On one hand, the HP TouchPad faces an uphill battle in the tablet market because the Apple iPad has been such a hit with the public and continues to gain momentum. On the other hand, the TouchPad has a great opportunity because the iPad's current rivals — Android tablets and the BlackBerry PlayBook — haven't exactly set the world on fire, and Microsoft and Intel haven't shown up yet with a true iPad competitor.
After working with the TouchPad for a week, I'm ready to declare it the iPad's stiffest competition yet for individual business professionals, who currently represent a quiet but very large portion of the iPad user base. The TouchPad is no match for the iPad when it comes to media, entertainment, and games, but for those who want the portability of a tablet but the work ethic of a desktop, the TouchPad has raised the bar on productivity.
- Launch date: July 1, 2011 (U.S.)
- OS: HP webOS 3.0
- Processor: 1.2GHz dual core Qualcomm Snapdragon APQ8060
- RAM: 1GB
- Storage: 16GB or 32GB internal
- Display: 9.7-inch XGA, 1024x768, IPS
- Ports: Micro USB, 3.5mm headset
- Weight: 1.6 pounds (740 grams)
- Dimensions: 9.45(h) x 7.48(w) x 0.54(d) inches
- Camera: 1.3MP front-facing
- Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11a/g/n; Bluetooth 2.1+EDR and A2DP
- Price: $499 (16GB), $599 (32GB)
Who is it for?
The TouchPad will mostly appeal to professionals who want a tablet to handle work tasks — Web-based business apps, email, instant messaging, contacts, calendar, etc. These will mostly be executives, project managers, IT administrators, and other business folks who want to purchase their own tablets and use them for work.
What problems does it solve?
One of the biggest unsolved problems in tablets has been content creation and productivity. The iPad's great strength is its singularity of focus. The app experience is immersive. But, the flip side of that is that it's not very good at multitasking. It's simply not designed for it. The BlackBerry PlayBook and Android tablets have tackled the issue and made some progress, but they haven't gone as far or done it as elegantly as the TouchPad, which allows users to group open apps and windows into logical groups, quickly separate, re-order, or close them, and jump between them with the flick of a finger. The excellent on-screen keyboard (including number keys) and the wireless dock and wireless keyboard make it easier to enter data on the TouchPad than other tablets. All in all, these productivity improvements make the TouchPad the most effective laptop replacement of any of the current tablets.
- Multitasking - Where the TouchPad really shines is in the interplay between multiple apps, multiple windows within the same app, and multiple browser tabs. When most professionals do work, they need to access multiple data streams at once and synthesize that information into a document or email message, and while they're doing it they may need to call, text, or IM a colleague to ask a question or get some data they're missing. In the middle of all that, they may also receive a message where they need to respond to someone else's question or issue. With its notification system, multitasking, and smartphone/tablet interaction, the TouchPad is designed to help these types of knowledge workers be (nearly) as productive on a tablet as they are on a laptop or desktop.
- Full Web experience - The TouchPad also offers Web browsing that gets a lot closer to the desktop Web experience than the iPad. A lot of that has to do with its Flash capabilities, but it also handles some other interactive Web code better than the iPad, even though both are based on Webkit browsers. I'm not a fan of Flash but much of the Web is still based on Flash and will be for years to come. The TouchPad offers a much better Flash experience than the buggy Flash you'll find on Android tablets, but it's not quite as smooth as the excellent Flash experience on the BlackBerry PlayBook. Of course, the iPad does not support Flash at all. An example of how the TouchPad also works on some sites where the iPad does not is WordPress, the popular blogging tool. I actually started this review of the TouchPad on the TouchPad itself in the WordPress Web interface — which does not work on the iPad.
- Smartphone interaction - Most of the professionals who have a tablet also have a smartphone and there are times when it gets clumsy and confusing as to when to use which one for which task. HP has addressed this by letting you pair an HP smartphone with the TouchPad. I tested this with the Pre3 and was pretty impressed. It allows you to take a call received on your phone and bump it over to speakerphone on the tablet or take a text message from the phone and bump it over to the tablet's instant messaging app. There's also a feature called Touch-to-Share that allows you to take a Web page you have open on the TouchPad and share it to the smartphone by simply touching the phone to the tablet. This is fairly rudimentary stuff and it's limited just to HP phones, but it's nice start in bridging these two devices in some meaningful ways.
