Review: HP TouchPad

First introduced in 2009, webOS was the “secret sauce” to Palm’s then-new Pre, Pre Plus and Pixie smartphones. (HP acquired Palm in 2010, scooping up webOS with it.)

Along with a sexy user interface, webOS brought users two fantastic new features — multitasking and Synergy.

With multitasking, open applications are sorted on the desktop as “cards,” all of which are able to run simultaneously in the background. A simple swipe of your finger from the bottom of the screen brings up the open applications in your hand, as it were. Shuffling between your open apps is as easy as swiping from side to side.

I’ve loved multitasking since the Palm Pre first appeared, and the increased screen real estate of the TouchPad does the interface justice. Switching between cards is effortless.

Synergy is nifty, too. It does away with the idea of updating and syncing personal data through a central PC hub. Instead, updates across your disparate accounts come wirelessly, whether you’re making the change to your data on your TouchPad or your desktop.

Example: After entering my Facebook and Gmail account info into the TouchPad, my Facebook events and Google Calendar appointments automatically showed up in HP’s calendar app (color-coded, even). And if you’re paired to an HP Veer or Pre 3 smartphone via Bluetooth, SMS text conversations with a friend will show up in the messaging application in one long thread, alongside of any Google Talk chatting you’ve done.

There’s just one big problem with the webOS platform: Nobody freaking uses it.

As of May 2011, Android is on 36 percent of all U.S. smartphones, while iOS runs on 26 percent, according to Nielsen research data. WebOS is at 2 percent.

This is a huge issue. As a rule, the fewer devices there are running an operating system, the less developers will want to create apps for it. Consider the app ecosystems of the two market giants: Android currently hosts over 200,000 apps in its Market, and as of late May, Apple boasts half a million. When the TouchPad hits shelves on July 1, HP says there will be about 6,200 apps available for webOS phones, which the tablet can run, and another 300 apps optimized specifically for the TouchPad. How can HP ever hope to catch up to those numbers?

Essentially, they’re not even going to try (at least, not immediately). Instead, HP is taking a curated approach with “Pivot,” a monthly e-publication that features articles on select webOS applications and the developers behind them. It’s an effort to lure in developers with the promise of exposure, more than an app would get after being buried in the sprawling Android or Apple markets. That means more apps for the webOS platform, and more sales for the small-time developer. In theory, at least.

To be fair, the TouchPad launches with more tablet-specific apps than both the Apple and Android tablet launches combined. And fast-paced growth is certainly possible: It took Android around four months to break the 200 tablet apps mark, and a little over a year for Apple to host tens of thousands. With the right support, the app ecosystem on webOS can grow.

There is, of course, the problem of the mobile music service. In and of itself, the TouchPad’s music app is fine. It functions well, and the user interface is unobtrusive. (Read: not fugly.) But consider what the others are offering: Google’s Music Beta allows wireless streaming to any device running Android version 2.2 and above, free of local storage. Apple’s upcoming iCloud requires that you store your files locally, but you can wirelessly sync any iTunes data you already own to your iOS devices from its cloud servers, though it doesn’t do this automatically. Getting music onto your TouchPad is USB-only, and an HP-backed cloud service isn’t exactly in the cards for the near future.

To be fair, if you’ve got a Google Music invite, you can access it through a browser window on the TouchPad. And perhaps HP will coax Amazon into bundling its Cloud Player music app with the TouchPad at some point.

But it speaks to a larger question that HP still hasn’t answered: What’s the major draw HP offers that I can’t get in Android or iOS — two established competitors with more customers, more apps and more time in the market?

I’m not saying HP is betting on a weak hand with the TouchPad itself. It’s well-built, easy on the eyes and I dig the card-based OS running on a tablet even more than I had anticipated.

The problem is, it’s squaring off against some expert gamblers.

Photos by Jon Snyder/get-gadget

See Also:

  • HP TouchPad Tablet Lands in Stores July 1
  • First Look: HP’s Untouchable TouchPad Tablet
  • Let’s Get Small: HP’s Tiny WebOS Smartphone
  • HP Launches WebOS-Powered Tablet, Phones
  • G-Lab: HP TouchPad Tablet, Android Honeycomb, Verizon iPhone
  • HP TouchPad Tablet Available for Pre-Order
  • Hands-On With HP’s Tiny Veer Smartphone
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