Review: HP TouchPad Go 39
The unannounced and never-released TouchPad Go, HP’s 7-inch webOS tablet. Going smaller doesn’t mean you have to compromise.
Despite having a smaller screen, HP didn’t skimp on the internals. The TouchPad Go is just as powerful, if not more powerful, than every other webOS tablet and every other seven-inch tablet.
The TouchPad Go is actually pretty thick for a modern tablet, the cameras both are quite poor, and application support is still lacking in comparison to the competition. Oh, and it never was and never will be released.
webOS 3.0 actually works at this smaller size without compromise. Seven inches isn’t the perfect size for everything, but for somebody who is traveling around a lot, the size makes a lot more sense than the bigger ten-inch TouchPad. But the fact that this tablet will never see the light of day puts a rather large damper on the party.
Inside this review...
When HP pulled the plug on webOS hardware development, there were a number of products coming down the pike, including the HP Pre3, TouchPad 4G, and the unannounced Bluetooth audio Touchstone dock. Also in the works was the HP TouchPad Go, a seven-inch webOS tablet. The Go was slated for a launch in fall 2011, though for obvious reasons that never came to pass. Instead, all of HP’s webOS hardware work was cancelled and the numerous TouchPad Go prototypes were sent to be destroyed. From the various hands-on photos we’ve seen over the past few months, it’s clear that at least a few Go tablets escaped that undignified fate, though exactly how many remain is a mystery.
For a few days we had one of these rarified tablets in our hands. The TouchPad Go will not be the saving grace of webOS, and we doubt it could have been. It’s a fine tablet for what it is, but it would have had serious trouble competing with the likes of the Amazon Kindle, Nook Tablet, and Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus.
It’s also worth noting that the Go we are reviewing here is a prototype device, and while it appears to be physically whole (mostly), the webOS software isn’t a final version of what would have shipped (or at least we hope it isn’t). So with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s dive in to the TouchPad Go.
The difference between a seven-inch tablet and a ten-inch tablet can be startling. You don’t really think about it, but it’s the almost equivalent to the difference between a full-size magazine and Reader’s Digest. For those accustomed to the original ten-inch TouchPad, upon first grasp it’s startling how small the Go is. In fact, it makes the older ten-inch model seem positively massive in comparison.
The TouchPad Go takes the design of the original TouchPad and cuts it down by nearly half. In fact, it’s almost as if HP lopped off the top half o the portrait-oriented TouchPad and made a smaller landscape Go out of what remained. In fact, HP has turned the controls a full ninety degrees, putting the center button and front-facing camera on the longer sides of the screen.
When held in landscape the power button and headphone jack are on the top of the top right corner, with the volume jack around down along the side of the same corner.The single pin-hole mic remains at the top and the micro USB port remains at the bottom below the center button. From the front, the Go looks merely like a squished TouchPad, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
You get your first sign of something being different when you look at the sides. The speakers are no longer carved out of a long side of the tablet (which is now the bottom edge) and there’s a seam running along the entire edge that separates the shiny plastic frame around the glass screen from a soft-touch matte finish back panel.
It’s here that the TouchPad Go makes its first marked improvement over the original TouchPad, swapping out the sealed fingerprint-magnet glossy black plastic back for a removable soft-touch panel.
Now located on the back, but still towards the bottom, are the stereo speakers.
Up in the top right corner is a new addition on the Go – a 5 megapixel rear-facing camera and LED flash.
There’s a small notch right below the Micro-USB port to pry the back panel off.
A set of nine clips holds the panel in place; it takes very little effort to pull the panel off, though as this is a prototype we can’t say if the production version would be different. For what it’s worth, the panel takes a reassuring amount of pressure to reattach and feels quite solid once in place. In fact, despite its removable nature we’d say that the TouchPad Go actually feels more solid than the single-piece original TouchPad.
Take off that panel and you’ll find the two exposed speakers, connection points for the Touchstone coil embedded in the back, a quasi-removable battery, and a SIM card slot.
We call it “quasi” removable because while you can reach out and touch it, you’re going to need a #00 Phillips screwdriver to remove the four screws to swap out the battery. Not exactly an on-the-go job, though presumably it would have made for easier repair work for technicians and the hacking crowd.
Between that battery and the screen is packed a full-size tablet’s worth of internals. The beating heart of the Go is a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm APQ8060 processor – the same used in the white 64GB TouchPad and the unreleased TouchPad 4G. It’s accompanied by a full gigabyte of RAM, 16GB of storage, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and AT&T-compatible cellular radio, and a GPS chip.
