Sep 022011

Throughout the last year and a half I’ve had a chance to use both Apple iPad and HP Touchpad tablets (including some of the Touchpad’s horribly slow early Windows prototypes). Considering the Touchpad’s latest incredible popularity rise I want to share my experience and show where it has successfully surpassed the iPad and where it has failed to do so. In order to compete and win a significant number of buyers on the tablet market it had to perform notably better than the original trendsetter. It got close.

Where The Touchpad Outshines The iPad

The Touchpad’s major advantage is multitasking, which is great and genuine, light years ahead of the iPad which really doesn’t have it.

Another big deal is support for Adobe Flash web page animations and movies, which makes the browsing experience on the Touchpad more complete.

Yet another great innovation is the built-in inductive charging circuitry which gives the Touchpad a new degree of freedom -it can be charged without a direct cable connection, just by laying it on top of Touchstone charging cradle (sold separately).

The Touchpad’s on-screen keyboard layout is excellent; it even includes numbers, and to me it’s less frustrating to use than the iPad’s.

Although Netflix movie streaming uses Silverlight and doesn’t work, the Hulu website however uses Flash, and it works (used to, now you have to apply a patch to make it work) in Touchpad’s browser while you can’t watch Hulu on the iPad.

Accessing screen brightness, WiFi, VPN and Bluetooth controls is immediate and easier on the Touchpad.

The iPad’s software and storage access control has always been too stiff (in other words, access prohibited), while the Touchpad behaves similarly to Android tablets and phones – once connected to a computer via USB, it acts like a USB drive, so you can freely delete, move and copy stuff to/from it. That is one flash drive less to carry with you.

HP not only allows but encourages individual developers to modify their software. There’s an entire set of performance improving and innovative patches developed by the enthusiasts which you can access by installing Preware. I was even able to “overclock” the Touchpad from 1.2 to its intended 1.5 GHz speed following a few simple steps from this link (easily reversible). On Apple devices you have to invest far more effort and almost feel like an intruder to “jailbreak” and apply some (software only) modifications, just because Apple keeps doing anything to fight and prevent that, so the Touchpad wins in manufacturer flexibility and user freedom.

Where The Touchpad and The iPad Match

The Touchpad has a better sound quality and stereo speakers, but the iPad’s single speaker is louder, so it’s a tie until you apply the volume increase Preware patch called, guess what, “Increase Touchpad Volume” (I applied the Lite version which only increases it by 33% – noticeable and without any sound distortion, but the version without “Lite” boosts volume for 67%)”.

Like the iPad, the Touchpad has all standard WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n protocols including my favorite 802.11a radio which helps in city neighborhoods saturated with b/g/n WiFi signals, so in this area it’s as good as it gets.

Where The iPad Still Rules

My first annoyance with a new HP Touchpad was a delay on its keyboard/screen interaction when typing. The pressed letters on the screen lagged their accompanying audible key clicks, and the faster I typed the more I could notice this behavior. Slower users who only look at keyboard letters during typing will never notice this, but over a year of iPad usage has made me more demanding. This behavior continued after installing the latest webOS update (3.0.2), but after a few days the performance improved. The problem seems to be “intentional” by design as the Touchpad seems to be working in the background with its Synergy synchronization of all the accounts you set up and downloading the OS patches, emails and even Facebook photos. Technically speaking, this is the right thing to do, but it’s a PR suicide. Sometimes the right things should await appropriate times, like letting the user schedule various downloads overnight or during charge instead of letting these run in the background the first day and impair the holy grail of user acceptance, their first impression. This possibly ruined the tablet’s reputation and increased the number of store returns and bad reviews assuming that this initially notably slower performance is all you get.

Another annoyance I noticed right away was jerky movement when scrolling down a web page. – unlike on the iPad where this is so smooth that you can read while scrolling, on the tPad these two are mutually exclusive – it is very annoying and tiresome to read while scrolling down.

According to my experience the Touchpad webOS applications take a bit longer to launch, and even browsing through the app store is slower. Since it has a dual core CPU and more RAM I don’t understand why. It seems that there are too many things running in the background (the debug logs for example), but fortunately the very active webOS support community has devised some excellent performance improving tips and Preware OS patches (most of them can be found here).

