Review: HP TouchPad [part 2] 158
If there’s any app that’s going to be the key to the TouchPad’s success, it’s the App Catalog. And if there’s any app that feels most out of place, it’s the App Catalog. For all of the Enyo-y goodness that are the sliding panels, that’s nowhere to be found in the App Catalog. Instead, there are literally back buttons throughout. In fact, it's the only pre-installed app with a back button. Compared to the smoothness of the rest of webOS, the back button is just jarring.
That out of the way, let’s actually talk about the Catalog. The first thing you’re presented with upon launching the App Catalog is a new feature called webOS Pivot. Pivot is an App Catalog magazine of sorts, complete with a table of contents. The app reformats itself in vertical and horizontal, and works entirely by swiping left-right to get to the next page. It contains features on app developers, individual apps, and just using the TouchPad as part of a digital lifestyle. When discussed, the apps are linked live, either to the App Catalog listing or containing a Launch button if you’ve already got that app installed. Pivot is also the first place you’ll see the bookmark icon, which lets you save an app listing for later. Once you get into the app listings, it’s paired up with every individual app. Pivot is planned for new issues every month, and each issue will be custom tailored to the market in which it is being distributed (i.e. Germany will get a different issue of Pivot than America).
Articles in the launch edition of Pivot include Fine Tuning on internet radio, Month at a Glance with events for July and apps that you can use for those events (some of the connections are bit of a stretch), and Answering Machines by novelist Colson Whitehead (a work on “the rise of know-it-all devices”), among others. Pivot also contains app reviews, which in the first issue are Facebook, iheartradio, Need For Speed Hot Pursuit, and TED. The reviews are honest, though supportive, as you would expect from a magazine dedicated to supporting the App Catalog and its developers. Instead of criticism, the reviews offer a “wishlist” of where the app could go in the future. Pivot ends with a list of all the apps discussed in the issue (22 total in July’s) and a preview of the next month. If you had any doubts about HP’s opinion of homebrew development, the August edition is slated to include an article title “Homebrewers: Keeping The Garage Unlocked.”
The Catalog consistently has four tabs across the bottom: Featured (which launches Pivot), Categories, Bookmarks, and Search. Categories is a simple filtering browser, with a list of app categories on the left side and apps themselves on the right. Selecting a category gives you the option to filter even further. For example, under Games you can select Action/Adventure, Sports, Cards, Strategy, Trivia, and seven other sub-filter options to narrow your browsing. The top of the apps list is topped by buttons to see the “top” apps (the most downloaded), the top paid and free apps, and the newest apps. The same sort and filter options are available under the search tab.
Once you’ve selected an app, you’re presented with a two-panel view of the app’s data. The column on the left breaks down the reviews by star rating along with scaling positive and negative review bubbles, followed by a set of app data (compatibility, version, etc), and buttons to share the app, view other apps by that developer, launch the app support website, and report problems directly from the App Catalog.
The column on the right is for the app description and the reviews themselves. It’s topped by a horizontal scrolled of app screenshots. The little thumbnail sized screenshots can’t be tapped, pinched, or willed into a bigger size, making them practically useless since they’re a whopping 1x1.5 inches in size. Any YouTube videos attached to the app are displayed here, but at least those can be watched (tapping opens a browser window to the appropriate YouTube page). Under the miniature gallery is the app description, followed by user reviews, which are separated by positive and negative (with positive always as the default selection). We can understand to a degree why HP elected to separate the reviews – it gives developers a better shot if the negative reviews aren’t displayed right off the bat, but it’s also not really fair to potential customers to hide the negative reviews (yes, they’re only one tap away, but it’s that way on purpose), encouraging them to buy the app, and then depositing a negative review on the app.
The webOS 3.0 App Catalog is easily one of, if not the, most important app on the TouchPad. And it’s the one that disappoints the most. If as much design work and attention to detail as Pivot shows had been put into the Catalog itself, we might not have these complaints, but the App Catalog has a long way to go. Third party apps are the lifeblood of any modern mobile computing platform, and if Pivot is to be HP’s answer for discovery, they’re ignoring the discovery that comes from just searching for a solution. Make every app page look as good as Pivot with all the functionality of the old Catalog (most important: full size screenshot viewing) and a lot of these complaints will disappear. Also: an online app portal, especially one that ties in with the bookmarks feature.
