It's become a tiresome refrain: This time, [insert product name here] will dethrone the iPad. A year ago, it was all those promised Android tablets, the vast majority of which never saw the light of day (and the few that did never should have). Then this spring it was the Motorola Mobility Xoom, which made a respectable showing but fell short in too many areas. Then came the disastrous BlackBerry PlayBook from Research in Motion, a study in how not to design a tablet. More recently, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 showed some strength, but undermined itself with that mix of innovation, bald-faced Apple "inspiration," and uneven execution that has come to define the Android platform.
Now we have the long-awaited Hewlett-Packard TouchPad, the first competitor to the iPad from the world's leading computer maker, and a competitor based on WebOS, Palm's tantalizing but failed great hope in the early smartphone wars from June 2009. The HP TouchPad -- unveiled today and available in stores this weekend -- brings many of WebOS's strengths in the new 3.0 version that debuts with the TouchPad (though most of the cool features in the TouchPad were first delivered in WebOS 2.0 last September for smartphones), and the die-hard Palm and WebOS communities will cheer its continued march. Despite some compelling innovations, the TouchPad is hampered by the same kinds of fit-and-finish issues that mar some Android devices, as well as some odd design decisions that result in a pokey, limited performer.
Plainly put, the TouchPad is a mediocre tablet that poses no threat to the iPad or to Android tablets such as the Galaxy Tab 10.1 or Xoom. Even though the iPad 2's high bar is no secret, it once again appears that corner-cutting or rush to market has been allowed to tie a potentially strong tablet's arm behind its back.
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I put both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad through a series of tests to determine their respective strengths in areas such as email and calendar functionality, applications and app stores, and general performance, design, and usability. Here's how each fared.
Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contacts
For testing these essential business functions, I used personal accounts of IMAP, POP, and Gmail along with a work account of Exchange 2007. Both devices work directly with IMAP, Gmail, and POP; my email, email folders, calendars, and contacts all flowed effortlessly among the tablets, my laptop, and the server.
Both devices try to autodetect your settings wherever possible, though the iPad is much better at handling nonvanilla settings. The TouchPad got my IMAP account's SMTP settings wrong, for example, but didn't know it, so I was unable to send messages until I realized my mail was trapped in the outbox and then went about fixing the settings manually. The iPad, by contrast, tests its outbound settings before it completes your account setup, letting you know if it has any issues. (At least the TouchPad doesn't make the same mistake as the Galaxy Tab 10.1: Stop the setup completely, so you lose the settings for any portion that did work.) Also, the TouchPad's manual setup for email is frustratingly limited; you have to use https:// in a server address rather than enable SSL through a check box as in other devices, and you cannot set the ports as you can elsewhere.
Setting up Exchange on both devices was simple. Unlike the first WebOS device, the original Palm Pre, and several subsequent models, the TouchPad supports on-device encryption out of the box (same with the iPad), so it easily connected to our corporate server and passed its basic set of Exchange ActiveSync policies.
Email messages. Working with emails is similar on the two tablets: Both use the large screen to provide common controls at all times, and when in landscape orientation, both let you see a selected email without opening it. On the TouchPad, you can choose which of those three panes is visible when in portrait orientation, so you can view the list of emails and the message preview, or you can check out the list of mailboxes, folders, and messages. On the iPad 2, when in portrait orientation, you view just the list of emails and the preview; the list of accounts and mailboxes displays as a pop-over menu only when selected. I don't think either approach is superior to the other.
The TouchPad's account and folder list shows fewer entries than the iPad 2's counterpart, so it's more work to find folders. But you can see all your accounts in one list on the TouchPad, as well as hide and show individual accounts in that list, whereas the iPad 2 makes you switch accounts and thus shows only one account's folders at a time.
In both devices, you can reply, forward, mark as unread, delete, and move messages while reading them. You can also delete and move emails to folders from the message lists.
On the iPad 2, you can easily delete individual messages from the email list: Swipe to the left or right and tap Delete. The TouchPad copies that approach, though once the Delete button is visible, you must tap it or Cancel. By contrast, on the iPad 2 you can tap somewhere else to close the Delete button, and there's less interruption and no risk of tapping Delete instead of Cancel.
To move selected messages, tap the Move to Folder button and select the destination folder. Moving messages is easier on the iPad because it uses your entire accounts and folder pane in landscape orientation and presents a long pop-over list in portrait orientation. The TouchPad in both orientations opens a small dialog box that you have to scroll through, adding effort to the operation. (Neither tablet lets you simply drag messages to a folder, as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 can.)
The iPad 2 displays the search box at the top of the message list for the current account and lets you constrain your search to the To, From, or Subject fields. The TouchPad has a search box in the same location, but it has no options for constraining the search. It also displays odd behavior: If you enter a name in the field, even something as simple as "Ken," the TouchPad searches the From fields only, but if you enter other text, it searches the text and subject lines as well. Thus, you can't find emails on the TouchPad about a person who was not a recipient of the email. In addition, the TouchPad can search only email residing on it; there is no option to search the server as well, as in the iPad 2.
Getting to the top of your email list isn't so obvious on the iPad 2, though it is easy: Tap the top of the screen. On the TouchPad, there is no fast-jump capability.
The message text is quite readable on both tablets, and both let you use gestures to zoom in and out.
Email management. Both devices support multiple accounts and universal inboxes. I prefer the way the TouchPad provides all the accounts in one place, with universal inboxes at the top of your accounts list (the Favorites area), compared to the iPad 2's duplication of its accounts list in a separate pane: one set for universal inboxes and one for their folder hierarchies. I also like the TouchPad's ability to add specific mail folders to the Favorites area.
