Tablet deathmatch: HP TouchPad vs. Apple iPad 2

And yet another competitor fails to mount a real challenge to the all-conquering iPad2

It's become a tiresome refrain: This time, [insert product name here] will dethrone the iPad. A year ago, it was all those promised Android tablets, the vast majority of which never saw the light of day (and the few that did never should have). Then this spring it was the Motorola Mobility Xoom, which made a respectable showing but fell short in too many areas. Then came the disastrous BlackBerry PlayBook from Research in Motion, a study in how not to design a tablet. More recently, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 showed some strength, but undermined itself with that mix of innovation, bald-faced Apple "inspiration," and uneven execution that has come to define the Android platform.

Now we have the long-awaited Hewlett-Packard TouchPad, the first competitor to the iPad from the world's leading computer maker, and a competitor based on WebOS, Palm's tantalizing but failed great hope in the early smartphone wars from June 2009. The HP TouchPad -- unveiled today and available in stores this weekend -- brings many of WebOS's strengths in the new 3.0 version that debuts with the TouchPad (though most of the cool features in the TouchPad were first delivered in WebOS 2.0 last September for smartphones), and the die-hard Palm and WebOS communities will cheer its continued march. Despite some compelling innovations, the TouchPad is hampered by the same kinds of fit-and-finish issues that mar some Android devices, as well as some odd design decisions that result in a pokey, limited performer.

Plainly put, the TouchPad is a mediocre tablet that poses no threat to the iPad or to Android tablets such as the Galaxy Tab 10.1 or Xoom. Even though the iPad 2's high bar is no secret, it once again appears that corner-cutting or rush to market has been allowed to tie a potentially strong tablet's arm behind its back.

[ InfoWorld's Galen Gruman says "Whatever you do, don't buy a Chromebook." | See all of InfoWorld's tablet deathmatch comparisons and personalize the tablet scores to your needs. | Compare the security and management capabilities of iOS, Android, WebOS, Windows Phone 7, and more in InfoWorld's Mobile Management Deep Dive PDF report. ]

I put both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad through a series of tests to determine their respective strengths in areas such as email and calendar functionality, applications and app stores, and general performance, design, and usability. Here's how each fared.

Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contacts

For testing these essential business functions, I used personal accounts of IMAP, POP, and Gmail along with a work account of Exchange 2007. Both devices work directly with IMAP, Gmail, and POP; my email, email folders, calendars, and contacts all flowed effortlessly among the tablets, my laptop, and the server.

Both devices try to autodetect your settings wherever possible, though the iPad is much better at handling nonvanilla settings. The TouchPad got my IMAP account's SMTP settings wrong, for example, but didn't know it, so I was unable to send messages until I realized my mail was trapped in the outbox and then went about fixing the settings manually. The iPad, by contrast, tests its outbound settings before it completes your account setup, letting you know if it has any issues. (At least the TouchPad doesn't make the same mistake as the Galaxy Tab 10.1: Stop the setup completely, so you lose the settings for any portion that did work.) Also, the TouchPad's manual setup for email is frustratingly limited; you have to use https:// in a server address rather than enable SSL through a check box as in other devices, and you cannot set the ports as you can elsewhere.

Setting up Exchange on both devices was simple. Unlike the first WebOS device, the original Palm Pre, and several subsequent models, the TouchPad supports on-device encryption out of the box (same with the iPad), so it easily connected to our corporate server and passed its basic set of Exchange ActiveSync policies.

Email messages. Working with emails is similar on the two tablets: Both use the large screen to provide common controls at all times, and when in landscape orientation, both let you see a selected email without opening it. On the TouchPad, you can choose which of those three panes is visible when in portrait orientation, so you can view the list of emails and the message preview, or you can check out the list of mailboxes, folders, and messages. On the iPad 2, when in portrait orientation, you view just the list of emails and the preview; the list of accounts and mailboxes displays as a pop-over menu only when selected. I don't think either approach is superior to the other.