Mojo Compatibility Mode and PDK Portability Mode
Ranking “for TouchPad” apps over the older Mojo apps happens for a good reason: The vast majority of the 3000+ old webOS smartphone apps that have been determined to be compatible with the TouchPad have not been updated to support the larger screen and higher resolution of the tablet. These older apps are run in what HP has termed “Compatibility Mode,” which in reality is a virtual emulator for the physical hardware of a Pre-series phone. Mojo apps that haven’t been updated for the larger screen and lack of a gesture area run in a 320x480 simulated window in the middle of the TouchPad’s screen, with a fake phone surrounding them in order to provide a virtual gesture area at the bottom to let you swipe around to your heart’s delight.
We have to question HP’s decision to make the emulator like this, as from the beginning of webOS Palm touted that apps built on the SDK would be able to easily scale to different screen sizes. It might be that HP determined that they didn’t scale as well as they would have liked, but that still doesn’t explain why they didn’t have the apps get pixel doubled (320x480 becomes 640x960, which fits easily on the 768x1024 TouchPad screen) and still have a gesture area at the bottom.
If you’re thinking that the virtual keyboard might cause issues, don’t forget that these apps all scale up when you open the notifications dashboard on your phone – there’s no reason they couldn’t have done the same on the TouchPad. This phone emulator is simply not good. It’s a jarring experience for anybody hoping to make use of their old webOS apps, and after using it we got back into using the back gesture and started swiping at the bezel of the TouchPad.
Old PDK apps (3D games and the like), however, scale just fine up to the TouchPad’s larger screen. They retain their 3:2 formatting, and thus have black bars across the top and bottom, but otherwise look perfectly fine on the bigger screen. There’s obviously some pixelization since these apps think they’re running on a 320x480 screen, but most are perfectly usable. Keyword being most. Some apps took a long time to load, while others fired up instantly. The only one that completely failed in our testing was the full version of Supersonic, which for some reason kept trying to render itself in portrait mode when the app is a landscape one. Strangely, the free trial version of Supersonic works just fine.
Enyo and TouchPad PDK
Enough about the headaches of using old apps – it’s time to talk new apps. As mentioned earlier, the new App Catalog differentiates between apps made specifically for the TouchPad and those designed for older devices, and for good reason: the new TouchPad apps simply aren’t going to work on webOS 2.x. There are a number of quality Enyo apps available in the Catalog, as well as a few dozen tablet-size PDK games. The staples are here: Angry Birds HD (original and Rio), USA Today, the unofficial PreCentral News HD app (not made by us, but fantastically done anyway – we have the best fans, hands down), Photo Effects Tablet Edition (for basic photo editing), and the like.
The webOS 3.0 App Catalog is also playing host to two new sets of apps for the TouchPad: books and magazines. While books have long been a part of the webOS App Catalog, it’s almost entirely been in the form of app spam generated from public domain books. The 3.0 Catalog is different, at least for now, with the Enyo SDK still in closed beta. At the time of this review there were just over a dozen individual books in the Catalog, priced from $0.99 to $28.95. The lower end was populated by a series of childrens’ picture books like Bert and Ernie Bakers from Sesame Street, while the top half was filled out by titles like A Scanner Darkly by Phillip K. Dick and Bill Bryson’s At Home. Of course, with a full-fledged Kindle app on board, we can’t see these individual app books taking off.
The magazine apps, however, might do well. The apps serve merely as portals to the tablet edition of the magazine and have their own built-in subscription services. We tried out Time, Fortune, and People (all from Time, Inc.) and came away impressed with the format. Subscribers to the paper edition of these publications will receive the tablet edition for free (you have to log in using your magazine account information), and everybody else can purchase a subscription right there on the spot (Time is $2.99 a month and People goes for $9.99), with the first four issues provided for free, clearly with the intention of getting you hooked on the content. As was demonstrated at the TouchPad unveil back in February, these magazine apps contain the same content as their print counterparts, but with interactive parts and landscape/portrait formatting that just isn’t possible with paper.