Internals-wise, the Go we spent time with is practically the same tablet as the AT&T-bound TouchPad 4G.
All of this is packed into a 13 mm-thick body. That thickness matches the other TouchPad models and the original iPad, but falls short of the svelte dimensions of the competition. For comparison’s sake, the Apple iPad 2, Asus Transformer Prime, and Samsung Galaxy Tab (8.9 and 10.1) all clock in under 9 mm, while in the seven-inch crowd the Kindle Fire, Galaxy Tab 7 Plus, BlackBerry Playbook, and Nook Tablet measure less than 12 mm from front-to-back. That’s not to say that the TouchPad Go feels thick in the hand; the back is curved in a manner reminiscent of the larger ten-inch TouchPad (though with a larger flat portion in the center), so it doesn’t feel all that girthy. At least it doesn’t until you pick up another tablet, even the same-thickness standard TouchPad.
As with every tablet ever, the front of the TouchPad Go is dominated by the screen. In this case it’s a seven-inch screen, but it takes an unusual turn here for this size bracket. Whereas most seven-inch tablets sport a 16:10 screen made for landscape use (typically with a 1024x600), the Go has a 4:3 ratio 1024x768 screen. The end result is a tablet that’s comfortable both in portrait or landscape mode.
The reason for the smaller 1024x768 screen vs. the wider-yet-shorter screen is a simple one – 1024x768 matches the pixel dimensions of the screen on the ten-inch TouchPad. By having the same screen size, at least as far as the processor and graphics chip are concerned, HP was able to make the Go fully compatible with every one of the thousands of already-available TouchPad apps. Unlike with the different-screened Pixi/Veer and Pre3 where there had to be different versions or coding of apps for the different resolution screens, the fact that the Go has the same pixel count as the big brother TouchPad means developers wouldn’t have to make any changes to their apps if they didn’t want to.
By packing that many pixels into the smaller seven-inch space, HP managed to up the pixel density from 132ppi on the original TouchPad to 184ppi on the Go. As far as pixel density is concerned, the Go actually has a higher-density screen than any tablet available, regardless of platform. The result is that the pixels almost, but not entirely, disappear at typical holding distance (right around 14-18 inches from the eyes).
Color reproduction on the display is plenty accurate, with excellent saturation and contrast. The Go’s panel isn’t the brightest on the market, nor does it offer the blackest blacks. But it’s a competent display nonetheless, with negligible brightening when viewed from extreme angles. Brightness-wise the Go actually was a bit disappointing, with its top brightness matching right around 60% on an original TouchPad. That’s not to say that the Go isn’t bright enough for day-to-day use, because it is, so long as you aren’t planning to use it in direct sunlight.
Every iteration of the ten-inch TouchPad came with one camera: a seriously disappointing 1.3 megapixel noisy mess of a sensor mounted front-and-center over the screen (in portrait orientation). The TouchPad Go carries over that same sensor, slapping it over a long side of the screen, and it’s still just as disappointing. It’s good for marginally-acceptable video chat, crappy candid shots, and not much else.
The TouchPad Go is the first webOS tablet to pack a rear-facing camera. This model has 5 megapixel sensor with an LED flash slapped onto the back. The flash is surprisingly bright, but if we’ve learned anything from reading the reviews of the tablets coming out running iOS and Android, tablet cameras are almost universally garbage. The TouchPad Go’s camera is no exception. It lacks autofocus and while it snaps pictures quickly, they’re generally dim, dull, and blurred.
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We never would have been one to say that a tablet camera makes much sense except for the “best camera is the one you have on you” mantra, but in the more compact seven-inch form factor it actually kind of works. At least in theory we could see how it might work. A seven-inch screen is pretty mammoth for a camera, even larger than all but the most insane of DSLRs. But it’s also about the size of most print-outs and a fairly comfortable and stable size for holding up for extended periods.
Only problem is that it takes exceptionally unremarkable photos. With a 13 mm-thick body we find it hard to fathom that HP could not fit a higher megapixel sensor, or at least one with autofocus and better quality into the Go. There’s also the problem of the camera software, which is inexplicably oriented with the controls along the bottom of the screen in landscape. The buttons rotate in place as you turn the tablet, but putting them on the bottom makes the shutter button a stretch given the most likely holding position: one hand on either side with thumbs over the sides of the screen. The controls are in the right spot (the side) if you switch into portrait mode, but by nature of human perception we tend to take most photos in landscape (with two eyes we see in landscape).
