HP TouchPad webOS tablet

HP TouchPad review: The HP TouchPad has plenty of potential, but suffers from a bulky, uninspiring design, a lack of third-party apps and questionable performance

The HP TouchPad is HP's answer to Apple's ever-conquering iPad 2. It's the first tablet to run the company's webOS operating system — software HP acquired from Palm when it bought the struggling company for US$1.2 billion in 2010. Although we love the TouchPad's intuitive software, great audio performance and ease of use, its design does little to stand out amongst slimmer and lighter competitors, and the lack of dedicated tablet apps make it a tough sell.

Check out our guide to the best upcoming tablets in 2011.

HP TouchPad: Design and display

At first glance, the HP TouchPad looks like a very attractive tablet. The gloss black bezel, rounded edges and a physical home button that pulses to show notifications are all nice touches. A lot of work seems to have gone into the packaging, too — the HP TouchPad's box slides out like a drawer on the right side, giving it a very Apple-like feel. This extends right down to the box housing the documentation, USB cable and AC charger, which is labelled with, "Now comes the fun part."

Sadly, fun can be short-lived and that's the exact impression you're left with once you get your hands on the HP TouchPad. At 740g, it's not exactly lightweight. In fact, of all tablets currently sold in Australia, only the hefty Toshiba Tablet (771g) is heavier than the thick and bulky TouchPad. Though its rounded design makes it comfortable to hold, the TouchPad looks like an oversized paper weight when placed next to an iPad 2 or the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Adding to the mess is the rear of the tablet, which is amongst the best fingerprint magnets we've ever come across. The HP TouchPad turns even the slightest touch into a grubby masterpiece, and is therefore impossible to keep clean.

The HP TouchPad has a 9.7in capacitive touchscreen. Although there's nothing remarkable about this display, it is comparable to most other tablets on the market, including the iPad. The HP TouchPad's screen is bright, responsive to touch and produces vibrant colours, though its glossy surface means it reflects too much light. Sadly, the TouchPad's touch accuracy could be improved; the "ripple" effect that displays on the screen when you touch it often appears slightly below where you have actually touched the screen. Though not a huge issue, it's mostly evident when tapping the thin notifications bar at the top of the screen, and can cause some minor frustration.

HP TouchPad: webOS software and performance

The HP TouchPad's webOS operating system instantly seems like a natural fit for tablets. It's much easier to pick up and use than Google Android's Honeycomb UI, and handles multitasking infinitely better than Apple's iOS platform.

The key feature of the TouchPad is the card system — a unique way of swiping through multiple, open applications. You simply press the physical home button, or swipe up from the bottom edge of the screen (regardless of the orientation of the TouchPad) to display all current open applications, called cards. From here, you can close apps simply be swiping the cards up and off the screen, or launch new apps from the menu below. You can also group any open cards into "stacks" by dragging them on top of each other. Combined with an intuitive and elegant notifications system, the HP TouchPad handles multitasking with effortless ease.

Using the TouchPad on a day-to-day basis just feels natural. Whether it's opening or closing apps, swiping between open apps, and even basic tasks like unlocking the display, the entire process seems to suit the larger tablet form factor.

Unfortunately, the more we used the TouchPad and its webOS software, the more we found things we didn't like. For every thing the TouchPad does well, it does something poorly. For instance, the lock screen shows handy notifications, but there is no way to unlock directly into these, and considering the large display, their small size seems like a very odd design choice. The Web browser displays Flash, but our experience was less than satisfactory — sometimes it worked, other times it did not. The browser renders pages well, and each new window opening as a card is handy, but performance is sluggish compared to most of the competition.

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The TouchPad's standard apps like e-mail are well designed and use a handy panel feature that makes use of the whole screen. However, opening and extending panels is achieved by tapping a tiny control at the button of the screen, a strange design choice given the fact you are working with a 9.7in sized display. HP's Synergy feature groups contacts from multiple sources in a single application, and out of the box the TouchPad impressively supports Dropbox, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft Exchange, MobileMe, Photobucket, Skype, Snapfish and Yahoo accounts. However, you can only view documents — you can't edit or create Office files on the TouchPad, which makes it unsatisfactory as a business tool. Though we expect features like this to come with software updates, the fact remains that the TouchPad is currently well behind its competition.

The HP TouchPad has two of the best sounding speakers we've heard on a tablet, and the device is easily able to fill a small room with decent quality sound. However, its syncronising software (HP Play) is still in beta, doesn’t support photos and videos, and is clunky to use. The HP TouchPad is also slow to mount as a USB drive when connected to a PC or Mac.

Without a doubt the biggest hindrance to the HP TouchPad's effectiveness is performance. Despite boasting hefty specifications — a dual core 1.2GHz Snapdragon processor being the highlight — the HP TouchPad is sluggish to open apps, often takes a few seconds to respond to presses on the screen and generally feels much slower than most other tablets currently on the market. Its accelerometer is also way too touchy, so much so that even the slightest tilt will rotate the screen when you don't want it to.

HP TouchPad: Other features

The HP TouchPad has a front facing, 1.3-megapixel camera, and with built-in Skype support, you can make video calls over the service directly from the TouchPad's messaging application. However, the TouchPad does not have a rear facing camera. Though we suspect most tablet users would not be too fussed with the absence of a rear camera (after all, does anyone really want to take photos, or record video with a 9.7in tablet?), but the fact remains that almost all of the HP TouchPad's competitors have dual cameras.

One very cool feature of the HP TouchPad is exhibition mode, which is basically a fancy name for a big digital clock. In addition to a clock, exhibition mode can display photos in your gallery as a slideshow, your calendar agendas and Facebook. The Facebook mode shows your friends’ latest status updates, with a tiled background of profile pictures. The HP TouchPad also has "Touch-to-share" technology, which enables users to share content, read text messages and even answer phone calls from a compatible HP smartphone by simply tapping the devices together — however given that HP is yet to release these phones in Australia, we weren’t able to test this feature.

Disappointingly, the HP TouchPad is a Wi-Fi only device with no 3G connectivity option, though a 3G model is likely to be released at a later date. Curiously, what looks like a pop-out SIM card slot on the right side of the TouchPad is actually where HP has chosen to print the serial number of the device.

HP claims the TouchPad's battery is good for eight hours of Web browsing, and nine hours of video playback. In reality, the numbers we achieved were a little less than that, but still quite respectable. We managed roughly seven hours of sporadic use before the battery ran out on most occasions. No, it's not good enough to hold a candle to the iPad 2's impressive battery, but it's about on par or better than many Android tablets on the market.

The HP TouchPad will be sold through Harvey Norman in Australia from 15 August, but it can be purchased now from online store MobiCity.