The first WebOS tablet gets some things right, but stumbles more than it succeeds.
So far, most tablet makers have found it a challenge to make printing from a tablet easy. But by introducing a familiar printer icon into its core apps on the HP TouchPad, HP has made tablet printing as intuitive as it is on the desktop. And the feature isn’t exclusive to the core apps: WebOS makes printer services available to any app developer that wishes to integrate printing. HP tries to simplify printing largely by bringing the function to a more obvious level. However, our early experiences show that the feature is a work in progress that’s as dependent on the individual app as it is on the OS.
That HP has pursued printing at all shouldn’t be a surprise. HP has a vested interest in making sure that users keep on printing, given its ink sales. But set aside that cynicism for a moment. In offering integrated printing, HP recognizes users’ ongoing, genuine need to print documents–whether they’re forms that must be signed and faxed (how 20th century), maps, or files or photos.
The ability to print feels all the more important if a device is vying to replace your existing laptop or desktop, even for partial use. And for HP, which has already declared its intention to put WebOS everywhere (including on printers, desktops, and laptops), implementing easy wireless printing was a critical goal.
TouchPad: How Printing Works
With the TouchPad, you can print using most HP networked printers, both wired and Wi-Fi, made in the past five years.
According to HP, the printing function on the TouchPad is based on PCL (Printer Command Language), which has remained the dominant PC printer language for over three decades. You can also use ePrint, HP’s (entirely separate) print-by-email service, if you have a printer that supports that feature.
WebOS provides a Print service that app developers can tap into; that service handles basic printing support, such as discovering the printer, querying it, and sending raster data. The app queries the Print service for details on the capabilities supported by the connected printer, and then renders content into HTML or JPEG files for printing according to those available print properties. The Print service then rasterizes that content before sending it on to the printer.
HP says that its Print service theoretically has no limitations as to what content it can print. It’s just up to the app developer to decide whether to include the print functionality, and to manage the rendering process into HTML or JPEGs for passing the material to the Print service.
Not all of the core, preinstalled apps have printing capability; for example, the simple memo app doesn’t let you print, but the email app, the Web browser, and the Photos & Videos app do. So if you’re trying to print on a TouchPad, the first thing you need to do is determine whether the app you’re in even allows printing.
That approach isn’t unlike how Apple has handled printing. On iOS 4.2 devices, you can print wirelessly using AirPrint; ironically, though, the list of supported printers includes only HP printers–and only a small subset thereof (26, to be exact). AirPrint allows printing from Apple’s iBooks, Mail, Photos, and Safari apps, and from iOS apps that support the feature. To reach it, you need to tap the share arrow and then tap the print button. Otherwise, you’re left contending with third-party apps such as PrintCentral, or with apps for specific printers.
HP takes a slightly different tack, and goes one step further, by allowing printing to rise a level higher on some apps. For example, Adobe Reader, the email app, and the Photos & Videos app each have a printer icon that sits right at the top of the screen. Other apps, such as the Web browser, tuck the option away under the menu drop-down at the upper-left corner.
Tap on either of those options, and you’ll call up the printer dialog box. While unique to HP’s TouchPad and consistent with the WebOS aesthetic, the print menu will seem familiar to anyone who has printed documents on a PC or Mac. Just select the printer you want to print to, and then choose the relevant options. For documents, the options supplied include the number of copies, a slider for setting color printing on or off, and choosing the print quality. For pictures in the Photos & Videos app, I could choose between two image sizes: 4 by 6 inches or 5 by 7 inches.
Once you’re done, you press the green Print button. At that point, a notification pops up, and your document is well on its way to coming out of your printer.
Printing is as easy as that, with no convoluted need to email a document to the cloud, or other such workarounds as on competing tablets.
This feature brims with potential: You could quickly print theater tickets, generate a physical map to take with you, output a document for signing and faxing, or print a photo you just received via email. If more apps incorporate the function, I could see printing out everything from kids’ coloring pages to shopping lists to workout-progress results at the gym.
The trick will be to get app developers to integrate the feature, and to do so in a meaningful and practical way.
In the Labs: TouchPad Printing
To put the TouchPad’s printing capabilities through its paces, I grabbed the PCWorld Labs’ standard files for our printer testing and loaded them onto the TouchPad, and then I used the five apps that support printing: the browser, the email app, Photos & Videos, Adobe Reader, and Quickoffice. I printed email messages and Web pages, and compared how the output looked next to printouts generated via the Web browser on a test PC. I also tried several PDFs, Microsoft Word (.docx) versions of those same PDFs, and a JPEG file. I used the HP 100 e-All-in-One Printer for both PC and TouchPad printing.
The results of my tests show that although printing today does function–and can do so very well–it remains a work in progress.
I printed the e-mail messages and Web pages using HP’s email and browser apps, and both appeared to print naturally. The complex Web page I printed (from the official site for London’s Hampton Court Palace) stripped out the fancy formatting, but that’s how Firefox on the PC printed the page, too. In the Firefox version the text and images were slightly sharper, as well as slightly smaller than in the TouchPad version; that result, however, might also be because of the difference in resolution. Interestingly, the TouchPad version used a more noticeably different coloring to indicate links.
The JPEG photograph printed smoothly through HP’s Photos & Videos app. The image looked good, but the PC-printed version was again a bit sharper. The PC photo print also generated blacker blacks, and a more centered, complete image. Though the same size, the TouchPad version was slightly cropped around the edges.
I printed the PDF and Word documents using third-party apps, Adobe Reader and Quickoffice; both apps are actually made by Quickoffice, and both come preinstalled on the TouchPad. My test documents clearly illustrated how printing results may vary depending on the app used. (HP confirmed my results by noting that app developers can vary in how they want their apps’ content to appear in printed form.)
The Adobe Reader app did a good job of reproducing a plain Courier New text document, as well as a newsletter with complex columns, fonts, and graphics. I thought the PC-rendered printouts were slightly sharper, but only by a little. The Adobe Reader app’s printouts shared one common problem, though: They appeared to add about three-quarters of an inch around the margins, resulting in a smaller document than the original. Quickoffice’s product manager for the WebOS version told me that the company was looking into the issue.
The same documents in their native Word format had difficulties in Quickoffice. All showed a header that indicated the file was printed via the Quickoffice file manager, and that header threw off the pagination. Furthermore, in the Courier New text document, Quickoffice cut off the tops and bottoms of the page, with half-inch margins as opposed to the original’s standard 1-inch margins. And the font size was off, too, which also affected how the document rendered in print.
Quickoffice’s product manager says that when the app is outputting images via WebOS, it simply reproduces what shows on the display. However, that doesn’t quite match my experience: Quickoffice correctly displayed the Courier New document, but the newsletter displayed improperly, with overlapping large-type text, and improper column and text alignment and type treatment. And those issues became further exacerbated in the printout.
The columns issue is a known problem, and a fix is in the works. The patch will come along with a planned midsummer update that will bring editing capabilities to what is, for now, a reading-only app. Although it’s good to know that a fix is coming, these issues mean that Quickoffice has a long way to go before it can become a functional productivity tool on the TouchPad. Given the company’s experience on other mobile platforms (including iOS and Android), I fully expect that the kinks will be worked out in time as its first-gen WebOS product matures, but the reality is that it isn’t there yet.