The iPad 2 has a message-threading capability, which organizes your emails based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicks to go through messages, but finding the messages is substantially easier. (The iPad's iOS 4 lets you disable threading.) The TouchPad has no equivalent. It does lets you flag emails, but to see flagged messages in one place, you have to enable All Flagged in the accounts preferences.
On the TouchPad, attachments are indicated in a bar below the subject. If you have multiple attachments, tap the indicator bar to get the full list. Tapping an attachment downloads it (be prepared to wait a second or two for the download to commence). Which app opens a file depends on which app registered it. Unlike on the iPad 2, you can't choose an alternative app or set the default for opening a particular file type on the TouchPad. On the stock TouchPad, PDF files are opened by Adobe Reader, Microsoft Office and text-only files by Quickoffice, and images by a preview window that lets you save the image to the Photos library.
The iPad 2's native Quick Look viewer handles a nice range of formats -- Microsoft Office, text-only, PDF, various images, and Apple iWork -- and it opens attachments with one tap, downloading them if needed at the same time. Using iOS's Open In facility, you can also choose which app to use instead of the default by tapping and briefly holding the file attachment -- the way it should be.
Shockingly, neither the TouchPad nor the iPad 2 -- still! -- opens Zip files. On the iPad, there are several third-party apps such as the $1 Unzip, $1 ZipThat, $2 ZipBox-Pro, as well as the $5 GoodReader file-viewing and management app. But there is as yet no unzip app for the TouchPad.
Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad remember the email addresses when you reply to a sender, adding them to a database of contacts that's automatically scanned as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields. Both devices let you add email addresses to your contacts list by tapping them.
Contacts and calendars. Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad offer three of the same calendar views: day, week, and month. But only the iPad 2 supports the list (agenda) view. Moving among months is easy on both, and the two devices can display multiple calendars simultaneously. It's slightly easier to move among adjacent weeks and months on the TouchPad, as you can simply scroll. The iPad 2 makes you select the specific week or month from a horizontal list, which is less efficient for checking the adjacent week or month, but faster for going to a specific week or month than the TouchPad's Jump To dialog box. Call it a tie. But the TouchPad has more flexible options for setting recurring events; for example, you can set an appointment for every x days or every month on the first Monday -- neither of which the iPad 2 supports.
Both the TouchPad and the iPad 2 can send invitations to others as you add appointments. On the iPad 2, your invitations for Exchange accounts show up in your calendar as a pop-up; you can accept them there within the full context of your other appointments. For both Exchange and other email accounts, you can open the .ics invitation files in Mail, then add them to the calendar of your choice. On the TouchPad, the Calendar app automatically adds Exchange invitations to your calendar, as well as any invitations set up in Google calendar if you use that. But you can't open .ics invitations sent to POP or IMAP accounts, as you can on the iPad 2.
Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad have Contacts apps, but navigating through entries on the iPad is easier. You can jump to names by tapping a letter, such as "t," to get to people whose last names begin with "t," or search quickly for someone in the Search field by typing part of the name. The TouchPad has no way to quickly scroll; you'll have to use the Search box to jump to contacts.
Searching is easy on the TouchPad, as the Search box is always visible in the Contacts app. On the iPad 2, to search your contacts, drag up above the first contact to reveal the Search box. On the TouchPad, you can also designate users as favorites by tapping the star icon button in a profile, to put them in a shorter Favorites list. The iPad 2 doesn't have a similar capability.
The iPad 2 supports email groups, but you can't create them on the device; they must be synced from your computer's contacts application. Also, you can't pick a group in the iPad 2's Mail address fields. Instead, you select a group, then open it up to select just one member, repeating this step to add more names. It's a really dumb approach to groups. Still, it's better than the TouchPad, which doesn't support groups at all. There is a feature called Linked Profiles in which you can link another person's profile to the current user. If you select either user when addressing an email, both names appear in the contextual menu, so you can choose one or the other. This is a handy way for linking family or workgroup members, so if you send an email to one you are reminded of the others, but it is no substitute for actual groups.
The winner: The iPad 2 triumphs, due to its more capable email, calendar, and contacts capabilities, and its smarter account setup. The TouchPad handles a few aspects such as favorites better, and the iPad 2 could do better in these three apps, but Apple clearly has a better comprehension of what businesspeople need in their primary communications and collaboration tools -- despite HP's claims of understanding business (a subtle dig at Apple's consumer roots).
On the iPad 2, there's almost certainly an app for that, whatever your current "that." On the TouchPad, there almost certainly isn't. The HP App Catalog has a very small number of WebOS apps, most of which are smartphone apps that run in a window on the tablet, as iPhone-only apps do on the iPad. Major apps specifically for the TouchPad are few, at least at launch, and so far include Box.net, Amazon.com's Kindle Reader, Facebook, NPR Reader, USA Today, Audubon Birds, Angry Birds, and Beat Box.
The core native apps are comparable on the two devices, providing email, contacts, calendar, maps and navigation, browser, media playback, YouTube playback, and SMS. The iPad 2 also provides a notes app (which syncs notes with Exchange and IMAP servers), whereas the TouchPad provides a simple sticky-notes app, as well as a read-only version of the Quickoffice editing suite that essentially duplicates the capabilities of iOS's built-in Quick Look technology. Quick Look is OS-wide, so it lets you preview documents from almost anywhere, whereas on the TouchPad, the Quickoffice app has to open, so you have to switch around more than necessary.
