Friday, 27 April 2012

Life with the HP TouchPad - good and bad

I've lived with my HP Touchpad for some months now, so thought I'd write a few notes on what I do and don't like about it. I bought it cheap, in the famous firesale - a 32GB tablet for £115 wasn't to be passed up. So in some senses my expectations have always been low, and I've been prepared to be pleasantly surprised.
What I like:
  • The hardware is brilliant: big and very clear screen with excellent colours; a size that makes it easy to carry around but big enough to move; and great sound. The screen is a sensible 4:3 ratio rather than widescreen.
  • Viewing photos and watching videos on it is a delight - just the right size for that. (I haven't tried a full-length movie on it, but it works well for YouTube and iPlayer.)
  • Battery life is pretty good - certainly a day of substantial usage is no problem, even a couple of days. Much better than a laptop or smartphone.
  • It connects well to WiFi, shifts between known networks with little trouble, and is always on - pick it, press the on button and use it immediately - and it's already downloaded my emails.
  • It's ideal in size and portability for Skype calls, and the OS links to Skype fairly neatly. (The camera's nothing to shout about, but it's adequate.)
  • It easily opens files on networked services, especially Google Docs and Dropbox, without having a local copy. I use Dropbox more and more, and this means if I have WiFi around I can always access my Dropbox files.
  • The built-in applications are slick, smooth, and have a well designed UI.
  • The built-in Office client will open most Word, Excel and PDF files with little trouble, and view them easily.
  • It runs Flash. Shall I say that again? It runs Flash. This means it can handle practically anything in any website, without needing special handlers or apps (which the likes of YouTube have now) - in particular, big advantage in our house, it'll run all those Flash games on kids' websites such as CBeebies.
  • HP also sell a fairly inexpensive wireless keyboard for it, which works really well and is almost the size of a small laptop keyboard - I recently bought this.
  • (I should be mentioning  here the WebOS selling points, such as its multitasking, card-based UI, and ability to sync with multiple sources at once. They're all good, but really most of these are handled just as well by now by other tablets & smartphones.)
OK, enough positives. There's rather a lot I don't like:
  • It runs like a drain. Starting a new application takes around 10 seconds, even starting a new instance of the same application (which appears to be how it handles opening a new document, for example) is not much better. Web pages often load pretty slowly too.
  • The built-in web browser may handle Flash, but it doesn't do some really basic things - it won't store passwords (important with a touchscreen), and it won't even do searching. It's possible to buy a third-party web browser that does these things, but they're so basic as requirement that this shouldn't be necessary. 
  • Likewise for the Office client (which includes PDF) - no searching, no navigation controls. The only way to go through documents is by scrolling down and down and down. Fine for short documents, a right pain for longer files. Again, a paid-for app, SmartOffice, works better (but uses its own UI that's a bit odd in the WebOS setting).
  • Another very basic web requirement: it won't open documents (in  PDF, Word etc) on password-protected websites, such as a university Virtual Learning Environment or an academic journal. It just refuses. For serious use, this is a real problem. There are a few work-arounds that sometimes work, but often they don't. 
  • The on-screen keyboard is pretty cumbersome, and slow to enter text. There are no third-party keyboards (which has helped a lot in Android), and it has no arrow keys on the keyboard (a hack exists to put left and right arrows on the keyboard, which I have and helps - but this shouldn't be necessary, and may be broken by the next OS update). The wireless keyboard mentioned above helps a lot, but I don't always want to use that.
  • The functionality of the Office client (QuickOffice) is really quite limited - it was originally just a viewer and editing capability was added later, and not a lot of that. The paid-for SmartOffice is better, but not hugely so, and its interface is pretty clunky. Neither comes close in functionality, let alone UI, to Pages etc on the iPad.
  • Third-party applications are pretty limited, and those which do exist are expensive compared to their Android (or even iOS) equivalents. If the built-in apps and the browser are strong enough, this needn't matter, but it's not quite the case.
  • The email client is attractive and responsive, but doesn't display every email it accesses, which is a real pain (and it's not a server issue - my Android email client manages fine to display the same messages, accessing the server in the same way).
  • There's no real file manager, so that moving, renaming files etc depends on the capacity of a handler application. While the apps that handle Dropbox do it well, so if you have a file online that you want to get offline, it's pretty hard work. 
Many of the above negatives can be worked around in one way or another, but often quite with some quite cumbersome hacks which are pretty much beyond my capability (with 30+ years experience of using computers seriously, and a PhD in Computing!) so far beyond the ordinary user's capacity. And maybe you get what you pay for, but all the above were true when HP was selling the TouchPad for £400. It's good that the OS is open enough that hacks and third-party apps are possible to solve some of these things, but it really shouldn't be necessary for basic functionality like searching within files or 

Most of my negatives are software issues to do with the built-in operating system, WebOS, and its apps - indeed I think even the slowness is a software thing, as the hardware specs are decent enough. There's an Android port in the making, from the brilliant CyanogenMod people, which getting better and better, and in due course I'll install that on the TouchPad (it's dual boot so I don't need to lose WebOS). And that may solve all my problems! But it'll be a pity to have to do that.

I'm certainly glad I bought the tablet, and it's really useful to have around. I wish sometimes I'd bought an iPad, but then I paid less than a third of the price. In summary: the hardware is great, the overall experience is pretty good, but WebOS is severely flawed in a number of areas that make the device just not quite good enough.

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