Tablet deathmatch: HP TouchPad vs. Apple iPad 2

The first WebOS tablet tries to take on the iPad (and Android tablets), with a mix of cool innovation and underwhelming capabilities

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.)

InfoWorld Scorecard
Web and Internet support (20.0%)
Application support (15.0%)
Hardware (10.0%)
Security and management (20.0%)
Business connectivity (20.0%)
Usability (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Apple iPad 2 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.5
Hewlett-Packard TouchPad 8.0 7.0 5.0 6.0 7.0 8.0 7.0
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