The HP TouchPad tablet – the world’s first, and seemingly last, webOS-powered tablet – failed to take the world by storm when it launched, but a last-minute stock clearing reduction has slashed the price to a mere £89, and triggered a flood of tablet purchases unlike anything we’ve seen before.
With HP having officially abandoned the product to concentrate on lucrative enterprise-grade software offerings, is there any point in braving the queues – or constantly refreshing the websites of retailers who have yet to discount it from its £500 launch price – and trying to get one of the few TouchPads left in the UK? We take a closer look.
It’s true that, taking just the hardware into consideration, the TouchPad is a pretty impressive piece of equipment. The 9.7-inch 1024×768 screen uses a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio, making it good for websites but less good for films, and includes full capacitive multitouch capabilities and a lovely smooth glass covering.
Behind the screen is a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-core processor running at 1.2GHz, between 16GB and 64GB of storage depending on the model chosen, and 1GB of RAM.
Communications capabilities are covered thanks to an integrated multi-mode 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi radio and Bluetooth support, and while the planned 3G broadband model never made it to our shores at least you don’t have to shell out on a contract or find a cheap SIM card from somewhere.
Audio comes courtesy of a pair of in-built speakers equipped with ‘Beats’ technology, which – it is claimed – improves the bass response and makes the audio quality significantly higher than a non-Beats system. A 3.5mm audio jack is also included, along with a 1.3 megapixel front-facing webcam for video chat using the included Skype support.
It’s also nice to see that HP has included a standard mini USB port for both charging and data transfer, avoiding the proprietary cables of the Apple iPad 2, Asus Eee Pad Transformer, and similar competing devices. You can even charge it wirelessly through inductive charging, if you can pick up a TouchStone dock while you’re browsing through the bargain section.
Getting the device out of the box, it’s easy to see that HP has been ‘inspired’ by Apple’s packaging for the iPad range. The white box gives way to a black, minimalist interior with few accessories: a micro USB cable, a mains adapter with UK and European adapters, the tablet itself, and a frankly insultingly thin ‘quick start guide’ in a variety of languages.
The tablet’s glass front is impressively shiny – this isn’t something you’ll be using outdoors – but it feels very comfortable to use, and while the glossy black plastic back is a magnet for fingerprints, it doesn’t look too bad. Sadly, it does feel slightly cheap: some texturing to aid grip, or rubber inserts for when the device is used on a table wouldn’t have gone amiss.
The rear aside, the device is well put together and feel firm – if a little heavy – in the hand. For £500, there are a few things we might have picked fault with – such as the somewhat loose volume controls, or the overly finicky home button – but for £89 it’s by far the best tablet on the market.
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The operating system
Unlike other cut-price tablets, the TouchPad runs webOS – an operating system originally developed by Palm for its smartphone devices before the company was acquired by HP. It includes some impressive ideas, but is sadly limiting the hardware.
The main interface of webOS is based on ‘cards’: running applications appear on the desktop as stacks of cards, and you can swipe your way through them to change what you’re running. The multitasking functionality is impressive, and even when the device starts to run out of memory it doesn’t close applications – instead, it puts them in a ‘standby’ mode from which they can be recovered in a few seconds.
Sadly, the interface is a little slow and clunky. Installation of a series of patches through a third-party tool called ‘Preware’ – not supported by HP in any way, shape, or form – alleviates some of these problems, disabling unnecessary event logging that HP chose to include and speeding up animations, but the system still feels slower than its specifications would suggest.
That’s not to say it’s useless – far from it. Despite some slowdown, the tablet is great for web browsing. It offers full Adobe Flash support – one of the few tablets we’ve tested that fully lives up to its claims in this regard – letting you read PDFs on the bundled Adobe Reader, and using the impressive integrated email and instant messaging clients.
It’s true that HP has all-but abandoned the platform, meaning future updates are unlikely to appear for the software – but the WebKit-powered browser is already capable of browsing any website we threw at it, and by the time it becomes fully outdated you’re likely to have had a good few years of use out of the thing.
Using the aforementioned ‘Preware,’ we were able to install a series of tweaks and improvements to the device – including a custom Linux kernel which enabled us to overclock the device’s processor to an impressive 1.5GHz, greatly improving its responsiveness. Although it’s not for the faint-hearted, it’s a recommended tweak.
There are still things the tablet won’t do – high-definition YouTube videos worked fine in the TouchPad’s browser, but it lacked the codecs required to play back a sample M4V video we transferred over USB.
Which brings us on to the final point in the TouchPad’s favour: while HP has given up on it, the community certainly hasn’t. It’s already possible – with a bit of fiddling – to install the latest version of the popular Ubuntu Linux operating system on the device, turning it into a fully-fledged tablet computer capable of running the latest software such as Firefox and LibreOffice.
Another project is under way to port Google’s Android to the tablet, and while that is concentrating on the smartphone-centric Android 2.3 ‘Gingerbread’ at present, plans are already afoot to upgrade that to the tablet-oriented ‘Honeycomb’ build in the near future.
Should that project take off, the TouchPad will represent a true bargain: the closest Android-based tablets in terms of specification will cost you around £350, so if you can get your hands on one of the rapidly dwindling stock it’s worth a punt.
Even if that project fails to deliver on its promises, the TouchPad is still an amazing device for £89 – and if you can pick up its official accessories such as the Bluetooth keyboard and impressive inductive (wireless) charging ‘TouchStone’ dock at a similar discount, you won’t be disappointed with your purchase.
Contact: Get it anywhere you can!
- Nowhere else will you get a tablet of this calibre for £89.
- You're unlikely to find one, as hordes of bargain-hungry consumers have snapped up much of the UK's stock.