Loving my HP TouchPad: a biased review

I love my TouchPad. That is the most important thing you should know. It is not without its imperfections, of course. I love it anyway.

Unless you are remarkably similar to me, however, my love of the device will not accurately predict your own. The real story lies in why I love it as much as I do after so short a span of time with it, despite the fact that I typically am unhappy with early adopter technology.

When the iPad came crashing onto the scene and created a new computing market practically overnight, there were two types of reviews: in the first, reviewers dissected, often at great length, the hardware and software ups and downs of the device. In the second, reviewers tried to understand and communicate the emotional ties that they found themselves building with the iPad. The TouchPad takes a lot of cues from the iPad, with its ability to emotionally resonate with users not least. This review, therefore, is of the second type.

Inevitable bias

Everyone is biased, from the professional reviewers who oh-so-dispassionately cover every new gizmo coming down the pipe to gentle readers like yourself. This fact is uninteresting to me. What is interesting is knowing the source of a given person’s bias. Here’s mine:

I develop apps for WebOS (currently TapNote is monopolizing my focus, though I hope to add to my lineup eventually), and have invested quite a lot of time over the past year in learning, supporting, and developing for the platform. Disavowing the TouchPad would be the same as stating that I wasted a lot of my free time for a year (as well as negatively impacting me financially by potentially depressing TapNote sales), so I am primed to like it.

For the source of your own bias, I leave it to you to explore.

On gorillas

You cannot discuss any tablet without mentioning the iPad, so let’s get it over with. Yes, the TouchPad is indebted to the iPad and very similar in many respects (particularly hardware). Every tablet is, even the ones that look very little like the iPad.

This is because the iPad created a new industry and way of thinking about mobile computing. Yes, it was also built on previous creations and ideas, but like Sigmund Freud for psychology, the iPad brought tablet computing to the masses. Love or hate Freud, it is impossible to study psychology without learning about him, because just about every school of psychological thought afterward was either building on his ideas or reacting against them. The iPad is the same.

Unlike most Android tablets, the TouchPad is heavily and explicitly inspired by the iPad. (If you liked the Freud metaphor, one might say that the TouchPad is Carl Jung to the iPad’s Freud.)

In particular, the hardware for the TouchPad is very reminiscent of the iPad, with differences that I leave to you to discover in other reviews. Personally, I think this is a good thing. The iPad nailed a particular size and shape that is very pleasing to use and hold.

The items that are most often cited by other reviewers as detracting from the TouchPad compared to the iPad seem trivial to me. In particular, the extra thickness and weight is very difficult to discern day-to-day. Both devices feel overly heavy to me (I can’t wait for the engineers to figure out ways to miniaturize the components and get the weight down), but unless I were holding both an iPad and a TouchPad at once, I wouldn’t notice the weight difference.

The slight extra width of the TouchPad is also not noticeable unless you are looking at the devices side-by-side, and given that Stephen DeWitt has said that the extra size of the TouchPad is thanks to the hardware that enables inductive charging with a Touchstone dock (if you are a user of Apple devices, you cannot understand how fantastically liberating inductive charging is without trying it for yourself), I am exceedingly happy to love my slightly fatter TouchPad’s form factor regardless of professional reviewer’s iPad comparisons.

Based on my experience, the hardware differences that many people are chatting up as the main reason to avoid the TouchPad seem like things few would notice in the course of everyday use.

It’s worth noting, however, that I am keeping my first tablet, the iPad 1, around. I rarely have the desire to pick up the iPad since getting the TouchPad, but particularly when it comes to games the iOS App Store still trounces the competition. I’ve got to get my occasional Small World or Avadon fix, and the iPad is the only place I can do that (well, I could play Avadon on my computer, but it’s so much better on a tablet).

The distinguishing factor: WebOS

WebOS is the main reason I love the TouchPad as much as I do, because it lets me focus completely on a single task at a time.

If you have read any of HP’s promotional materials (or other reviews mentioning WebOS), you are likely scratching your head right now because multitasking is the word that most often gets bandied around when talking about WebOS. It is the wrong word.

The word everyone is looking for is “multi-apping”.

