Getting a hands-on test with the HP TouchPad is something of an achievement in itself. On the show floor HP is adamant that nobody is allowed to touch the TouchPad, instead they can only watch demonstrations performed by experts.
While this doesn’t bode particularly well for the development status (hands-off is a sure sign that things aren’t finished), behind closed doors we managed to get a brief amount of hands-on time along with a good discussion with HP’s Sachin Kansal, Director Of Software Management. Kansal worked on the original Palm Pre project and is now working with HP, to talk about the TouchPad and its place in the market.
First the good news. It’s obvious that this is by far the most interesting of all the tablets on display, at least judging by the crowds of people gathered round taking photos and video from all angles.
Unlike the BlackBerry PlayBook and Samsung Galaxy Tab, the HP TouchPad has a 9.7in display (although it’s somewhat smaller than the 10in Motorola Xoom). It is, however, in the same aspect ratio as the iPad which we prefer on a tablet device to the widescreen format being used by Android tablets.
Inside is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 1.2GHz CPU versus the iPads 1GHz A4, although how this will compare to the Motorola Xoom with its GHz Tegra 2 dual-core processor remains to be seen. Performance – insofar as we could tell – was fine.
The case is stylish, and it has a slightly curved exterior that means it faces slightly towards you when placed on a flat surface.
The interface is suitably snazzy and responded quickly to all touches. Instead of displaying a home screen with icons it has a coverflow-style area displaying open documents. HP seem particularly proud of the devices ability to multi-task more effectively than the iPad. In email, in particular, you can write multiple mail messages at the same time, switching between different drafts; each appears in a stack on the display when you press the home button.
As with the Palm Pre, the display is somewhat different to the iPad, displaying a preview of application windows and documents that you swipe left and right between.
Like WebOS on the Palm Pre it still has a weird (to our minds) interface element where a circle flashes on the screen to let you know where your finger has just pressed. We’re not quite sure why this is necessary – certainly none of the other pads seem to feature it.
One key advantage to WebOS is the way it enables you to tap directly into your online services (hence the name). Photos, for example, aren’t just the ones on the device but also ones on your Flickr account, and other cloud services; the same goes for contacts and FaceBook and Twitter. Everything is integrated seamlessly into the operating system so it all works from the same place. Again, how well this works is something that will need to be tested thoroughly on launch.
WebOS was certainly a big “wow” factor in the original Palm Pre though, and the big question is whether it’ll work commercially this time around. “I think it’s fair to say that the original Pre met with considerable critical acclaim” said Kansal, “but what’s different this time around is HP’s scale and resources”. HP has a lot of clout in the market, from supply to distribution, and is especially large on a global market. Palm was integrated into HPs mobile division and now Palm, or rather HP, hopes that this increased muscle will help it drive the TouchPad into getting wider market share.
Like the iPad there is a fixed-in battery, although there is no information yet regarding battery life. Connectivity is limited to one micro-USB socket, with no MicroSD card or DVI video output option.
There are two more marquee features worth mentioning. The first is inductive charging, which means you can charge up the TouchPad by attaching it to a stand (it clips on magnetically) and the stand can be angled up and down.
The second is wireless transfer. Kansal demonstrated this by opening a web page on the Pre and tapping the phone to the TouchPad, which instantly displayed the same webpage. Simple enough to begin with, but HP will expand on the technology and, we presume, will enable sharing of data, apps, and other content wirelessly between devices.
On the whole the HP TouchPad is probably the most interesting of all the tablet devices being demonstrated at MWC, whether that will translate into the most sales later in the year is debatable (we remember the massive interest from journalists and analysts in the Palm Pre – this turned into very few sales to the general public as the iPhone and Android cleaned).
Hopefully HP will get its message across though this time though, as the former Palm team (now the HP mobile team) has too many good ideas to go to waste.