A Take on the TouchPad: Worth Keeping, if You Can Find It

PHOTO: HP TouchPad
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When HP announced its most recent quarterly financial results, the company had some shocking news: it would no longer offer its recently released tablet, the Touchpad. HP followed up this unexpected announcement with a closeout sale, with prices at many retailers initially slashed to a mere $99 -- one fifth of the price of the popular iPad 2 or Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Those promotions spurred such demand for the device that it can now be very hard to find.

Of course, many buyers were no doubt opportunists looking to resell at a higher price. If you happen to come across one, though, it may be worth buying and keeping.

The Touchpad's dimensions are very close to those of the original iPad. Unlike the wide screens on many Android tablets, the dimensions of Touchpad's 9.7-inch screen are more like those of a photo. In fact, the Touchpad's controls and jacks -- including volume, power, and the microUSB charging and transfer port -- are arranged so similarly to those of the iPad that some cases designed for the original iPad may fit the HP device very well.

(The Touchpad is significantly thicker than the iPad 2 and lacks the iPad 2's rear-facing camera. That said, it does have a front-facing camera for video chat, as well as tightly integrated support for the popular Skype service.)

But a big part of the story is webOS, the Touchpad's operating system, which made its debut with the Palm Pre and became part of HP when the company purchased Palm about a year ago. The larger screen really allows webOS to perform well -- particularly its innovative system of managing different on-screen cards that can be grouped to keep parts of related tasks together. For example, if you're a singer using a Touchpad rehearse music, you can have several sheets open at once, alongside a media player screen the plays music tracks, so you can hear how a song should sound as you read the music.

Another Touchpad benefit is Just Type, which lets you search a wide range of Web sites and information on the tablet just by tapping an area of the screen and starting to type. The Touchpad also boasts great sound, courtesy of its stereo speakers and Beats Audio interface for headphones. That should come in handy when watching TV shows and movies, a key way consumers use tablets according to the Broadband Video survey by NPD Connected Intelligence.

Unfortunately, while the Touchpad has solid Web and email apps, only a few hundred third-party applications take advantage of the product today, and the system can get bogged down and present messages about having too many cards open. Like Palm before it, HP has had limited success in wooing developers attracted to the high volumes of the iPad and the promise of sleek Android-based competitors.

Making matters worse, HP compounded its problems before the Touchpad's release by changing a key method for developing webOS applications. Now many apps created for older devices simply won't run on the Touchpad, and it may take some time for even wiling developers to come up to speed with the new system. HP says it will continue to encourage developers to create webOS programs, but it will be an even steeper uphill climb than it has in the past, since there is now so much doubt hanging over the webOS operating system.

Even so, HP did offer a number of nifty accessories in its Touchpad lineup, including a custom Bluetooth keyboard and a Touchstone wireless charging dock. The dock allows you to charge the tablet's battery just by placing it against a flat stand, and the tablet can display a clock or photos as its battery refills. If you can make do with the basics of tablet apps while hoping that HP will be able to finally fill out the Touchpad's app gap, you'll enjoy an elegant if occasionally balky tablet experience.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin on Twitter) is executive director of industry analysis at The NPD Group (@npdtech on Twitter). He blogs at The NPD Group Blog as well as his own blog, Out of the Box.

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