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HP TouchPad Review: Unbreak My Heart

I am so goddamned tired of the iPad. Which is why I was so excited for the TouchPad. And that’s why I feel so completely crushed right now.

Specs
HP TouchPad
Price: $US500-$US600 16GB-32GB Wi-Fi
Screen: 9.7-inch, 1024×768
Processor and RAM: Dual-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon, 1GB RAM
Storage: 16GB, 32GB or 64GB
Camera: Front: 1.3-megapixel webcam
Weight: 0.7kg
Battery: 6300mAh

Why It Matters

Tablets. There is the iPad, and there is everything else. The TouchPad is the first tablet that could be truly something more than everything else. The TouchPad gets it. The big ideas, like Synergy (HP’s webOS cloud service) and the Card interface, make sense. The details, like the seamless connection between the TouchPad and Pre3 smartphone, make sense. That puts it way ahead of everything else, at least conceptually.

The TouchPad, for the uninitiated, is the first tablet running Palm’s webOS, some elegant software we’ve really liked on phones – making it the fourth major tablet. It’s also Palm’s first major product since being swallowed by HP, a harbinger of everything to come afterward. HP plans to build a giant software empire on top of webOS’s back, using it to power everything from printers to, uh, PCs.

Using It

The materials lie. The back shell – glossy, onyx and plastic – implies lightness. It’s not. The way the rounded edges scatter light implies thinness. It’s not. But it is smooth and comforting and high quality, even if it is also slick and dense, a potentially deadly combination. You know what it’s like? If the original iPad had been a big iPhone 3G, down to the eerily similar 9.7-inch screen.

You would almost think that webOS had been designed for tablets from the very beginning. It feels more native to tablets than any other software on any other tablet, despite being an almost exact translation of the phone interface (minus almost all of the bezel gestures). Multitasking on anything else feels almost stupid compared to Cards. An open app is a card. You can stack them, sort them, re-arrange them, and when you’re done, close them. Juggling a bunch makes you feel like you’re getting stuff done. Palm’s big tablet adaptation, panes, is a straight riff on the iPad Twitter UI. So in email and other complex apps, you slide layers – inboxes, message lists, actual messages – back and forth to move between them. Notifications, which pop down from the top of the scree, let you flip through the pile, one at a time, without ever opening the app-handy if you get IMs from five different people. They’re great ideas.

But for every detail that Palm gets right – the resizable keyboard that’s pretty nice to type on – it blows something else, like not having a double-tap spacebar shortcut for periods, or the lengthy, complicated mounting process to get your music on there. And prepare to waste a lot of your life waiting for cards to launch, since everything is card (like new browser tabs and individual settings).

Apps make or break platforms. The app situation here isn’t utterly miserable. There are about 300 TouchPad apps at launch. But prepare yourself for a slightly desolate world without Netflix or Nook or Instapaper or Rdio. There are critical apps in beta form, like Kindle and some surprises, like Facebook. Developers can’t yet have one app for both TouchPad and webOS phones, so prepare to re-purchase – and webOS apps not developed for the tablet pull the same trick as iPhone apps on the iPad. It’s funny that the TouchPad is the third tablet platform to run Flash, and it’s also the third tablet on which Flash runs like garbage. At best, it kinda works! Like when I played Google Music on a plane and didn’t want to pour gasoline all over my hands and set them on fire. But mostly it’s like a succubus that drains your life and memory without offering any hot sex in return. (Like Amazon video.) So I left it off. The browser is otherwise solid, falling somewhere between Android browsers and mobile Safari. And battery life, with heavy use, I was getting around seven hours.

Like

The major concepts and foundations for an amazing tablet are there, and they’re all genuinely innovative and fantastic. Cards may be the perfect metaphor for multitasking. Notifications are excellent. So’s the Twitter for iPad-like sliding panes concept for complex apps. The messaging app, combining basically every kind of message into one coherent thread for each of your contacts, regardless of protocol, is the best on any platform in theory. The close, personal bond between the Pre3 and TouchPad, sharing SMS messages and websites does feel a little like magic. And who can hate the Touchstone wireless charging, even if it is kinda slow (+20% charge per hour)? Oh, and the Beats audio stereo speakers genuinely deliver the best sound out of any tablet.

No Like

There’s no nice way to say this: Shit just plain doesn’t work, far more often than it should. And there’s no more guaranteed way to make something feel like a train wreck in slow motion than to make it run like it’s a train wreck in slow motion. Apps can take foreeeeever to launch, even with just one or two cards open. (I once waited 20 seconds for screen settings to launch.) The gap between your touch and the TouchPad’s response is occasionally so wide you could fit all of Transformers 3 in between it. (God help you if you try to tap multiple things while the TouchPad’s deliberating its responses.) The Messages app was a consistent bag of hurt, refusing to deliver AIM messages, even as I kept receiving them. Email contents wouldn’t show up, often up to 10 seconds after I opened a message. The HP app to get music onto your TouchPad is loathsome – pure HP, and sweet Christ I hope it’s not a sign of things to come for Palm. (Speaking of: Where’s the cloud music?) The fact that so much of the TouchPad is so good conceptually makes all of that far more painful.

Should I Buy It?

You’re stepping on my dreams, HP. The TouchPad is so close, closer than anything else, to being good. But it’s also very, very far from it. Look, give this thing six months. It could be amazing. If it’s not by then, well, I guess that says everything that needs to be said.

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