HP TouchPad: Six Disappointments

Time and again in recent months, manufacturers have chosen to bring tablets to market that seem half-baked. Unfortunately, the HP TouchPad is no exception.

Like the first Android 3.0 tablets and RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook before it, the TouchPad ships with some rough, buggy spots in its software, hobbled features that need a fix through a later over-the-air update, and a lack of compelling apps that could make this tablet the one to own.

During my hands-on time with the TouchPad, six points in particular stuck out as disappointments.

Image Rendering

It's only fair that I call out the HP TouchPad on how it handles images; after all, I relentlessly ragged on Google's Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) for its poor excuse for image rendering inside its native Gallery app. The thing is, the TouchPad isn't a whole lot better off. I saw artifacts (including jaggy aliasing issues on high-resolution images scaled down by the TouchPad to fit its display), inaccurate colors, and a lack of detail and crispness (though this effect was not nearly as bothersome as on Android 3.0).

Google got its act together and improved its Gallery performance in Android 3.1, though I'd posit that the color handling and sharpness could be improved even further. HP reps told me that it was looking into the rendering issues I called out; let's hope that an over-the-air update addresses these problems soon.

So what is the deal with image rendering on tablets? Although I don't have a straight answer to that question, developers I've spoken with have all agreed that image rendering (and text rendering, for that matter) is akin to a programming black art. Perhaps so--that would certainly explain some of what I've been seeing on tablets. Still, the goal is to nail it down from the outset, not to mess around with updates after launch.

Physical Design

HP TouchPad WebOS tablet
The 0.54-inch thick, 1.6-pound, plastic-encased TouchPad might have competed in the tablet market last summer, just months after the release of the first Apple iPad, but in summer 2011 it feels dated. That's not entirely fair, I admit. However, I've noted the chunky measurements of the Motorola Xoom (released in February 2011) and other tablets, including the soon-to-ship Toshiba Thrive (which has a similar depth and weight, but at least offers on-board ports that expand its capabilities), and the TouchPad does nothing to innovate here. If anything, it's merely poised to play catch-up with the slimline Apple iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.

Display

The TouchPad's screen disappoints in multiple ways. It may be an IPS display, but that doesn't help its readability and color handling. The TouchPad supports 18-bit color--a tad better than Google Android 3.0/3.1 tablets' 16-bit color, but less than the iPad's 24-bit color. And the display has a very visible air gap between the LCD and the glass layer, which produces a distracting glare. Text doesn't look great, either: Characters appear fuzzy, although that could be the fault of the display, WebOS's text rendering, or a combination of the two. In my tests, the touchscreen seemed imprecise, too; several times I had to tap more than once to get my target, but whether that was because of the CPU's sluggish performance or the touchscreen's lack of responsiveness is unclear.

Performance

Speaking of performance, to call the TouchPad sluggish doesn't do justice to its laggy behavior. This may be the first tablet running Qualcomm's dual-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon APQ8060 processor, but if I hadn't known that a dual-core CPU was inside, I never would have guessed. Never mind the onerous initial boot-up process: The TouchPad took 69 seconds for a cold boot-up, compared with the iPad 2's 26 seconds, and it took nearly twice as long as most of the competition did in our SunSpider JavaScript test. Loading apps felt interminable; Quickoffice took 10 seconds to launch, in contrast to the near-instant launch of Apple's Pages. While spending time with the TouchPad, I felt as if I got to know WebOS's spinning-circle and pulsating-logo graphics (two indicators that something is loading) far too well. Even scrolling through lists and content felt jerky, not smooth.

Native File Handling

If tablets are ever to rival laptops in terms of productivity, file interoperability is a critical component. And this remains a major hurdle for the TouchPad and for WebOS. For starters, when you transfer files to the device, it offers no clearly delineated starting point to dump documents, images, videos, or music--everything just gets transferred over haphazardly. Even Android's messy standard file-folder organization provides a better starting point. HP says that WebOS indexes files transferred to the tablet, an approach that sounds as if it should simplify transfers. But it actually ends up making the task more difficult, since no guided structure exists to start with.

In my trials, the results of this approach were mixed. The TouchPad recognized music files in the Music Player app, and pictures and videos were visible in the Photos & Videos app--but the latter app also picked up the cover-art images of my music downloads (from Amazon). Images in subfolders were broken out, labeled with their immediate folder name, so I got "227_320" or the like as a folder name instead of whatever descriptive name the top-level folder had. And video file names failed to show up in the app (something that HP says will be fixed soon in an over-the-air update). As for documents, Word files I transferred over were visible in Quickoffice, in a searchable list view, but two Excel spreadsheets didn't open. A PowerPoint file opened, but with each swipe down came the familiar pulsating logo as Quickoffice opened each page. PDFs that I tried opening from the "file browser" (not that it's called that) in Quickoffice actually opened in the Adobe Reader app instead.

Meanwhile, although I could access my Gmail account via the Web, and I could view a file within the Web browser, I couldn't select a file for download. Ditto for files I encountered while Web surfing. Not that I could have done much with my documents anyway--right now, the included version of Quickoffice can only read files, not edit them. HP does say that Quickoffice with full editing capabilities will be coming later this summer, but that means you'll need to wait before you can try to use the TouchPad as a productivity tool.

App Handling

Native TouchPad apps look great, but if you stumble upon apps in the App Catalog that were designed for WebOS phones, the results are poor. Of the 22 random free apps I chose to download--all of which said they supported the TouchPad--one crashed and closed on its own, three failed to download entirely, two more didn't work as advertised, and six displayed in a small, phone-size window (it even looks like a Palm phone) inside the TouchPad. Of the apps that took advantage of the TouchPad's display size and resolution, several specified "tablet" in the title. Clearly, HP faces a similar app challenge as Google does with its fragmented Android platform--and it's not faring much better at presenting tablet-optimized apps in its store.

Product mentioned in this article

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  • HP TouchPad Tablet

    The first WebOS tablet gets some things right, but stumbles more than it succeeds.

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