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Review: HP TouchPad has bright spots but seems very 2010

With the TouchPad, Hewlett Packard is about to join Apple, Google, and Research in Motion in the high-stakes game that is the tablet computer business. With a trio of popular operating systems and a dozen or more noteworthy devices already on the market, it may seem a little late in the day. But keep in mind that this category sprang into existence only a year ago. Most of the players are still sorting their cards.

I had the opportunity to spend about a week with the TouchPad, which launches in the U.S. this weekend and in Canada July 15{+t}{+h}, and found it to be an original take on tablet computing, though it has some growing pains that need to be worked through – especially in the hardware department.

Measuring 13.7 millimetres deep and weighing 740 grams, the TouchPad is a chubby, glossy black obelisk. A handful of ports and buttons – power, volume, headphones, and miniUSB – surround its clear and bright 9.7-inch 1024-by-768 touch screen display. A front-facing camera is at the top of the screen for Skype calls (there's no lens on the back, which means no stealth videos or pictures when people think you're just reading a book on your tablet), and a Home button sits at the bottom.

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It looks more or less like the original iPad, but is considerably heavier, which could make it a hard sell for people eager to own the sleekest, slimmest gadgets. However, there are a couple of original hardware features here that could go overlooked.

The first is built-in wireless induction charging. Just prop the TouchPad up on the Touchstone Charging Dock ($79.99), and the 6300 mAh battery – which, by the way, endured three days of frequent but casual use with screen brightness turned down and WiFi on – will automatically begin juicing up, even through the TouchPad's thick protective case. Great stuff for folks who hate fiddling with plugs and wires.

The other is Touch to Share, which lets users swap URLs with the soon-to-be-be released Pre 3 smartphone simply by making the two devices physically touch each other (assuming both devices are signed into the same WebOS account. I watched this feature in action with a pre-production Pre 3 and saw a website instantly migrate from phone to tablet. It felt a little like magic – the sort of marvellous, ridiculously intuitive technology seen in near-future sci-fi films brought to life.

Touch to Share feels limited at the moment – it would be great to be able to sync and share more substantial content this way – and it necessitates buying into HP's "better together" sales pitch, but there are definitely some unique possibilities here.

The TouchPad comes in two hardware configurations to start: a 16-gigabyte WiFi version for $519, and a 32-gigabyte WiFi version for $619, which is about on par with competing iPad models. HP refused to comment on the possibility of 3G editions, but I expect they will come, and sooner rather than later.

Viewed next to the svelte forms of an iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1, the portly TouchPad doesn't do a great job of selling itself. But the real draw of HP's tablet is webOS, the critically acclaimed but slow-to-catch-on operating system that powers HP's Pre phones. It's been optimized for the slate's larger screen, and it distinguishes itself from the competition in a number of ways.

For starters, it excels at true multitasking. Each active app is assigned a "card" that appears on the desktop. Simply swipe through and tap cards to switch between open apps. What's more, if you open one app from within another, its card will stack on top of the first app's card. For example, if you open a web page from within an e-mail, a card for that browser page will appear on top of the e-mail app's card. If you open a PDF from that website, a new Adobe Reader card will appear stacked atop the other two cards.

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I came to think of cards as similar to the way some e-mail clients sort messages into conversations, with all related messages stored together. It's a good way to group tasks and retain quick access to related materials. When you want to free up resources, just flip a card off the top of the screen to close the app.

Finding content is handled well, too. At the top of the desktop sits the Just Type search box. Type in whatever you happen to be looking for and the tablet will return results from the web (including Google, Bing Maps, and Wikipedia), social media networks (Twitter and Facebook), HP's App Catalog, contacts, e-mail, and media and documents residing on the TouchPad. You can also choose to limit searches to specific categories.

I found myself using Just Type all the time, whether I wanted to look up something online, find someone, or track down something in Gmail. Just Type is always at the ready and often proves quicker than opening and searching within a specific app. I honestly found myself trying hard not to grow too attached to this feature for fear of missing it overly much upon sending the TouchPad back.

