September 30, 2022

State of the Art: Pretty Tablet, Though Late for the Ball

What’s that you say? This all sounds like last year’s news?

Well, don’t tell that to Hewlett-Packard. This week, it introduced what it considers a groundbreaking new product: a tablet with a touch screen!

It’s the H.P. TouchPad ($500 for the 16-gig model, $600 for 32 gigs): a black rectangle with a glossy 9.7-inch multitouch screen. You can zoom into maps, photos or Web pages by putting two fingers on the glass and spreading or pinching them. The screen image rotates when you turn the tablet 90 degrees.

The only buttons are a Home button below the screen and volume up/down buttons on the edge.

If that description sounds just like the iPad (and the 47,298 Android tablets that compete with it), you’re right. H.P. has some nerve coming out with a tablet now — especially because the biggest distinguishing component is its operating system. It’s WebOS, a variation of the software that runs the Palm cellphones (the Pre, Pixi and so on) — but it’s new to tablets.

Which means, of course, that there aren’t many apps for it yet. How many is “not many”? Well, 300.

(H.P. points out, however, that there are even fewer for Android tablets, even after several months: only 232.)

There’s a Kindle app, Pandora and Angry Birds, thank goodness. But some pretty popular apps are among the missing. No Flixter or IMDB. No Pocket God. No Google apps like Google Mobile, Google Earth or Google Voice. No Netflix.

Now, from a hardware-checklist perspective, the TouchPad doesn’t get off to a good start. It’s the same size as the iPad, but it’s 40 percent thicker (.75 inches thick) and 20 percent heavier (1.6 pounds) — a bitter spec to swallow in a gadget you hold upright all day long.

It has a front camera for video chatting but, unlike its rivals, no camera on the back. It has Wi-Fi, but can’t get online over the cellphone network, too. It can sometimes pinpoint its own location on Bing Maps by referencing nearby Wi-Fi hot spots, but it doesn’t have real GPS (what were they thinking?).

It supposedly has a blazing-fast chip inside, but you wouldn’t know it. When you rotate the screen, it takes the screen two seconds to match — an eternity in tablet time. Apps can take a long time to open; the built-in chat app, for example, takes seven seconds to appear. Animations are sometimes jerky, reactions to your finger swipes sometimes uncertain.

And despite being thicker, the TouchPad’s battery life lasts only about eight hours on a charge (the iPad gets 10 hours). .

Now, even H.P. understands that the TouchPad’s only hope is differentiating itself from the better established tablets. The only buying question you have to ask yourself, then, is: Does H.P. make a convincing enough case that you should gamble on this unknown quantity?

Here’s the crux of H.P.’s argument.

First of all, the TouchPad is beautiful. It’s iPad beautiful. The case is glossy black plastic — a magnet for fingerprints, unfortunately, but it looks wicked great in the first five minutes.

The WebOS is beautiful, too. It’s graphically coherent, elegant, fluid and satisfying. That, apparently, is the payoff when a single company designs both the hardware and the software. (Android gadgets, by contrast, are a mishmash of different versions and looks.)

The central conceits of WebOS are the same as on Palm’s phones. For example, when you press the Home button, all open apps shrink into half-size window “cards”; at this point, you can swipe with your finger to move among them, or swipe an app upward to close that app. It works beautifully, and conveys far more information than the iPad’s application switcher (which is just a row of icons).

H.P. says that the TouchPad offers real multitasking: all open apps are always running. On the iPad, by contrast, only certain apps (like music playback and GPS tracking) chug away in the background; everything else is just suspended until you return. Apple argues that true multitasking runs down the battery — and the battery-life stats prove it correct. Choose the compromise you like best.


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