The TouchPad uses the Exhibition mode introduced in September 2010's WebOS 2.0 whenever the lock screen is engaged. Exhibition mode comes on when the device autolocks or when you press the power button, and you can set it to display the time, your calendar, a slideshow of photos, or any third-party Exhibition services you have installed. Note that you can't get out of Exhibition mode until you remove the TouchPad from the optional charging dock or press the tablet's Home button; gestures are oddly ignored. When in Exhibition mode, the TouchPad screen doesn't turn off, an energy waster at odds with HP's green tech efforts -- and a battery drain when not connected to wall power. There should be a way to set a set a screen-off sleep time when in that mode. (You can manually turn off the screen by pressing the power button, but I found that the screen would reawaken in the middle of the night.)
One area where the TouchPad differentiates itself is its ability to pair with a WebOS smartphone over Bluetooth and, thus, use the TouchPad as the phone for voice or video calling via the Phone & Video Calls app. Apple has the FaceTime app on the iPad 2 for video calling (via Wi-Fi connections only), and it too can use Skype and other communications apps. But the advantage of HP's approach is that it lets you use the Wi-Fi-only TouchPad for such communications even when you don't have a nearby Wi-Fi connection.
Given the (initial) paucity of TouchPad apps, it's hard to judge the overall quality of WebOS apps, to see whether they're as rough as the majority of Android apps or more polished apps as tend to exist for iOS. The Facebook app, for example, is nicely done on the TouchPad, but the Kindle app's text is malformed at all but the largest sizes, so reading books is an unpleasant experience. USA Today has a terrible design compared to its iPad version, but that's the fault of creator Gannett, not the TouchPad.
I have to say I'm disappointed by the underwhelming nature of most of the TouchPad's included apps. The key OS innovations were developed for WebOS 2.0; in the intervening nine months, there should have been time to really polish those apps and make them at least as feature-rich as their counterparts in iOS.
The bottom line is, at least in these early days of the TouchPad, you won't be using it to run apps as you would an iPad or, increasingly, an Android tablet.
App stores and app installation. There are tens of thousands of apps for the iPad 2's iOS, from games to scientific visualization tools. Sure, there's a lot of junk, but you'll find many useful apps as well. As previously noted, there are just a few dozen TouchPad apps available, few of which are more than toys.
Both the Apple App Store and the HP App Catalog separate tablet apps from smartphone apps, simplifying the search for appropriate titles. The Apple store also indicates which apps auto-adjust for the iPhone and iPad, so you know they can be run on both devices and appear native on each. WebOS supports such "universal" apps as well, but there's no indicator of them in the App Catalog, although tablet-compatible apps are identified as such.
Both app stores are fairly easy to navigate, though the HP App Catalog slows you down at launch with a full-screen promo for its Pivot e-zine that surveys apps each month. The Apple App Store (like the Google Android Market) goes straight to the available apps, showing new and featured apps up front, so you get immediately to what's interesting rather than having to open a separate element. But the HP App Catalog has subcategories, which you choose from a menu; the iOS App Store has no subcategorization, so it's hard to find the apps you may want from its half-million-strong catalog, which overwhelm its broad categories.
Both app stores are easy to navigate, with good detail on each app. Neither includes the Android Market's capability of telling you in clear detail what permissions each app needs to run. They also lack another Android Market feature: an option for each app to enable auto-updating.
Both Apple's App Store and HP's App Catalog are curated, which should mean neither will devolve into a cesspool like the Android Market, which lets cyber thieves promote phishing apps that masquerade as banking programs, games, or other apps and steal user information.
You don't have to use the HP App Catalog to get apps onto the TouchPad; HP lets you install apps via Web links from outside parties, a continuation of the "home brew" app distribution dear to the hearts of the Palm community. These apps are not curated by HP, so you get what you get.
Installation of apps is similar on both platforms: After selecting an app, you confirm your store account information and wait for the app to download and install. Both mobile OSes let you know if updates are available. On the iPad 2, the App Store indicates the number of available updates, and you download app updates from the store. On the TouchPad, an alert appears in the notifications bar, and clicking it opens the software manager.
App management. The iPad 2 makes it easy to arrange your home screens to cluster applications both on your iPad and on your desktop via iTunes; you can also put them in your own folders. Just tap and hold any app to invoke the "shaking apps" status, in which you can drag apps wherever you want, or tap the X icon to delete them (press the Home button when done to exit that mode). You can also arrange and delete apps using iTunes on your desktop.
The TouchPad is more limited. Apps you buy are placed in the Downloads pane of the Launcher, and you can move them to either the Favorites or Apps pane, as well as rearrange them within those panes. But you cannot create additional panes or group applications into folders.
The TouchPad's cards interface puts all running apps on your screen, and when you gesture up from the bottom of the screen, whatever app is running shrinks to a window and all open windows and their live contents appear as a row of cards. This is similar to Mac OS X's Dock Exposé feature, and the metaphor that debuted in the original WebOS two years ago, and has been subsequently copied by RIM in the BlackBerry PlayBook and by Microsoft in Windows Phone 7 and the forthcoming Windows 8.
The cards approach makes it easy to see what's running and switch among them, but it also gets clutttered quickly with windows. You can tap and drag apps' cards to create stacks of them, to reduce the on-screen clutter. Any open windows in those apps also appear in the same stack, so the clutter often moves from the screen to the stack. (Yes, you can drag a window out a bit to see its contents.) For accessing your apps, the card-and-stacks approach has advantages, but it would help if you could also see a simple list of running apps (as you can on the Galaxy Tab 10.1) or a separate bar showing the current apps' icons (as you can on the iPad 2, in Windows 7, and in Mac OS X). I like the cards UI, except when it gets cluttered, so an additional app-switching approach would be a nice complement.