- Email app - One of the iPad's worst features (from a business perspective) is the native email app. Using the app in portrait mode is especially clumsy, and moving between a message you're composing and a message in your inbox means you have to save the message, access your information, and then reopen your message from your drafts to finish it. The TouchPad streamlines that process with its multitasking capabilities and provides an email app that makes it a simple finger flip on the bottom of the screen to move from various email accounts and folders to your inbox/folder message list to a full-screen view of a message.
- Inconsistent performance - My biggest beef with the TouchPad is performance. It has a 1.2GHz dual core Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU and 1GB of RAM, so it's got the hardware to really move, and there are times when it flies between tasks and apps and runs great. However, there are also times when it unexpectedly chugs, freezes, or gets really slow. I never had it crash, but there were 8-10 times over the period of one week where it slowed to a halt. That's too many. I suspect this is a software issue and asked HP about it. The company responded that performance improvements are part of an over-the-air update for the TouchPad that will arrive after launch.
- Bulky form factor - The look of the HP TouchPad echoes the first generation iPad. It has the same rounded corners and curved backplate, only it's black instead of silver and plastic instead of aluminum. Of course, by the time the TouchPad landed, Apple had already come out with the thinner and lighter second-generation iPad. By comparison, the TouchPad feels bulky and heavy.
- Entertainment gap - The one big area where the TouchPad falls short of the iPad is in entertainment — music, movies, and games. Some of you will say, "That doesn't matter for a business device." However, a lot of the professionals I know with iPads love to use them to watch movies during flights on business trips. The size of a tablet is perfect for a tray table or a lap, and it's much nicer than wrestling with a laptop. The TouchPad simply doesn't have the app or entertainment catalog to compete with Apple's iTunes or iOS ecosystem. However, if it could partner with Amazon, it could make up a lot of ground very quickly, at least on the entertainment side. Since Amazon has its Kindle app on the TouchPad at launch, at least there's some potential there.
Bottom line for business
For business professionals intent on productivity, there's a lot to like about the HP TouchPad. The email and multitasking capabilities alone are enough to give it an edge over the iPad. And, we haven't even talked about the TouchPad's ability to print (especially to HP printers) — another important asset for some professionals. The expanded Web browsing capabilities are huge, too. It allows the TouchPad to access a lot of sites (Flash and others) that aren't accessible from the iPad. This can open the door to Web-based business apps and other important sites.
I expect a lot of the consumer-oriented reviews to hit the HP TouchPad pretty hard because of its bulkiness, lack of games and entertainment content, and fewness of third-party apps (although it's ahead of Android Honeycomb and BlackBerry PlayBook when they launched). Those are all valid concerns and because of them I certainly wouldn't recommend the TouchPad for the average consumer.
However, for people who couldn't care less about the latest games and movies and just want to get work done in meetings and on airplanes, the HP TouchPad will be a breath of fresh air. I consider it the most productive tablet yet and the first one that can serve as a legitimate laptop replacement for professionals on the road.
I think a lot of business professionals will find the TouchPad to be exactly what they were hoping for in a tablet because it will allow them to work the way they are used to working, but do it in the convenient form factor of a multi-touch tablet. I would fully recommend the TouchPad to professionals if it weren't for the performance issues and the fact that HP needs to add editing capability for Microsoft Word and Excel files (something HP says is coming "this summer"). With those two things in mind, I would recommend holding out until HP addresses those issues and adds more productivity apps to the catalog. I expect HP to keep pushing forward. Jeffery Ben, a Senior Product Manager on the TouchPad team, told me, "HP is committed to being on this journey for a long time."
For professionals, the TouchPad is a solid first step.
Where to get more info
Jason Hiner has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about how technology is changing the way we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.