A good number of PDK games are available for the TouchPad. From the highly-detailed Angry Birds Rio to the surprisingly addictive Radiant HD to Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, they all performed incredibly well on the TouchPad. Frame rates and responsiveness were superb, as we would expect with the high-end hardware driving everything. While it’s clear HP has called in some favors to get these apps made (Jon Rubinstein’s on Amazon’s board, for example), there are still some gaping holes in the TouchPad’s app selection. For instance, the only text editor is a basic niche Markdown editor. There’s no Google Reader app (a hugely important tool for us at PreCentral), though there is at least an RSS reader in Need for Feeds by Rusty Apps. The only “for TouchPad” Twitter client is Spaz HD, which while a great open source app, just feels rough around the edges (a fit for the TouchPad, we suppose), and there’s nothing for Foursquare, Google Latitude, or any other number of social networks.
HP still faces the chicken and the egg cycle problem with TouchPad apps: developers want a userbase before they’ll make apps; after all, they need to know that the work they put into making an app is going to result in food on the dinner table. Potential users want to know that the apps are there before they’ll buy into the platform. So you need apps to get users to get apps to get users. It’s a problem Palm and HP have been facing for two and a half years, and there’s no good solution. The critical mass userbase is a vital threshold for HP to reach, and they’ve at least made very strong steps in getting big name developers (Amazon, EA, Time, Rovio, et al) on board to make the base apps for the TouchPad. Whether or not the smaller developers will flock to the platform remains to be seen.
HP sent pre-release TouchPads to leading homebrew developers like WebOS Internals’ Rod Whitby, and they’ve been hard at work updating apps like Preware for TouchPad compatibility. WebOS Quick Install 4.2.0 plays nice with the TouchPad, as does the latest testing version of Preware (version 1.6.8). Preware’s been updated to work on the bigger TouchPad screen and now has a back button in the top bar to make up for the missing gesture area. There aren’t currently any patches or kernels available for the TouchPad, but the apps available in the PreCentral Homebrew App Gallery installed without a problem (and ran in the above discussed Mojo Compatibility Mode emulator).
HP’s made their commitment to supporting homebrew clear, and the fact that developer mode is still easily accessed on webOS 3.0 (either by typing the Konami Code or webos20090606 into Just Type) emphasizes that commitment. With TouchPads already in the hands of the appropriate devs, it’ll only be a matter of time before patches, kernels, and more homebrew apps are made available for the TouchPad. Homebrew’s not going anywhere, and we’ll be better off for it.
Touch-to-Share and phone/text sharing
One of the more interesting features of the TouchPad actually requires another device: it’s called Touch-to-Share, and it transfers data between your TouchPad and an HP Pre3. We were given a pre-production Pre3 to test out Touch-to-Share, and it works exactly how HP has described: touch the back of the phone to the home button on the TouchPad, the tablet has a funky wave go across the screen, and the URL of the currently-in-focus browser card on either device is transferred to the other. The transfer works in both directions: the TouchPad can send a URL to the phone, and the phone can send one to the tablet. In fact, it’s simple enough that you can have different pages loaded on the phone and tablet, tap them together, and they’ll swap URLs and load them. The tap part is just to establish that the two devices are to communicate – the actual communication is done over Bluetooth.
Right now Touch-to-Share only works with web URLs, but seeing as all Enyo and Mojo apps are built off of web tech, we can see how the feature could be quickly expanded to other apps and services. Touch-to-Share does not require that the two devices be on the same webOS Profile, but they do need to be paired first. Unlike NFC, which is designed to work between unfamiliar devices, Touch-to-Share is meant for familiar (hence the Bluetooth pairing).
The first tap between a TouchPad and Pre3 (and any other eventual Touch-to-Share devices) initiates a pairing process that also allows you to choose whether or not to allow the TouchPad to handle calls and texts from the phone. This feature is refreshingly unique and something we’ve been waiting for, well, years. We’ve actually wanted this since before tablets became mainstream products, that’s how long.
Thanks to the magic of Synergy, text message sharing happens just as if the TouchPad itself had a cellular radio. Of course, it doesn’t, so a Bluetooth connection with the phone is required to handle the message sharing. As soon as a text comes in on your phone, it’s also on your TouchPad. Responding via the TouchPad pushes the message back to your phone, and then on to the recipient. We didn’t notice any hiccups or delays in the process, which is how it should be.
