If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we can do without tablets. The iPad, although magical as its sequence shortened adverts suggests, ends up being an expensive games console, a poor way to browse the web or a tool that makes typing take a lot longer.
You could argue it’s more portable than a laptop but since when was resting a device on your lap no longer possible? You could also argue it’s simple to use but if our parents can master Microsoft XP or Windows 7, anyone can.
Forgive the negativity but the point we are getting at is the tablet is the lost child between the indispensable smartphone and the practical laptop – it’s a cool gadget that reaches for multiple goals but doesn’t quite hit anything, except for playing a spot of Cut the Rope or Angry Birds.
The HP TouchPad tries to be a little different in its approach. WebOS compliments your workload instead of changing or hindering it, which makes it practical. Up until a point, that is, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
A touch of class
As with most tablets, the looks are nothing to write home about. It’s rectangular in shape with a curved back, fairly heavy (740g) and extremely sturdy. Compared with the iPad, the smooth black casing does make it look understated and ensures it’s comfortable to hold, but like all slate-styled devices there’s only so style that can be injected.
Located on the top is a button that locks the device and also turns it off if you hold it down. Next to that is your 3.5mm jack for plugging in headphones and on the right is volume control. On the front panel you get one illuminated button, which acts as a back button.
Other features of the HP TouchPad include a 9.7-inch display with a resolution of 1024×768 pixels, a front-facing camera and a standard USB connection.
It’s widely believed HP purchased Palm for access to the webOS operating system. Though not as well known as Android or iOS, we can see why HP saw potential – it’s a brilliantly designed piece of software.
Whereas most operating systems rely on a multitasking aspect of sorts, webOS is always in that mode. When you first start up the home screen all you get is a few icons. Having used other tablets, it’s natural to then swipe left and right but it isn’t long before the habit dies and is replaced by something more intuitive.
Everything you have running becomes the main display, so a quick press of the back button jumps you out of whatever you are doing and you can then swipe to another task. Multiple similiar tasks are grouped together and it’s easy to differentiate, which makes jumping between two Google Docs a doddle.
It’s equally easy to remove a task – just swipe upwards and it vanishes into the HP ether.
Because of the fluid design, it’s easy to forgive the ocassional moments of loading because you end up running your core tasks constantly, and the HP TouchPad’s dual core Snapdragon processor is more than up to the task. Unlike Android tablets with low-powered processors, only a spinning wheel indicates moments of slowness. There’s no jerkiness – everything glides and runs like a dream.
To keep in line with the webOS ethos, search is equally simple to use and a bit cleverer than your average search bar. Typing something in displays matching results from your contact list, email clients, web search results (including Wikipedia), applications and a whole lot more. Not only is it comprehensive, it’s quick and easy to use and the search bar at the top makes it readily available.
Like with Windows Phone 7, a lot of functionality is built in to webOS and developers can add compatibility if their service isn’t supported. DropBox, Google Docs, Mail and Chat, Exchange and Skype is just the tip of the iceberg, which makes it likely you can add most of your most-used web services.
Within minutes we had our work Exchange client going (spaces are supported in addresses) and Google Mail. The email interface displays all of your latest emails, but you can also jump between each client – a handy extra if you need to specifically monitor emails from one account.
Better still, the calendar feature automatically brings in your appointments and they are colour-coded according to the email address they were imported from. On that subject, the calendar is excellent but does have moments of loading slowly between certain tasks such as from day to month. It’s not really an issue, though.
Edit or not to edit
It’s hard to shake the feeling the HP TouchPad is designed for the more corporate user, especially with such a no-nonsense way of displaying content. But there is a problem we really can’t ignore. You can only view Google Docs, you can’t edit them. In fact, you can’t create documents at all, which seems like a glaring omission for such a business user-friendly device.
To make matters worse, Google Docs is quite jumpy, which makes viewing them not as enjoyable. In contrast with the general operating system experience, sluggishness really does stand out like a sore thumb.
Flash in the pan
As HP is keen to point out, the TouchPad doesn’t have a YouTube app. It doesn’t need it, because Flash is fully supported. Whether or not Flash is outdated, a lot of websites use it so you can only really claim you have a good browser experience if you include Adobe’s finest.
Thankfully, bar the odd black bar or pause, websites load without issue and YouTube videos look as good (or bad) as they would normally. It can be a bit fiddly navigating a website like YouTube on a smaller screen but we can put up with a few negatives in return for the presence of Flash.
We couldn’t review the HP TouchPad without mentioning TouchStone. Apart from sharing the same name of a military program in the Jason Bourne film trilogy, the technology is actually very handy and not just a gimmick.
By resting a webOS handset like the Veer or Palm Pre on the tablet, or vice-versa if you are feeling brave, the devices sync. Once done, if you get a phone call to one device both will ring, which means you don’t need both on you at once.
Another handy feature, besides not having to plug anything in to charge the device when using the TouchStone stand, is the ability to transfer web addresses. Often we find ourselves looking at a website and would like to keep looking at that website when we leave the device.
With the TouchPad and a webOS phone, you can put the devices together and that task will transfer across to the phone from the tablet. It doesn’t sound much but it’s a thoughtful feature.
You apping a laugh?
Everyone bangs on about applications but we find ourselves using very few and always using the same ones everytime we change phone. For that reason, we can cope with a small library of apps, particularly when they are of good quality.
All of your useful apps such as Facebook, Last.fm and Tune-In Radio sit nicely on the market, with a few surprises like WordPress and even Angry Birds. HP obviously understands the power of Rovio’s world sensation.
In fact, there are quite a few games to enjoy right from the off, including some meaty titles from the mighty Hexage. The pricing is a little more than on the App Store but we can cope with spending a few more pence here and there if something’s worth a download.
Yes, app fans will obviously the hundreds of thousands available on Android or iOS, and the tens of thousands on Windows Phone 7, but you still get a good variety and we can see developers getting behind the platform.
The HP TouchPad is a difficult device to categorise. It’s remarkably easy to use and for the most part a pain-free experience, which lends itself to somebody who just wants to browse the web or read work documents at home, but we get the feeling it has the corporate user in mind.
After all, a strong suite of business functions such as Exchange and Google Docs integration does make it seem like the perfect tablet for the working man or woman. However, not being able to create documents from scratch (that feature is on the way) is a major stumbling block that stops it from being a contender for replacing or complimenting your laptop.
We really like the HP TouchPad and the TouchStone additions make it stand out from a crowd of iPad wannabes, but it isn’t a complete package. When HP fills in the glaring gaps we will be able to wholeheartedly recommend it, but until then we can only say it’s a lot nicer to use than the Android-powered Motorola Xoom but not quite as good value for money as the iPad 2.