Tablet deathmatch: HP TouchPad vs. Apple iPad 2

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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.

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