The TouchPad's account and folder list shows fewer entries than the iPad 2's counterpart, so it's more work to find folders. But you can see all your accounts in one list on the TouchPad, as well as hide and show individual accounts in that list, whereas the iPad 2 makes you switch accounts and thus shows only one account's folders at a time.

In both devices, you can reply, forward, mark as unread, delete, and move messages while reading them. You can also delete and move emails to folders from the message lists.

On the iPad 2, you can easily delete individual messages from the email list: Swipe to the left or right and tap Delete. The TouchPad copies that approach, though once the Delete button is visible, you must tap it or Cancel. By contrast, on the iPad 2 you can tap somewhere else to close the Delete button, and there's less interruption and no risk of tapping Delete instead of Cancel.

To move selected messages, tap the Move to Folder button and select the destination folder. Moving messages is easier on the iPad because it uses your entire accounts and folder pane in landscape orientation and presents a long pop-over list in portrait orientation. The TouchPad in both orientations opens a small dialog box that you have to scroll through, adding effort to the operation. (Neither tablet lets you simply drag messages to a folder, as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 can.)

The iPad 2 displays the search box at the top of the message list for the current account and lets you constrain your search to the To, From, or Subject fields. The TouchPad has a search box in the same location, but it has no options for constraining the search. It also displays odd behavior: If you enter a name in the field, even something as simple as "Ken," the TouchPad searches the From fields only, but if you enter other text, it searches the text and subject lines as well. Thus, you can't find emails on the TouchPad about a person who was not a recipient of the email. In addition, the TouchPad can search only email residing on it; there is no option to search the server as well, as in the iPad 2.

Getting to the top of your email list isn't so obvious on the iPad 2, though it is easy: Tap the top of the screen. On the TouchPad, there is no fast-jump capability.

The message text is quite readable on both tablets, and both let you use gestures to zoom in and out.

Email management. Both devices support multiple accounts and universal inboxes. I prefer the way the TouchPad provides all the accounts in one place, with universal inboxes at the top of your accounts list (the Favorites area), compared to the iPad 2's duplication of its accounts list in a separate pane: one set for universal inboxes and one for their folder hierarchies. I also like the TouchPad's ability to add specific mail folders to the Favorites area.

The iPad 2 has a message-threading capability, which organizes your emails based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicks to go through messages, but finding the messages is substantially easier. (The iPad's iOS 4 lets you disable threading.) The TouchPad has no equivalent. It does lets you flag emails, but to see flagged messages in one place, you have to enable All Flagged in the accounts preferences.

On the TouchPad, attachments are indicated in a bar below the subject. If you have multiple attachments, tap the indicator bar to get the full list. Tapping an attachment downloads it (be prepared to wait a second or two for the download to commence). Which app opens a file depends on which app registered it. Unlike on the iPad 2, you can't choose an alternative app or set the default for opening a particular file type on the TouchPad. On the stock TouchPad, PDF files are opened by Adobe Reader, Microsoft Office and text-only files by Quickoffice, and images by a preview window that lets you save the image to the Photos library.

The iPad 2's native Quick Look viewer handles a nice range of formats -- Microsoft Office, text-only, PDF, various images, and Apple iWork -- and it opens attachments with one tap, downloading them if needed at the same time. Using iOS's Open In facility, you can also choose which app to use instead of the default by tapping and briefly holding the file attachment -- the way it should be.

Shockingly, neither the TouchPad nor the iPad 2 -- still! -- opens Zip files. On the iPad, there are several third-party apps such as the $1 Unzip, $1 ZipThat, $2 ZipBox-Pro, as well as the $5 GoodReader file-viewing and management app. But there is as yet no unzip app for the TouchPad.

Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad remember the email addresses when you reply to a sender, adding them to a database of contacts that's automatically scanned as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields. Both devices let you add email addresses to your contacts list by tapping them.

