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

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Deathmatch: User interface
It's often a throwaway comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, though it's not always true. In many respects, the WebOS UI shows that Apple doesn't have the lock on good UI design. HP's card metaphor is a nice way to manage apps and windows, and the services integration makes it easier to focus on what you want to do rather than where you want to do it. iOS has a more disciplined UI, which keeps you from getting distracted but also creates a tunnel vision mentality. WebOS is designed for multitasking, letting you keep on top of multiple items simultaneously, but it requires more effort to navigate.

Operational UI. As I previously explained, the TouchPad's cards metaphor lets you see everything that is running, but it could potentially overwhelm you and obscure what you are seeking in its overlapping windows. But you can combine apps into stacks to reduce the clutter, and you can slide out a window to peek at its contents. If you have a few apps running all the time, the cards interface works well, but for more than that, it's too much. The iPad 2's approach of having you switch from app to app works well when you have lots of apps open, but its lack of live previews can make it more difficult to find what you want to switch to.

I dislike the TouchPad's separation of settings into separate apps. The unified app with multiple panes, as used in iOS and Android, is a much cleaner approach that makes it less likely you'll miss a setting and doesn't leave you with all those open settings app windows. The TouchPad suffers the same overkill issue of Windows Vista's gazillion control panels, though nothing is as impenetrable as Vista's approach. The setup apps themselves are straightforward to use on the TouchPad, though in several cases the Confirm and Delete buttons are skinny and cramped, making it easy to tap the wrong one. iOS's Settings app is well designed and largely easy to navigate, though its various network settings are oddly separated from one another.

The good news is that pinching and zooming, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, work equivalently on the TouchPad's WebOS and the iPad 2's iOS, though the TouchPad tends to hesitate before it rotates.

For text entry, I find the iPad 2's on-screen keyboard to be easier to work with than the TouchPad's, with better contextual use of extra keys, such as in the Mail application and in form fields. I do like the fact that the TouchPad by default displays the numeral keys, so you don't have to switch to them -- something Apple may want to copy. But it's annoying that some common punctuation, such as the colon (:), are not on the standard keyboard, forcing you to switch to a symbols keyboard. Using a capability that debuted in WebOS 2.1 for smartphones in February, the TouchPad also lets you set the size of your keys, which can free up screen real estate for your content. However, if you want to touch-tap, set it to the largest size (medium is the default).

It is easier to tap items on the iPad 2 than on the TouchPad. The TouchPad helpfully shows a pebble-in-a-pond type of dot where you tap, so you know whether you tapped the intended location. I found that buttons and objects often didn't respond if you tapped near but still inside their edges. iOS buttons don't have this issue.

Text selection and copying. The TouchPad handles text selection poorly. When you tap on text, the word is selected and sliders appear to change the text selection. But if your tap misses your intended mark, you can't just move the text cursor as you can on an iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1. Also, when you tap that second time, you're likely to select a wild word and have contextual menus such as Copy appear. All of this makes text selection difficult.

On the iPad 2, text selection also works via handles. To insert the text cursor in a precise location, you tap and hold where you want to insert the text cursor (sort of like using a mouse), and a magnifier appears to help you move exactly to where you want to go. That's how it should be.

The winner: Although I prefer the theory of WebOS's cards interface, I find it too messy in practice. If HP tweaked this UI approach to add a listlike selection mechanism and treat the cards more as a favorites pile, I think WebOS could really challenge iOS in usability. For now, the iPad's more simplistic UI gets my nod. For the day-in, day-out work of touch-based selection, the iPad 2 is much easier to use than the TouchPad. The iPad 2 wins here.

Deathmatch: Security and management
A long-standing strike against WebOS has been its poor security. Only in February did the smartphone WebOS (2.1) support on-device encryption, which the TouchPad's WebOS 3.0 does as well. As with the iPad, that encryption is enabled straight out of the box, and it can't be turned off.

The TouchPad's WebOS 3.0 does mark HP's belated support for Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) security policies, which Apple has led in adoption and which Google finally began supporting this spring in a meaningful way in Android OS 3. The TouchPad supports 7 EAS policies, versus the iPad 2's support for 14 EAS policies. On both, you can require passwords (using optionally a minimum length and/or containing letters) and on-device encryption, specify a maximum number of failed login attempts before locking the device, and set the device to autolock after a specified period of inactivity. The iPad 2's EAS policies also let you set more complex password rules (such as the use of special characters and limits of how often passwords can be reintroduced), disable the camera, and block app store access and Wi-Fi usage (though the last policy doesn't make sense for the Wi-Fi-only TouchPad, it could be useful for the planned 3G model).

Mobile device management (MDM) vendor MobileIron already has a client app in the HP App Catalog to manage TouchPads, and HP says several other MDM vendors plan to support WebOS devices as well. Most MDM vendors now support the iPad 2.

Both the TouchPad and the iPad 2 offer remote wipe, SSL message encryption, and timeout locks. If your TouchPad is lost or stolen, you can lock or wipe it via Exchange. Apple supports remote lock and wipe both through Exchange and via the free Find My iPad service that tracks your iPad 2's location from a Web browser, iPhone, iPod Touch, or other iPad.

Both devices also support VPN access. It's easier to set up VPN access on the iPad, due to the clearer presentation of options in its setup panes. The setup options for the TouchPad are more cryptic; plus, they adopt Cisco's more recent AnyConnect nomenclature for its VPN options, unlike other devices, so it's easy to get confused if you haven't kept up with Cicso's rebranding.

Syncing the iPad 2 to your computer's iTunes backs up -- and encrypts, if you desire -- the data on it. iTunes backs up nearly everything: your media, your apps, their settings, their data, and most of your preferences. (iTunes can be configured for use in the enterprise, though most companies don't know that.) The TouchPad has nothing like iTunes, though it does back up to HP's servers your accounts (but not their data or passwords), contacts and calendar entries associated to your local WebOS account, and some settings so that they can be restored or transferred if needed. Apps purchased through the HP App Catalog (but not their data) are also tracked at that store so that they can be restored or transferred to a new device.

The winner: The iPad 2 wins here, due to its ability to back up nearly all of its content and to remote-lock, remote-wipe, and find a lost or stolen iPad from any browser. But from a corporate security point of view, if you manage iPads with Exchange, you can manage TouchPads to the same level.

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