WebOS does not let you multitask any more than the iPad lets you multitask (frankly, if you want to dilute your focus and work on multiple tasks at once, a computer is the best option). Instead, it lets you very effectively work at a single task because it understands that tasks do not equal apps.

Take, for instance, the simple act of posting a tweet that is inspired by something I read in Instapaper.

  1. While in an Instapaper app, I read something that triggers a short thought I would like to share
  2. I open a Twitter app, and write my thought down
  3. While revising my thought, I realize that it would benefit by a link to an old blog post of mine
  4. I open a browser app, navigate to my blog post, and copy the link
  5. Back in the Twitter app, I paste the link, post the tweet, and switch back to my Instapaper app to resume reading

Over the course of that task, I needed three apps. The more time and thought I have to spend on the mechanics of switching between those apps, the more distracted I get. By the time I get back to the Instapaper app, I might have completely lost the flow of the article and need to reread back a few paragraphs.

Both iOS (from which I defected in favor of WebOS) and WebOS allow switching between apps during the course of a task, of course, but WebOS requires far less explicit thought (and time spent) on the mechanics of the switch. Swipe up or single tap the home button in WebOS and I have the card view where I can see all of my apps as small, live snapshots. Another swipe and tap, and I am in the app I need. Because WebOS is designed from the ground up to gracefully run multiple apps side-by-side, my thoughts can remain on my task at hand, making me both happier and more productive.

In iOS, by contrast, I have to double tap the home button, search for the app icon that I need in a long list of apps organized based on when I last launched them instead of by task (which, being icons, offer no indication of the state of that app), and rinse and repeat for every switch. This entire system makes it much more difficult to work on any task on iOS that requires multiple apps. Which, for me, is most tasks that I do on a tablet aside from gaming.

Like the multi-apping, there are numerous other features in WebOS that delight me, such as notifications, over-the-air updates, and Synergy. Were the TouchPad running any other operating system, my feelings for it would likely be little more than ambivalent. With WebOS, however, it truly shines.

A life without wires

When I first brought home a WebOS device, turning it on and having all my data (contacts, calendars, etc.) available at my fingertips within minutes was life-altering. I had not realized prior how much effort maintaining Apple device’s dependency on iTunes was requiring of me. I had to remember to sync and charge my device regularly or risk losing data. In order to do this, I had to keep track of cables, remember to plug it into my computer when iTunes was running (or have my workflow badly interrupted when iTunes launched automatically), and wait for it to sync before I could unplug it. With WebOS devices I never have to think about it. My data is automatically synched and backed up to the cloud, and even if I need to charge it I just drop it on the Touchstone inductive charging dock and grab it when I am ready to go.

Thanks to its lack of reliance on wires, the TouchPad is the first truly mobile tablet I have had the pleasure to use. Once you have tasted true wireless computing, there simply is no going back.

Creativity, empowered

It is uniquely human to spend a lot of time thinking about tools. Other animals use tools, of course, but we spend an inordinate amount of our lives imagining, creating, and using them. Even the people I know who are completely uninterested in engineering or programming do this. It seems like everyone has an idea for that one gadget that would make life easier, even if most of us never act on those ideas.

I am no different, except that when it comes to websites (and to a lesser extent software) I am better equipped than many to make my ideas a reality. Prior to WebOS, however, I did not have anywhere I felt I could happily make native apps. Websites are great, but I have never been particularly interested in creating a web app simply because I myself do not like interacting with applications through the frame of a browser. Mac OS, iOS, Android, and Windows are all running on core technologies that I do not particularly enjoy using, have significant learning curves, and would be far more difficult to get noticed on.

WebOS (and particularly the TouchPad) changed all that for me. Here is a full-size computing platform where I can finally make my ideas reality, thanks to so much of the knowledge and so many of the skills that I gained doing web development being directly applicable.

There is something incredibly fulfilling about using something you have created and seeing other people use and enjoy it, as well. Thanks to this, TapNote is a huge contributor to my positive feelings for the TouchPad, both because the app itself is perfectly suited to my needs and because it represents my capability to make my dreams reality.

Of course, this aspect of the TouchPad is not likely to appeal to many casual users, but if you are a web developer who has been dreaming up app ideas, then you need to give some serious thought to WebOS. HP is creating and nurturing something truly great here.