WebOS also does an excellent job of integrating – and in some cases combining – various services. You can view calendar events from multiple accounts such as Facebook and Google in one place, and a powerful e-mail app makes it easy to access several e-mail clients simultaneously and keep multiple e-mails open at the same time. Plus, notifications for events and e-mails pop up in webOS' Windows-like taskbar at the top of the screen. You can even triage these notifications, dismissing those that are less important without jumping into the associated app.

The virtual keyboard, however, is a mixed bag. It has a full complement of keys – which means letters, numbers, and symbols are all together on one board – and you can adjust its size by holding down the hide keyboard key. But I made quite a few more typos than I normally do with virtual keyboards on similarly sized iOS and Android devices. I'm not sure if the issue rests with the auto-correction software, which didn't seem to work very well, or perhaps some peculiarity to do with key size or HP's keystroke detection, but I found I didn't want to compose anything more complex than a quick missive.

The less-than-ideal virtual keyboard makes a strong argument for investing in the TouchPad's optional Bluetooth keyboard ($69.99), a wafer thin and shockingly light board with a smattering of dedicated webOS command keys. I used it frequently. But I'm not convinced that an accessory should be necessary to solve an interface problem that isn't as much of an issue on competing devices.

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Working off a Snapdragon 1.2 GHz dual-core processor, webOS isn't as speedy as you'd think. Flipping through cards is quick and smooth, and web pages load at a rate comparable to what you'd find on a PC browser. However, I noticed some lag when scrolling up and down messages, and opening fresh e-mails took a bit longer than I'd have expected – perhaps three seconds. Some of the bigger apps I tried were sluggish to load, too. But the biggest performance demerit goes to start-up. Expect to wait more than a minute to reach the TouchPad's desktop after pressing the power button. That has to change.

It's worth noting that webOS runs the latest version of Flash, but given that virtually every tablet manufacturer on the planet not named after a fruit is making a marketing campaign out of Flash support (and that no one will top the PlayBook's television spot that leverages Queen's soundtrack for 1980 sci-fi schlockfest Flash Gordon), it only becomes a selling feature if you're comparing the TouchPad with the iPad.

Of course, the big question is apps. Even the quickest, most powerful, and most accessible tablet is all but useless without something to do on it. To that end, HP is promising more than 200 apps designed just for TouchPad at launch, and "thousands" more that were originally developed for Pre phones but have been verified to work well on the TouchPad.

It would be easy to pick on these numbers and call them paltry compared to those of the competition, but it all depends on what you intend to do with your slate. If all you need is Angry Birds to kill time on the couch and a Kindle reader for the subway, the TouchPad has you covered. If you're looking for some obscure app that lets you interface with your car's computer or control your high-end home theatre system, you're better served by an iOS or Honeycomb device.

A few useful apps come preloaded, like Quickoffice, which lets users access (and, in the future, edit) GoogleDocs files, and a surprisingly robust Facebook app developed by HP. I downloaded several other apps from HP's App Catalog, including a Picasa photo viewer, a Time Magazine reader, and even a stats tracker for the popular Xbox 360 video game franchise Halo. The quality of these apps is similar to versions made for other tablets. There's not an app for everything, but the selection is about as good as one can reasonably expect of a fledgling tablet, and it is sure to grow.

HP has developed a monthly e-magazine of sorts called Pivot that provides editorial content about apps deserving of a spotlight. Paradoxically, I found myself thinking how much more useful something like this would be on an Android or iOS device, where users are forced to wade through hundreds of thousands of apps and useful programs often go unnoticed.

The TouchPad's form is way too April 2010 to pose much threat to the competition. However, webOS as a tablet operating system is worth keeping an eye on. With a couple of small tweaks it could stand toe-to-toe with – and yet refreshingly apart from – its peers. Assuming HP can trim down and speed up the hardware, TouchPad 2 could be a serious contender.

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About the Author
Game and Gadget Reporter

Chad Sapieha has been writing about video games and consumer gadgets for the Globe and Mail since 2003. His work has been published in magazines, newspapers, and Web sites across North America, and he has appeared as an expert on television and radio newscasts. More

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