Review: The HP Palm TouchPad

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Features:

  • 9-inch touchscreen
  • Runs Flash 10.1 (sort of)
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-CPU APQ8060 1.2GHz 1024×768 pixel display
  • Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, No Cellular Connectivity
  • MSRP: 16GB/$499 32GB/$599

Pros:

  • Beautiful OS
  • Strong PIM and media functions
  • Works well with Pre phones

Cons:

  • App store is barren
  • Performance falters with use
  • Temperamental battery life

 
Short Version: Like Duckie from Sixteen Candles, Palm has been the perennial third choice. Even in its late heyday, when the Treo still ruled the airwaves and the iPhone was a faint glimmer in Apple’s eye, they got the short end of it with consumers and critics. But there was – and is – a zealous minority who see Palm as the Third Way, a way out of Apple/Android/Microsoft hegemony and who see WebOS as a viable alternative. And they will be abundantly pleased by this device.

Palm is back, albeit in a form that speaks more to HP’s cost-cutting measures than to the heavy duty devices you remember. WebOS and the Palm TouchPad are nearly perfect, an excellent amalgamation of everything that was ever right about Palm. But is even perfection, in this market, enough? Without a strong app base and some work on performance issues, the TouchPad may be the most beautiful dead end we have seen yet. But there is hope.

Long Version: To be a Palm fan has long been an exercise in frustration. First Palm was gone, then resurrected. Then it was gone again, swallowed by a market giddy for Android and iPhone. Then HP brought it back and promised WebOS would appear on printers and PCs, a neutering that would surely destroy the once-great company. Then, praise to the great god Quatzequatel, they made the TouchPad, a device that would bring WebOS back into the game.

And it has, with a few caveats. Let’s begin.

The Device
The TouchPad is not a slim device. It is clad in bulbous black plastic that takes fingerprints like a crime scene and has a large, 9-inch touchscreen. There is one button at the bottom the screen and volume controls on the side. On the opposite side are two large speaker grills; audio playback is strong and loud and the TouchPad, when paired with a phone, makes a good speakerphone.

High gloss

The TouchPad has the same screen pixel density as the iPad 2 but makes more of all of that real estate thanks to the clever WebOS interface.

When docked in its TouchStone inductive charger, the TouchPad doubles as a clock, mail reader, and photo viewer. The dock is quite cool but if you place the TouchPad on it and the inductive connection is not solid the device will buzz slightly, which is disconcerting.

The screen is covered in plastic and I noticed that when stuck into a tight laptop bag the outside screen would stick to the LCD, a problem that made it appear that the LCD had cracked. It had not.

In all, the TouchPad is about the same size as almost any other major name tablet except the iPad 2. It is as thick as the Xoom and the original iPad but the bulbous shape makes it feel a bit bigger. It isn’t very heavy – 1.6 pounds compared to 1.3 pounds for the iPad 2 and 1.6 for the Xoom – but it “feels” heavier and heftier. I would worry that a case, which it sorely needs out of the box, would make it even heavier, although I did actually see a TouchPad with a Smart Cover-esque folding case that looked quite promising.

A word about the plastic: the unit I was testing is already scratched on its back from a bit of regular use. This will definitely disturb those who keep their devices in pristine condition and combined with the patina of smudges this device collects over time it will eventually make your TouchPad look like the counter at a turnpike diner. I wouldn’t harp on this if it weren’t true: almost immediately the TouchPad, like many Pre devices, begins looking greasy.

A goofy little FCC ID tag pops out from the lower right side of the device. There is no SD card slot or SIM card slot.

The device has a 1.3 megapixel front camera and no rear camera. There is no camera application (that I could find) although you can make video calls through Skype. Photography is clearly not a priority with this device.

The TouchPad can be charged via micro USB or induction. It charges very slowly when connected to a PC – but it charges – and you can enable it as a storage device to drag over files, music, photos, and movies.


“The Dock and the Keyboard,” the new Decemberists album

Connectivity
The TouchPad has 802.11b/g/n networking, Bluetooth, and a special Bluetooth variant that it uses to connect to Palm Pre devices. It does not support cellular networks (yet) and the only way to get online is to connect to a hotspot.

A-GPS is available in mobile versions only and this device seems to grab location via the current hotspot. It definitely didn’t find my exact house but it did find Bay Ridge and point to a corner of the neighborhood where I might reside.

The TouchPad interacts with the Palm Pre, specifically the Pre 3. Pre interaction is quite cool but quite limited. In the current case, you can place the phone close to the TouchPad and send the current website you’re browsing to the phone. A clever “water drop” animation shows you when the transfer has been made and then the website appears on the phone. Unfortunately, lots of other weird stuff happens on the TouchPad, with cards opening and closing wildly without explanation.

The TouchPad also supports a Bluetooth keyboard with special WebOS buttons that allows for a far more comfortable typing experience for those accustomed to hard buttons. The onscreen keyboard tend to disappear when the Bluetooth keyboard is paired, which could cause some consternation.


We Are Family

Battery
Battery life was difficult to assess on this device during the time I had. I saw about 18 hours between charges with low use although the device would run down to nearly zero and stay there for a good five hours in standby, hanging onto its last electrons for dear life. Heavy use run-down is also variable depending on the number of apps you open, close and use and we saw it run down from 24% to 10% in a few minutes with plenty of slipping, sliding, and tapping.

Video playback and reading brought battery life down to about six hours although there are settings to reduce screen brightness and autolocks that could increase that number with some tweaking.

In short, battery life is on par if better than almost any tablet you can name although the variability I saw could put a damper on longer media playback. However, I saw nothing alarming or particularly notable when it came to battery life, at least in the limited testing I was able to do.

