HP Bobbles Hardware in Assault on Apple IPad: Rich Jaroslovsky

In mobile devices, the buzzword these days is “ecosystem.” Buy an iPad or an Android smart phone, and you aren’t just spending a few hundred dollars on a new bauble; you’re joining a universe of interconnected devices, apps and services.

Hewlett-Packard Co. is the latest to enter the fray. Its purchase of Palm Inc. last year brought with it the company’s well-regarded webOS operating system. Now HP has launched the TouchPad, a tablet gunning for Apple Inc.’s iPads, iPhones and iOS software.

I’ve been a fan of the polished, easy-to-use webOS software since its debut on Palm smart phones, and the good news is that it makes the leap from phone to tablet beautifully. Moreover, the TouchPad comes with some cool new capabilities and accessories that might make even an Apple-lover envious.

Unfortunately, there’s not-so-good news too. You’d expect the world’s largest computer maker to know a thing or three about hardware. But that, surprisingly, is where the TouchPad comes in a little light.

Make that, a little heavy. Among other problems, the TouchPad weighs in at about 1.6 pounds (740 grams), which is a whopping 23 percent heavier than the comparable iPad 2, and heavier even than the original iPad.

Same Screen

There are many similarities to the iPad. Both have 9.7-inch screens and their height and width are nearly identical. They’re priced the same too: $500 for a Wi-Fi-only model with 16 gigabytes of storage; $600 with 32 gigabytes. TouchPads with built-in wireless data service from AT&T Inc. are promised for later in the year.

By controlling both the software and the hardware, HP can, like Apple, create a largely seamless user experience. Learn the webOS interface -- with its “card” metaphor, you simply flick a window to dismiss an application -- on one device, and you know how to use it on any.

In some areas, HP has even Apple beat. For instance, you can pair the TouchPad and HP’s coming Pre 3 phone just by tapping them together, and then pass information wirelessly between them. Once I got the hang of it, which took a while, I could find a Web site on the Pre, then toss it onto the TouchPad’s larger screen.

With the Pre in my pocket, I was also able to answer incoming calls and receive and send text messages directly on the TouchPad.

Sluggish Response

For all those whiz-bang features, though, the TouchPad sometimes struggles with the basics. The tablet, which is run by a Qualcomm Inc. microprocessor, can feel sluggish and underpowered. When I turned it from portrait to landscape mode, it took a moment for the screen to properly reorient itself, and at one point I had one horizontal stack of cards and one vertical stack on the desktop at the same time.

Battery life was less than stellar. While HP says you can expect 8 to 9 hours of video-watching and Web surfing, I got only 4 1/2 hours in my stress testing, which involved running videos continuously with the screen at maximum brightness, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth both active. And the screen, even at the max, was markedly dimmer than those of the iPad 2 and Samsung Electronics Co.’s similarly sized Galaxy Tab 10.1, which runs the tablet version of Google Inc.’s Android operating system.

Fingerprint Magnet

The TouchPad also lacks the rear-facing camera that’s become standard on competing tablets, most useful for shooting video. And the glossy black plastic case is a major fingerprint magnet.

Palm’s pre-HP challenge was attracting enough users to make it worthwhile for developers to write apps for it. That problem is likely to dog the TouchPad as well. Apple claims more than 90,000 programs written specifically for the iPad; HP says the TouchPad will have about 300 at launch, plus a few thousand more originally written for its phones and tweaked for the tablet.

The company is determined to lure developers by promising no mere app store but something called “Pivot,” a handsome, magazine-like online catalog. And HP says it will eventually put webOS on many more devices, including printers and computers that run Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system, in hopes of reaching the critical mass that will make its ecosystem competitive.

It’s an ambitious strategy, with no guarantee of success. Especially given the TouchPad’s hardware shortcomings, you’re probably better off waiting for a TouchPad 2.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)