Multi-tasking in webOS is quietly brilliant.

Wasting time with the fun "Just Draw" app. I call this 1st grade quality masterpiece, "Zombie Invasion vs. Handgun".

Bubble Birds 2.0, one of the few decent free games (sadly) in HP App Catalog.

The "Memo" app -- now I'm finally getting something done! So far, this has been one of the best uses I've found for my new toy.
Tablet proves surprisingly fun, but there's definitely rough edges to this package

I was among those who two Fridays ago jumped online and bought a clearance-priced TouchPad from Hewlett-Packard Company (HPQ).  I wanted to do a quick post with some of my impressions on the device, as I've written about it frequently, but never actually sat around and played with one for longer than a few minutes.

I. The Price is Right

I went all out with my purchase -- I bought a protective case, HP's TouchStone charging dock/stand, and a compatible wireless keyboard from HP.  With various coupon codes, and discounts I received my 32 GB TouchPad for the sweet price of $120 -- roughly 1/3rd of what people had been paying just weeks prior.  My whole purchase came out to roughly $260.

To be honest I never really saw the point of a tablet at the $500 mark -- and I still don't.  To me the main uses of a tablets are notes taking and games.  If I made $250,000 a year, a $500 tablet would make sense, but on my young professional budget, that cost is outweighed by the limited utility -- to me at least.  Some may find other uses -- I can see some parents using it as an education toy-turned-gaming device for children.  

I should mention that I also have unlimited data tethering (Thanks Sprint Nextel (S)!) and a laptop, so the "portability" of a laptop isn't as exciting to me.  For those who don't own a laptop or don't tether, I can see where a tablet would be a new and exciting experience.

That said, I always said that "When tablets hit around $250 I will buy one."  

At that price, the limited utility justifies the cost, for my lifestyle at least.  So when the opportunity came to get a fully loaded TouchPad with all the bells and whistles for $260 USD, I jumped on it.

II. The Good

I want to start things on a positive note.  After about 10 hours of use, I'm actually enjoying webOS 3.0 to a degree.

The keyboard feels very fluid (I have one major gripe -- more later).  And the card-based multi-tasking is intuitive and beats iOS/Android in my mind.  You close apps by simply flicking them upward in the tile view -- brilliant.  And that's not to mention the orientation, which switch super-fast and feels very responsive.

As for the browser, it's on par with Android's in my opinion, offering Flash video (which you can't play in iOS!) and other perks.  Like Android, there will be some sites with incompatible page elements, etc., but most mainstream public sites will be treated well.

The configuration of the device was painless.  Likewise the HP App Catalog was accessed fast and was relatively well laid out.  Downloads and installations of apps were quick and easy.

The customizable homescreen wallpaper is a nice touch.

Scrolling long lists was a bit of a pain, but at least you wouldn't miss your target -- a frequent downside of "kinetic scrolling" schemes (e.g. iOS), which have the unfortunate tendency to overshoot your target.

The apps that I downloaded were also relatively fun.  Games (like Angry Birds) felt as fluid as their Android/iOS counterparts.

Probably the most useful thing in the tablet so far has been the memo app.  I've been using it to jot quick notes I used to use MS Notepad for.  I actually find it's slightly quicker to type out and organize my thoughts on tablet as I don't have to bother with the visual distraction of my laptop's other running apps.  As an added perk, I feel like I'm on Star Trek: The Next Generation writing an engineering report when I take notes on my TouchPad.

The hardware is great, overall -- the processor is fast (1 GHz, dual-core), there's plenty of RAM, and the screen resolution is decent.  HP and its Palm unit did a surprisingly respectable job in that regard.

III. The Bad

That said, webOS had a long ways to go before it would have been a legitimate competitor to Android or iOS.  One thing I always harped on is the lack of apps.  Well guess what?  I was right.

The single biggest downside to webOS is the lack of free apps, in my opinion.  And at the root of this problem is HP's utter failure at promoting developer advertising options.

Yesterday I went through the entire catalog of free apps downloading any one that sounded useful.  Much of the catalog was composed of redundant apps (e.g. a dedicated app for each NFL team), or apps for major newspapers.  There were some gems among the rest of the apps, but there just weren't enough to satisfy most serious smart phone users.

For example there were only 6-7 decent looking games (all of which I grabbed).  When actually playing these, many were built for the lower resolution webOS smart phones or exhibited bugs.  So really the number was arguably even smaller.

Again, I'm still digging, but there seems to be a lot of trash, a little treasure, much like other app stores -- but there's far less apps to dig through.

Again this sordid state is largely because webOS has no built in advertising support, in its standard SDK.  Free apps in Android and iOS come thanks to services like Google Inc.'s (GOOG) AdMob or Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) iAd platform.  For most developers, the only merit of a free webOS app is as a product demo.

To be fair, there is an AdMob SDK for webOS, but it seems like no one (not even Rovio, the Angry Birds folks) is using it.

Call me cheap, but I usually don't pay for a lot of apps on my smart phone, so I'm not planning on starting to with my tablet.  The sad part is that I'm actually somewhat inclined for accidental ad clicks on smart phones/tablets, so over an app's lifetime I'd probably make developers far more in "free apps" than paid ones, if only HP had supported that option.

Some other minor gripes:
  • No navigation buttons (back, forward, etc.) in the virtual keyboard.  Argghhh! Why?!? This mars and otherwise brilliant interface.
  • No rear camera hardware.
  • No way to use the front-facing camera to take still shots (perhaps one of those loathed paid apps does this... but no thanks.)  Looks like the free app "Digicamera Still Life" does allow for still shots, although I still feel this should have been available from a default webOS app.
  • Random errors/timeouts (esp. "007" errors) in the App Catalog frequently occur when try to access app profiles.
In short, the worst thing about the TouchPad is webOS, which still has an anemic App Catalog and some frustrating interface flaws.  That said, at $120 for a 32 GB tablet, webOS's annoyances seem a whole lot more tolerable.  

It's been fun (sort of) using webOS and getting to know this unique interface, but I won't be terribly sad to see it go when a streamlined TouchPad-adapted Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" or Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" comes along.

Maybe that's what HP should have done in the first place.

UPDATE: Tuesday Sept. 30, 2011 3:20 p.m. -

For those of you eager to get a TouchPad (or TouchDroid, soon hopefully) of your own, HP just announced that it would be making a "small" quantity of the devices available soon.  It says it is still sticking to the plan of a phase out, but comments:

HP will be manufacturing a limited quantity of TouchPads with webOS during our fourth fiscal quarter 2011, which ends October 31.

HP will offer these units on a per-customer-limited basis, so scalpers won't have quite the merry ride they did during the clearance (though we imagine they'll find ways to escape HP's planned restrictions).

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