Incoming calls behavior is exactly like the Skype calls described earlier in this review. The call rings on the TouchPad (you can select your own ringtones) and you get a large notification in the top right corner, which then launches the Phone app and puts you into a regular conversation. As far as your phone’s behavior is concerned, it thinks that the TouchPad is merely a Bluetooth speakerphone. The speakerphone system also works with older webOS phones, all the way back to webOS 1.4.5. You can also dial out from the TouchPad to your paired phone. Like with the phones, tapping the call button when not on a call will redial the last number, but will also give the option to dial that contact over Bluetooth or Skype (if that person is available on both).
While this pairing is great and all, there’s still one issue that needs to be worked out: re-establishing that connection. The TouchPad and Pre3 see each other just fine, and even transfer URLs over Bluetooth like there’s no tomorrow with Touch-to-Share, but that “I’m a Bluetooth speakerphone and want to share your texts” pairing has proven difficult to maintain if the two are separated, and they will be often. The phone is meant to go with you everywhere, while the tablet certainly is not. That connection needs to be re-established soon after the two are in close proximity, but more often than not we had to manually open the device menu and Bluetooth sub-menu on the Pre3 or TouchPad and select the companion device to get them to play nice again. Re-pairing did happen automatically after either device was restarted in the Bluetooth range of the other (thankfully, restarts were rare and intentional on both devices), but one shouldn’t have to resort to manually reconnecting phone and tablet for something that’s otherwise entirely seamless.
When we got our first leaks of the TouchPad’s design documents (back when it was still the Topaz), we also got our first glimpse at what Touchstone v2 would look like, at least conceptually. The high-concept Touchstone tech stuff is above in the Touch-to-Share section, while this section deals with the good ‘ole inductive charging part of the Touchstone equation. The TouchPad comes with integrated inductive charging coils for use with the new Touchstone charging dock, an easel-like stand that will charge the tablet in portrait or landscape orientations. Well, technically charging only happens in landscape with the speakers down and home button on the right or portrait with the webcam at the top. Speakers up and webcam down don’t work, unlike with the phone-series Touchstone chargers, which worked in literally any direction.
This is likely due to the design of the TouchPad Touchstone stand: the tablet merely sits on the bottom lip instead of being held in place and proper orientation by magnets. Because the center of the tablet changes between the orientations, and it only works in two of specific orientations, our suspicion is that the Touchstone has one large inductive charging coil in it, while the TouchPad has two corresponding coils to receive the charge (one for each orientation).
In our use the Touchstone was able to charge the TouchPad just as fast as the standard USB wall charger. The Touchstone actually includes the AC-to-USB adapter in the box, as the cable here is integrated into the stand. Of note, because the Touchstone and TouchPad don’t have magnets for alignment, positioning the tablet on the stand isn’t quite as easy as it is with the phones. There’s a more horizontal tolerance in how far you can move the TouchPad before it stops taking a charge, and the pairing will start to make a quiet and disconcerting high pitched warble if they’re in that zone between too far to charge and close enough.
Exhibition is in full play on the TouchPad, but the only updates from webOS 2.1 to 3.0 have been aesthetic. The same three default Exhibition choices remain in 3.0: Time, Photos, and Agenda. Time at least gives you three clocks to choose from: a swanking blue modern analog clock with the date in plain text below, a flip number-style clock with full date, and a clean black modern clock with smoothly-ticking second hand and the day and date. Photos is a slideshow of all your photos in chronological order. It touches on everything: screenshots, wallpapers, your Facebook photos (including your profile album, which is a little weird and narcissistic), and any other photos you’ve loaded on the device. That there’s still no option to filter down to a specific album or even source is disappointing. Agenda merely super-sizes the Agenda from Exhibition in webOS 2.1. The only addition is a current month date grid in landscape mode. Like Photos, there are no options, which can be frustrating if there are calendars that you’ve synced down to be able to reference, but don’t care to see them displayed on your heads-up display.
The TouchPad can put out a lot of light when in Exhibition mode, thankfully HP retained the power button screen off behavior from Exhibition in 2.1. Exhibition is also available to other apps, but right now there are only around a dozen TouchPad- and Exhibition-compatible apps in the Catalog. Seeing as Exhibition is one of our favorite webOS features (and one of the things that stops us from grabbing a Chumby), we hope that many more Exhibition-compatible apps will come to the TouchPad App Catalog.
