It's become a tiresome refrain: This time, [insert product name here] will dethrone the iPad. A year ago, it was all those promised Android tablets, the vast majority of which never saw the light of day (and the few that did never should have).
Then this spring it was the Motorola Mobility Xoom, which made a respectable showing but fell short in too many areas. Then came the disastrous BlackBerry PlayBook from Research in Motion, a study in how not to design a tablet. More recently, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 showed some strength, but undermined itself with that mix of innovation, bald-faced Apple "inspiration," and uneven execution that has come to define the Android platform.
Now we have the long-awaited Hewlett-Packard TouchPad, the first competitor to the iPad from the world's leading computer maker, and a competitor based on WebOS, Palm's tantalizing but failed great hope in the early smartphone wars from June 2009. The HP TouchPad -- unveiled today and available in stores this weekend -- brings many of WebOS's strengths in the new 3.0 version that debuts with the TouchPad (though most of the cool features in the TouchPad were first delivered in WebOS 2.0 last September for smartphones), and the die-hard Palm and WebOS communities will cheer its continued march. Despite some compelling innovations, the TouchPad is hampered by the same kinds of fit-and-finish issues that mar some Android devices, as well as some odd design decisions that result in a pokey, limited performer.
Plainly put, the TouchPad is a mediocre tablet that poses no threat to the iPad or to Android tablets such as the Galaxy Tab 10.1 or Xoom. Even though the iPad 2's high bar is no secret, it once again appears that corner-cutting or rush to market has been allowed to tie a potentially strong tablet's arm behind its back.
I put both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad through a series of tests to determine their respective strengths in areas such as email and calendar functionality, applications and app stores, and general performance, design, and usability. Here's how each fared.
Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contacts
For testing these essential business functions, I used personal accounts of IMAP, POP, and Gmail along with a work account of Exchange 2007. Both devices work directly with IMAP, Gmail, and POP; my email, email folders, calendars, and contacts all flowed effortlessly among the tablets, my laptop, and the server.
Both devices try to autodetect your settings wherever possible, though the iPad is much better at handling nonvanilla settings. The TouchPad got my IMAP account's SMTP settings wrong, for example, but didn't know it, so I was unable to send messages until I realized my mail was trapped in the outbox and then went about fixing the settings manually. The iPad, by contrast, tests its outbound settings before it completes your account setup, letting you know if it has any issues. (At least the TouchPad doesn't make the same mistake as the Galaxy Tab 10.1: Stop the setup completely, so you lose the settings for any portion that did work.) Also, the TouchPad's manual setup for email is frustratingly limited; you have to use https:// in a server address rather than enable SSL through a check box as in other devices, and you cannot set the ports as you can elsewhere.
Setting up Exchange on both devices was simple. Unlike the first WebOS device, the original Palm Pre, and several subsequent models, the TouchPad supports on-device encryption out of the box (same with the iPad), so it easily connected to our corporate server and passed its basic set of Exchange ActiveSync policies.
Email messages. Working with emails is similar on the two tablets: Both use the large screen to provide common controls at all times, and when in landscape orientation, both let you see a selected email without opening it. On the TouchPad, you can choose which of those three panes is visible when in portrait orientation, so you can view the list of emails and the message preview, or you can check out the list of mailboxes, folders, and messages. On the iPad 2, when in portrait orientation, you view just the list of emails and the preview; the list of accounts and mailboxes displays as a pop-over menu only when selected. I don't think either approach is superior to the other.
The TouchPad's account and folder list shows fewer entries than the iPad 2's counterpart, so it's more work to find folders. But you can see all your accounts in one list on the TouchPad, as well as hide and show individual accounts in that list, whereas the iPad 2 makes you switch accounts and thus shows only one account's folders at a time.
In both devices, you can reply, forward, mark as unread, delete, and move messages while reading them. You can also delete and move emails to folders from the message lists.
On the iPad 2, you can easily delete individual messages from the email list: Swipe to the left or right and tap Delete. The TouchPad copies that approach, though once the Delete button is visible, you must tap it or Cancel. By contrast, on the iPad 2 you can tap somewhere else to close the Delete button, and there's less interruption and no risk of tapping Delete instead of Cancel.
To move selected messages, tap the Move to Folder button and select the destination folder. Moving messages is easier on the iPad because it uses your entire accounts and folder pane in landscape orientation and presents a long pop-over list in portrait orientation. The TouchPad in both orientations opens a small dialog box that you have to scroll through, adding effort to the operation. (Neither tablet lets you simply drag messages to a folder, as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 can.)
The iPad 2 displays the search box at the top of the message list for the current account and lets you constrain your search to the To, From, or Subject fields. The TouchPad has a search box in the same location, but it has no options for constraining the search. It also displays odd behavior: If you enter a name in the field, even something as simple as "Ken," the TouchPad searches the From fields only, but if you enter other text, it searches the text and subject lines as well. Thus, you can't find emails on the TouchPad about a person who was not a recipient of the email. In addition, the TouchPad can search only email residing on it; there is no option to search the server as well, as in the iPad 2.
