Tablet Deathmatch: HP TouchPad Vs. Apple IPad 2

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

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Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad can print from print-enabled apps -- sort of. iOS can print only to AirPrint-compatible printers, of which there are very few (and only from HP). WebOS can print only to network-connected HP printers that use the PCL imaging standard, both ePrint-enabled printers and most network printers manufactured in the last five years. WebOS detects some printers automatically; for those that aren't recognized, you can add them to the available printer list by entering their IP address. Theoretically, Apple's AirPrint technology is manufacturer-agnostic, so Brother, Canon, Epson, HP, and Lexmark could all enable their printers for it, but only HP has done so to date. In WebOS, HP has excluded all non-HP printers from its print facility, an unfortunate lock-in move. On the iPad, you can print to a wide variety of models connected to a wireless LAN via one of the many printing apps available on the Apple App Store. In this regard, the iPad 2 is the better bet, despite the hassle of using a third-party app.

Both the iPad 2 and TouchPad provide universal search, using Spotlight and Just Type, respectively, but they take different perspectives. Spotlight finds related content, categorized by type: mail message, music, and so on. Also, it lets you extend the search onto the Web or Wikipedia. Tap a result to open in the related app. The Just Type facility first introduced in WebOS 2.0 last September under the name "Universal Search" displays not data but services that could act on that data, from address lookup to Google search to Twitter. If an app has matching data, a badge with a numeral appears to indicate the number of matches; click the app or service name to see the relevant instances.

This does add a step compared to the iPad 2's Spotlight, but it also means you can do something unique on the TouchPad: Add that text into an application or service. You could type text in the Just Type field and select Update Facebook Status to share it, or New Message to send it as a text message. The idea is that this requires less interruption than switching to an app, except that's not true: If you're already using an app, you have to switch to cards view to get the Just Type field, which is the same as switching to an app in iOS. However, if you are a social media fanatic, you could make Just Type into your primary communications app, sending updates to multiple services from one place (a scary thought, given how much junk is in social media streams already).

Both Spotlight and Just Type are extensible to third-party apps, though I've seen few cases where iOS developers are taking advantage of Spotlight.

The winner: The iPad 2 comes out on top again, mainly because its app selection is unparalleled. For the underlying apps management capabilities, the TouchPad has the edge, thanks to the notifications capabilities of WebOS and its services technology. If the TouchPad catches on, the universe of WebOS apps could really challenge iOS -- but for now, that's unrealized potential.

Deathmatch: Web and Internet

In compatibility tests based on the HTML5 Test site's scores, revised on June 21, the TouchPad scores 229 out of 450, whereas the iPad 2 scores 217, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 scores 218. By comparison, Internet Explorer 9 scores 143, desktop Safari 5.05 scores 253, desktop Chrome 12.0.742 scores 327, and Firefox 5.0 scores 286.

For HTML and JavaScript performance, based on the Futuremark Peacekeeper benchmarks, the iPad 2 scored 808 versus 508 for the iOS 4.3 iPad 1, and 430 for the iOS 4.2 iPad 1. By contrast, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 scored 985, and desktop Safari on my 2011-edition MacBook Proscored 2,812. Peacekeeper stresses media and JavaScript processing, so the indicated speed differences aren't apparent in more text-and-graphics-heavy sites. What did the TouchPad score? It didn't -- it could not run the test suite. I did find in subjective usage that the iPad 2's browser felt snappier than the TouchPad's browser.

Both browsers have persistent buttons or fields for Back, Forward, Bookmarks, and Refresh. When you have multiple Web pages in play, the iPad 2 displays an icon showing how many windows are open -- tapping it introduces a screen that previews all open windows. The TouchPad launches a separate instance of the browser, so you have to move to cards view and tap the window you want. It's a bit more work than on the iPad 2, which I can live with, but I prefer the iPad 2's approach because I can see previews of all open windows at once, whereas in the TouchPad I have to fool around with all those overlapping cards. (The Galaxy Tab 10.1 does it better than either the iPad 2 or TouchPad: Its tabs bar expands to show live tiles of all open windows, while keeping your current window visible.)

