HP takes its first run at the tablet market

Hewlett-Packard rolled out its debut entrant into the red-hot tablet market, the HP TouchPad, as well as two new smartphones — all running a new version of the webOS software it acquired last year when it bought Palm.

HP may be behind some of its competitors with its tablet, but Todd Bradley, executive vice president of HP’s Personal Systems Group, implied that the market is in its infancy as he kicked off the event Wednesday. “We’re in the early stages of a market that’s going to continue to grow in size, importance and relevance,” he said.

The TouchPad resembles Apple’s iPad physically: It’s a sleek, black device with a 9.7-inch touch display, weighing in at 1.6 pounds. What HP hopes will set it apart is the webOS and the tight integration that HP says it can offer with other products running that software, including phones, printers and eventually PCs.

HP also announced the Veer smartphone — a tiny phone about the length of a credit card that HP says contains the power of a full-sized smartphone. And it announced the Pre3, an update to the Pre smartphone that HP positions as being for business users who also want the “fun” of a consumer device.

The Veer will be first out of the gate, expected to launch in spring. The Pre3 will launch in the summer, along with the Wi-Fi version of the TouchPad tablet, which will debut in the U.S. and a few international markets. 3G and 4G versions will come later. No pricing was announced for any of the products, which were demonstrated at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, just beside the bay.

HP also saved a surprise for the end — it will bring its webOS to PCs, Bradley said. He didn’t give any details and said HP will talk more about that later in the year. It doesn’t necessarily mean that HP will ship PCs without Windows; it could take some of the webOS components and integrate them to give better synergy between the devices.

But the product that stole the limelight was the TouchPad. It uses a speedy 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, has a high-resolution, 1024×768 display and is 1.3 centimeters thick at its widest part. It has a 1.3-megapixel webcam and supports video calls in much the same way as Apple’s FaceTime feature.

It will come with 16GB or 32GB of storage. HP will also offer a compact wireless keyboard — likely an optional extra — for people who don’t want to do a lot of typing on the touchscreen.

But what HP hopes will set the tablet apart is the webOS. Along with the usual calendar, photo and address book apps, it ships with TouchPad at Work, which includes QuickOffice, Google Docs and VPN (virtual private network) support. Flash is also supported, unlike on the Apple iPad.

The TouchPad interface groups applications logically as “card stacks” in order to manage multiple tasks; when a user is finished using an app she can flick it off the screen rather than shutting it down.

HP emphasized the tight integration it will offer between the products. For instance, tapping one of the new webOS phones on the tablet can automatically fire up a browser on the phone and display the same Web page that’s displayed on the tablet. If a user finds directions to a restaurant on their tablet at home, for example, and wants to take them out in the car, she can tap the devices together and the page of directions appears on the phone.

WebOS can also synchronize data on various HP devices, so the address books, e-mail and other applications data is automatically kept in synch, HP says.

The tiny Veer phone has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, 2.6-inch 320×400 touchscreen display, and a touch area for navigation. It supports Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Flash and GPS, and includes a USB port and audio jack, as well as a 5-megapixel camera. The phone has 8G bytes of storage and the same amount of memory as the Pre2, and can be used as a Wi-Fi router for up to five devices.

The more powerful Pre3 has a 3.6-inch, 480×800 display and a 5-megapixel camera that shoots HD video with stabilization. It also has a forward-facing camera for video calling. It runs on HSPDA+ or EVDO networks and has a Qualcomm chip running at 1.4GHz. Both phones are compatible with HP’s Touchstone charging dock.

HP also emphasized social-networking attributes for the devices. The tablet’s photo app displays photos from a user’s Facebook, Snapfish or other online account, and comments posted on Facebook photos can be displayed on images when they are opened on the device. The address book will include LinkedIn and Facebook contacts.

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