Contacts and calendars. Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad offer three of the same calendar views: day, week, and month. But only the iPad 2 supports the list (agenda) view. Moving among months is easy on both, and the two devices can display multiple calendars simultaneously. It's slightly easier to move among adjacent weeks and months on the TouchPad, as you can simply scroll. The iPad 2 makes you select the specific week or month from a horizontal list, which is less efficient for checking the adjacent week or month, but faster for going to a specific week or month than the TouchPad's Jump To dialog box. Call it a tie. But the TouchPad has more flexible options for setting recurring events; for example, you can set an appointment for every x days or every month on the first Monday -- neither of which the iPad 2 supports.

Both the TouchPad and the iPad 2 can send invitations to others as you add appointments. On the iPad 2, your invitations for Exchange accounts show up in your calendar as a pop-up; you can accept them there within the full context of your other appointments. For both Exchange and other email accounts, you can open the .ics invitation files in Mail, then add them to the calendar of your choice. On the TouchPad, the Calendar app automatically adds Exchange invitations to your calendar, as well as any invitations set up in Google calendar if you use that. But you can't open .ics invitations sent to POP or IMAP accounts, as you can on the iPad 2.

Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad have Contacts apps, but navigating through entries on the iPad is easier. You can jump to names by tapping a letter, such as "t," to get to people whose last names begin with "t," or search quickly for someone in the Search field by typing part of the name. The TouchPad has no way to quickly scroll; you'll have to use the Search box to jump to contacts.

Searching is easy on the TouchPad, as the Search box is always visible in the Contacts app. On the iPad 2, to search your contacts, drag up above the first contact to reveal the Search box. On the TouchPad, you can also designate users as favorites by tapping the star icon button in a profile, to put them in a shorter Favorites list. The iPad 2 doesn't have a similar capability.

The iPad 2 supports email groups, but you can't create them on the device; they must be synced from your computer's contacts application. Also, you can't pick a group in the iPad 2's Mail address fields. Instead, you select a group, then open it up to select just one member, repeating this step to add more names. It's a really dumb approach to groups. Still, it's better than the TouchPad, which doesn't support groups at all. There is a feature called Linked Profiles in which you can link another person's profile to the current user. If you select either user when addressing an email, both names appear in the contextual menu, so you can choose one or the other. This is a handy way for linking family or workgroup members, so if you send an email to one you are reminded of the others, but it is no substitute for actual groups.

The winner: The iPad 2 triumphs, due to its more capable email, calendar, and contacts capabilities, and its smarter account setup. The TouchPad handles a few aspects such as favorites better, and the iPad 2 could do better in these three apps, but Apple clearly has a better comprehension of what businesspeople need in their primary communications and collaboration tools -- despite HP's claims of understanding business (a subtle dig at Apple's consumer roots).

Deathmatch: Applications

On the iPad 2, there's almost certainly an app for that, whatever your current "that." On the TouchPad, there almost certainly isn't. The HP App Catalog has a very small number of WebOS apps, most of which are smartphone apps that run in a window on the tablet, as iPhone-only apps do on the iPad. Major apps specifically for the TouchPad are few, at least at launch, and so far include Box.net, Amazon.com's Kindle Reader, Facebook, NPR Reader, USA Today, Audubon Birds, Angry Birds, and Beat Box.

The core native apps are comparable on the two devices, providing email, contacts, calendar, maps and navigation, browser, media playback, YouTube playback, and SMS. The iPad 2 also provides a notes app (which syncs notes with Exchange and IMAP servers), whereas the TouchPad provides a simple sticky-notes app, as well as a read-only version of the Quickoffice editing suite that essentially duplicates the capabilities of iOS's built-in Quick Look technology. Quick Look is OS-wide, so it lets you preview documents from almost anywhere, whereas on the TouchPad, the Quickoffice app has to open, so you have to switch around more than necessary.

