HP's TouchPad: A Promising Tablet That Needs More Polish

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One hardware department where the TouchPad is a leader is audio: It features Dr. Dre-approved "Beats" technology and stereo speakers rather than the iPad 2's single speaker. Music sounded unusually good whether I was listening out loud or over headphones. Positioning stereo speakers on a tablet is a challenge, though. When I held the TouchPad in portrait mode, both speakers were on the device's left side, leaving Tom Jobim sounding like he was standing on top of Elis Regina when they recorded "Águas de Março" rather than at her side.

As for battery life, the TouchPad story can be summarized in four words: "Close, but no iPad." HP promises up to nine hours of video playback and eight hours of Web browsing over wi-fi, compared to Apple's estimates of 10 hours apiece for these tasks. As long as I charged up the tablet at night, I was able to get through a day of heavy use without fretting over the power level.

The best thing by far about the TouchPad is WebOS, the only tablet operating system that rivals Apple's iOS for ... well, pleasantness. It looks good, it's logically and consistently organized, and it always errs on the side of simplicity over geeky complications. It's going to face stiffer competition this fall when Apple's iOS 5 and Google Android Ice Cream Sandwich updates show up; even then, though, it should retain some distinctive virtues.

The TouchPad's core apps are pretty much the same ones as on most other tablets — browser, e-mail, calendar, maps, music player, photo and video viewer — with some unique WebOS tricks. For instance, you can multitask not only between apps but within them. If you start composing an e-mail and then realize you need to consult a message in your inbox, you can toggle between the new message and the old one with a couple of taps.

"Synergy," one of WebOS's signature features, artfully weaves together information from disparate sources. One record in the contact database might include details culled from Facebook, Skype, Linked In, and both personal and business Gmail accounts; one session in the Messaging app might involve simultaneous chats with folks on AIM, Google Chat, and Skype. Other devices mimic this basic idea but nobody's doing it as elegantly.

A way-clever tool called "Just Type" lets you begin actions of all sorts even before you've left the WebOS desktop. Tap out the name "Tom Tompkins," for example, and you can immediately do anything from Googling it to addressing an e-mail to creating a calendar event. Even the on-screen keyboard provides a welcome upgrade: It's got a row of number keys, making it much easier to enter anything that involves both letters and digits. (On the other hand, the TouchPad didn't correct my typos on the fly like an iPad does, even though I had its auto-correction option turned on.)

Anyone who's enough of a WebOS groupie to own both a TouchPad and an HP WebOS phone such as the Veer or upcoming Pre 3 gets a couple of additional, Bluetooth-enabled capabilities. If you open a Web page in the TouchPad browser and then tap the phone against the tablet's browser, the page will automatically load on the phone. You can also piggyback on the phone's wireless connection to make and receive phone calls on the TouchPad.(The phone app doubles as a Skype client that does both voice and video calls.)

One WebOS downside has persisted since the software premiered on the Palm Pre smartphone two years ago: It loads apps sluggishly. Programs that would pop up nearly instantly on the iPad or an Android tablet can take several seconds to launch on the TouchPad. But that was a minor irritation compared to the biggest problem I encountered with this tablet: It's glitchy.

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