The HP TouchPad

Today is the official launch day of the HP TouchPad in the UK.

There’s some great write-ups by Ian Beck (who also wrote the app TapNote), Zhephree (Foursquare for WebOS)Shawn Blanc (“the TouchPad is less than the sum of its parts“), and Russ Beattie (“It’s not a complete disaster, but HP has a lot of work to do“), along with dozens more, and some good editorials on what HP must do now the device has launched.

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I’ve been a big fan of WebOS since it was announced, and a mostly happy WebOS user since late 2009, when I got a Pre during an O2 Litmus / Palm Pre Developer Event. I say mostly because the first Palm Pre I got had a hardware fault, and the second touchstone charger I got was also faulty – Palm had some serious problems with build quality. But despite those hiccups, the Pre was such a good experience that I decided I’d like to use it as my day-to-day personal phone, in preference to my iPhone 3G, Samsung WaveSony Ericsson Xperia x10 Mini Pro, and various other devices.

The WebOS interface felt more human, with much of the visual polish of iOS, plus true multitasking, notifications and the neat and delightful touches like flicking cards up the screen (woosh!) to get rid of them.

Ben and Dion‘s passionate advocacy of the platform at the O2 Litmus developer event really inspired me to take the time to understand WebOS from a technical perspective. In the two years since their presentation, I haven’t seen live coding demos as good humoured and informative during any developer event, and I’ve been to a lot. The overall message, that web standards will win out in the long term, makes an awful lot of sense to me. I was so convinced that I knocked up a simple Tube Status app, which became the first app I ever submitted to a mobile platform app catalog. Since then, thanks to the HP Developer Program, I’ve moved to a Pre 2. I’ve also stuck with the platform through the tough times around the HP acquisition, in the long painful wait for new devices.

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I got my TouchPad on 4th July, having pre-ordered it on 20th June, as soon as it was possible to do so. Was the wait for a WebOS tablet worth it? How is the TouchPad? Am I a happy customer? Am I a happy developer? How does it stack up against the alternatives? Do we have an iPad killer?!?!

HP TouchPad home screen

I’m not going to compare the TouchPad to the iPad, or the Xoom, or any other tablet devices. Let it stand or fall on it’s own merits. Besides, I don’t really use my iPad much any more, other than for online grocery shopping. I found the iPad frustratingly limited in comparison to my laptop (no surprise) and my Pre (big surprise). When you’re used to fluid switching between tasks and sane notifications and a relatively open platform, the iPad way of working is pretty jarring. (Some of the games were pretty awesome on the iPad, though… anyone for FieldRunners?)

It seems reasonable to compare the TouchPad to the Pre. I’ve lived with the Pre for almost two years, and that’s the experience I’m looking for and excited about seeing on the ‘big screen’.

There’s a few screenshots on flickr.

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How’s the hardware? Fine, thanks. It’s a good solid chunk of plastic and glass. I don’t particularly wish it were aluminium, or carbon fibre, or non-glossy. The weight seems reasonable and well-balanced. Wi-Fi reception is weaker than the ExoPC so it doesn’t pick up a network in the furthest corners of the apartment, but in that respect it’s no worse than many other computing devices I own.

 

One thing worth mentioning about the hardware above and beyond the fact that it’s “just another tablet” is the sound from the two speakers, which is gutsy and actually ok to listen to. The TouchPad also sounds great when plugged into a bigger sound system, as my neighbours can attest. HP have really been hyping Beats Audio, and those ‘b’ headphones have become seemingly ubiquitous on the Underground, so there’s going to be some real consumer recognition and brand power there. Good call, HP. Better than “Everybody On“!

The HP TouchPad Case is ok. It adds a bit to the weight, and it takes a while for the folds in the back to settle down so it will stand in various positions. The velcro doohickey that locks the cover in place when folded back is a bit irritating as it frequently locks the back into a position just off-centre, resulting in a wonky tablet when you stand it up. But those are minor irritants, and it’s worth getting it to protect the tablet.

On the subject of accessories, one of the biggest unique selling points about the whole device (and indeed the WebOS product line) is the cordless charging through Touchstones. I love not having to mess around with cables for the Pre, and was really looking forward to the same experience with the TouchPad. Unfortunately the TouchPad stand is £69 on the HP website. HP, you’re mad! From Amazon it’s slightly cheaper at £57.19, but it’s still expensive on top of at least £400 for the device. I just can’t bring myself to pay sixty quid for a charger. Especially when the original one for the Pre was only twenty quid. Why is this one three times as expensive? Is the new price “HP Scale”?

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Unsurprisingly it’s the software that is going to be most important for me with this device. And here, despite the glorious big screen, I find myself missing parts of the Pre. I miss sliding out the keyboard and just typing, without having to click anywhere. I know it’s unrealistic to miss that on the TouchPad, but it really sets the Pre apart as a phone. Most of all I really miss the swiping back and forward gestures, used to navigate in apps. I assume that since the TouchPad no longer has a gesture area, HP couldn’t figure out a nice way to implement it, which is a huge shame. It was such a natural and human way of working that Apple have introduced swiping to navigate in OS X Lion.

I really hope the missing gestures creep back into future releases of WebOS, not least because the implementation of “Back” buttons in apps is currently haphazard, with at least four different implementations (big green full-width button across the screen; small grey button; draggable pane sometimes standing in for back buttons, and some apps completely forgetting to implement a back button).