The TouchPad uses the Exhibition mode introduced in September 2010's WebOS 2.0 whenever the lock screen is engaged. Exhibition mode comes on when the device autolocks or when you press the power button, and you can set it to display the time, your calendar, a slideshow of photos, or any third-party Exhibition services you have installed. Note that you can't get out of Exhibition mode until you remove the TouchPad from the optional charging dock or press the tablet's Home button; gestures are oddly ignored. When in Exhibition mode, the TouchPad screen doesn't turn off, an energy waster at odds with HP's green tech efforts -- and a battery drain when not connected to wall power. There should be a way to set a set a screen-off sleep time when in that mode. (You can manually turn off the screen by pressing the power button, but I found that the screen would reawaken in the middle of the night.)

One area where the TouchPad differentiates itself is its ability to pair with a WebOS smartphone over Bluetooth and, thus, use the TouchPad as the phone for voice or video calling via the Phone & Video Calls app. Apple has the FaceTime app on the iPad 2 for video calling (via Wi-Fi connections only), and it too can use Skype and other communications apps. But the advantage of HP's approach is that it lets you use the Wi-Fi-only TouchPad for such communications even when you don't have a nearby Wi-Fi connection.

Given the (initial) paucity of TouchPad apps, it's hard to judge the overall quality of WebOS apps, to see whether they're as rough as the majority of Android apps or more polished apps as tend to exist for iOS. The Facebook app, for example, is nicely done on the TouchPad, but the Kindle app's text is malformed at all but the largest sizes, so reading books is an unpleasant experience. USA Today has a terrible design compared to its iPad version, but that's the fault of creator Gannett, not the TouchPad.

I have to say I'm disappointed by the underwhelming nature of most of the TouchPad's included apps. The key OS innovations were developed for WebOS 2.0; in the intervening nine months, there should have been time to really polish those apps and make them at least as feature-rich as their counterparts in iOS.

The bottom line is, at least in these early days of the TouchPad, you won't be using it to run apps as you would an iPad or, increasingly, an Android tablet.

App stores and app installation. There are tens of thousands of apps for the iPad 2's iOS, from games to scientific visualization tools. Sure, there's a lot of junk, but you'll find many useful apps as well. As previously noted, there are just a few dozen TouchPad apps available, few of which are more than toys.

Both the Apple App Store and the HP App Catalog separate tablet apps from smartphone apps, simplifying the search for appropriate titles. The Apple store also indicates which apps auto-adjust for the iPhone and iPad, so you know they can be run on both devices and appear native on each. WebOS supports such "universal" apps as well, but there's no indicator of them in the App Catalog, although tablet-compatible apps are identified as such.

Both app stores are fairly easy to navigate, though the HP App Catalog slows you down at launch with a full-screen promo for its Pivot e-zine that surveys apps each month. The Apple App Store (like the Google Android Market) goes straight to the available apps, showing new and featured apps up front, so you get immediately to what's interesting rather than having to open a separate element. But the HP App Catalog has subcategories, which you choose from a menu; the iOS App Store has no subcategorization, so it's hard to find the apps you may want from its half-million-strong catalog, which overwhelm its broad categories.

Both app stores are easy to navigate, with good detail on each app. Neither includes the Android Market's capability of telling you in clear detail what permissions each app needs to run. They also lack another Android Market feature: an option for each app to enable auto-updating.

Both Apple's App Store and HP's App Catalog are curated, which should mean neither will devolve into a cesspool like the Android Market, which lets cyber thieves promote phishing apps that masquerade as banking programs, games, or other apps and steal user information.

You don't have to use the HP App Catalog to get apps onto the TouchPad; HP lets you install apps via Web links from outside parties, a continuation of the "home brew" app distribution dear to the hearts of the Palm community. These apps are not curated by HP, so you get what you get.

Installation of apps is similar on both platforms: After selecting an app, you confirm your store account information and wait for the app to download and install. Both mobile OSes let you know if updates are available. On the iPad 2, the App Store indicates the number of available updates, and you download app updates from the store. On the TouchPad, an alert appears in the notifications bar, and clicking it opens the software manager.

App management. The iPad 2 makes it easy to arrange your home screens to cluster applications both on your iPad and on your desktop via iTunes; you can also put them in your own folders. Just tap and hold any app to invoke the "shaking apps" status, in which you can drag apps wherever you want, or tap the X icon to delete them (press the Home button when done to exit that mode). You can also arrange and delete apps using iTunes on your desktop.