As the TouchPad Go is the first webOS tablet with two cameras, it’s also the first with the ability to switch between the front and back cameras in the photos app. Switching is accomplished by hitting the circular arrows button right next to the camcorder button. At least in theory that’s how it’s done. In our testing it’s something we only managed to get the Go to do twice – all other times it locked up the camera app and eventually crashed the tablet. Given the very un-webOS not-looking-like-a-button button used to switch, we’re guessing this is still a function HP was working on when the plug was pulled. Presumably they’d either get the kinks worked out (and the button looking better) before shipping.
Earlier we mentioned that the TouchPad Go packs a 1.5GHz processor and 1GB of RAM. That’s still technically fairly high-end for a tablet (though fast approaching high middle-range with introduction of the quad-core Tegra3 chipset), and as with the White 64GB TouchPad, the performance improvement over the original TouchPad isn’t all that obvious. It’s also difficult to fairly judge performance on the Go, as it’s running a version of webOS that’s both new (3.0.5 (more on that later)) and clearly not yet finished (see: camera rotation).
Regardless, what we’ve seen with the Go is that its performance is at least on par with currently available hardware. As it ought be, considering it has the same set of chips and only modestly different software. With the full gigabyte of RAM, the Go was unsurprisingly a capable multitasking machine, easily loading multiple apps, including very heavy PDK apps.
There are still some points worth noting on the performance downside. The Go occasionally would hiccup the video when asked to play a high definition clip, though audio would continue unabated. It also struggled when asked to play any Flash video, even though it was buffering plenty quickly from our high-speed cable connection. These aren’t issues we’ve often noticed with our older TouchPads (even the lesser 1.2GHz original TouchPad), so we’ll have to chalk it up to optimizations still pending with the build of webOS 3.0.5 on this tablet.
Thanks to the practically identical internals and pixel dimensions, the Go is capable of running any app available for the ten-inch TouchPads. This extends from upsized Mojo apps, Enyo apps as complex as Glimpse or Graphite, and full-screen PDK games like Asphalt 6 and Angry Birds HD. In our testing every app performed flawlessly, though we definitely had to dial down the accelerometer control sensitivity in Asphalt 6.
Like its bigger brother TouchPads, the TouchPad Go also includes Beats Audio. And like the bigger TouchPads, the speakers are actually pretty decent. They’re not going to power a party, but for music in a hotel room or office it’ll do fine. The speakers are a bit smaller than on the bigger TouchPads and as such don’t pack quite as much bass oomph. The speaker placement itself is a bit problematic – the speakers are directed into the back panel, with sound routed to the outside world via a narrow channel that leads to the narrow speaker grilles on the back.
The result is sound that is noticeably muffled. It’s not all that obvious when listening from the TouchPad Go on its own, in fact the vibration felt through the back panel is deceiving as to the quality of sound you’re getting. But compared to a regular TouchPad the audio quality is clearly lesser. Until you pop off the back and suddenly everything’s clear as it ought be.
Unfortunately the design of the TouchPad’s case left HP’s engineers with few options for the speakers. Placing the grille openings over the top of the actual speakers (as done with the smartphones) would have meant they’d be straddling the border between the flat part of the back and the start of the curve, meaning audio coming out would almost certainly be muffled if the Go were placed back-down on a flat surface. They couldn’t place the speakers themselves much closer to the edge due to the diminishing depth thanks to the sloping edge. The speakers themselves are actually tilted slightly towards the edge to help with the sound transmission and the direction channels are rimed with foam to keep the sound headed to the grilles instead of leaking out into the rest of the back. Perhaps they could have made the channels deeper, but we wouldn’t be surprised if there were chips of some sort crammed into that space. The ten-inch TouchPad is crowded enough as it is – space has to be at a premium in this smaller version.
Audio coming out of the headphone jack was as you would expect, which is to say beefed up by Beats. There was nary a hint of static and little noticeable distortion. It’s worth noting that for all of the isolated audio circuitry and static-free connection points, the majority of what makes the Beats magic is some fancy EQ work. It’s great for listening to any bass heavy music (or music you want to be bass heavy), so pretty much anything popular after 1970, but even then it distorts the music from its “true” self. The audio distributed via MP3 or pulled off a CD is how it’s intended to be heard, so long as you have a quality set of speakers or headphones to back it up. Beats compensates for not having a quality set of speakers or headphones – if you do have such, we’d recommend turning off Beats on the TouchPad before plugging in so you can hear your music the way it was meant to be heard.
