23 September 2011

Hands On Review: H.P. Touchpad--Turning Into the Torpedo

Mobile computing is a desirable area for tech types who want to always have the internet at their fingertips.  Smartphones are useful to this end.  But there is a tension between having a screen large enough for satisfying media consumption and having something that easily fit in one's pocket.

Tablets computers are a suitable alternative for smartphones to meet this hunger for mobile internet access.  Apple's I-Pad  has sold 15 million in just over 18 months, but the lack of multi-tasking, not being a Flash friendly computing environment and the clunkiness of the e-mail functions has made it less appealing for business use over multi-media consumption.

Hewlett Packard tried to answer the I-Pad with the H.P. Touchpad, a 9.7" capacitive touch LCD screen tablet that uses (formerly Palm's) WebOS.  WebOS excels at multi-tasking and uses a different conceit than Android or Apple O/S by employing a card system for opened applications which a user can scroll to switch or flick to close.

H.P. tried to match Apple's I-Pad price point. But when H.P. found itself going no-where fast, H.P.'s management decided get out of the tablet manufacturing market. So H.P. dropped the price to $99 for the 16 GB unit or $149 for the 32 GB unit to clearance the units. The price drop caused the HP Touchstone to sell like hotcakes.

Some technorati will claim that bargain hunters bought a brick, since H.P. is leaving the tablet market along with the fact that the WebOS App Marketplace is limited vis-a-vis the Apple App Store.  But WebOS may not disappear, as the HP division is being shopped to various corporate buyers.  And number of web apps do not indicate quality--how many flatulent apps or cylon detectors does a serious tablet user need?

I liken purchasing an H.P. Touchpad to a savvy submarine captain who turns into a torpedo, a tactic which seems like it is flirting with disaster but in the end is winning.   A tablet that multi-tasks, has Flash and allows for productivity as well as entertainment may be the right choice for me, even if the hardware is not the popular choice and the tablet itself is the end of the line.

The best way to test the turning into the torpedo tactic is to have hands on experience and see how the rest of the battlefield develops.  While I was unable to take advantage of the H.P. firesale from August, the Touchpad was at the magic price that was 40% of  the lowest priced Apple I-Pad.

When the long awaited H.P. Touchpad got into my anxious hands, it was surprising how heavy it felt.  The Touchpad weighs 26.01 oz, which compares to 21.199 oz  of an I-Pad 3.  But my primary basis of comparison was a Kindle 2 which is a lithe 9.6 oz.  So the Touchpad is not going to be a device for prolonged cradling in your hands, but the 9.7 inch high resolution color LCD adds to the girth.

People may wonder why one would want a tablet instead of a laptop or netbook.  But the quick instant on feature answers that.  The H.P. Touchpad boots within 10 seconds and is ready for web access.  It is easy to pair the Touchpad with available WiFi.  Touchpads have a feature called Just Type which allows a user to not even have to launch applications to start programs or access websites.

What differentiates the Touchpad from the I-Pad or Android based competitors is the WebOS.  WebOS is a n innovated operating system which H.P. inherited from its purchase of Palm in 2010 for $1.2 billion. WebOS uses a conceit of cards for running programs which users can scroll to multi-task or flick away.  My experience is comfortably being able to operate seven active cards at the same time.  There is an application called Glimpse which will combine several apps via widgets on one screen truly taking advantage of Touchpad multi-tasking capabilities.

Like most other tablets, a Touchpad is a Personal Information Manager (PIM) on steroids.  The H.P. Touchpad facilitates the unifying of different contact lists and photo albums with the Synergy feature, which combines the information without repetition.  The Touchpad is adept at monitoring messages from a variety of e-mail and social media accounts (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) and unobtrusively displays them on the top of the screen which a user can choose to answer, ignore or eliminate with the flick of a finger.

The Touchpad is great for mobile Web browsing.  The Touchpad boots quickly and can easily show full web pages, not just mobi displays.  I did experience some difficulty getting compact hyperlinks to respond, but mostly the web experience was quite pleasurable.  The larger virtual keyboard is very desirable compared to trying to type on a smartphone, albeit with a larger screen such as the HTC Evo.  The display is wonderful for watching videos, either from YouTube or movies that are downloaded or streamed.  Currently,there are not functioning apps for Netflix  or Hulu  but with some investigation geeks can find some work arounds.   Admittedly, the Touchpad does not have HDMI porting capabilities, but it is less likely that users will keep their movie libraries on units which only have 16 GB or 32 GB of internal memory.

