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

  • Share
  • Read Later

(3 of 3)

Steve Jobs is fond of saying that Apple products just work. In my trials, the TouchPad too often just didn't work. A few examples:

• Music playback didn't always begin the moment I pressed play, and sometimes stammered mid-song;

• A 1080p movie that looked dynamite on the iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1 wouldn't play at all on the TouchPad;

• The tablet thoughtfully discovered and configured the HP printer that sits on my network. But whenever I tried to print, it told me that my OfficeJet was incompatible.

The TouchPad was at its shakiest when I crammed its RAM with a bountiful supply of apps, Web pages, and other items. Like an overtaxed Windows 98 computer, it would crack under the pressure, rendering screens incompletely, ignoring my input, and (on one occasion) spontaneously rebooting. Closing a few programs restored it to good working order. I know that it's possible to build a tablet that doesn't freak out when it's short on memory, though — because I've never seen an iPad or Honeycomb tablet do it.

And then there's Adobe's Flash. Like every tablet maker whose product isn't called "iPad," HP is touting its support for Flash content such as videos and games. I was able to use the TouchPad's browser to listen to the Grooveshark music service and watch Daily Show clips at Comedy Central's site. But Amazon's Instant Video didn't play properly in full-screen mode and usually choked partway through a movie; Facebook's version of Bejeweled was unplayable; Google's Picnik photo editor didn't load, period. As usual, I'm left with the distinct impression that any marketing exec who gloats about the presence of Flash on a mobile device hasn't actually tried it.

Mobile Flash may be an overhyped irrelevance, but as with any new computing platform, the TouchPad's fate will rest in large part on the quality and quantity of its third-party software. To paraphrase what Spencer Tracy said about Katharine Hepburn in Pat and Mike, there isn't that much meat in HP's App Catalog, but what's there is cherce. I found some snazzy games — yes, Angry Birds is one of them — and little-known gems that help to compensate for the paucity of big-name titles. (A Twitter client with the off-putting name of Spaz HD turned out to be surprisingly solid.) The tablet also comes bundled with Amazon's Kindle e-reader and a powerful Facebook app that HP wrote itself.

About 300 tablet applications will be live in the App Catalog when the TouchPad reaches consumers; HP says that about 6,200 programs designed for WebOS phones will also work. (Some of the ones I tried displayed in a phone-sized window, while others stretched themselves to fill the tablet's display.) Apps that haven't been optimized for the TouchPad's big screen are stopgaps at best, but if a decent percentage of the developers who have created phone-sized WebOS apps build TouchPad versions, the tablet's software library could improve rapidly.

All of this makes for a much happier situation than with the BlackBerry PlayBook, which hit a more impressive number — hey, 3,000 new apps on day one! — by letting in embarrassingly amateurish efforts. And the TouchPad doesn't need to get to even ten percent of the iPad's 90,000 tablet apps to provide an impressive assortment of stuff. But the iPad retains a sizable lead in app excellence as well as sheer volume. We'll know that the TouchPad has arrived when it offers a painting program as good as Brushes and a personalized magazine to match Flipboard — or, even better, when it has Brushes and Flipboard themselves.

The HP execs who are responsible for WebOS are quick to remind everyone that they work for the largest technology company on the planet, and that it's committed to making the platform into a massive success. First, let's see if it buckles down, squashes the TouchPad's bugs, and convinces more developers that it's a product with a future. This tablet bears the burden of great potential; it'll be a real shame if it turns out to be nothing more than yet another unsatisfying, unfinished iPad alternative.

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he's @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. Next