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WebOS 3.0 “Enyo” is basically a rewrite of WebOS 2 “Mojo”, and on the whole it works well on the big screen. There’s some good refinements and additions, for example it’s nice to see Dropbox and MobileMe as a Synergy service.

The new notifications in Enyo are really useful – especially swiping through the new mail notifications. For the most part, Enyo is at least as good as Mojo. Some of the other new features are cool – for example, being able to take a call on the TouchPad when your phone is synced to it (using the TouchPad as a glorified bluetooth headset, but still – cool).

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Is the TouchPad a box of bugs? I found my own selection of issues:

  • Within a few hours of playing with it, I managed to crash it by turning off flash, which resulted in a full reboot. It hasn’t crashed since.
  • The Adobe Reader app resets the zoom level to 100% every time you change a page – which is frustrating if you’ve zoomed in to read a long document.
  • The Adobe Reader also frequently refuses to change page, requiring repeated swipes.
  • The Adobe Reader and QuickOffice apps both look identical in zoomed-out mode, making it impossible to select between them:

HP TouchPad QuickOffice and Adobe Reader

  • The screen rotation detection in general is over sensitive, causing the TouchPad to jump between portrait and landscape when you don’t want it to.
  • Not really a bug, but the much-feted notifications for SMS messages received on my phone don’t show up on the tablet, as my phone is only running WebOS 2. It’s frustrating that a killer feature is not yet available. Likewise touch-to-share.
  • If the TouchPad is synced to the phone, calls ALWAYS play on the TouchPad, though on the handset you can switch back to the handset’s speaker. There’s no way to default to the handset in WebOS 2. So I ended up turning off this feature.
  • There’s “room for optimisation” in some of the scrollable lists. For example, I have perhaps a hundred or so mail folders, and scrolling through them in the mail application is really sluggish.
  • Getting the TouchPad to recognise videos you’ve copied to the device is a dark art. It supposedly supports a range of formats, but the forums are full of questions and comments such as I haven’t been able to see the movie or videos are nowhere to be found. My own experience was equally painful. Suggestions included re-encoding the videos to h.264/mp4, placing it in specific folders, rebooting the TouchPad, or opening the video in a file browser. The actual solution is more prosaic: it just seems to take the TouchPad quite a lot of time to find and index the movies, so leaving it alone for a few minutes helped. On the pain scale, this rates at least on a par with using iTunes.

Whilst it’s not a bug per se, the initial experience of the TouchPad is severely hindered by the greatest strength of WebOS: the cloud syncing and backup of all your apps and contacts. For the first 30 minutes or so, my tablet was largely unusable as it pulled down all the apps and content I’d had on my phone. HP either needs to make this run as a much lower priority so it doesn’t affect the user experience, or advise users to run the sync before starting to use the tablet for real. The good news is HP is well aware of this, and working on it.

But once all your apps are downloaded and your accounts synced – oh boy! Having your Palm Pre world suddenly available on the big screen and a fast device without any extra work or tethered syncing is really nice.

And if the TouchPad is not fast enough for you, the Preware hackers are already on the case. Installing just a few patches can make the TouchPad really sing.

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The killer app on my phone, Spotify, is not available on the TouchPad – but that’s the only one I’ve really noticed and missed so far.

In exchange, I discovered Sparkle HD, and have become completely addicted. It’s also available on other devices, if you’re not lucky enough to have a TouchPad.

And speaking of apps, what about Pivot, the HP WebOS Apps magazine? It’s a great way to provide context to apps, and to aid their discovery, and has more depth than the usual “featured apps” page you get in other stores. But of the 22 apps listed in the first edition, 9 are not available yet:

HP TouchPad PivotHP TouchPad PivotHP TouchPad Pivot

That’s 9 applications that HP are recommending that are not available. That’s seriously disappointing execution. I’m sure the HP team are working insanely hard to get apps out there, but this does them no favours.

Speaking of disappointing, I was quite shocked and saddened to see HP announcing the TouchPad 4G on Tuesday. There’s a well-known term in the computing industry called “the Osborne effect“, where pre-announcing new hardware kills sales of current hardware. Similar to “the Ratner effect” (our products are crap), or “the Elop effect” (our platform is crap).

Just 12 days after launching the TouchPad in the US, and 3 days before launching in the UK, HP effectively said “don’t buy that one, wait a couple of months for this newer faster one”. The new device should either have been part of the line-up at launch, or announced months after the initial launch, not days.

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On the whole, the TouchPad is a really beautiful-looking device which oozes usability and with tons of delightful touches. For the first WebOS tablet, it’s a credible effort that requires a few more point releases to turn it into a truly solid experience. As Rubinstein says, it’s early days. And as Ari says, go and judge for yourself!

 

 

ps. I had to work super hard to avoid linking to anything on the HP corporate website whilst writing this. Those awful HP website URLs, like http://h41112.www4.hp.com/promo/webos/us/en/shopping-touchpad.html just make me all stabby. I mean really – h41112? www4? WTF, more like. SORT IT OUT, HP. See also Well designed URLs are beautiful and, from 1999, URL as UI. Grrrrrrrrrrrr.

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