The TouchPad is more limited. Apps you buy are placed in the Downloads pane of the Launcher, and you can move them to either the Favorites or Apps pane, as well as rearrange them within those panes. But you cannot create additional panes or group applications into folders.

The TouchPad's cards interface puts all running apps on your screen, and when you gesture up from the bottom of the screen, whatever app is running shrinks to a window and all open windows and their live contents appear as a row of cards. This is similar to Mac OS X's Dock Exposé feature, and the metaphor that debuted in the original WebOS two years ago, and has been subsequently copied by RIM in the BlackBerry PlayBook and by Microsoft in Windows Phone 7 and the forthcoming Windows 8.

The cards approach makes it easy to see what's running and switch among them, but it also gets clutttered quickly with windows. You can tap and drag apps' cards to create stacks of them, to reduce the on-screen clutter. Any open windows in those apps also appear in the same stack, so the clutter often moves from the screen to the stack. (Yes, you can drag a window out a bit to see its contents.) For accessing your apps, the card-and-stacks approach has advantages, but it would help if you could also see a simple list of running apps (as you can on the Galaxy Tab 10.1) or a separate bar showing the current apps' icons (as you can on the iPad 2, in Windows 7, and in Mac OS X). I like the cards UI, except when it gets cluttered, so an additional app-switching approach would be a nice complement.

Another issue: To close an app or window, you have to switch to the cards view and then drag the card off screen ("toss the card"). That gets really tiresome when you're working with several items. It's particularly annoying when you work with settings, each of which is a separate app, in contrast to the iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1, which unify settings into one app. A Close box would be a great addition to app windows.

Neither the iPad 2 nor the TouchPad support Android-style widgets, but the TouchPad does offer a notifications feature similar to Android's (and to the one promised for iOS 5 this fall). At the top of the TouchPad screen, tap an icon for battery life or network to get a drop-down menu that shows current status and lets you change, for example, the Wi-Fi connection. There are also icons for mail, Facebook, and other notification-compatible apps; tap any and a unified list of new messages from all sources appears. What's cool (and different) about the TouchPad's approach for mail notifications is that you can swipe through the new messages in the drop-down menu to quickly see what's new without leaving your current context. My only beef is that messages are marked as read when swiped through, even though you didn't actually read them.

This notion of unification debuted in WebOS 2.0 via an API called Synergy, which uses a collection of services to let apps work together. For example, your Facebook pictures show up in your Photos library, and if you tap a Facebook-originated photo, you can see any comments on it from the social networking site -- without having to open a separate app. I like this content-based services notion a lot, and it could break down barriers among apps if widely used. By contrast, the iPad 2's iOS strongly separates apps (which has security advantages), so to access content in another app requires an explicit Open In action (if the developer allows it) that essentially copies the content to that other app.

Multitasking. The iPad 2's iOS 4.3 supports multitasking if enabled in the apps themselves; Apple has made specific background services available for multitasking, rather than let each app run full-on in parallel, as on a PC. As you switch among iOS apps, they suspend, except for their multitasking-enabled services, conserving memory and aiding performance. By contrast, WebOS supports full multitasking, whereby default apps continue to run in the background when you take care of other duties. From the user's point of view, these differences aren't apparent; on both devices, apps appear to multitask the same.

The major difference related to multitasking is the UI for switching among apps, as noted earlier. On the iPad 2, a double-click on the Home button pulls up a list of active apps, and it's easy to see what's running and switch among them. On the TouchPad, an upward swipe from the bottom of the screen shows all the active apps and their windows in a scrollable row of cards. The always-on multitasking nature of WebOS also allows the individual tiles to show live snapshots of the windows' contents, which iOS cannot do. (The Galaxy Tab 10.1 shows live tiles in its apps list as well.)

