The $99 HP TouchPad Review

Late last week, HP announced that it was exiting the WebOS hardware business, little more than a month after the TouchPad tablet was launched. Since the operating system’s early days as a smartphone OS I have long admired its graphical style and adherence to quality. Of course, given the choice between iOS devices (the iPhone and iPad) and these admittedly high-quality imitators, there was no doubt as to where my dollars would go.

HP TouchPad 2

But as part of HP’s colossal failure to sell the TouchPad, they threw the biggest bone ever right into my doggy bowl: a $99 tablet computer, available immediately. I learned about this on Friday night via Twitter while helping my daughter with bedtime. Fifteen minutes later I was standing in an alarmingly growing crowd at my local Future Shop, and luckily was the first to claim one of the final four units they had in stock.

So while you may have read reviews of the TouchPad before, what you may not have read are reviews of this completely-new-and-not-at-all-like-the-original-TouchPad. Because at $99, the mechanics of your purchase decision are completely changed.

It reminds me of the Kindle at the time of the iPad’s arrival. At $479, it was a tough sell against the first-generation iPad, and we predicted its demise. We were right: the price has dropped under $200, and now it’s a completely different product. iPad owners are also Kindle owners.

Like any gadget-loving nerd would, I spent way too much time this past weekend playing with the TouchPad. And while I can see that it’s a deeply flawed product, I’m also a budding fan of WebOS, and have no choice but to root for HP (or some other company) to give it the love and watering it deserves.

Let’s start with the hardware.

The Top Twelve Problems

The Internet loves lists. I could put together a list of the Top Twelve Things That Are Wrong With The TouchPad, but let’s face it: the first ten items on that list would be performance. Performance, performance, performance! It just isn’t fast enough to run the damn operating system. Apps take too long to launch, but I’m not too exercised about that.

The worst part is the graphical responsiveness of the system. The iPad shines because a touch on the screen results in immediate and fluid feedback. The TouchPad judders and stalls when you swipe through text. It’s not terrible, pervasive and all-encompassing; sometimes web pages work well and performance is smooth. It just happens often enough that your eye and brain become accustomed to it.

At its core, the WebOS is aptly-named: the whole thing is a giant web browser, and the apps are web apps. Because HTML rendering and Javascript interpreting are high-level functions, there’s a lot of cruft under the hood to support it. Now, I’ve listened to folks like Marco Arment talk about its deficiencies as if they were incurable. I don’t believe that — I’ve seen the work Apple has done with JavascriptCore for iOS, so I know that it’s possible for web technologies to render smoothly on this level of hardware. To my mind, it’s just a question of the WebOS team getting the right engineering talent to optimize the shit out of the OS’s internals.

But I can’t help but think of what this WebOS engineer had to say about the decisions around the hardware. If his statements are true, HP decided upon the hardware inside the TouchPad even before they bought Palm. And that’s a damn crime, because we all know that improving hardware can compensate for the inefficiencies of the software. Did HP have the chance to put faster horses under the hood, and pass on it? I don’t know, but one thing’s for certain: this carriage needs faster horses.

Once we get past the top ten problems with the TouchPad, we get into two smaller issues I have with the case itself. The first is the weight: at over 1.5 pounds, it’s noticeably heavier than the iPad 2, though pretty close to the original. I find weight an important metric in tablets of course, owing to the fact that I’m holding it while reading. Especially when reclined, a 1.5-pound sliver of technology is going to dig into my stomach. And it’s also very thick, thicker even than the original iPad, while its high-gloss, rounded plastic finish (reminiscent of the iPhone 3G/S upon which it was no doubt based) feels unreliable in the hand, prone to slip.

And the home button. Like the iPad, there’s a single button on the face of the device. But it’s much smaller than the iPad, and not easily spotted; in other words, it’s hard to know which way the TouchPad is sitting with a quick glance.

Ultimately, I really feel like the hardware has let down this effort, because the software is such a brighter story.

The WebOS

There’s no sense building up to it: I really like WebOS. Back in the day I derided it as a cheap ripoff of iOS. But now it feels like one of the most genuinely original mobile operating systems out there (nota bene: I have not had hands-on experience with Windows Phone 7).

While WebOS couldn’t have existed without Apple, it’s clear they’ve made decisions that are refinements on Apple’s effort. This goes well beyond gunning for Apple’s weak spots like Flash support. It’s in the card metaphor, which lends itself so well to multitasking. And it’s also in its developer APIs (which I may write about separately later on), which are designed from the ground up to include as many developers as possible.

Aesthetically, WebOS challenges the simplicity of iOS. It has a consistency of design that delivers its message with confidence. It’s carefully-considered, understated and yet it’s very rich. This is not a thin veneer: the quality of the user experience permeates every layer of the operating system. The Window chrome, system-wide typeface choices and tasteful backgrounds are all a great start, but the quality of the interaction with applications (via a brilliant card interface) and a terrific notification interface leave you with the impression of a well-built and well-considered system design.

I also very much like the keyboard. Right off the bat, they integrated a fourth row for numbers and symbols, much more like a traditional keyboard. I found text entry easy to do — it’s clear a lot of thought went into mimicking the best parts of iOS in this department. Text autocorrections are very well-done, despite the lack of some obvious items like the two-spaces-inserts-a-period trick that I rely upon with my iPad.

