Weekend with the HP TouchPad: webOS has lots of room for improvement

Summary:I can't believe that manufacturers still can't match Apple's touch experience and a weekend with the webOS TouchPad convinces me the iPad is still the one to beat.

The webOS-powered HP TouchPad was released in the beginning of July and after spending over 15 minutes with one at Best Buy I was planning to skip this tablet. HP then had some crazy deals where you could find the 16GB model for $300 and a Twitter buddy found a deal on Craigslist so I jumped on one for $325. After spending the weekend using the TouchPad for several hours, I have to say it is better than the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook, but even at just over $300 I still can't recommend this tablet to anyone and the iPad is all I can tell people to buy when they ask about 10 inch tablets.

FYI, this TouchPad I purchased does have the latest OS update so my issues below are not due to an old firmware. Just this morning I sat there for about a minute with the Wall Street Journal app open and no taps or swipes registering as the TouchPad just sat there being unresponsive. Pressing the button did take it to the home screen, but there was no display responses when touching the screen within an app.

Hardware

The HP TouchPad is not an elegant tablet and is a chunky beast with a super glossy back.It makes up for some of my hardware concerns with the rounded corners, decent stereo speakers, and very slick Touchstone charging dock. The iPad and iPad 2, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and even the Motorola Xoom are all better hardware. I don't understand why HP couldn't have released a tablet with a slimmer profile, especially after they saw the first generation iPad and knew another would be coming soon. The TouchPad is 0.54 of an inch thick while the iPad 2 is 0.34 and the original iPad is 0.5. The TouchPad also weighs in at 1.6 pounds compared to the iPad 2 at 1.3 pounds. I am not too bothered by the weight since a 10 inch tablet is going to have some heft to it, but the thickness bothers me when compared to my sleek iPad 2.

The display is the same size and resolution as the iPad (9.7 inches at 1024 x 768 pixels) and is comparable in quality. However, I am not sure if it is webOS or the display, but the touch experience was so incredibly frustrating this weekend that I almost threw the TouchPad against my concrete patio. On multiple occasions the display became completely unresponsive to swipes and touches and the device just sat there. I couldn't tell if something was processing in the background or if I wasn't tapping or swiping in exactly the right manner so I tapped and I tapped and I tapped. Eventually, the display became aware of my presence again and at times performed multiple tap actions as the OS tried to catch up with what I was doing for the last 30 seconds.

Apple excels at the touch experience and I have yet to find a phone or tablet manufacturer that can mimic the responsiveness of iOS devices. I am not expecting HP to live up to the iOS level, but there should NEVER be a time when my tap or swipe doesn't register on the display and HP needs to get this figured out ASAP as the experience is very frustrating at this time and this alone kills my desire to even use the tablet.

Operating system

webOS is a very slick UI with a great multi-tasking design through the cards and I do like it on the HP TouchPad, but even with just a few apps loaded up I have been seeing "too many cards open" errors and am beginning to think that Apple and Microsoft may have multi-tasking better designed for today's mobile devices. iOS and Windows Phone 7 multi-tasking essentially freezes the background apps when you go elsewhere and I find double-tapping and selecting an open app on the bottom row of my iPad to be a much more efficient means of jumping between apps.

I love the way that webOS integrates so many services into the OS with Synergy, much like the way Microsoft does with Windows Phone 7 Mango. It is especially handy with the messaging app and photos, although I really don't see too much need for messaging on a 10 inch WiFi only tablet since I tend to use messaging services when I am out and about on my phone a whole lot more than when I am sitting on my couch at home with a tablet.

The integrated contacts app is good, but the calendar is not as good as the one on the iPad. Email is about the same on both the iPad and TouchPad with a universal inbox and support for all the typical email clients you would expect. iOS does better with dates and addresses in email messages, but HP may get webOS updated to include this too in the future.

The web browser is great and similar to what I saw on the BlackBerry Playbook. I have seen people argue that you don't need apps when the browser is so good and I myself made that argument when I had my BlackBerry PlayBook. However, I personally find apps that are optimized for certain experiences to be better than a fully functional browser.

The keyboard is easily MUCH better on the webOS-powered TouchPad and Apple could take a few cues here in iOS 5. I LOVE the dedicated number row and the way the letters switch between capital and lower case as I enter text, just like it should on all virtual keyboards. It's also pretty slick how you can switch to extra small, small, medium, and large keyboard sizes on the TouchPad.

The display takes a while to rotate from one orientation to another quite often and I will sit there holding it in portrait for several seconds waiting for it to finish something or whatever the OS is doing before the display rotates. This should be instantaneous at this point.

3rd party apps

HP has a rather lame launcher with four tabs for Apps, Downloads, Favorites, and Settings. The default apps are found in Apps, ones you download in Downloads, those you drag and drop into Favorites, and your device preferences in Settings. I have been moving those I use most into Favorites, but would love to be able to create my own tabs for Games, Work, Media, and such and think this should be a fairly easy fix in a future OS update too.

After over 2 years of webOS existence there are still only something like 3,000 6,200 apps for the platform. In the HP App Catalog you can see apps with "For TouchPad" attached to them that are optimized for the large screen tablet. I am not sure how many there are and the ones that are available are generally quite good. There are quite a few games, but many of them cost a few bucks and if you have a smartphone version you still have to buy the tablet version.

I would like to see a filter to just show my TouchPad apps since I don't care at all for the way HP lets you use smartphone apps in a small window, much the way the iPad lets you run iPhone apps. I did find a couple of my Palm smartphone games, like Cronk, actually play well in full screen even though they are not TouchPad optimized.

I know when a new form factor or OS launches that there won't be a large number of apps available, but I also don't understand the apparent blind faith that so many people on Twitter put into HP releasing a ton of TouchPad apps. As I stated above, after 2+ years we only have 3,000 webOS apps so what makes people think there will be developers releasing thousands more apps soon for the TouchPad? Is this just the hopes of die hard Palm enthusiasts or can we really expect developers to jump on a platform that falls under "other" in every smartphone market share report?

TouchPad staying or going?

I started my mobile life with Palm in 1997 and as many times as they have stumbled over the years, I still have a special place in my heart for them. Since I was able to pick up my TouchPad for just over $300, I am going to keep in and see where HP goes with the platform. James mentioned the webOS homebrew community and I am going to try out some of those patches on my new device to see if tweaking it can improve performance and maybe even address the lack of touch response.

When friends and family ask me what tablet they should buy, I am still going to recommend the Apple iPad because I think it is still the leader in the tablet market and there are so many apps and services available for it that there is very little it cannot do. HP's webOS is my 2nd favorite though and I see more potential and desire to improve it than I do with RIM and the PlayBook.

If any of you have an HP TouchPad I would love to know what apps you recommend I try out so please send them along or leave your suggestions in the comments.

Topics: Hardware, Hewlett-Packard, iPad, Laptops, Mobile OS, Mobility, Operating Systems, Smartphones, Tablets

About

Matthew Miller started using a mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host with GigaOM's Kevin Tofel on the MobileTechRoundup podcast and an author of three Wiley Companion series books. Matthew started using mobile devices with a US Robotics Pilot 1000 and has owned over 200 d... Full Bio

zdnet_core.socialButton.googleLabel Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.