The H.P. Touchpad boasts about its Beats Audio sound system which was designed by Dr. Dre.  The Touchpad has two side speakers which produce a nice clear sound which is quite sufficient.  Aside from marketing purposes, the Beat Audio system may make the difference when a Touchpad user wears headphones.  The Touchpad has 3.5 mm standard headphone jacks but it does not have any metal which could create audio interference.

H.P. has been cagey about the expected battery life, which has been estimated to be 8 hours of web browsing.  Hands on experience indicates that the Touchpad can be reliably used all day for surfing the internet and watching YouTube videos without risk of totally depleting. This is much better battery life than web surfing on a smartphone, but  admittedly the  3G/4G signal can really exhaust a battery.

The modest 16 GB or 32 GB internal memory of the Touchpad necessitates cloud storage for data files.  Touchpad users qualify for 50GB of complimentary cloud storage from Box.com. The cloud storage is a nice feature as otherwise it could cost $20 a month.  It will be interesting if Touchpad users will also eventually be able to use Amazon's cloud storage for MP3s.

Accessories will augment the Touchpad experience.  Palm developed an innovative Touchstone which wirelessly charges a Touchpad on a slate which can exhibit pictures like a digital pictureframe.  The Bluetooth keyboard can enhance typing on a real QWERTY keyboard.  While I regret that H.P. was clearancing the accessories since HP announced that it was getting out of the tablet hardware business, I benefit from the firesale prices.

It's too bad that some of the innovations from Palm/H.P. that inevitably will be stillborn.  The ability to
Touch to Share a web page or a call between a cell phone and a tablet is moot as H.P. will no longer manufacture tablets or cell phones.  The Touchpad is supposed to synch with any web enabled H.P. printers, but I did not have access to any to test this feature.  The Touchstone, a wonderful legacy accessory product from Palm which allows for wireless charging while still using a tablet has an uncertain future.  But as I observed "On Choosing Tablets", the best technologies do not always win in the marketplace.

So how did the H.P. Touchpad survive the Torpedo of Truth test?  Better than Charlie Sheen handles his meglomaniacal  tendencies, but the jury is still out.   The hands on experience of using the H.P. Touchpad out of the box is quite promising.  The Touchpad can not replace a laptop but is a great alternative when doing casual web surfing around the house.  The Touchpad may prove to be an excellent mobile web based tool, but the WiFi only internet connection could prove tricky in public without having one's own hotspot. Fortunately, it can be used in connection with smartphone hotspots. But I have been spoiled with the baked in 3G coverage in most Amazon Kindles.

Now that the H.P. Board of  Directors ousted ex-CEO Leo Apotheker in favor of Meg Whitman, there is a faint hope that Hewlett Packard may change its path and continue in the tablet manufacturing market, but industry experts warn Touchpad enthusiasts to hold their breath.  While the future of the H.P. Touchpad per se may be a Tombstone,  the underlying WebOS may survive,  albeit with yet a different parent and continued in various hardware.  A best case scenario might be akin to the Guinness paradigm.  British Breweries has a vertical monopoly, where their product was controlled from brewing to distribution at a tied pub. Company run pubs offered a range of their own products but were allowed to carry one guest tap.  Since Guinness is good yet did not own any UK pubs, everyone could carry it.  Perhaps WebOS can emulate such ubiquitousness by being an overlay on Android.

Perhaps a  Corporate White Knight will rescue  WebOS as it is based on a highly customizable Linux kernal, rather than an I-Tunes backbone like the I-Pad. There were rumors that Samsung might snap up WebOS but that trial balloon was shot down.  It would make sense for HTC to save WebOS as Google has bought Motorola and is poised the corner the Android market by having vertical integration for the Droid in cell phones and tablets.   There has also been some speculation that Facebook might pick up WebOS, either to augment Facebook's movement towards media and communications or as an OS vehicle for Facebook hardware. Considering all of the changes that Facebook has implemented in the last week, a WebOS engine would not be out of the question.

Aside from corporate wheeling and dealing for WebOS, there should be more options for the Touchpad hardware itself.   Benign hackers are striving to allow the affordably priced Touchpads to dual boot into Android, which allows access to a larger Apps marketplace and is a good back up if WebOS becomes effectively defunct.

Even though I appreciate the option to port Android on the Touchpad, personally I do not find this necessary.  The Touchpad may have a smaller apps market but it is quite sufficient for business and entertainment purposes.  While I hope that there is more WebOS software produced, I am pleased with their apps catalog and the fact that savvy Touchpad owners can install “homebrew” apps without voiding their warranties or risk bricking their tablets.  While acquiring the Touchpad may have been turning into the torpedo, I will thrive in the end.  So damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

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