The HP TouchPad is the latest device to be released into what is becoming a highly competitive tablet market. The HP TouchPad runs on WebOS 3.0, the software is the major differentiator between tablets on the market today so the OS and application selection for a tablet is really what makes or breaks its success in the market place. In this review of the HP TouchPad, we’ll discuss the hardware of course but most of the discussion will revolve around the OS, applications available, and the utility of the TouchPad as an education tool.
Below are the specs for the HP TouchPad 32GB as reviewed:
It’s always interesting to see what kind of packaging a company goes with when selling a device that’s appeal is supposed to be fashionable and cool, HP did a nice job of presentation with the box and packing so here’s a step-by-step view of the unboxing and view of what you get inside:
I purchased the TouchPad via HP Home and Home Office and at the time they had free next day business shipping, I took advantage and sure enough, when ordering at 4 p.m. it arrived the next day at 9:30 a.m.
When you boil it down all tablets on the market today kind of look the same, they’re a slab of glass with a button or two on the front and sides and then either a metal or plastic back. There’s only so much you can do with the design of these tablet devices if you ask me. From a distance of 20-feet, I couldn’t tell you if someone has an Apple iPad, HP TouchPad, Blackberry PlayBook, or Samsung Galaxy Tab. That might be heresy to say to a gadget geek, but the fact someone asked me if I liked my iPad when I was using what was, in fact, an HP TouchPad in a coffee shop the other day shows that the man on the street generally cannot distinguish one tablet from another based on looks. I’m setting myself up here to emphasize that it’s the software that makes each device, but assuming you don’t agree with me I’ll go over some of the things good and bad about the hardware design of the TouchPad!
First of all, I like the rounded edges of the TouchPad and the fact there’s nothing sharp on the case. Of course, being a touchscreen tablet, most of the input is done via the screen but there are a few buttons and input/output ports to mention on the TouchPad:
The back of the HP TouchPad is glossy and plastic feeling. Unfortunately, this makes the back an absolute fingerprint magnet and it’s quite slippery to hold. I wish tablet makers would come up with a surface that offers some grip to it, the metal back of the iPad isn’t much better than what the TouchPad offers. I understand that minimalist design is a key with tablets, but usability should be considered too and something to grip on back there would be nice.
Below is a picture of the Apple iPad 2 and HP TouchPad with backs facing up so you can see a comparison of the two:
The TouchPad weighs in at 1.6lbs, this is more than the 1.3lbs of the iPad 2 and you can feel that difference if you’re just using your hands to support the device and not resting it on your knees or something else. The TouchPad is also thicker having a 0.45” thickness and the iPad 2 having a 0.34” thickness. While the TouchPad isn’t unwieldy by any means, it’s comfortable to hold weight wise and you won’t notice the extra weight in a bag, I would like to see the inevitable TouchPad 2 shave off some ounces and inches.
The screen of a tablet is very important as it’s used for both viewing and touch input. The TouchPad has a 9.7-inch diagonal screen, the same as other popular tablets on the market, and it is a high-quality IPS (in-plane switching) panel that provides wide viewing angles. The screen resolution is 1,024 x 768, the same as that of the iPad. The screen is adequately bright and color contrast and depth good. However, when the TouchPad is placed side by side with the iPad it is noticeably less crisp and bright. Below is a picture of the iPad 2 on the left and TouchPad on the right both with full brightness set in a darkened room:
Portrait orientation of iPad 2 (left) and TouchPad (right)
Landscape orientation of iPad 2 (left) and TouchPad (right)
Overall the HP TouchPad screen is in the middle of the pack when it comes to screen quality.