The basic applications are well-implemented. The web browser is as good as you’d expect for being based on Apple’s WebKit, and it works very well. The email client is quite exceptional, working brilliantly with all my Google Apps email accounts, with one-tap support for various web-based email servers (including MobileMe). It uses the “sliding pane” paradigm popular in TouchPad interfaces to great effect. This view technique is WebOS’s answer to the iPad’s Split View, which has proven far more rigid and less appealing in portrait orientation. I really like WebOS’s implementation, which makes every app more like the official Twitter app for iPad. Which I like very much.

It comes with everything you would expect from a tablet computer: a calendar, notepad app (“Memos”), PDF reader, map application, address book, photo and video viewer (it supports the same video formats as iOS, though video performance suggests a lack of support from the on-board GPU), and even a Facebook app, if you’re into such frivolities.

Critics have gone to some lengths talking about the paucity of software for the TouchPad, but I don’t have those complaints. The HP App Catalog, to my mind, is a terrific app in its own right. It features a monthly magazine called Pivot, an actual editorial effort to feature recent and interesting apps with links to their product pages. It’s beautiful and well-designed. You can also navigate the store in traditional ways: I found the categories well-populated with titles, and search was straight-forward. Unlike the purported experience with the Android Market, apps are clearly shown to be designed for the TouchPad, and every category has several options. I was able to find decent apps for most of my traditional tablet functions: WeatherBug, WordPress, TuneIn Radio, TED, Simple Podcatcher, Paper Mache (Instapaper) and Spaz HD (Twitter). None of these apps would compare favourably to their iOS counterparts, but they’re quite good and with enough developer support could become much better.

One app that did stand out for me was Typewriter. It’s a Markdown editor that saves its documents to Dropbox. It’s in beta right now, but it features a unique preview method. You write in plain text using Markdown. But there’s a bar at the bottom of the screen; as you pull it up, it reveals the formatted text “underneath”. It’s very elegant, well-designed, and probably the most impressive third-party app I saw.

I can’t help but think that with more time, support from third parties could make this a very compelling mobile platform. Nobody knows today what’s going to happen with WebOS, but to my mind anything less than full-fledged support from a large company like HP would be criminal.

The software side is much brighter than the hardware side, but it’s not all perfect. I’ve already talked about performance. Performance! Performance! It’s the biggest problem with this device. But there’s also a couple spots where WebOS needs to focus.

First up is text selection. iOS didn’t have this really working on day one, demonstrating that it’s a non-trivial undertaking to do right. Sadly, WebOS still doesn’t have it figured out: I found the process frustrating and error-prone. It seems to be based on the same idea as iOS, in that you tap a word and pull at the markers to alter your selection. But the implementation simply falls over, with easy misses removing your selection, and juddery animation frustrating your selection.

Another problem is in scrolling text. iOS has a delightful attention to detail in this regard: if you start a motion in one axis, the scroll direction stays locked to that axis. By starting to scroll down on an article, for example, the scroll direction will continue vertical even if your finger drifts to the right or left. On WebOS, there’s no lock: the view moves wherever your finger goes. It’s a subtle effect, but makes a big difference in day-to-day use.

Conclusions

Those two issues are, frankly, not deal breakers for WebOS. If I compare WebOS’s foibles with Android (which I’ve used extensively on the phone side), it’s a dramatic improvement. Android is death by a thousand cuts, with software deficiencies at every turn. WebOS provides a very high-quality experience, marred only by its underpowered hardware.

How bad is it? Like so many digital experiences, it depends on where you’re coming from. Like so many of the folks in my Twitter stream, if you come from an iPad, the TouchPad is going to stand out for its poor hardware. This group has been, to put it politely, dismissive about the $99 TouchPad. But they’re a demanding bunch, and their advice should be taken with a grain of salt.

For the average computer user, the TouchPad is an incredibly beautiful and effective platform. Dramatically simpler than a PC, it still lets you do all the things you’d want out of a computer — web browsing, email, Facebook, Twitter and photo viewing. It makes a good electronic reader, it has good video support (YouTube is especially effective here, thanks to one of the better Flash implementations I’ve seen), and for the most part, it’s simple and elegant enough for less technical users to understand.

It feels like there’s been no small amount of gloating out there, particularly by iOS advocates, and that’s a damn shame. They are certainly correct that they still have the better platform, but we benefit from having a multiplicity of options in the market. If this truly is the end of WebOS, then we’ll have lost something very important.

So, in the final equation, is the $99 TouchPad a worthy buy? Holy shit, yes. As I remarked on Twitter when I come home with it, I feel like I’d donned a balaclava and taken up a blackjack, and robbed my local Future Shop blind. HP’s $100 million bath is the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come around very often, and while it spells a very uncertain future for WebOS, it remains that I now have a delightfully-designed 10-inch touchscreen device that can handle a broad variety of computing tasks. It’s a clear win.

If $99 is a bet on the future of WebOS, it’s one I feel comfortable taking. Having read the commentary and the (not entirely cogent) announcements from HP, I think there’s a better than even chance that WebOS will continue to survive. And now that a quarter million TouchPads are in peoples’ hands, it’s also possible that HP has seeded the market for future developers. I hope so.

Postscript: I also took some time to investigate the WebOS SDK. Given its basis on web technologies, it makes a pretty compelling platform to build for. If there’s interest from my readers, I may write about that experience as well.