Another issue: To close an app or window, you have to switch to the cards view and then drag the card off screen ("toss the card"). That gets really tiresome when you're working with several items. It's particularly annoying when you work with settings, each of which is a separate app, in contrast to the iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1, which unify settings into one app. A Close box would be a great addition to app windows.
Neither the iPad 2 nor the TouchPad support Android-style widgets, but the TouchPad does offer a notifications feature similar to Android's (and to the one promised for iOS 5 this fall). At the top of the TouchPad screen, tap an icon for battery life or network to get a drop-down menu that shows current status and lets you change, for example, the Wi-Fi connection. There are also icons for mail, Facebook, and other notification-compatible apps; tap any and a unified list of new messages from all sources appears. What's cool (and different) about the TouchPad's approach for mail notifications is that you can swipe through the new messages in the drop-down menu to quickly see what's new without leaving your current context. My only beef is that messages are marked as read when swiped through, even though you didn't actually read them.
This notion of unification debuted in WebOS 2.0 via an API called Synergy, which uses a collection of services to let apps work together. For example, your Facebook pictures show up in your Photos library, and if you tap a Facebook-originated photo, you can see any comments on it from the social networking site -- without having to open a separate app. I like this content-based services notion a lot, and it could break down barriers among apps if widely used. By contrast, the iPad 2's iOS strongly separates apps (which has security advantages), so to access content in another app requires an explicit Open In action (if the developer allows it) that essentially copies the content to that other app.
Multitasking. The iPad 2's iOS 4.3 supports multitasking if enabled in the apps themselves; Apple has made specific background services available for multitasking, rather than let each app run full-on in parallel, as on a PC. As you switch among iOS apps, they suspend, except for their multitasking-enabled services, conserving memory and aiding performance. By contrast, WebOS supports full multitasking, whereby default apps continue to run in the background when you take care of other duties. From the user's point of view, these differences aren't apparent; on both devices, apps appear to multitask the same.
The major difference related to multitasking is the UI for switching among apps, as noted earlier. On the iPad 2, a double-click on the Home button pulls up a list of active apps, and it's easy to see what's running and switch among them. On the TouchPad, an upward swipe from the bottom of the screen shows all the active apps and their windows in a scrollable row of cards. The always-on multitasking nature of WebOS also allows the individual tiles to show live snapshots of the windows' contents, which iOS cannot do. (The Galaxy Tab 10.1 shows live tiles in its apps list as well.)
App services. Both the TouchPad and the iPad 2 use their respective app stores to remember the titles you bought, should you need to download them again or install them on another device connected to the same store account. But the TouchPad has no equivalent of iTunes as a command center for corralling media, apps, and documents. As a result, it's much more difficult to manage your device's content on the TouchPad. If you get a new iPad device, it's a snap on iTunes to get it up and running with the same assets as before. On the TouchPad, signing in with an existing WebOS ID will automatically set up access to the mail, Facebook, and other online accounts already associated with that ID, but your apps and data aren't also transferred for you.
HP is working on an app called HP Play for Macs and Windows PCs that would let you sync music (just music) over a USB connection to your TouchPad, but the alpha software HP provided me did not work. (HP says the final version should be ready next week, and I will update this review when it is available.)
For transferring other documents, you need to use a cloud service, email, or a direct USB connection to your computer, which turns your TouchPad into a virtual hard drive. Although it's easy to copy files to and from the TouchPad, it's not at all user-friendly to simply show a folder hierarchy and let the user decide where to put files. (HP says it doesn't matter where you put them; the device scans all files and associates them to the relevant service or location, regardless of locale.) Also, when connected via USB, the TouchPad cannot be used for anything other than file transfer. The iPad 2 has no such limitation.
HP really needs a better way to manage file transfer from computers; a Wi-Fi- or Bluetooth-savvy sync app would be a great start, so you could sync wirelessly in the style of Apple's forthcoming iCloud service or even of the umpteen iOS "air-sharing" apps that allow direct Wi-Fi file transfer. Even though many in IT hate iTunes, it is amazingly convenient for managing your devices' contents. For classic consumer uses of a tablet, HP's big gaps in content syncing will really hurt.
Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad can print from print-enabled apps -- sort of. iOS can print only to AirPrint-compatible printers, of which there are very few (and only from HP). WebOS can print only to network-connected HP printers that use the PCL imaging standard, both ePrint-enabled printers and most network printers manufactured in the last five years. WebOS detects some printers automatically; for those that aren't recognized, you can add them to the available printer list by entering their IP address. Theoretically, Apple's AirPrint technology is manufacturer-agnostic, so Brother, Canon, Epson, HP, and Lexmark could all enable their printers for it, but only HP has done so to date. In WebOS, HP has excluded all non-HP printers from its print facility, an unfortunate lock-in move. On the iPad, you can print to a wide variety of models connected to a wireless LAN via one of the many printing apps available on the Apple App Store. In this regard, the iPad 2 is the better bet, despite the hassle of using a third-party app.
Both the iPad 2 and TouchPad provide universal search, using Spotlight and Just Type, respectively, but they take different perspectives. Spotlight finds related content, categorized by type: mail message, music, and so on. Also, it lets you extend the search onto the Web or Wikipedia. Tap a result to open in the related app. The Just Type facility first introduced in WebOS 2.0 last September under the name "Universal Search" displays not data but services that could act on that data, from address lookup to Google search to Twitter. If an app has matching data, a badge with a numeral appears to indicate the number of matches; click the app or service name to see the relevant instances.
