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: Hardware
Although the real value of a tablet comes from its OS and apps, you can't get to them without the hardware they run on. The iPad comes in both Wi-Fi-only and Wi-Fi-plus-3G models (which supports 3G tethering), whereas the TouchPad comes only in Wi-Fi models. HP says AT&T 3G models are planned.

Performance. The iPad 2's 1GHz dual-core Apple A5 processor makes quick work of app loading and is generally responsive, such as when panning in Google Earth or parsing documents in iWork Pages. By contrast, despite its 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU, the TouchPad feels slow -- even for tasks like opening emails that are practically instantaneous on other tablets. That slowness is in evidence throughout the tablet; even network-based actions like downloading files takes longer on the TouchPad than on the iPad 2, Galaxy Tab 10.1, and Xoom -- including on the same network from the same location. The slowness is epecially noticeable at the first launch of an application or document. The TouchPad's speed also seems to vary, as if some invisible background process is executing. HP says some slowdown can occur after accounts are set up, as the TouchPad's Synergy API weaves them into services and applications that can support them. But these slowdowns have persisted for a week, so I doubt that answer. Whatever the cause, it's annoying.

In some instances, as when launching applications, the TouchPad gives you an indication that it's working, but in others, it seems to take a few seconds before it indicates that it received your input and is processing it. I frequently would tap a button again because I couldn't tell that anything was happening.

There are extremely few TouchPad apps available to see if this speed issue extends to them. But the TouchPad is definitely slow to start up from powered-off state: It takes 77 seconds -- more than a minute. By comparison, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 takes 25 seconds, the iPad 2 takes 35 seconds, and my 2011-edition MacBook Pro takes 127 seconds. If you're looking for instant-on, let the tablet go to sleep rather than powering it down.

For battery performance, I found that the iPad 2 lasted a little longer than the TouchPad -- 9 or 10 hours versus the TouchPad's 7 or 8 -- in regular use with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled. In light use, their work time stretched another hour. Likewise, the iPad 2 charges a little more quickly than the TouchPad.

Device hardware. The TouchPad's case has none of the svelte feel as the iPad or Galaxy Tab 10.1. It's a black slab that weighs a quarter pound more (25.8 ounces in total) than either the iPad 2 (21.5 ounces) or the Galaxy Tab 10.1 (19 ounces) -- and the iPad 2 with an optional Smart Cover attached weighs a half ounce less (26.3 ounces in total) than the naked TouchPad. The heavier, blockier design telegraphs all those stereotypes about artless PC makers. The TouchPad's case is also a magnet for fingerprints.

The TouchPad's bezel is simple and clean, like the iPad 2's, and assumes a portrait orientation for the positioning of most of its spare controls: power and audio jack at the top, front camera placed unobtrusively, volume rocker on the right side, small speaker notches on the left side (clearly assuming landscape orientation when set down to play music), and MicroUSB dock/charging connector at the bottom. I did find the power button required more force than on other tablets to register being pressed. The iPad's controls are in most cases in the same location; just the speaker (the iPad 2 has just one) is in a different location: at the bottom of the bezel. The iPad 2 also offers a physical switch that can be set to turn off alert sounds or lock the screen rotation; you can do the same at any time from the controls that appear when you double-press the Home Button. The TouchPad uses settings apps to control both behaviors, and you can lock rotation or mute sounds from a menu in the notification bar that's always available.

Neither the iPad 2 nor the TouchPad has a battery indication while it is powered down, unlike the Galaxy Tab 10.1. But the iPad 2 wakes itself automatically if its (optional) Smart Cover is opened -- nice.

The iPad 2's optional magnetic Smart Cover is smartly designed. It snaps into place quickly, folds out of the way easily, helps clean fingerprints on the screen, and remains snuggly attached, according to my backpack tests. The cover ($40 for polyurethane and $80 for leather) does not protect the iPad 2's aluminum back, which may concern some users fearful of scratches, but there are plenty of cases, skins, and portfolios for such folks. I was disappointed that the Smart Cover doesn't affix magnetically to the back of the iPad 2; it only does so to the front. The TouchPad has no equivalent capability, and it's too early to see what kinds of cases third parties will come up with. HP does offer a $50 case that can raise the TouchPad for typing, similar to Apple's case for its original iPad.

But the TouchPad does have an innovation the iPad 2 lacks: The optional charging dock ($80) not only props up the TouchPad at user-adjustable angles, it uses induction (which HP brands as Touchstone) to charge the TouchPad through its case. But be careful -- the induction area is small, so you have to place the TouchPad in horizontal orientation with speakers down for the tablet to charge. Each Touchstone charging dock also has a unique ID, so you can set different default Exhibition mode displays when the lock screen is engaged for each of your docks. For example, you might have your dock at work display your calendar and your dock at home display your photo.

A related capability enabled by Touchstone is what HP calls Touch-to-Share: Rest a compatible WebOS smartphone on the TouchPad to register its presence, and the devices use a Bluetooth connection to share the current (meaning full-screen) Web page, text message, or phone call automatically (after they've been paired, which you do once). HP has no smartphones available yet that support Touchstone syncing, though it did lend me a prototype to show that it works, which it does. I'm not convinced that this is more than a "oh, cool" feature that would quickly fall into disuse once the novelty wears off. For example, touching a smartphone to the tablet to take a phone call or read a text message requires a lot more effort than just using the phone, which you need to have on you anyhow. For Web pages, it's hard to envision the meaningful utility in this sharing until Touch-to-Share is available in other shipping devices for testing in a more real-world context. I suspect the sharing capabilities of Touch-to-Share would be more useful if you didn't have to make the physical connection -- a feature similar to Mac OS X Lion's AirDrop that allowed you to initiate syncing over the air would be welcome.

Both devices require USB adapters to connect to USB devices. The $29 iPad Camera Connection Kit's USB connectivity is limited to cameras and SD cards; HP has no adapters for the TouchPad as yet. The iPad 2 can mirror its display to VGA or HDMI using a $39 dock-to-HDMI cable or $29 VGA connector that other iOS devices also support. Currently, the TouchPad has no video-out capabilities, due to lack of adapters. That means you can't use it for presentations -- a big deficit for sales, marketing, and other business users.

If you do a lot of typing, you can use Apple's $70 Bluetooth keyboard with the iPad 2; HP sells a $70 Bluetooth keyboard for the identical purpose. Apple's keyboard is the same one you use for a Mac, so it has no iPad-specific keys, whereas the HP model has keys for showing all active cards and hiding the keyboard. On an iPad, you can't access formatting shortcuts for text, such as to apply bold. It's unclear whether the HP keyboard supports such formatting as there are no TouchPad apps that call on those capabilities. Both keyboards have a nice crisp feel, and they are equally slim, solid, and light, with well-sized keys.

I found the iPad 2's screen a little easier to read -- both in sunlight and in office lighting -- than the TouchPad's screen, which suffers from excessive reflectivity. I also found myself angling the TouchPad slightly to reduce the reflection, which made typing less accurate. The iPad 2 and the TouchPad both use the old-fashioned 4:3 ratio, which is more comfortable for browsing and for most apps than the 16:9 widescreen displays on Android tablets.

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