One of the TouchPad's claims to fame is that it comes with Adobe's (still beta) Flash Player 10.3, which the iPad does not and will not support. I found that the player did well with websites' videos and basic Flash animations, such as those that let you rotate views, open content via hotspots, and the like. Flash games worked sometimes.

The iPad 2's separate Search and URL boxes are less convenient than the TouchPad's unified URL and Search box; you have to be sure to tap the right box on the iPad. Both devices offer a .com button when entering URLs, which is a significant timesaver. Both devices pop up a list of alternative domains, such as .edu and .org, when you tap and hold the .com button.

Both browsers let you select and copy both text and graphics on Web pages, though only the iPad 2 can copy an image into its pasteboard; the TouchPad can copy an image only to its Photos library. On the other hand, only the TouchPad can open an email with the image already copied in for you from the contextual menu that appears when you tap and hold a website image, saving you a step compared to the iPad 2.

Neither the TouchPad nor iPad 2 handles AJAX-based Web forms well. Mobile Safari doesn't support attributes such as contenteditable (for editing within WYSIWYG forms) or the widely used TinyMCE AJAX editor, so you can't use many forms or must switch to their HTML modes if they have one. The TouchPad supports contenteditable, but not TinyMCE. The TouchPad also turns off its spell-checking in Web forms, unlike the iPad 2.

Google Docs is awkward to use on the iPad 2, though you can handle the basics. It's barely possible to edit a spreadsheet; the most you can do is select and add rows, as well as edit the contents of individual cells. You can edit a text document -- awkwardly. Partly, that's because Google hasn't figured out an effective mobile interface for these Web apps; the Safari browser is simply dealing with what Google presents, rather than working through a mobile-friendly front end. It's also because the mobile WebKit browsers don't support all the same capabilities as their desktop counterparts. I could not get Google Docs to work at all on the TouchPad. On both the iPad 2 and TouchPad, you can create, edit, and navigate appointments in Google Calendar in all four of its views (day, week, month, and agenda), pretty much as you can on a desktop browser. Most likely, you'd use the tablets' native calendar tools instead.

If you use a Web-based editor day in and day out, as I do, the iPad 2 is more able to cope, though it's hardly where it needs to be.

Both browsers offer settings to control pop-up windows, search engines, JavaScript, cookies, history, and cache, but only the iPad 2's Safari offers controls over form data, passwords, image loading, autofill, fraud warnings, and debugging. Note that many websites won't know about the TouchPad's unique identifier, so some may redirect the TouchPad browser to mobile-oriented sites rather than present their desktop- and tablet-friendly pages. I didn't experience this issue in my tests, but I've noted for other devices that they eventually get added to such redirect lists as website admins discover their existence. The iPad's browser ID (ipad) is better known to Web developers, so this redirect issue is less likely to occur for that device. (If you're developing mobile-savvy websites, you can use InfoWorld's User Agent Check tool to read the IDs of the various devices and, thus, optimize how your site works with them. Tip: hp-tablet in the user agent string means a tablet; hpwOS signifies any WebOS device.)

The winner: Although the TouchPad has a more HTML5-savvy browser and supports Flash, the iPad 2 beats it in almost every other respect.

Deathmatch: Location support

Both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad can triangulate your location based on Wi-Fi signals and GPS. Except for the different map backgrounds, the Bing Maps app on the TouchPad is nearly a pixel-perfect copy of the Google Maps app that comes with the iPad 2, with the same routing capabilities. Both are fine for looking up addresses and generating directions.

But for in-vehicle navigation, you'll want a real navigation app such as the $45 Navigon MobileNavigator for iOS, which stores its maps on the device, so you don't need a 3G signal for it to keep the map updated as you do with the built-in Maps apps. There is no equivalent app yet for the TouchPad.

Although both the iPad 2 and the TouchPad ask for permission to work with your location information, the TouchPad does not provide controls over location use by the device or individual applications, as the iPad 2 does.