This does add a step compared to the iPad 2's Spotlight, but it also means you can do something unique on the TouchPad: Add that text into an application or service. You could type text in the Just Type field and select Update Facebook Status to share it, or New Message to send it as a text message. The idea is that this requires less interruption than switching to an app, except that's not true: If you're already using an app, you have to switch to cards view to get the Just Type field, which is the same as switching to an app in iOS. However, if you are a social media fanatic, you could make Just Type into your primary communications app, sending updates to multiple services from one place (a scary thought, given how much junk is in social media streams already).
Both Spotlight and Just Type are extensible to third-party apps, though I've seen few cases where iOS developers are taking advantage of Spotlight.
The winner: The iPad 2 comes out on top again, mainly because its app selection is unparalleled. For the underlying apps management capabilities, the TouchPad has the edge, thanks to the notifications capabilities of WebOS and its services technology. If the TouchPad catches on, the universe of WebOS apps could really challenge iOS -- but for now, that's unrealized potential.
Deathmatch: Web and Internet
In compatibility tests based on the HTML5 Test site's scores, revised on June 21, the TouchPad scores 229 out of 450, whereas the iPad 2 scores 217, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 scores 218. By comparison, Internet Explorer 9 scores 143, desktop Safari 5.05 scores 253, desktop Chrome 12.0.742 scores 327, and Firefox 5.0 scores 286.
Both browsers have persistent buttons or fields for Back, Forward, Bookmarks, and Refresh. When you have multiple Web pages in play, the iPad 2 displays an icon showing how many windows are open -- tapping it introduces a screen that previews all open windows. The TouchPad launches a separate instance of the browser, so you have to move to cards view and tap the window you want. It's a bit more work than on the iPad 2, which I can live with, but I prefer the iPad 2's approach because I can see previews of all open windows at once, whereas in the TouchPad I have to fool around with all those overlapping cards. (The Galaxy Tab 10.1 does it better than either the iPad 2 or TouchPad: Its tabs bar expands to show live tiles of all open windows, while keeping your current window visible.)
One of the TouchPad's claims to fame is that it comes with Adobe's (still beta) Flash Player 10.3, which the iPad does not and will not support. I found that the player did well with websites' videos and basic Flash animations, such as those that let you rotate views, open content via hotspots, and the like. Flash games worked sometimes.
The iPad 2's separate Search and URL boxes are less convenient than the TouchPad's unified URL and Search box; you have to be sure to tap the right box on the iPad. Both devices offer a .com button when entering URLs, which is a significant timesaver. Both devices pop up a list of alternative domains, such as .edu and .org, when you tap and hold the .com button.
Both browsers let you select and copy both text and graphics on Web pages, though only the iPad 2 can copy an image into its pasteboard; the TouchPad can copy an image only to its Photos library. On the other hand, only the TouchPad can open an email with the image already copied in for you from the contextual menu that appears when you tap and hold a website image, saving you a step compared to the iPad 2.
Neither the TouchPad nor iPad 2 handles AJAX-based Web forms well. Mobile Safari doesn't support attributes such as contenteditable (for editing within WYSIWYG forms) or the widely used TinyMCE AJAX editor, so you can't use many forms or must switch to their HTML modes if they have one. The TouchPad supports contenteditable, but not TinyMCE. The TouchPad also turns off its spell-checking in Web forms, unlike the iPad 2.
Google Docs is awkward to use on the iPad 2, though you can handle the basics. It's barely possible to edit a spreadsheet; the most you can do is select and add rows, as well as edit the contents of individual cells. You can edit a text document -- awkwardly. Partly, that's because Google hasn't figured out an effective mobile interface for these Web apps; the Safari browser is simply dealing with what Google presents, rather than working through a mobile-friendly front end. It's also because the mobile WebKit browsers don't support all the same capabilities as their desktop counterparts. I could not get Google Docs to work at all on the TouchPad. On both the iPad 2 and TouchPad, you can create, edit, and navigate appointments in Google Calendar in all four of its views (day, week, month, and agenda), pretty much as you can on a desktop browser. Most likely, you'd use the tablets' native calendar tools instead.
If you use a Web-based editor day in and day out, as I do, the iPad 2 is more able to cope, though it's hardly where it needs to be.
The winner: Although the TouchPad has a more HTML5-savvy browser and supports Flash, the iPad 2 beats it in almost every other respect.
Deathmatch: Location support
Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad can triangulate your location based on Wi-Fi signals and GPS. Except for the different map backgrounds, the Bing Maps app on the TouchPad is nearly a pixel-perfect copy of the Google Maps app that comes with the iPad 2, with the same routing capabilities. Both are fine for looking up addresses and generating directions.
But for in-vehicle navigation, you'll want a real navigation app such as the $45 Navigon MobileNavigator for iOS, which stores its maps on the device, so you don't need a 3G signal for it to keep the map updated as you do with the built-in Maps apps. There is no equivalent app yet for the TouchPad.
Although both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad ask for permission to work with your location information, the TouchPad does not provide controls over location use by the device or individual applications, as the iPad 2 does.
The winner: The iPad 2 wins this round because it lets users manage their location privacy at a granular level.
