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Pretty Tablet, Though Late for the Ball

Have you been reading the headlines? There was a big earthquake in Haiti. Some men were rescued from a mine in Chile. Oh, and apparently there was a gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

HP 9.7" Touchpad
Photo: hp.com
HP 9.7" Touchpad

What’s that you say? This all sounds like last year’s news?

Well, don’t tell that to Hewlett-Packard. This week, it introduced what it considers a groundbreaking new product: a tablet with a touch screen!

It’s the H.P. TouchPad ($500 for the 16-gig model, $600 for 32 gigs): a black rectangle with a glossy 9.7-inch multitouch screen. You can zoom into maps, photos or Web pages by putting two fingers on the glass and spreading or pinching them. The screen image rotates when you turn the tablet 90 degrees.

The only buttons are a Home button below the screen and volume up/down buttons on the edge.

If that description sounds just like the iPad (and the 47,298 Android tablets that compete with it), you’re right. H.P. has some nerve coming out with a tablet now — especially because the biggest distinguishing component is its operating system. It’s WebOS, a variation of the software that runs the Palm cellphones (the Pre, Pixi and so on) — but it’s new to tablets.

Which means, of course, that there aren’t many apps for it yet. How many is “not many”? Well, 300.

(H.P. points out, however, that there are even fewer for Android tablets, even after several months: only 232.)

There’s a Kindle app, Pandora and Angry Birds, thank goodness. But some pretty popular apps are among the missing. No Flixter or IMDB. No Pocket God. No Google apps like Google Mobile, Google Earth or Google Voice. No Netflix.

Now, from a hardware-checklist perspective, the TouchPad doesn’t get off to a good start. It’s the same size as the iPad, but it’s 40 percent thicker (.75 inches thick) and 20 percent heavier (1.6 pounds) — a bitter spec to swallow in a gadget you hold upright all day long.

It has a front camera for video chatting but, unlike its rivals, no camera on the back. It has Wi-Fi, but can’t get online over the cellphone network, too. It can sometimes pinpoint its own location on Bing Maps by referencing nearby Wi-Fi hot spots, but it doesn’t have real GPS (what were they thinking?).

It supposedly has a blazing-fast chip inside, but you wouldn’t know it. When you rotate the screen, it takes the screen two seconds to match — an eternity in tablet time. Apps can take a long time to open; the built-in chat app, for example, takes seven seconds to appear. Animations are sometimes jerky, reactions to your finger swipes sometimes uncertain.

And despite being thicker, the TouchPad’s battery life lasts only about eight hours on a charge (the iPad gets 10 hours). .

Now, even H.P. understands that the TouchPad’s only hope is differentiating itself from the better established tablets. The only buying question you have to ask yourself, then, is: Does H.P. make a convincing enough case that you should gamble on this unknown quantity?

Here’s the crux of H.P.’s argument.

First of all, the TouchPad is beautiful. It’s iPad beautiful. The case is glossy black plastic — a magnet for fingerprints, unfortunately, but it looks wicked great in the first five minutes.

The WebOS is beautiful, too. It’s graphically coherent, elegant, fluid and satisfying. That, apparently, is the payoff when a single company designs both the hardware and the software. (Android gadgets, by contrast, are a mishmash of different versions and looks.)

The central conceits of WebOS are the same as on Palm’s phones. For example, when you press the Home button, all open apps shrink into half-size window “cards”; at this point, you can swipe with your finger to move among them, or swipe an app upward to close that app. It works beautifully, and conveys far more information than the iPad’s application switcher (which is just a row of icons).

H.P. says that the TouchPad offers real multitasking: all open apps are always running. On the iPad, by contrast, only certain apps (like music playback and GPS tracking) chug away in the background; everything else is just suspended until you return. Apple argues that true multitasking runs down the battery — and the battery-life stats prove it correct. Choose the compromise you like best.

The other big win with the WebOS is something H.P. calls Synergy, which means that it consolidates your data from different online accounts. You might keep your family schedule on Google Calendar, your work calendar in Exchange or Outlook and some events in Facebook. The TouchPad consolidates them onto a single color-coded calendar.

It does the same thing with your online address books, e-mail accounts, chat accounts (Skype, AOL, Yahoo, Gtalk) and photo libraries. In each case, the TouchPad shows you everything in one place.

WebOS also plays Flash videos on the Web, though sometimes jerkily. Android tablets can do that but, the iPad can’t. (“We’re not afraid of the Web,” cracks a TouchPad product manager.)

The onscreen keyboard has a couple of advantages over its rivals’. First, you don’t have to switch keyboard views to see the number keys; they’re right on the top row. (Why didn’t anyone think of that before?)

Second, you have a choice of four key heights. That is, you can make the keyboard larger or smaller, depending on your finger-fatness ratio.

H.P. has also made excellent hay from Palm’s charging innovations. For example, the optional $80 TouchPad dock not only holds the TouchPad upright, it also auto-activates a useful screensaver mode, like photo slide shows or weather. Best of all, it charges the TouchPad magnetically, without your having to connect anything. Meet George Jetson.

The TouchPad will perform a similar wireless stunt once H.P. releases its Palm Pre 3 cellphone. If there’s a Web page on the tablet, you can transfer it to the Pre just by holding the phone against the TouchPad’s bottom. That’s fantastic if you’ve just called up some driving directions, for example, or a recipe, that you want on your phone without having to copy out a Web address.

The TouchPad will also be able to alert you when phone calls or text messages come to your Palm Pre 3.

You know how people “jailbreak,” or hack, theiPhone to run unauthorized apps? Apple fights jailbreakers incessantly with software warfare. But H.P. welcomes such shenanigans. You agree not to bother H.P. with whatever trouble results, and you can restore the factory settings by resetting your tablet.

Now, much of the TouchPad’s promise remains theoretical; all kinds of stuff is “coming soon,” including music or movie stores and a Mac/Windows utility that will copy your computer’s music files to the tablet. H.P. emphasizes, of course, that many more apps are on the way. It says that its workshops for programmers are sold out for the summer. That’s good, because, well, did I mention no Netflix?

(The tablet can run most of the 8,000 apps that were designed for WebOS phones. Absurdly enough, though, it runs them at phone-screen size — tiny, floating in the middle of the black screen. There’s no option to blow them up, as on the iPad and Android.)

H.P. says that its TouchPad is only the first of a family of models. Eventually, it expects to bring WebOS to laptops, computers and printers.

In this 1.0 incarnation, the TouchPad doesn’t come close to being as complete or mature as the iPad or the best Android tablets; you’d be shortchanging yourself by buying one right now, unless you’re some kind of rabid A.B.A. nut (Anything but Apple).

But there are signs of greatness here. H.P. is coming to this battle very late, but it says it intends to stay the course. True, it’s tilting at windmills — but at least it’s riding an impressive steed.

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