The TouchPad Go we tested came with webOS 3.0.5, build 3883. It’s hard to say how close that is to final, but even so there are a few small visual changes worth noting apart from the bug fixes we already know about. When you’re in the multitasking card view, cards off to either side of the screen are dimmed slightly, placing more focus on the center card – it’s a subtle effect, but it makes sense once you notice it.
The sender/date header in Email has been reworked to include the sender’s image if they’re a contact of yours.
Also, the week view in Calendar has lost the darker color bar on the left side of events, opening up a dozen or so pixels for additional even information.
In our testing we also noticed two welcome changes. The first is that video played from on-device rotates in any direction, portrait or landscape. So if you’ve got something that was awkwardly filmed in portrait view you can finally view it fullscreen. Fullscreen Flash video, however, does not rotate. The second is that the browser has gained scrollbars. They appear on when you’re scrolling the page and disappear once the page has stopped, almost exactly replicating the behavior and appearance of the scrollbars in Safari on iOS. We haven’t noticed these scrollbars in any other built-in app.
The Go we tested also included an AT&T Communication Manager app for monitoring your data usage from on-device. We were unable to get service working on the device to test the app (and the cellular connection in general), but it’s nice to know that AT&T was willing to give TouchPad Go owners (and presumably the bigger TouchPad 4G) the ability to track their data usage from on-device.
Apart from these relatively minor changes, webOS 3.0.5 isn’t that different from webOS 3.0.4 currently on TouchPads. No changes have been made to accommodate the Go’s smaller screen, nor did any have to be made to accommodate other hardware differences (of which there are few).
The biggest difference between the TouchPad Go and the original TouchPad is the size. We know, “duh,” but that’s really what it comes down to. The removable back, rear camera, and SIM slot are mere add-ons; they don’t fundamentally alter the experience of using the tablet the way the size does. While the seven-inch tablet loses just 23% when measured diagonally, in total you’re losing 48% the screen space. In fact, the TouchPad Go’s screen’s longest side is a tad shorter than the short side of the bigger TouchPad’s screen.
The ten-inch TouchPad was designed around a portrait orientation and for most applications is comfortable and perfectly usable as such. The Go, however, is designed around landscape, with the front-facing camera and center button aligned along the long sides. Even though it has the same 4:3 aspect ratio of the ten-inch tablet, the Go just feels more natural in landscape.
The natural inclination of a TouchPad owner is to rotate from portrait mode to the left for landscape, that way the speakers are facing you and the volume buttons at the top. In its natural landscape orientation, the Go has its speakers already facing you, and a rotation to the right (to get into standard portrait) puts the volume rocker at the bottom of the tablet. It’s very easily triggered here if you’re the type to lean back and rest the tablet on your stomach to read. If you’re going to hold the Go off your body, then the natural position of both hands in portrait mode puts the power button under your left palm, though it’s not as easily triggered as the volume rocker.
The no-brainer solution is of course to rotate the other direction, but old habits die hard (especially if you were to own both the ten-inch and seven-inch versions of the TouchPad). Thankfully, the TouchPad Go is noticeably lighter than its ten-inch brother, making one-handed holding a much more reasonable affair. The size helps in addition the weight, keeping the center of gravity with the reach of an grasping hand in both portrait and landscape orientations.
With webOS not altered in any way for the seven-inch screen, all of the touch targets are smaller on the Go (like the screen they’re approximately half the size in area, dimensionally about ¾ the size). For everything we tested this didn’t prove to be a major problem. The only place where the smaller screen size coupled with no changes proved to be an issue was with the keyboard, where the XS setting for key height was laughably small (approximately a quarter inch tall). Thankfully, webOS 3.0 still packs the adjustable size keyboard, and where we tend to use the S on a ten-inch TouchPad we find M more comfortable on the Go.
The seven-inch screen was no hindrance to use, with every app functioning as expected and working just fine at the smaller size. The higher pixel density, while welcome, wasn’t really that noticeable in practice. What is noticeable is how much smaller text is. Even in landscape orientation we found that we often had to zoom into easily read text on most websites. Portrait mode text was legible, but still rather small. That’s not a problem in and of itself, though if you’re visiting a website that’s not formatted in a linear manner you may find yourself doing lots of side-to-side scrolling or zooming in and out.
One thing actually made easier with the smaller screen is typing. In landscape mode its easy enough to hold with both hands and reach the center of the screen with your thumbs (at least we found it such, and we aren’t the owners of massive hands). In portrait mode we found it most natural to hold with one hand and perform multi-finger typing thing with the other.