Deathmatch: User interface
It's often a throwaway comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, though it's not always true. In many respects, the WebOS UI shows that Apple doesn't have the lock on good UI design. HP's card metaphor is a nice way to manage apps and windows, and the services integration makes it easier to focus on what you want to do rather than where you want to do it. iOS has a more disciplined UI, which keeps you from getting distracted but also creates a tunnel vision mentality. WebOS is designed for multitasking, letting you keep on top of multiple items simultaneously, but it requires more effort to navigate.
Operational UI. As I previously explained, the TouchPad's cards metaphor lets you see everything that is running, but it could potentially overwhelm you and obscure what you are seeking in its overlapping windows. But you can combine apps into stacks to reduce the clutter, and you can slide out a window to peek at its contents. If you have a few apps running all the time, the cards interface works well, but for more than that, it's too much. The iPad 2's approach of having you switch from app to app works well when you have lots of apps open, but its lack of live previews can make it more difficult to find what you want to switch to.
I dislike the TouchPad's separation of settings into separate apps. The unified app with multiple panes, as used in iOS and Android, is a much cleaner approach that makes it less likely you'll miss a setting and doesn't leave you with all those open settings app windows. The TouchPad suffers the same overkill issue of Windows Vista's gazillion control panels, though nothing is as impenetrable as Vista's approach. The setup apps themselves are straightforward to use on the TouchPad, though in several cases the Confirm and Delete buttons are skinny and cramped, making it easy to tap the wrong one. iOS's Settings app is well designed and largely easy to navigate, though its various network settings are oddly separated from one another.
The good news is that pinching and zooming, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, work equivalently on the TouchPad's WebOS and the iPad 2's iOS, though the TouchPad tends to hesitate before it rotates.
For text entry, I find the iPad 2's on-screen keyboard to be easier to work with than the TouchPad's, with better contextual use of extra keys, such as in the Mail application and in form fields. I do like the fact that the TouchPad by default displays the numeral keys, so you don't have to switch to them -- something Apple may want to copy. But it's annoying that some common punctuation, such as the colon (:), are not on the standard keyboard, forcing you to switch to a symbols keyboard. Using a capability that debuted in WebOS 2.1 for smartphones in February, the TouchPad also lets you set the size of your keys, which can free up screen real estate for your content. However, if you want to touch-tap, set it to the largest size (medium is the default).
It is easier to tap items on the iPad 2 than on the TouchPad. The TouchPad helpfully shows a pebble-in-a-pond type of dot where you tap, so you know whether you tapped the intended location. I found that buttons and objects often didn't respond if you tapped near but still inside their edges. iOS buttons don't have this issue.
Text selection and copying. The TouchPad handles text selection poorly. When you tap on text, the word is selected and sliders appear to change the text selection. But if your tap misses your intended mark, you can't just move the text cursor as you can on an iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1. Also, when you tap that second time, you're likely to select a wild word and have contextual menus such as Copy appear. All of this makes text selection difficult.
On the iPad 2, text selection also works via handles. To insert the text cursor in a precise location, you tap and hold where you want to insert the text cursor (sort of like using a mouse), and a magnifier appears to help you move exactly to where you want to go. That's how it should be.
The winner: Although I prefer the theory of WebOS's cards interface, I find it too messy in practice. If HP tweaked this UI approach to add a listlike selection mechanism and treat the cards more as a favorites pile, I think WebOS could really challenge iOS in usability. For now, the iPad's more simplistic UI gets my nod. For the day-in, day-out work of touch-based selection, the iPad 2 is much easier to use than the TouchPad. The iPad 2 wins here.
Deathmatch: Security and management
A long-standing strike against WebOS has been its poor security. Only in February did the smartphone WebOS (2.1) support on-device encryption, which the TouchPad's WebOS 3.0 does as well. As with the iPad, that encryption is enabled straight out of the box, and it can't be turned off.
The TouchPad's WebOS 3.0 does mark HP's belated support for Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) security policies, which Apple has led in adoption and which Google finally began supporting this spring in a meaningful way in Android OS 3. The TouchPad supports 7 EAS policies, versus the iPad 2's support for 14 EAS policies. On both, you can require passwords (using optionally a minimum length and/or containing letters) and on-device encryption, specify a maximum number of failed login attempts before locking the device, and set the device to autolock after a specified period of inactivity. The iPad 2's EAS policies also let you set more complex password rules (such as the use of special characters and limits of how often passwords can be reintroduced), disable the camera, and block app store access and Wi-Fi usage (though the last policy doesn't make sense for the Wi-Fi-only TouchPad, it could be useful for the planned 3G model).
Mobile device management (MDM) vendor MobileIron already has a client app in the HP App Catalog to manage TouchPads, and HP says several other MDM vendors plan to support WebOS devices as well. Most MDM vendors now support the iPad 2.
Both the TouchPad and the iPad 2 offer remote wipe, SSL message encryption, and timeout locks. If your TouchPad is lost or stolen, you can lock or wipe it via Exchange. Apple supports remote lock and wipe both through Exchange and via the free Find My iPad service that tracks your iPad 2's location from a Web browser, iPhone, iPod Touch, or other iPad.
Both devices also support VPN access. It's easier to set up VPN access on the iPad, due to the clearer presentation of options in its setup panes. The setup options for the TouchPad are more cryptic; plus, they adopt Cisco's more recent AnyConnect nomenclature for its VPN options, unlike other devices, so it's easy to get confused if you haven't kept up with Cicso's rebranding.
Syncing the iPad 2 to your computer's iTunes backs up -- and encrypts, if you desire -- the data on it. iTunes backs up nearly everything: your media, your apps, their settings, their data, and most of your preferences. (iTunes can be configured for use in the enterprise, though most companies don't know that.) The TouchPad has nothing like iTunes, though it does back up to HP's servers your accounts (but not their data or passwords), contacts and calendar entries associated to your local WebOS account, and some settings so that they can be restored or transferred if needed. Apps purchased through the HP App Catalog (but not their data) are also tracked at that store so that they can be restored or transferred to a new device.