My device is my own

Although I do not make nearly as heavy use of it as some, the WebOS homebrew community is another reason that I love the TouchPad. Using homebrew is similar to jailbreaking an iPhone or rooting an Android device except:

  • you can use homebrew and paid apps side by side
  • the homebrew community is 100% blessed by HP

When I first got my TouchPad, one of the first apps I downloaded was Paper Mache because I love using tablets for Instapaper. However, the WebOS Browser app does not provide support for Javascript bookmarklets, making it difficult to add URLs from the browser to Instapaper for reading in Paper Mache.

Not a problem with homebrew; the Paper Mache developer released a patch there recently that creates an “Add to Paper Mache” item in the browser’s built-in share menu. Homebrew and the paid App Catalog are often synergistically related.

For those a little more adventurous than I, homebrew also offers overclocking capabilities, extra launcher tabs, themes, and much more. WebOS devices are devices that you can truly make your own, without needing to worry about breaking warranties and so forth.

Apps make or break the experience

If you have read any review of a tablet to date, you know that apps make or break the experience. Everyone has different needs when it comes to apps. I have discussed the TouchPad App Catalog at launch in detail before, but suffice it to say that while the app selection is a lot smaller than other platforms, my core needs are very well covered (the one exception being that I still have not found an RSS reader that makes me happy).

Your mileage will vary, of course, but if you anticipate using a tablet mostly to interact with the web, consume various types of media (audio, video, the written word), and supplant casual computer use, the TouchPad will be an excellent fit (it certainly has been for me). The catalog is still evolving, but the core competencies are there and pretty solid.

I am also highly optimistic about HP’s ability to attract developers. I have been developing for WebOS for over a year now (including back when it was Palm running the show rather than HP), and the developer relations team has always been outstanding. No other mobile platform offers such a great experience for third party developers, HP has been aggressively working to attract even more, and despite some frustrating missteps along the way they are very good about owning their mistakes and making things right. (An excellent recent example was that the sales reporting for many apps was showing up to three times as many sales as their most recent payout. HP very quickly investigated the issue, and although they discovered that the checks they sent were correct they still decided to pay developers the difference in the reported numbers.)

Flash and other miscellany

When it comes to specific features, like Beats audio or support for Flash, I am personally ambivalent. However, the other day my partner complained about needing go plug in her computer halfway through a TV episode on Hulu, and I mentioned she could try using the TouchPad. She said she didn’t want to pay for Hulu Plus, and continued plugging in her computer. I told her there wasn’t a Hulu app; she could watch it normally in the browser using Flash. She got quiet for a second, then said, “But why would I need a computer then?”

Which seems telling.

Of course, when I visited Hulu the other day and tried to watch a TV show, nothing but the advertisements worked (which is also telling). The promise of access to the full web via Flash is still premature. However, the few times that I have stumbled across a Flash video embedded on a website while using the TouchPad it has been extremely refreshing to be able to immediately watch it.

The TouchPad is for me

Both as a user and a developer, I love my TouchPad. It is likely not the right device for everyone, of course, but it is a great piece of hardware running a fantastic piece of software with a decent catalog of apps that is actively growing and maturing.

If you are in the market for a tablet, you will likely love the TouchPad (or not) for different reasons than me, of course. I encourage you to visit a store with display models and try it for yourself (I’ve heard places like Best Buy, Staples, and so forth often have units on display).

5 responses to “Loving my HP TouchPad: a biased review”

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  1. MrKal_El says:

    LOVE the term Multi-Apping!

  2. rsanchez1 says:

    Well, if you’re into using Google Reader, I have a Google Reader app that is very close to completion which I have been told is better than the competition. If you would like to try it drop me a line.

  3. Ian Beck says:

    Is that the Enyo conversion of Feeder? I tried downloading from GitHub and building from source early in, but it failed to launch with an error that wasn’t easy to track down (for someone unfamiliar with the source). Would love to give it another shot if it is more stable now.

  4. rsanchez1 says:

    How early in? I don’t think it has any problems now.

  5. Ian Beck says:

    Pretty soon after you forked it, I think. There were only about half a dozen commits at the time. I’ll definitely give it another try now that it’s a bit further along.

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