Getting to the top of your email list isn't so obvious on the iPad 2, though it is easy: Tap the top of the screen. On the TouchPad, there is no fast-jump capability.
The message text is quite readable on both tablets, and both let you use gestures to zoom in and out.
Email management. Both devices support multiple accounts and universal inboxes. I prefer the way the TouchPad provides all the accounts in one place, with universal inboxes at the top of your accounts list (the Favorites area), compared to the iPad 2's duplication of its accounts list in a separate pane: one set for universal inboxes and one for their folder hierarchies. I also like the TouchPad's ability to add specific mail folders to the Favorites area.
The iPad 2 has a message-threading capability, which organizes your emails based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicks to go through messages, but finding the messages is substantially easier. (The iPad's iOS 4 lets you disable threading.) The TouchPad has no equivalent. It does lets you flag emails, but to see flagged messages in one place, you have to enable All Flagged in the accounts preferences.
On the TouchPad, attachments are indicated in a bar below the subject. If you have multiple attachments, tap the indicator bar to get the full list. Tapping an attachment downloads it (be prepared to wait a second or two for the download to commence). Which app opens a file depends on which app registered it. Unlike on the iPad 2, you can't choose an alternative app or set the default for opening a particular file type on the TouchPad. On the stock TouchPad, PDF files are opened by Adobe Reader, Microsoft Office and text-only files by Quickoffice, and images by a preview window that lets you save the image to the Photos library.
The iPad 2's native Quick Look viewer handles a nice range of formats -- Microsoft Office, text-only, PDF, various images, and Apple iWork -- and it opens attachments with one tap, downloading them if needed at the same time. Using iOS's Open In facility, you can also choose which app to use instead of the default by tapping and briefly holding the file attachment -- the way it should be.
Shockingly, neither the TouchPad nor the iPad 2 -- still! -- opens Zip files. On the iPad, there are several third-party apps such as the $1 Unzip, $1 ZipThat, $2 ZipBox-Pro, as well as the $5 GoodReader file-viewing and management app. But there is as yet no unzip app for the TouchPad.
Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad remember the email addresses when you reply to a sender, adding them to a database of contacts that's automatically scanned as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields. Both devices let you add email addresses to your contacts list by tapping them.
Contacts and calendars. Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad offer three of the same calendar views: day, week, and month. But only the iPad 2 supports the list (agenda) view. Moving among months is easy on both, and the two devices can display multiple calendars simultaneously. It's slightly easier to move among adjacent weeks and months on the TouchPad, as you can simply scroll. The iPad 2 makes you select the specific week or month from a horizontal list, which is less efficient for checking the adjacent week or month, but faster for going to a specific week or month than the TouchPad's Jump To dialog box. Call it a tie. But the TouchPad has more flexible options for setting recurring events; for example, you can set an appointment for every x days or every month on the first Monday -- neither of which the iPad 2 supports.
Both the TouchPad and the iPad 2 can send invitations to others as you add appointments. On the iPad 2, your invitations for Exchange accounts show up in your calendar as a pop-up; you can accept them there within the full context of your other appointments. For both Exchange and other email accounts, you can open the .ics invitation files in Mail, then add them to the calendar of your choice. On the TouchPad, the Calendar app automatically adds Exchange invitations to your calendar, as well as any invitations set up in Google calendar if you use that. But you can't open .ics invitations sent to POP or IMAP accounts, as you can on the iPad 2.
Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad have Contacts apps, but navigating through entries on the iPad is easier. You can jump to names by tapping a letter, such as "t," to get to people whose last names begin with "t," or search quickly for someone in the Search field by typing part of the name. The TouchPad has no way to quickly scroll; you'll have to use the Search box to jump to contacts.
Searching is easy on the TouchPad, as the Search box is always visible in the Contacts app. On the iPad 2, to search your contacts, drag up above the first contact to reveal the Search box. On the TouchPad, you can also designate users as favorites by tapping the star icon button in a profile, to put them in a shorter Favorites list. The iPad 2 doesn't have a similar capability.
The iPad 2 supports email groups, but you can't create them on the device; they must be synced from your computer's contacts application. Also, you can't pick a group in the iPad 2's Mail address fields. Instead, you select a group, then open it up to select just one member, repeating this step to add more names. It's a really dumb approach to groups. Still, it's better than the TouchPad, which doesn't support groups at all. There is a feature called Linked Profiles in which you can link another person's profile to the current user. If you select either user when addressing an email, both names appear in the contextual menu, so you can choose one or the other. This is a handy way for linking family or workgroup members, so if you send an email to one you are reminded of the others, but it is no substitute for actual groups.
The winner: The iPad 2 triumphs, due to its more capable email, calendar, and contacts capabilities, and its smarter account setup. The TouchPad handles a few aspects such as favorites better, and the iPad 2 could do better in these three apps, but Apple clearly has a better comprehension of what businesspeople need in their primary communications and collaboration tools -- despite HP's claims of understanding business (a subtle dig at Apple's consumer roots).