The iPad has a great physical rock-solid feel, while Touchpad, although still relatively solid, has a bit plastic, almost cheap touch on its edges. What I dislike most is its plastic volume rocker which is somewhat loose and if you shake it or jiggle you can even hear it rattle a bit (WTH HP? You need to hold designers accountable for this one).

Unless you take a drastic step of installing Android CyanogenMod on your Touchpad, there are no Netflix movie streaming apps for the Touchpad and since the Netflix web client uses Silverlight instead of Flash like Hulu, you can’t watch Netflix movies even in tPad’s browser.

We all know that the iPad’s apps market is humongous and that webOS is not so big and it probably won’t grow much more, so I won’t go in depth here. tPad loses, but remember that for $400 less than the cheapest iPad you already have a lot.

Last, but not the least, there’s no voice recognition on the Touchpad with webOS. Too bad. However, Google Voice Recognition works fine in the test version of Android Cyanogenmod for the Touchpad mentioned above (requires a separate download and installation but after that it is as good and rock solid as on my EVO). In general, it works so great on Android (I talk to my Android devices more than I type on them), and it is relatively OK on the iPad.

The Verdict

HP Touchpad is a work of art, but it lacks the ammo to beat the top competitors. This device would have been amazing had it gotten in Steve Jobs’s hands a year before its release, so he would have kicked some butt and get their act together. This way it is shaking the world only because it is selling at the incredibly low price of $99, because HP gave up on it after it determined their chances of tablet market domination are remote, considering how late they appeared on the market and how their horse, although not an underdog, is not an outstanding one.

In February of 2011 I wrote that Palm was history (apparently and unfortunately it seems I was right, including webOS), but I still miss their great task manager (to do list) that they abandoned long before HP bought them. I wrote this at the time and I couldn’t agree more with it:
“…So although Palm was the best PDA, back then it wasn’t a phone. Blackberry was a great email/phone machine with bad task manager and horrible and slow browser. Iphone was a great iPod/browser with a phone. Android? Don’t know yet, it is fast and promising, but that’s not it yet. Meanwhile, I’m still missing Graffiti, and just when I got used to mini keyboards, I had to learn everything all over with touchscreen and I’m still not as fast and relaxed as I used to be writing on my Palm’s screen and not as efficient with task management as on Palm and Palm Desktop. I hope HP gets Palm technology resurrected and more competitive than ever.”

Unfortunately they didn’t manage to resurrect it, giving it instead some extra ICU life support to prolong the suffering. The process took too long and there are too few better features on the Touchpad than on the iPad. Perhaps Android teams manage to breathe life into this otherwise great hardware.

Unlike most other Android fans I can understand why Apple is more appreciated than most other technical manufacturers – it’s their attention to details. Just like the iPhone, iPad set a very high standard since the day when it was released in April 2010, and a year and a half later competitors are still trying to beat it. It hasn’t evolved much but it is still a great and simple (KISS) device, equally appealing to both my 89-year old dad and my 2-year old daughter who sometimes play on it together. But Apple seems to be gradually joining the “dark side”, investing more in flexing their legal muscle to choke the competition instead of improving their own products and I don’t like buying from companies like that (here’s an excellent article explaining why).

Moreover, at current incredibly lower prices ($100 instead of $500 for 16 GB and $150 instead of $600 for 32 GB) the HP Touchpad is the outstanding deal that nobody can beat. It is good enough to compete with the iPad which is definitely not worth $400 more (if you can still manage to buy the Touchpad at that price). I’m only hoping that HP makes more Touchpads and/or turns webOS into open source. We’ll see what happens to this prematurely orphaned device and hopefully the open source community succeeds in porting Android or Linux to it, but don’t count on it and don’t buy it just because of this. Until they can make it fully functional as under webOS I’d stay away from any other OS. The way it is, it is heaven for techies who love messing with stuff like this, and even for an average user it still works great for browsing the net, watching videos, doing email, editing documents, reading books (Amazon Kindle beta webOS app works fine on it) and playing Angry Birds and similar games.

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