HP’s Zeen tablet: Made to complement a printer

Even though the Hewlett Packard Co.‘s (NYSE: HPQ) Zeen Android tablet is not available as a stand-alone tablet, the comparison seems inevitable. After all, one has to wonder what exactly this tablet is, being that ships with the HP Photosmart eStation C510 inkjet multifunction printer. If it’s being billed as a detachable tablet, how does it compare with the cream of today’s Android-slate crop, the Samsung Galaxy Tab?

Inevitable, perhaps, and admittedly not fair: HP isn’t marketing the Zeen on its own, selling it instead as the on-screen-navigation complement to the C510 printer. So before you ask, no, you haven’t missed the memo on HP’s jumping into the Android-tablet fray.That’s what the planned HP Slate will do, whenever it ships–and it will be a tablet with Windows, not Android.Regardless of HP’s intent, however, it’s worth considering the Zeen alongside the tablet competition. And after we did our comparison, the Zeen’s role became clear.

Zeen Up Close

On the surface, the Zeen certainly resembles a tablet. Aside from a slightly wider bezel around its capactive touch screen and its touch buttons running along the border in landscape orientation (as opposed to portrait), the Zeen looks just like any of the Android tablets on my desk right now.

It’s when you pick up the Zeen and look closer that the differences appear. Since it’s made to be sold with a printer, it largely lacks the design aesthetics you might expect from a stand-alone tablet. It’s neither sleek nor sexy; rather, the Zeen has a bulky protrusion on its back, in part to accommodate the ports and slots (a printer docking port, mini-USB, an SD Card slot that’s supposed to support SDHC but didn’t recognize my SDHC card). And it weighs 1.5 pounds, the same as the 9.7-inch iPad, even though it has only a seven-inch screen.

When I powered up the Zeen, its position as an outlier in the tablet world became even more obvious.

For starters, although you can hold the unit in portrait mode (and the screen will reorient as needed), it’s designed to be used in landscape mode. The home, back, and menu buttons all run along the top right, while at bottom sits the docking port for the printer. The tablet is necessary to use the printer–without it, you won’t get very far.

Surprisingly, though, the printer app does not dominate the screen, nor is it the biggest default widget on the home screen–two points that run counter to HP’s attempts to position the Zeen as being specific to the printer. When activated, the Printer app provides the usual touchscreen controls for copying, scanning, or fax (via eFax). But those options are buried beneath the Printer icon, which is one of six small icons running along the bottom of the screen. The others include Internet, Facebook, HP Gallery, Yahoo Daily Digest, and Yahoo Mail. No sign of Google Mail or Android Market, though, omissions that fit this device’s general lack of Google services.

Expand the menu by pressing the up arrow above the icon ticker, and you’ll see other apps that come pre-installed. Suddenly, the appearance is much more reminiscent of stock Android, with version 2.1 of the OS–replete with its indistinct icons–on board. HP says that it will push an update to Android 2.2 in “early 2011” (and that newer units shipping after then will come with 2.2 pre-installed). The home-screen skin appears to be slightly different from stock Android, with a selection of widgets available to customize the three home screens. The opening home screen has a module for Barnes & Noble, a weather module, and four apps that are primed for printing–sort of. All four–Disney, Yahoo, DreamWorks, and MSNBC–require an Internet connection just to get started.

Many of the pre-installed apps support printing, and are present because they focus on possible printing activities. And for that, I can see the Zeen’s potential: If the Zeen manages to approach the functionality of HP’s proprietary app store through the use of standard Android apps, so much the better for consumers who want to do a quick-hit print of a map, a weather report, a store’s hours, or an e-mail with directions to a wedding.

The printing integration is the key differentiator for the Zeen. For example, go to the Web browser, and you can tap ‘print’ to output the page you’re viewing. And in the HP Reader app (which requires a Barnes & Noble account), you can clip material for printing. HP says it is exploring additional partnerships for applications. The company won’t guarantee, however, whether random apps sideloaded from third-party app stores will be able to run on the device. If they do, they won’t print. HP states that it didn’t develop a generic Android print driver for the Zeen; instead, the company embedded print capability into the apps developed for the eStation.

Not the Ideal Tablet

With all of that functionality built in, it’s hard not to consider the Zeen a bona fide tablet. It’s frankly more of a tablet than the Barnes & Noble NookColor e-reader.

But the latter device has a terrific interface and design, and it sports a high-quality 1024-by-600-pixel screen, the same resolution as the Samsung Galaxy Tab. In contrast, the Zeen’s screen seems to do everything in its power to put people off of using the device as a dedicated tablet. The comparatively low 800-by-480 resolution makes reading on the Zeen unpleasant.

Just as the Zeen’s physical design doesn’t seem optimized for use as a tablet, the same can be said of its interface. In my hands-on tests, the capacitive touchscreen was often sluggish and unresponsive, attributes that might be due to the components inside (a Freescale i.MX51 processor running at 800MHz, 512MB of RAM, and 4GB of internal storage), or perhaps due to a lesser-quality capacitive touchscreen.

If HP hadn’t skimped and had instead delivered a competitive display and good components inside and out, the HP Zeen tablet might have had a niche, even with its kludgy design. And you’d be able to say that you’re buying the $400 C510 printer and getting a serviceable Android tablet thrown in. As it stands, though, the HP Zeen is only a step up–a small step up–from some of the generic Android tablets we’ve seen, sold direct from Chinese factories. If you’re buying the Photosmart eStation C510, you should be buying it strictly as a printer, and nothing more.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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