HP TouchPad a Solid Start, but No iPad Killer Yet

HP's TouchPad is a handsome tablet with a solid webOS foundation, but it will need tweaks and more apps to become a viable Apple iPad competitor.

Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad represents a substantial bet for the company.

Success will validate webOS as the operating system of HP's future, and anoint it a viable competitor (along with Google Android) to Apple's iOS. Failure will likely hobble HP's attempts at rebranding itself as a "cool" consumer-tech company.

Over the past few days, numerous publications have strained to compare the 9.7-inch TouchPad to Apple's iPad, currently the reigning champ of tablets. And while that match-up is inevitable, HP's tablet actually shares greater similarities with another device already on the market: Research In Motion's PlayBook.

Like the PlayBook's QNX-based operating system, the TouchPad's webOS 3.0 places heavy emphasis on multitasking (with similar thumbnail windows to denote which applications are currently running) and finger-swiping as a navigation gesture. With both the PlayBook and TouchPad, you draw a finger upward from the bottom rim to minimize an application, before flicking to banish it. Like the PlayBook, the TouchPad boasts a relatively small number of applications at the outset (the HP App Catalog lists more than 4,450 "new" ones).

And like the PlayBook, the TouchPad feels like a work in progress, albeit one more polished than RIM's offering. Although HP's tablet boasts a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, the user interface feels slow. Every application seems to require a few seconds' worth of loading time before it actually runs. Swiping between application-launcher screens also comes with the occasional split-second stall. It's a little bit frustrating, but also something HP executives have made noise about addressing in recent days.

"You've also seen that reviewers rightly note things we need to improve about the webOS experience," Jon Rubinstein, general manager of HP's Palm Global Business Unit, wrote in a memo to employees that inevitably leaked onto Boy Genius Report and other Websites. "The good news is that most of the issues they cite are already known to us and will be addressed in short order by over-the-air software and app catalog updates."

So there's that. In the meantime, the TouchPad's initial lineup of baked-in applications includes email, calendar, chat, photos, maps, Adobe Reader, Quickoffice and a few others. Combined with the Facebook application and Angry Birds, that's more than enough for most consumers to start. HP is also pushing the TouchPad as an enterprise device, but it remains to be seen whether business-minded developers will create large numbers of applications for the webOS platform; if the company proceeds with its plans to load the operating system onto desktops and laptops, that could add substantial momentum to the webOS developer ecosystem.

Unlike the PlayBook and other tablets on the market, the TouchPad forgoes the rear-facing camera in favor of a single 1.3-megapixel lens embedded in the front. Granted, tablets aren't going to replace cameras anytime soon as your average user's picture-taking device of choice, but the TouchPad's lack of a rear lens curbs your ability to take impromptu images, for work or otherwise.

The TouchPad weighs 1.6 pounds, a bit heavier than the iPad 2 at 1.3 pounds and Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 at 1.24 pounds. It also feels thicker than those tablets, perhaps because of the softly rounded edges and sloping back. The TouchPad features a glossy black backing that looks and feels high-quality, and the construction feels solid: The "on" and volume buttons along the rim don't wiggle in their frames, and the home button offers a satisfying "click" when pressed.

The TouchPad's screen offers 1024 by 768 resolution, perfectly sound for the current generation of tablets, and support for Adobe Flash and HTML5 support. The device noticeably warms after a relatively short period of use, but not in a way that's uncomfortable if it's balanced on your legs. Its battery will last around five or six hours, depending on intensity of use.

Unlike other tablets on the market, which come with a charger cord, the TouchPad includes a Touchstone adjustable stand for plug-in-free charging. Once docked, the TouchPad offers a giant clock-ideal for those road warriors who need a desk or bedside clock. On the downside, the stand is a little bulkier than a standard tablet charger; those who travel frequently with a tablet, without a lot of space in their bag, may find themselves a little frustrated with having to devote a few more cubic inches of room to HP's latest innovation. But if anything, that's a minor quibble.

Overall, the TouchPad represents a solid start for HP. From here on out, it's all about the execution-whether they can attract the third-party developers necessary for a substantial application ecosystem, whether they can tweak the software for faster performance and fewer glitches, and whether webOS will evolve in ways that make it an ideal platform-not only for a tablet, but also laptops and desktops. If all that happens, HP could have a tablet that indeed stands apart from the crowd.

In the United States, HP will offer the 16GB version of the TouchPad for $499.99, and the 32GB version for $599.99. It is WiFi-only for the moment, although additional connectivity is expected in future versions.

Follow Nicholas Kolakowski on Twitter