The winner: The iPad 2 wins here, due to its ability to back up nearly all of its content and to remote-lock, remote-wipe, and find a lost or stolen iPad from any browser. But from a corporate security point of view, if you manage iPads with Exchange, you can manage TouchPads to the same level.
Although the real value of a tablet comes from its OS and apps, you can't get to them without the hardware they run on. The iPad comes in both Wi-Fi-only and Wi-Fi-plus-3G models (which supports 3G tethering), whereas the TouchPad comes only in Wi-Fi models. HP says AT&T 3G models are planned.
Performance. The iPad 2's 1GHz dual-core Apple A5 processor makes quick work of app loading and is generally responsive, such as when panning in Google Earth or parsing documents in iWork Pages. By contrast, despite its 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU, the TouchPad feels slow -- even for tasks like opening emails that are practically instantaneous on other tablets. That slowness is in evidence throughout the tablet; even network-based actions like downloading files takes longer on the TouchPad than on the iPad 2, Galaxy Tab 10.1, and Xoom -- including on the same network from the same location. The slowness is epecially noticeable at the first launch of an application or document. The TouchPad's speed also seems to vary, as if some invisible background process is executing. HP says some slowdown can occur after accounts are set up, as the TouchPad's Synergy API weaves them into services and applications that can support them. But these slowdowns have persisted for a week, so I doubt that answer. Whatever the cause, it's annoying.
In some instances, as when launching applications, the TouchPad gives you an indication that it's working, but in others, it seems to take a few seconds before it indicates that it received your input and is processing it. I frequently would tap a button again because I couldn't tell that anything was happening.
There are extremely few TouchPad apps available to see if this speed issue extends to them. But the TouchPad is definitely slow to start up from powered-off state: It takes 77 seconds -- more than a minute. By comparison, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 takes 25 seconds, the iPad 2 takes 35 seconds, and my 2011-edition MacBook Pro takes 127 seconds. If you're looking for instant-on, let the tablet go to sleep rather than powering it down.
For battery performance, I found that the iPad 2 lasted a little longer than the TouchPad -- 9 or 10 hours versus the TouchPad's 7 or 8 -- in regular use with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled. In light use, their work time stretched another hour. Likewise, the iPad 2 charges a little more quickly than the TouchPad.
Device hardware. The TouchPad's case has none of the svelte feel as the iPad or Galaxy Tab 10.1. It's a black slab that weighs a quarter pound more (25.8 ounces in total) than either the iPad 2 (21.5 ounces) or the Galaxy Tab 10.1 (19 ounces) -- and the iPad 2 with an optional Smart Cover attached weighs a half ounce less (26.3 ounces in total) than the naked TouchPad. The heavier, blockier design telegraphs all those stereotypes about artless PC makers. The TouchPad's case is also a magnet for fingerprints.
The TouchPad's bezel is simple and clean, like the iPad 2's, and assumes a portrait orientation for the positioning of most of its spare controls: power and audio jack at the top, front camera placed unobtrusively, volume rocker on the right side, small speaker notches on the left side (clearly assuming landscape orientation when set down to play music), and MicroUSB dock/charging connector at the bottom. I did find the power button required more force than on other tablets to register being pressed. The iPad's controls are in most cases in the same location; just the speaker (the iPad 2 has just one) is in a different location: at the bottom of the bezel. The iPad 2 also offers a physical switch that can be set to turn off alert sounds or lock the screen rotation; you can do the same at any time from the controls that appear when you double-press the Home Button. The TouchPad uses settings apps to control both behaviors, and you can lock rotation or mute sounds from a menu in the notification bar that's always available.
Neither the iPad 2 nor the TouchPad has a battery indication while it is powered down, unlike the Galaxy Tab 10.1. But the iPad 2 wakes itself automatically if its (optional) Smart Cover is opened -- nice.
The iPad 2's optional magnetic Smart Cover is smartly designed. It snaps into place quickly, folds out of the way easily, helps clean fingerprints on the screen, and remains snuggly attached, according to my backpack tests. The cover ($40 for polyurethane and $80 for leather) does not protect the iPad 2's aluminum back, which may concern some users fearful of scratches, but there are plenty of cases, skins, and portfolios for such folks. I was disappointed that the Smart Cover doesn't affix magnetically to the back of the iPad 2; it only does so to the front. The TouchPad has no equivalent capability, and it's too early to see what kinds of cases third parties will come up with. HP does offer a $50 case that can raise the TouchPad for typing, similar to Apple's case for its original iPad.
But the TouchPad does have an innovation the iPad 2 lacks: The optional charging dock ($80) not only props up the TouchPad at user-adjustable angles, it uses induction (which HP brands as Touchstone) to charge the TouchPad through its case. But be careful -- the induction area is small, so you have to place the TouchPad in horizontal orientation with speakers down for the tablet to charge. Each Touchstone charging dock also has a unique ID, so you can set different default Exhibition mode displays when the lock screen is engaged for each of your docks. For example, you might have your dock at work display your calendar and your dock at home display your photo.
