or a conversion box such as the HD Box Pro. I think if I were to buy a fifth-generation console today I would get the Saturn, purely for the unusual software catalog. But back in 1995, I’d always go for the PSX.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) review

When I was five years old I lived with my family on a camp site in Africa owned by a construction company. It was in a pretty remote location and we lived in simple Portakabins, but it was fairly civilised, with a small swimming pool and a club house with a screen and projector. Being so young, I don’t remember many film showings apart from a remake of The Thirty Nine Steps (which scared me) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (TMP). My father pulled a lot of strings to get a reel of the brand new Star Trek film sent over from the UK. He had watched the TV series and been hooked on it, and put his weight behind the film by telling everyone how great it would be. When you live in a remote part of the world with no English TV, getting a fix of entertainment from back home is a real treat.

The showing didn’t go quite to plan and before the film had even ended it was clear that it wasn’t a hit with the audience – non-Trekkies were bored senseless and even fans were left confused by something they weren’t expecting. It was pretty much the same response everywhere else too. Where was the humour, action and occasional tongue-in-cheek silliness of the original series?

In the transition from small screen to big screen, Star Trek had opted to take itself much more seriously. Inspiration was clearly taken from grandiose, intelligent science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey, with lengthy special effects sequences and a plot that assumes intelligence and familiarity with science fiction concepts. Although the film should be admired for not choosing a dumbed down storyline, it was going to be hard for mainstream audiences to understand and enjoy.

The story starts with an inexplicably angry Kirk (promoted to Admiral) ripping into everybody as he tries to get the Enterprise out of space dock to face a mysterious cloud that’s on an intercept course for Earth, destroying everything in it’s path. Maybe it’s meant to be the seriousness of the situation eating away at him, but Kirk seems like a different character – a dislikeable one. More awkward scenes follow with the demoted Captain Decker who Kirk has trampled over to get back command of the Enterprise. The ship and crew eventually get out of space dock, but not in a fully ready state, and when Kirk again behaves like an idiot and forces the warp drives online, there’s more trouble and another clash with Decker as the ship gets trapped in a worm hole. It all feels very pointless and drags out the opening section of the film, but at least provides an excuse for Spock to arrive on-board and offer his services.

There’s yet another howler of a scene where Kirk speaks to the crew about what they are facing. As he is describing the alien cloud, he receives an emergency message from a comms station under attack, which he implausibly asks to be patched through to the large screen so the whole crew sees it. This message shows the station come under attack and be obliterated. Watching the station destroyed doesn’t do much for the morale of the crew members in the room, but you would expect an experienced leader to be able pull of a great motivational speech – instead Kirk stammers a few words and walks out the room. The footage of the comms station being destroyed is made ridiculous by Kirk asking to switch to “external cameras”, so we get a pretty picture of the station being vaporised by the cloud. We are expected to believe that everything in the Star Trek world is surrounded by a set of external cameras, positioned in just the right places to capture scenes in a cinematic way. Anyone who knows anything about films and how to create tension could have filmed this scene in a more believable and dramatic way.

Fortunately, the film starts to improve when the Enterprise intercepts the alien cloud – even the characters settle down, becoming likeable and true to their earlier appearances in the TV series. It’s as if the beginning of the film was shot last and had to be rushed to meet the tight deadline.

Although heavy on special effects scenes, the exploration of the V’Ger cloud is stunning to look at, and feels very atmospheric. It’s a million miles away from the low-budget presentation of the original TV series and must have been a real treat for fans to see for the first time.

The level of effort and investment put into the film was immense, with legendary director Robert Wise teaming up with equally legendary special effects masters Douglas Trumbull (2001) and John Dykstra (Silent Running and Star Wars Episode IV). Robert Wise seemed like the perfect choice, having directed some very successful films including science fiction titles such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain.

A new ship was designed, with a new interior, and all the costumes were new. There was a space dock as well as a few other comms stations and space stations, all presented using highly detailed models. And last but not least, the vast V’Ger cloud, with amazingly complex outer layers and an inner section that still looks great by the standards of todays special effects. Sometimes effects that aren’t CGI stand the test of time very well, and there are some great examples in TMP.

It’s interesting to re-watch the film over 30 years later and see the capabilities of special effects at the time. As mentioned previously, external shots in space almost all look beautiful, yet a simple effect such as superimposing video onto the viewscreen on the bridge of the Enterprise looks amateurish. This effect improved dramatically by the time the sequel (The Wrath of Khan) was released three years later.

TMP is certainly a flawed film, with some awful scenes, characterisation and pointless sub plots, but fortunately they are almost entirely in the first third of the film. If you can overlook those, it’s arguably the film that stayed truest to the premise of Star Trek, and it made a commendable attempt to move the franchise into the realm of serious, grown-up science fiction. I’ve already found that the newest Star Trek film (the J.J.Abrams franchise reboot) doesn’t stand up to repeat viewings very well, and yet I find TMP is mostly enjoyable to watch over 30 years later. It’s particularly surprising to see how many things that we see in the later films (Klingon ship designs and interiors, even the opening sequence music and title fonts) were there in the very first film, proving they were done right from the start. More than any other, this film defines the aesthetics of the Star Trek world.

hp Touchpad WebOS tablet review

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.

Touchpad hardware

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

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!

Overall

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.