Tablet deathmatch: HP TouchPad vs. Apple iPad 2

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.

Deathmatch: Hardware

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 [42]. (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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