The winner: The iPad 2 wins this round because it lets users manage their location privacy at a granular level.

Deathmatch: User interface

It's often a throwaway comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, though it's not always true. In many respects, the WebOS UI shows that Apple doesn't have the lock on good UI design. HP's card metaphor is a nice way to manage apps and windows, and the services integration makes it easier to focus on what you want to do rather than where you want to do it. iOS has a more disciplined UI, which keeps you from getting distracted but also creates a tunnel vision mentality. WebOS is designed for multitasking, letting you keep on top of multiple items simultaneously, but it requires more effort to navigate.

Operational UI. As I previously explained, the TouchPad's cards metaphor lets you see everything that is running, but it could potentially overwhelm you and obscure what you are seeking in its overlapping windows. But you can combine apps into stacks to reduce the clutter, and you can slide out a window to peek at its contents. If you have a few apps running all the time, the cards interface works well, but for more than that, it's too much. The iPad 2's approach of having you switch from app to app works well when you have lots of apps open, but its lack of live previews can make it more difficult to find what you want to switch to.

I dislike the TouchPad's separation of settings into separate apps. The unified app with multiple panes, as used in iOS and Android, is a much cleaner approach that makes it less likely you'll miss a setting and doesn't leave you with all those open settings app windows. The TouchPad suffers the same overkill issue of Windows Vista's gazillion control panels, though nothing is as impenetrable as Vista's approach. The setup apps themselves are straightforward to use on the TouchPad, though in several cases the Confirm and Delete buttons are skinny and cramped, making it easy to tap the wrong one. iOS's Settings app is well designed and largely easy to navigate, though its various network settings are oddly separated from one another.

The good news is that pinching and zooming, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, work equivalently on the TouchPad's WebOS and the iPad 2's iOS, though the TouchPad tends to hesitate before it rotates.

For text entry, I find the iPad 2's on-screen keyboard to be easier to work with than the TouchPad's, with better contextual use of extra keys, such as in the Mail application and in form fields. I do like the fact that the TouchPad by default displays the numeral keys, so you don't have to switch to them -- something Apple may want to copy. But it's annoying that some common punctuation, such as the colon (:), are not on the standard keyboard, forcing you to switch to a symbols keyboard. Using a capability that debuted in WebOS 2.1 for smartphones in February, the TouchPad also lets you set the size of your keys, which can free up screen real estate for your content. However, if you want to touch-tap, set it to the largest size (medium is the default).

It is easier to tap items on the iPad 2 than on the TouchPad. The TouchPad helpfully shows a pebble-in-a-pond type of dot where you tap, so you know whether you tapped the intended location. I found that buttons and objects often didn't respond if you tapped near but still inside their edges. iOS buttons don't have this issue.

Text selection and copying. The TouchPad handles text selection poorly. When you tap on text, the word is selected and sliders appear to change the text selection. But if your tap misses your intended mark, you can't just move the text cursor as you can on an iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1. Also, when you tap that second time, you're likely to select a wild word and have contextual menus such as Copy appear. All of this makes text selection difficult.

On the iPad 2, text selection also works via handles. To insert the text cursor in a precise location, you tap and hold where you want to insert the text cursor (sort of like using a mouse), and a magnifier appears to help you move exactly to where you want to go. That's how it should be.

The winner: Although I prefer the theory of WebOS's cards interface, I find it too messy in practice. If HP tweaked this UI approach to add a listlike selection mechanism and treat the cards more as a favorites pile, I think WebOS could really challenge iOS in usability. For now, the iPad's more simplistic UI gets my nod. For the day-in, day-out work of touch-based selection, the iPad 2 is much easier to use than the TouchPad. The iPad 2 wins here.

Deathmatch: Security and management

A long-standing strike against WebOS has been its poor security. Only in February did the smartphone WebOS (2.1) support on-device encryption, which the TouchPad's WebOS 3.0 does as well. As with the iPad, that encryption is enabled straight out of the box, and it can't be turned off.

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