Back in about February or so, my Palm Pixi started misbehaving. Its headphone jack thought I was permanently in headset mode, despite any amount of cleaning and finagling. I had to finally retire it. Since HP had not yet released a current webOS handset for Sprint (still haven’t, and maybe never will), I got an HTC EVO Shift 4G. It’s a beautiful and FAST device (code-named “Speedy”), but Android still feels lacking compared to webOS in the usability department. Android has all the features, but webOS had all the polish, which I missed dearly.
Around the same time, HP announced the TouchPad. This was to be the HP webOS answer to the iPad and iPad 2. I was super stoked. After months of painful anticipation, the tablet finally launched on July 1st to some lukewarm reviews. In a nutshell, the reviews are concerned about lag and an immature app ecosystem. Coming from a Palm Pixi (with notoriously underpowered hardware), I wasn’t really intimidated by lag on a larger, much more powerful device. I already knew what kind of apps webOS has to offer, so that didn’t bother me either. Since I was still a fan, I took the plunge and got the 32GB model. I’ve been using it since Wednesday and have become pretty comfortable with it, so I think it’s safe to review it.
Being over half a grand, I kind of expect great things from the hardware design. Everyone else complains about the weight of the device relative to the iPad 2. It weighs a pound and a half or so, but I don’t really have a basis for comparison. I don’t find it difficult to hold in terms of supporting it. However, I wish HP didn’t opt for a glossy plastic back because it tends to slip if I’m holding it one-handed. It’s a smudge-magnet too. A rubberized matte back would have looked cool, provided a good one-handed grip, and allowed for traction on a glass table for instance. I suppose a case can fix that.
The screen is pretty awesome. It’s an LED IPS display with the same resolution as both iPads. I’m pretty sure it’s glass, as it’s glossy and cool to the touch. The screen is bright, sharp, and vibrant. Full-screen photos look amazing on it (check out the USA Today app to see what I mean). However, there is a slight problem a number of TouchPad users (including myself) noticed. There is a slight backlight bleed on the left side of the display, but it is not noticeable at all unless the screen is entirely black. It’s not a big issue, a lot of LCDs inherently have this problem, but you shouldn’t make your initial boot screen black if your device does this! This made me freak out a little at first until the screen displayed something else so I could confirm I didn’t get a marred screen.
Sound is one of HP’s biggest bragging points for the device. The speakers are two small openings on the long side of the device (bottom landscape). Even though they are tiny, the sound coming from them is relatively full and clear. There’s a profound stereo effect, which is something you tend to lose on a lot of laptops and handhelds. Volume is adjusted via a rocker switch on the side opposing the speakers (top landscape). I have not listened to the device in any loud areas yet, but the volume is more than sufficient if you’re in a quiet spot. No complaints yet here.
At the top portrait side of the device, there’s a power button and standard headphone jack. There’s a micro USB port on the bottom for charging and file transfer. There’s a push button below the screen (portrait), that allows you to go into card view and open the launcher in that order (more on that later). Above the screen (portrait), there is a front-facing camera for Skyping (so far), which I have not tested yet.
Despite having a plastic back, the device feels solidly constructed and not like a cheap toy. I don’t feel ripped off in the least.
This is where the Touchpad most often gets knocked, because there is relatively little native software available. The TouchPad is mostly backwards compatible with Pre and Pixi Mojo software via an emulator mode, where you get a phone-sized window with a gesture bar. Kind of lame, but I’ll take it for apps like Pandora, which aren’t graphically important. Old PDK apps (usually graphically-intensive games) get blown up fullscreen, thank goodness, but some can’t deal with the Touchpad’s differences without updates. They also look pixelated, since you’re going from a 480×320 resolution scaled to 1024×768. It’s to be expected, since you can’t go from little-screened to big without some growing pains.
HP went above and beyond to ensure that there would be some compelling native Touchpad applications at launch. For instance, their Facebook application is fantastic. You can slide between multiple panes, containing your notifications, feed, comments/likes, and more. It’s definitely the most clever Facebook client I’ve ever tried. You can even pull up linked web pages within the app (Flash video and all) without skipping a beat. I was blown away. The Facebook app is, in my opinion, the best demonstration of the new Enyo platform. HP also offers an on-device magazine called Pivot, which informs you about certain hand-chosen apps in a way that’s far more visual and engaging than a simple list.
TouchPad users are also treated to native full-screen games at launch. This includes the mobile staple, Angry Birds HD, which is free and also AD-FREE. You can grab Rio as well for a couple of bucks.
With the notable exceptions of e-mail, which gives you a nice multi-paned view (kind of like Outlook), and the web browser, I was not impressed with the built-in apps at all. Messaging, which is what I use for AIM, is particularly bad, with tons of freezes and glitches. However, I can rest assured that the webOS community, which is incredibly active and dedicated, will fill in the gaps soon.
I have heard a lot of complaints about the TouchPad’s performance. I both agree and disagree with the claims. There is absolutely no indication that the hardware itself is slow. You can definitely tell that the dual core chip and the huge helping of memory go a long way. The multitasking is no joke. You can run many apps at once, close/open cards, and switch in between without skipping a beat. The card system is silky smooth, even when you have Flash video playing!
I have to single out the web browser as one of the best-performing apps. Even when there’s Flash video playing (I’ve tested Youtube, Southparkstudios.com, Crackle.com, and a few others), you can scroll around and do other things without any problems. Flash behaves a little funky sometimes, I’ve had an AT&T advertisement start looping over and over ON TOP of the South Park episode I was watching. I’ve also had one random reboot closing a Youtube card. Glitches aside, it kicks the crap out of any other mobile implementation I’ve seen. Even without Flash, the web browser still impresses me. It handles Google apps, for example, without breaking a sweat. I can get around not having a webOS phone by texting through Google Voice’s full site.