For the past week I managed to use the TouchPad as almost my exclusive computing device. For some tasks it excelled, for others it was an exercise in patience, and for some it was downright frustratingly difficult. The biggest thing holding the TouchPad back right now is the apps front, which we expect and hope is a complaint that will be rendered moot. The sparseness of some product categories was disappointing to say the least, and the complete absence of some necessary apps led to much frustration. At over 14,000 words, writing this review using the buggy Memos app was at times a hair-pulling experience. Yes, that’s not what the Memos app is for, but it’s also the only available option.
HP is quoting up to eight hours of Wi-Fi web browsing using the TouchPad, and our own experiences proved to be comparable. The TouchPad’s battery should be enough to get you through the day, but of course your experience may vary. It all depends on how you use the tablet – if you’re using Flash and playing PDK games all day, you can expect less battery life, while those using it to read Kindle books with a dim screen will get more than eight hours out of it. The charger for the TouchPad is larger than that of the old Pre phones (it has to pump out 10 Volts to simultaneously power and charge the TouchPad), but it’s not noticeably bulky as it retains the same design – just longer.
Setting up the TouchPad for most will be a one-time affair. After booting you’re prompted to select a language and then either log into or create a new webOS Profile. If you already have a profile, you can use it alongside the same profile on your phone. All of your Synergy settings, browser bookmarks and history, memos, and most apps (excluding those the developer has set to not be allowed on multiple devices) will automatically be downloaded onto the TouchPad after it reboots. Those items don’t continue to sync afterwards, at least between our webOS 2.1 Pre 2 and the webOS 3.0 TouchPad on the same webOS Profile (memos created or updated on the TouchPad did not sync back down to the phone). That may change when the phones are eventually upgraded to webOS 3.0, but for now it’s like copying the contents of a Windows XP laptop onto a Windows 7 desktop – not all of your apps will work, but most will, and while your data is current between the two at the start, they’re going to take diverging paths until you can figure out some way to share between the computers.
The TouchPad was difficult to fit into our daily routine, but that was mostly due to the hurting for apps. Derek’s most-used apps on his desktop and phone are Twitter clients, word processing, web browsing (including Gmail web access), a Google Reader client, and music playing. The TouchPad excels at email and web browsing, especially with its excellent Flash integration (as much as this reviewer may disparage Flash and call for its death on every other PalmCast). But in every other function this blogger uses most, it falls short. That’s all correctable via new apps or an OS update, but those take time, which isn’t necessarily something the TouchPad has in abundance. Consumers may be fickle and apt to change their minds at a moment’s notice, but they have little patience – just look at how many current webOS users there are compared to the peak.
The HP TouchPad will be hitting shelves around the United States on July 1, 2011. The Wi-Fi-only webOS tablet will be available in two storage sizes: 16GB for $499.99 and 32GB for $599.99. Owners of original and Plus-variant Pre- and Pixi-series phones will qualify for a $50 mail-in-rebate on the 32GB TouchPad through the first month of availability (that’s HP attempting to “make things right”).
So the question to be asked is this: should you get a TouchPad? If you already have an iPad that you’re satisfied with or think you’d be better served by an iPad, you probably shouldn’t get a TouchPad. But if you’re looking for a multi-tasking monster with fantastic web browsing, email, a growing app store, and oodles of potential, then you might want to consider the TouchPad.
The TouchPad’s not a perfect tablet by any stretch of the imagination. It has its faults, but by and large those are correctable missteps, bugs, or omissions on the software front. While no number of software updates can make the TouchPad thinner, lighter, or sprout a rear-facing camera, the hardware is solid and up to the task of whatever you can throw at it. We didn’t even try to break the TouchPad with a Too Many Cards error – we don’t have the patience to figure out how many apps it takes to reach that 1GB RAM ceiling.
With a software update or two, the first of which HP has told us is in progress, and a filling out of the App Catalog, the TouchPad could be a legitimate contender in the tablet space. HP’s still making their case, and if there’s anybody with the power, expertise, and connections to make a successful tablet, HP and webOS could be the winning combination.