The new HP Touchpad is the closest thing to an iPad we've seen so far. The first rash of tablets were big phones, while Android Honeycomb brought a second wave of more advanced – dare we say geeky – tablets that added 3D cameras, keyboards, and places to hook up memory cards, USB sticks and HDMI cables. But it would seem the Touchpad’s designers are fans of Apple’s stripped back, minimalist approach.
Chunky but curvy
Outward impressions are positive. It’s plastic, but feels good in the hand. It’s substantial and far from the iPad 2’s wafer-thin form, but sturdy with a curvaceous body that’s kind on your palms. However, it’s not long before that classy piano black sheen is marred by an embarrassing mess of greasy smears. You’ll want to give it a good rub down before handing it over to a friend to admire.
Skirt around the frame and you’ll find a mini USB for file transfer and charging via the mains, a pair of speakers with better output than you might expect from a tablet, and headphone socket. That’s it in terms of connections. Compared to the best Android tablets that’s a poor show, but the iPad 2 gets away with it, so why not?
Playing catch up
Well, the iPad 2 gets away with it because it’s part of a multimedia ecosystem that includes the iPhone, iPod, iTunes, the App Store, Apple TV and AirPlay – many ways to get many things to and from the tablet. Unfortunately for HP's Touchpad it has little in the way of equivalents, although it does have a few neat tricks of its own, such as the ability to share a website with a Palm Pre phone by touching the two devices together.
In use the HP Touchpad can be confusing, although Palm phone users will take to it instantly as it runs on a version of the same OS. Again there are heavy iPad influences, with a more streamlined presentation than its Android Honeycomb rivals. In similar fashion to the BlackBerry PlayBook, apps and documents within apps are minimised to ‘cards’ – thumbnails which can be scrolled through and flicked off the top of the screen when you’ve had enough of them. It works well enough but can get messy during prolonged sessions.
Flaws in that minimalist design show through now and again in the OS. For this approach to work the interface needs to be transparent. Merely removing menu options isn’t enough, but sometimes WebOS 3.0 can leave you wondering what to do next. What appears to be a drop-down menu might not have any options and might not respond to your touch, for example. A section of a screen might slide to one side, uncoupling itself from another part, but for no apparent reason. Files copied to the device can remain undetected, or incorrectly identified (music mistaken for a movie, for example).
It gets better
It’s not all bad. When you’re in the groove, the Touchpad flies along and has plenty of power to handle Flash video and multitasking without jerking to a halt. Web browsing is great and the screen is a good size for bedtime reading. That screen is also bright and colourful and there’s decent provision for email and general productivity.
If the App Catalog was anywhere near as well stocked as either the Apple’s App Store or even the Android Market, many of these niggles could be overlooked as teething troubles and personal preferences, but at this stage it’s difficult to see where the Touchpad fits in. Still, we like it a lot, and you might like it even more. If you’re a Palm phone user you almost certainly will.