The TouchPad speakers are located on the left edge of the tablet, one at the top-left edge and one at the bottom. HP refers to the TouchPad as having a Beats audio sound system. What is Beats audio you ask? Part marketing and part actual technology, here’s a video describing this:
While the speakers are not as incredible as this video may lead you to think, for a tablet I was pleasantly surprised by the audio quality. Audio is superior to that on the iPad and makes listening to movies and TV easy to do without headphones if you so choose. Plugging in headphones will still give you a superior audio experience, of course, HP simply can’t put big enough speakers in the device to provide bass so high-quality headphones can fill in when you want that kind of experience.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s the software and OS that makes a tablet good or not, the hardware is kind of a commodity and quite similar across devices. HP could have simply followed what Dell, Samsung, and others are doing by slapping the Android OS on a tablet and calling it a day, but obviously with the TouchPad and it’s webOS 3.0 the company is out to make an impression and innovate not follow. That’s good, and webOS 3.0 and the TouchPad do offer some advantages over other tablet OS options out there that we’ll cover. Unfortunately, since WebOS 3.0 is so new and the TouchPad is the first device to run it the app selection is still in its infancy. There are around 400 apps in the HP App Catalog right now but more are being added every day. There are also 8,000+ webOS apps built to run on SmartPhones that can run on the TouchPad in compatibility mode, you’ll see what that means and looks like later on. Meanwhile, the Apple iPad has over 100,000 apps available and optimized for that device, so presently there’s a big gap. Below is a screenshot from the HP App Catalog, it’s easy to navigate and install apps from here and works just like the Android and iTunes app market:
There are a lot of things I like about webOS 3.0. Right out of the box I was thrilled to be able to just turn on the tablet and not have to hook it up to a computer to sync or unlock it. Yes, that sounds silly but try using an iPad without attaching it to a computer first, you can’t – it’s a brick until you do so and Apple won’t let you get going without installing iTunes on some computer and syncing with it. HP is much more user friendly in this way and you can register for the HP webOS Account that will give you access to the App library from the TouchPad as you set up the device, no need to attach to a laptop or desktop computer.
My favorite thing about WebOS is the “card view” of apps it uses. It’s just so easy to see what apps you have open, switch between apps and close apps you no longer want open. To open an app you just tap on it and it springs up as a card and when fully loaded fills the screen. Hit the home button at the bottom of the screen and it takes you to a view of all our apps open as cards, you simply swipe your finger to rotate through the cards (open apps) and then once the app you want to use is at the center of the screen tap on it to fully load it. Alternatively, if you want to close an app you just “throw” the card (open app) off the top of the screen to get rid of it. It’s so satisfying, I’ve never come across a mobile OS that makes it quite this fun and easy to close an app. The only way HP could make it more fun to manage apps is maybe throwing in a breaking glass sound effect as you throw a card off the screen! Below is a screenshot of two apps open and in card view:
Another neat feature is the “Just Type…” functionality that’s pegged at the top of the screen. Simply put your finger in the box there, start typing using the on-screen keyboard that pops up and then you have the option of searching the web for this phrase, searching other areas such as your contacts or even choose a “quick action” for the text and send it as an email or Facebook status update. It makes many common tasks fast and easy to access, the simplicity is great.
Speaking of typing, the on-screen keyboard for the TouchPad is the best I’ve used on any tablet or SmartPhone device for one important reason – it shows the numerical keys by default, you don’t have to toggle the keyboard to show 0 – 9. As banal a feature as that seems it’s a godsend for speeding up the input process. Any good password should have both numbers and letters intermixed and how annoying is it to have to input a password online and keep toggling the keyboard back and forth between numbers and letters? Very annoying, which is why I’m giving the TouchPad on-screen keyboard an automatic best in the industry for giving us numbers along with letters all on one keyboard.
The onboard mapping software is powered by Bing and it’s surprisingly good. As someone who habitually uses Google Maps online, I was at first disappointed that wasn’t the default mapping software, but the Bing maps load fast and the “Bird’s Eye” map view that uses high-quality satellite digital images is really neat and helpful in seeing the lay of the land and streets. Since the TouchPad has GPS onboard it can easily pinpoint your current location and then give you directions to a destination of your choice.
Facebook is an important app for students, many use Facebook to communicate with fellow students on campus and of course family and friends around the world. Thankfully HP has included a TouchPad optimized Facebook app that’s very slick and easy to use. I find it easier and less cluttered to use than regular old Facebook.com, it’s very clean and there are mercifully no ads.
I’d be remised not to mention you get Flash 10.3 integrated with the webOS 3.0 browser which means you can visit any Adobe Flash enabled site on the web and enjoy Flash-based video to your heart’s content. A big gripe about the Apple iPad is of course that Flash is barred from being installed on the iOS operating system so you simply can’t view a Flash-heavy site and miss out on a lot of online videos.