The smaller size and weight also made the TouchPad Go a great on-the-go companion. Really; we suppose that’s where the name came from. A few weeks ago I stopped throwing his ten-inch TouchPad in my laptop bag, getting tired of lugging around the extra pound-and-a-half. But the much lighter and smaller Go could find a welcome place in my bag. You know, if it actually existed in a capacity outside of ultra-rare collector’s item.
As we said at the outset, this was all testing performed on prototype version of the TouchPad Go running an unfinished version of webOS. We have no doubt that at the very least some of our software glitches would have been ironed out by the time the Go would have launched, but that work was either abandoned as it pertains to the Go.
On our Go unit we were unable to get the cellular radio to work, nor was the Touchstone charging system functional. Touch-to-Share, if present on the Go, was also not responsive to the repeated overtures from our Pre3 (though pairing and text message sharing was achieved over Bluetooth). We did not test battery life with the Go – it wasn’t great, but we don’t know if that’s the fault of the hardware (which itself was possibly not final) or of a not-yet-optimized operating system.
By and large webOS has not changed considerably from the ten-inch TouchPads of yore. If there’s something we didn’t cover in this review, we likely touched on it in our reviews of the White 1.5GHz TouchPad, the original TouchPad review, and the webOS 3.0.2 and 3.0.4 updates.
If we were asked to sum up the TouchPad Go in five words, we’d say “It’s the TouchPad, but smaller.” But in reality it’s more than just a smaller TouchPad. The decreased size and weight changes the potential set of use cases for the Go. It now makes more sense as portable webOS companion device, as the Go moniker implies. The Go was designed very much as a tag-along device, an intention assisted by the inclusion of GPS and a SIM card slot. In fact, we’d love to have a full-fledged GPS solution and car dock to go with the Go – it’d be the perfect in-car navigation solution. It’s already tied into your music, your phone, and your contacts and comes with its own internet connection.
But alas, it’s not to be. HP’s pulling of the plug on webOS hardware means that very few of this little tablet will see the light of day. And that’s a shame. Not because the TouchPad Go would have been the saving grace of webOS for HP – we doubt it could have been. While the hardware of the TouchPad wasn’t massively impressive, it would have been good enough had the software support been there too. The TouchPad Go would have suffered from the same problem, though it would have brought better hardware to the playing field.
The question is could the Go have competed successfully against the Amazon Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet, or Samsungs Galaxy Tab 7 Plus? On the hardware front, sure. With the exception of thickness and maybe weight, the TouchPad Go outclasses or matches every other seven-inch tablet available (and for some other unmentioned tablets it even bests in the thinness and lightness department). But without the support of a robust app ecosystem, the Go would have struggled alongside the other TouchPads. All of the other seven-inch tablets have the advantage of Android backing, even the heavily-skinned and siloed Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet.
Of course, it’s hard to say how much struggling there would have actually been. The App Catalog has been picking up steam lately, but that was after the webOS community and developer base was stunned with Leo Apotheker’s world wrecking sledgehammer. webOS by now would not have lived up to HP’s lofty expectations, mostly due to the hubris and lack of foresight from the company’s executives. But webOS could be achieving moderate success by this time, possibly carving out a sector of users not interested in Apple’s walled garden but also turned off by the Wild West image both fairly and unfairly painted of Android.
The TouchPad Go is a rarity. It’s more of a collector’s item than a daily workhorse. It’s one thing to use and break a GSM Pre3. They might not be in great supply, but there’s at least a supply enough that if yours is lost or destroyed, you should be able to replace it. The TouchPad Go, on the other hand, is practically irreplaceable. We’re not sure how many exist in the wild, but like the Verizon Pre3 we expect the total numbers somewhere in the dozens, if that.
The TouchPad Go is not a bad tablet. But it’s also not a great tablet. Like the standard TouchPad, it’s a good tablet. Better than okay, but also not mind-blowingly awesome. By virtue of its size it changes how you use it, but not in any fundamental manner. It sought to fill a void in the webOS tablet market, seeking the customer that wants something smaller than the ten-inch tablet but doesn’t want to compromise in the process. While any tablet comes with compromises, the TouchPad Go’s compromises (at least over the original TouchPad) are only directly related to its size.
So as much as this is a review, it’s also a look at what could have been. More so than the Pre3, which we knew existed and had held with our very hands, the TouchPad Go was a product of the webOS future. With the future of webOS now forked into some bizarre alternate reality, what lies ahead is anybody’s guess.