If your battery is run down it is very difficult to charge it with the TouchStone charger. A direct USB charge is best in situations where the device has run down to red.
WebOS

WebOS is the real star of this show. The OS offers true multi-tasking and uses a system of “cards” and “stacks” to display active applications. The OS also uses a system called Synergy to sync with services in the cloud and to save logins and accounts that can be moved from one device to another.

When you activate an application, it moves onto a smaller “card” and then expands into fullscreen when completely loaded. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen (or pressing the home button) brings all of the cards back up and you can tap and hold a card to move to to another stack. For example, you can stack similar tasks together (“Emails to send today,” “Web pages to read,” “Images of cats to coo at”). You can also flick apps up and away, shutting them down or closing their windows.

The second major metaphor is the “leaf.” This is draggable corner of many windows that exposes or hides more information. For example, you can open and close leaves in many applications including the Facebook app, adding layers of data to many apps.

Finally, there is the notifications system. This system is far superior to any other I’ve seen. There are lock screen notifications that can be acted upon and mail notifications, for example, are actually stacked, allowing you to flick through recently received mails right from the notifications bar. This is an excellent solution and alone could be considered worth the price of admission.

Synergy also allows a great deal of Facebook interaction. For example, in the Photo and Movies app (where your videos eventually end up, for some odd reason).

“Just Type” is a search function that searches the device, the Web, and then connects to any search APIs you have added during your search sessions. For example, TechCrunch supports this search API and you can search TechCrunch in addition to the other sources you’ve chosen. Just Type appears on almost every screen or is at least available with a single button press.

The device plays back MPEG-4, H.263, and H.264 video and (this is straight from the product page) “DRM-free MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR, QCELP, and WAV.” Video playback is more than acceptable and a special desktop app allows for music syncing with iTunes libraries. Oddly, videos and photos appear in the same app, which makes things confusing. Synergy will also bring in your Facebook photo albums although these are often at sub par resolution.

There are a few other native apps. Email and Calendar work as expected and the Email client has a unified inbox that brings in all of your new messages. IM and SMS support works well and the TouchPad will mirror SMSes received on your Pre.

A YouTube app brings up the YouTube website, which was kind of a letdown.


The browser is quite capable and rendered almost every website without issues. It supports Flash 10.1 and can display complex animations but Flash games are a different story. The browser usually defaults to the full version

The Apps


Here’s where things start the break down.

The TouchPad App Catalog, as its called, is very limited. A service called Pivot – essentially an online magazine – allows developers to showcase their apps and stories related to various activities – gaming, entertainment, vacations – call out various apps available in the store.

As it stands, however, there are very few native TouchPad apps and non-native apps appear half sized on the TouchPad’s ample screen with no opportunity to resize them. The Rosetta Stone of apps, Angry Birds, is available to those still enamored by these damn avian/porcine wars but once you get past that app it’s pretty slim pickings. There are no Instagram or Reddit apps but there are Facebook and Twitter apps, the former being one of the best I’ve seen. Generally, however, we’re talking about a relative wasteland.

Will this change? Absolutely. I worry that i won’t change fast enough but that’s not for me to assess. I look forward to having a robust WebOS app store and I think developers will deign to develop for this platform with enough market penetration.

Now, on to the bottom line:

The Bad

  • The TouchPad exhibits poor performance under pressure. I hate to say it, but far too many times the TouchPad bogged down while performing standard tasks. The biggest, most frustrating problems appeared when browsing photos. The UI would slow down and register taps a few seconds later. Photo viewing performance is key for devices like these simply because the average user is watching movies, surfing the web, and looking at pictures.
  • Flash is slow. Why doesn’t Apple like Flash? Because it’s a resource hog, it doesn’t react well to touch input, and it doesn’t work. The Dreamworks page shown here loaded just fine but trying to play the Kung Fu Panda game advertised on that same page was a waste of CPU cycles. But it works, so there’s that.
  • Fingerprints and scratches galore. Get a case when you get the TouchPad. It needs one.
  • Apps will make or break this thing. Applications will make this a winner or loser in the court of popular opinion. WebOS is amazing, but I worry its features aren’t being done justice with the paucity of apps.

The Good

  • WebOS is great. It’s a breath of fresh air. It’s impressively powerful and, judging from some of the apps already written, fairly easy to write and publish for. It’s exciting that it exists.
  • Generally it’s an excellent start. If a smaller, 7-inch unit comes soon and, more important, HP begins supporting WebOS on other hardware, it could give this OS legs. If HP relegates this to just a multimedia shell and doesn’t support this as a real mobile/laptop OS, similar to Chrome OS, I’d be concerned with the lifetime of this product.
  • It’s a handsome package. There are lots of tablets out there, this is one of the best. The same can’t be said of many of the Android me-to tablets and craplets coming out.
  • It’s priced about right. It’s powerful enough to deserve a $500 price tag, placing it firmly in the ranks of mid- to high-level tablets.

The Bottom Line
WebOS is a capable third (or fourth) entrant into the mobile OS race. As with Duckie, however, I worry that the average Molly Ringwald will go with the popular Blaine rather than the loyal and arguably better school nerd. I don’t agree that the TouchPad will knock WebOS out of the park but HP had to do something with its intellectual property and there’s no reason they won’t support this going forward.

I’m rooting for Duckie. I want him to win. Do I think it’s possible in the milieu in which we’re currently operating, with countless Android tablets flooding the market with product and a major player “flummoxing” all comers? I don’t know. I really don’t. I called the death of Palm as a standalone entity early when they announced the Pre and it was clear the mobile market couldn’t support an also-ran. I hope that HP’s might and Palm’s current experience will pull them through this renaissance and I think they’ve produced a strong tablet with a strong OS for a market that has drastically changed since they last failed.