I have not notice pauses at all within games. Old PDK apps, Angry Birds HD, and Robotek HD always felt smooth as butter. Granted, I have not played extensively.
There are moments where there’s lag time, and it’s obviously software-related. I’ve noticed about a second of lag when opening the keyboard in Enyo apps. Sometime Enyo apps like Facebook pause for multiple seconds. I don’t think I’ve ever had the entire device freeze on me. Whenever it felt locked up, I was able to escape into another card. The device always frees up after you wait, though. Annoying, but it’s obviously something a patch can fix.
The operating system that the TouchPad runs, webOS, was what ultimately drew me to the device. It has always been beautiful and intuitive on a smaller screen, but webOS is arguably the only mobile platform that would seem natural on a larger screen. There are a couple of big differences between the older 1.4 Palm devices and this 3.0 juggernaut, however. Firstly, they scrapped the gesture bar that the Pixi introduced (it’ll still be present on the Veer and Pre 3, don’t worry). Instead, they replaced it with a push button reminiscent of the original Pre and got rid of the back/forward gesture. Now if you want to go backwards in an app, you must find an actual on-screen button instead of simply swiping left below the screen. This kind of annoyed me, but it’s a small sacrifice. They also got rid of the ability to slowly drag up the launcher bar within an app. Now you must always return to card view to access the launcher. I was worried that the mechanical push button was the only way to get to card view. I didn’t want to wear it out! Fortunately, if you swipe up from the bottom of the screen, it duplicates the button’s functionality and takes you to the card view and launcher.
The card multitasking system has received a big improvement: Stacks. You can group cards into a stack for organization purposes. It doesn’t matter if they’re a homogeneous group of cards or not, you can stack them. For instance, this means you can have a stack of email cards, or if you feel like some other app is related to your emails, such as a browser, you can put the browser in the same stack. You can also take cards off of already made stacks and keep them separate. Stacked or not, you can flick apps you don’t like off the top of the screen to end them, and it makes that satisfying “whoosh” sound just like always.
Notifications received a notable change. They appear at the top of the screen, instead of at the bottom, and they don’t take up any additional screen real estate when they appear. If you tap the notification icon(s), it’ll show you the usual series of bars you’re used to. It’s a small menu, so it’s not as disruptive as Android’s full-screen drawer. You have the ability to tap them to address them, or swipe them to the right to dismiss. You can dismiss multiple notifications in the same group as a group, or individually depending on where you swipe.
webOS phone apps were generally agnostic of how you held the device. They typically adjusted to the device’s orientation. The TouchPad cares even less about how you hold it. With the exception of full-screen (yes, only full-screen) Flash, I found that you could pretty much hold the TouchPad any way you want. It takes a lot of thought out of operating the device, and it’s kind of nice to not have to worry about.
The TouchPad is the first webOS device to sport an on-screen keyboard. I hate on-screen keyboards. Fortunately, webOS makes this less painful with auto-correct and an adjustable keyboard size. It’s as intuitive as an on-screen keyboard can get short of being…well, Swype maybe. webOS ripped off Android’s text selection method (sliders adjust the selection), which was a good choice. The original webOS method was ahead of its time (tap/drag to highlight) but still really sucked and was hit or miss. On the phones, you could hold the orange/white key (I think, it’s been a while), then drag your finger to adjust the position of the cursor. I don’t think there’s a way to do this on the TouchPad (please comment if I’m wrong). That’s a step back. Bring something like this back please!
webOS 3 has introduced panes, which neatly organize information on the large screen. Some panes are adjustable, so you can give more focus to certain panes, and less to others, depending on what you want to see at that moment. Facebook, WordPress, and the Mail apps are the most notable users of panes so far.
webOS has the reputation of being able to do whatever you want with it. Even more so than Android and their locked-down bootloaders and file systems. webOS keeps up with this reputation with the native ability to enable developer mode and install homebrew software. HP is doing something unique and is actually supporting the homebrew development community with donations, which makes me really happy.
Should you run out and get one now?!
Overall, I like my TouchPad, and over time I’ll probably like it more as fixes and apps start to roll out quicker. As to whether you should get one? Well…
Get it if:
- You are a techie/early adopter and like to live on the bleeding edge, bugs be damned
- You enjoy webOS, and haven’t been as impressed with Android or iOS
- You enjoy having control of your own hardware
- You enjoy homebrew apps, hacking, or development
- You want a tablet that has a strong web browser with Flash and Facebook
Don’t get it if:
- Most of your electronics have an “i” in front of their name. This will not convert you.
- The idea of a software bug frightens and confuses you.
- You’re obsessed with app counts.
- You want a new gaming device. It games well, but you need games to play first.
This tablet could take a strong second position behind the iPad 2 if they get some of the worse bugs under control and get more devs on board. Right now it’s a bit fresh and immature. There’s nothing seriously wrong with the hardware itself that I can see. It also appears that HP is serious about improving webOS and making it a dominant player in the mobile realm. HP has also been attempting to clean up the PR mess that Palm left behind. They have people on unofficial community forums keeping an eye out for bug reports. They have also been committed to supporting the homebrew hacking and development community, which is something you rarely see from Android manufacturers and Apple. So although things are a bit rocky for webOS now, the TouchPad is promising enough that I see things improving in a big way in the long run.