Finally, another great feature of the TouchPads webOS 3.0 is the “Sync” feature that makes it easy to aggregate personal information from various accounts on the web right onto the device. For instance, if you have calendars used on Google Calendar and Facebook Events then you can easily pull these into the calendar app on the TouchPad. Once you log into a Google or Facebook account this all just happens automatically. For instance, once I logged into Facebook my albums and photos from there were synched onto the device seamlessly. HP already has the Synch feature working with a lot of online services and the list is growing.
Right now there aren’t too many education apps available on the TouchPad, however, there are a couple worth mentioning. The Khan Academy app is very slick and makes finding and viewing tutorial videos conducted by the amazing Sal Khan easy to do. You can brush up on or newly learn anything from basic arithmetic adding to organic chemistry ring-opening Sn2 reaction of epoxides.
The commonly used academic Blackboard software is also available in webOS and on the TouchPad, however, it runs in compatibility mode as it is optimized for webOS phones and not tablets. So while you can log in to your Blackboard account, it displays in an annoyingly small screen on the TouchPad as seen below:
Still, at least you can log in and see course assignments and other information, even if it is in a shrunken form.
Battery life is key with tablets, you absolutely do not want to have to carry a charger with you during the day, a tablet should last all day long on the go no questions asked. Thankfully this is the case with the TouchPad, HP claims 9 hours of battery life and this is around what I got. This means you can easily go the entire day using the TouchPad, never putting it to rest, and assuming you work 8 hours you’ll still have some battery life leftover. To the rest of us who will not be using a tablet every minute of the day, it means you can go several days without charging if you use the tablet for say 1 – 2 hours a day.
Statistics from research company Student Monitor show that 90% of students on campus have a laptop and only 14% have a tablet. However, 49% of students are interested in buying a tablet. As more educational targeted apps are released and textbooks are converted to digital form it will make more sense to use a tablet as a productivity device for school. I don’t think tablets will replace the need for a student to have a laptop, but I do think a tablet can supplement a laptop and one day replace some of those bulky paper textbooks that cost $120 a pop. Once that happens the 49% of students interested in buying a tablet will indeed buy and more will become interested.
For now, the TouchPad is something that can be useful to a student but there need to be more apps and productivity tools. Some tools already available that would be useful to a student are of course using the web browser for online research, you could easily read online academic journals more comfortably than sitting at your computer. The list goes on and on with the utility a web browser can provide to education as it’s a window to the world, and a tablet can make viewing that window more comfortable than sitting anchored to a desktop or laptop. Facebook while not an educational tool per se, is quite essential to a majority of students for staying in touch and the HP TouchPad app for Facebook is wonderful. Skype is also built-in and using the integrated camera to communicate with others is certainly something students do. I like the Khan Academy TouchPad app a lot and think students should check it out if they ever feel lost and need to brush up on old material or want to have new material explained in a better way than your heavily accented and unhelpful TA may have explained it.
There are several tablet options out there right now, so why would you buy the TouchPad over a competing device? For one, I like the webOS 3.0 a lot and think it is very easy to use, the learning curve is almost non-existent it’s so intuitive. I also like the fact that the whole setup process is easy and there’s no need to associate your TouchPad with a computer if you don’t want to, other tablets do insist on that which kind of negates the point of using the tablet to replace a PC or Mac if you so choose. The micro USB port which is used for charging and connecting to a computer is great, I’m glad HP didn’t use a proprietary port as now I can use the same cable for several devices. If speakers and audio matter to you, the TouchPad is the best tablet out there for that. The design of the TouchPad is nice, but there are some faults and I don’t think it’s top of its class in the design department. Overall the TouchPad is a solid tablet option if you’re in the market for a tablet, but you do have to put some faith in the fact the app selection will grow in the HP App catalog as it’s just not robust right now and lags competitors. What’s in the app market place now is all high quality and there is no bloat of frivolous and useless apps, so that’s a good thing. Hopefully, HP keeps tight control of making sure only quality apps are released into the market as I think the race should not be for “more” but rather “better” apps, and to me, that would help the TouchPad stand out differently.
Power supply: 2 x CR2032 batteries; Battery life: 1 year (when used 1 hr/day)
Power off memory protection: Yes
Auto power off: After 5 minutes
Weight: 3 oz (85 g)
Dimensions: (W x D x H) 3.19 x 0.6 x 5.7 in (8.09 x 1.4 x 14.5 cm)