A related capability enabled by Touchstone is what HP calls Touch-to-Share: Rest a compatible WebOS smartphone on the TouchPad to register its presence, and the devices use a Bluetooth connection to share the current (meaning full-screen) Web page, text message, or phone call automatically (after they've been paired, which you do once). HP has no smartphones available yet that support Touchstone syncing, though it did lend me a prototype to show that it works, which it does. I'm not convinced that this is more than a "oh, cool" feature that would quickly fall into disuse once the novelty wears off. For example, touching a smartphone to the tablet to take a phone call or read a text message requires a lot more effort than just using the phone, which you need to have on you anyhow. For Web pages, it's hard to envision the meaningful utility in this sharing until Touch-to-Share is available in other shipping devices for testing in a more real-world context. I suspect the sharing capabilities of Touch-to-Share would be more useful if you didn't have to make the physical connection -- a feature similar to Mac OS X Lion's AirDrop that allowed you to initiate syncing over the air would be welcome.
Both devices require USB adapters to connect to USB devices. The $29 iPad Camera Connection Kit's USB connectivity is limited to cameras and SD cards; HP has no adapters for the TouchPad as yet. The iPad 2 can mirror its display to VGA or HDMI using a $39 dock-to-HDMI cable or $29 VGA connector that other iOS devices also support. Currently, the TouchPad has no video-out capabilities, due to lack of adapters. That means you can't use it for presentations -- a big deficit for sales, marketing, and other business users.
If you do a lot of typing, you can use Apple's $70 Bluetooth keyboard with the iPad 2; HP sells a $70 Bluetooth keyboard for the identical purpose. Apple's keyboard is the same one you use for a Mac, so it has no iPad-specific keys, whereas the HP model has keys for showing all active cards and hiding the keyboard. On an iPad, you can't access formatting shortcuts for text, such as to apply bold. It's unclear whether the HP keyboard supports such formatting as there are no TouchPad apps that call on those capabilities. Both keyboards have a nice crisp feel, and they are equally slim, solid, and light, with well-sized keys.
I found the iPad 2's screen a little easier to read -- both in sunlight and in office lighting -- than the TouchPad's screen, which suffers from excessive reflectivity. I also found myself angling the TouchPad slightly to reduce the reflection, which made typing less accurate. The iPad 2 and the TouchPad both use the old-fashioned 4:3 ratio, which is more comfortable for browsing and for most apps than the 16:9 widescreen displays on Android tablets.
Although the iPad 2 offers a front-facing camera for videoconferencing and a rear one for taking pictures and capturing video, the quality of still photos and movies are not that good: The camera seems to be the same, poorly regarded model used in the latest iPod Touch. The iPad 2's camera also lacks a flash and support for high-definition range, both of which the iPhone 4's camera does support. Apple hasn't released the camera's megapixel rating, but my photo-editing software pinned it as a measly 0.7 megapixel; by contrast, the iPhone 4's camera is 5 megapixels. The iPad 2's camera does perform better for motion video, taking decent 720p, 0.9-megapixel video -- fine for casual videos but no more.
The TouchPad has only a front-facing, 1.3-megapixel camera for use for videoconferencing (via enabling Skype in the TouchPad's Phone & Video Calls app). It too is adequate.
The TouchPad and the iPad 2 are equivalent in quality when it comes to audio output, despite the fact the iPad 2 has a single speaker and the Galaxy Tab has two. To get stereo-quality audio, connect either tablet to a stereo using the audio jack or, in the case of the iPad 2, stream music wirelessly to an AirPlay-compatible device.
The winner: The iPad 2 is clearly a better piece of hardware than the TouchPad. Its design is more elegant, it's lighter, and above all it's faster. In terms of peripherals, the TouchPad's inductive charging is nice but not essential, whereas the lack of rear camera and options for video-out are clear disadvantages.
The overall winner is ...
The differences between the iPad 2 and the TouchPad matter, with the TouchPad offering several innovative WebOS capabilities such as Synergy, Just Type, and Touch-to-Share, but falling short in its workaday apps, which cover just the basic reqiurements in many cases. The iPad 2 has more capabilities overall, and they're mostly well designed and well integrated into a strong ecosystem of product and services that is really hard to match. As a result, I can't imagine anyone choosing a TouchPad over an iPad.
Overall, it appears that HP designed the TouchPad to compete not with the iPad 2 but for second place in the tablet market. In that competition for second, the TouchPad is a strong alternative to the two best Android tablets, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the Motorola Xoom . (The RIM BlackBerry PlayBook is a dead end that should be on no one's list.)
So how to choose?
Android has enjoyed strong momentum in the smartphone world, which tablet makers are hoping will translate to the tablet market (though it has not done so thus far). But HP is a strong brand that has acquired through Palm's WebOS a good platform on which to build a credible mobile business. My fear is that HP's bark is bigger than its bite. Although the TouchPad is a good product, it is not a leading product, and it shows little innovation beyond what the Palm team already had in progress before the HP acquisition closed a year ago today. Google's prowess is also questionable, given its uneven set of Android releases over the last four years that continue to trail Apple's iOS and a history of uneven execution by its hardware partners.
In terms of what you can actually do today, a Galaxy Tab 10.1 or Xoom is a better tablet than the TouchPad. In terms of longer-term potential, I have a tad more faith in HP's WebOS team than I do in Google's Android team, but I don't see either company as aiming to be the best. Neither has puts its money where its mouth is.
All this hand-wringing reminds me of a fundamental reality: There's a reason Apple is outselling everyone else by such lopsided margins. Simply, it has the best product available and demonstrates a clear commitment to making it even better every year. Why settle for second? The iPad 2 remains the clear choice.
This story, "Tablet deathmatch: HP TouchPad vs. Apple iPad 2" was originally published by InfoWorld.
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