App services. Both the TouchPad and the iPad 2 use their respective app stores to remember the titles you bought, should you need to download them again or install them on another device connected to the same store account. But the TouchPad has no equivalent of iTunes as a command center for corralling media, apps, and documents. As a result, it's much more difficult to manage your device's content on the TouchPad. If you get a new iPad device, it's a snap on iTunes to get it up and running with the same assets as before. On the TouchPad, signing in with an existing WebOS ID will automatically set up access to the mail, Facebook, and other online accounts already associated with that ID, but your apps and data aren't also transferred for you.

HP is working on an app called HP Play for Macs and Windows PCs that would let you sync music (just music) over a USB connection to your TouchPad, but the alpha software HP provided me did not work. (HP says the final version should be ready next week, and I will update this review when it is available.)

For transferring other documents, you need to use a cloud service, email, or a direct USB connection to your computer, which turns your TouchPad into a virtual hard drive. Although it's easy to copy files to and from the TouchPad, it's not at all user-friendly to simply show a folder hierarchy and let the user decide where to put files. (HP says it doesn't matter where you put them; the device scans all files and associates them to the relevant service or location, regardless of locale.) Also, when connected via USB, the TouchPad cannot be used for anything other than file transfer. The iPad 2 has no such limitation.

HP really needs a better way to manage file transfer from computers; a Wi-Fi- or Bluetooth-savvy sync app would be a great start, so you could sync wirelessly in the style of Apple's forthcoming iCloud service or even of the umpteen iOS "air-sharing" apps that allow direct Wi-Fi file transfer. Even though many in IT hate iTunes, it is amazingly convenient for managing your devices' contents. For classic consumer uses of a tablet, HP's big gaps in content syncing will really hurt.

Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad can print from print-enabled apps -- sort of. iOS can print only to AirPrint-compatible printers, of which there are very few (and only from HP). WebOS can print only to network-connected HP printers that use the PCL imaging standard, both ePrint-enabled printers and most network printers manufactured in the last five years. WebOS detects some printers automatically; for those that aren't recognized, you can add them to the available printer list by entering their IP address. Theoretically, Apple's AirPrint technology is manufacturer-agnostic, so Brother, Canon, Epson, HP, and Lexmark could all enable their printers for it, but only HP has done so to date. In WebOS, HP has excluded all non-HP printers from its print facility, an unfortunate lock-in move. On the iPad, you can print to a wide variety of models connected to a wireless LAN via one of the many printing apps available on the Apple App Store. In this regard, the iPad 2 is the better bet, despite the hassle of using a third-party app.

Both the iPad 2 and TouchPad provide universal search, using Spotlight and Just Type, respectively, but they take different perspectives. Spotlight finds related content, categorized by type: mail message, music, and so on. Also, it lets you extend the search onto the Web or Wikipedia. Tap a result to open in the related app. The Just Type facility first introduced in WebOS 2.0 last September under the name "Universal Search" displays not data but services that could act on that data, from address lookup to Google search to Twitter. If an app has matching data, a badge with a numeral appears to indicate the number of matches; click the app or service name to see the relevant instances.

This does add a step compared to the iPad 2's Spotlight, but it also means you can do something unique on the TouchPad: Add that text into an application or service. You could type text in the Just Type field and select Update Facebook Status to share it, or New Message to send it as a text message. The idea is that this requires less interruption than switching to an app, except that's not true: If you're already using an app, you have to switch to cards view to get the Just Type field, which is the same as switching to an app in iOS. However, if you are a social media fanatic, you could make Just Type into your primary communications app, sending updates to multiple services from one place (a scary thought, given how much junk is in social media streams already).

Both Spotlight and Just Type are extensible to third-party apps, though I've seen few cases where iOS developers are taking advantage of Spotlight.

The winner: The iPad 2 comes out on top again, mainly because its app selection is unparalleled. For the underlying apps management capabilities, the TouchPad has the edge, thanks to the notifications capabilities of WebOS and its services technology. If the TouchPad catches on, the universe of WebOS apps could really challenge iOS -- but for now, that's unrealized potential.

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