Craig Box's journeys, stories and notes...

Three months with the TouchPad

I first started writing this post on 2 September 2011. It was going to be called "three days with the TouchPad". I'd like to say that my opinion has changed substantially over the three months since then, but for that to have happened, I would have had to spend serious time with the device.

I haven't.

Last time anyone in our house tried to use the TouchPad it got thrown on the couch in disgust1 On the contrary, our iPad is happily used every day. Is this just a case of "you get what you pay for"?

The story so far

I fought my way through the broken websites to purchase an £89 HP TouchPad when they cleared their stock at the end of August. I couldn't be sure that Carphone Warehouse had stock for all their orders, so I was overjoyed when mine turned "dispatched" later in the week. Then, it never arrived.  I wasted hours on the phone with CPW and Yodel (cheap courier of choice for "free delivery" everywhere), who claimed it had been delivered, when no knock had ever graced my door. The driver only spoke Bulgarian, and intimated (through a translator and wild hand gesturing) that he had given it to someone who had come up from the stairs below us - an empty flat.

I had all but given up on the delivery when, after the weekend, our neighbour came over and said their housekeeper had collected it on Friday and had it the whole time.


Eventually, thanks to people like me, the TouchPad ended up getting 17% of the market!

Of everything that wasn't the iPad.

(So, more like 1.8% then.)

And remember, I very nearly wasn't a member of that club, as it seemed very unlikely that Carphone Warehouse would have been in a position to give me another one, had the first one not surfaced.

The TouchPad was an impulse buy, as we already owned an iPad. I had opted for middle of the range - the 32GB with 3G.2 At clearance price, my iPad cost 7 times more than the TouchPad, but remember that the original retail pricing for a comparable device was £399 for HP vs £429 for Apple.

With all that in mind, here's a collection of thoughts about the TouchPad today. It is not a review: if you are interested in a review, albeit one from before the fire-sale, go read what Shawn Blanc wrote. The experience has hardly changed.

The good

I came into TouchPad ownership with a very open mind, based in part on my ex-colleague Sergei owning a Palm Pré and not hating it. Also, everything I read about webOS online made it seem that it was designed, where Android was mostly congealed. (My apologies to Douglas Adams.) Further, I wanted webOS to be a success, because I like to use systems that feel like they are consistently designed throughout, and I didn't think it would be good for the world if iOS was to be the only relevant platform for which that was true. We are in the odd position today that Microsoft has replaced Palm as the loveable underdog: Windows Phone (and possible Windows 8 for tablets) has taken the mantle of "mobile operating environment which actually has some moden design principles applied, rather than just copying iOS", which surely must provoke some cognitive dissonance for all the people still bitter about how Microsoft stole everything from the Mac.

I only made one note from three days after unboxing: "It is really handy to have the number keys on the keyboard all the time". It still is. I suppose there are other nice things, depending on your point of comparison. Notifications are good, in general, though I really don't care that each web site I visit exposes a search endpoint, so I don't appreciate that the TouchPad displays me a notification for each and tries to add them to the search.

Grasping at straws, I still like the card metaphor, though not as much for multiple tabs as for multiple applications. And the things that were good about webOS on the phone, such as the integrated contacts, are still good here, though not as useful. The only other thing I noticed in a quick look through the menus is that it has Beats Audio, which I like to think makes me one step closer to Dr Dre than most. I don't think I've ever actually tried to make the thing play audio in order that I might notice a difference.

The goblin

How long after the horse died is it acceptable to still be flogging it?

The TouchPad is slow, out of the box. Nerds like me can make it faster with - wait for it - syslogd and kernel patches, and even overclock it if they feel the need. (I didn't.)  The iPad 1 still runs rings around it in everything - even though the iPad has half the CPU cores at a much lower clock speed, and one quarter the RAM of the TouchPad.

It has a handful of apps, but not enough to retroactively justify the purchase to me, even at £89. If I go to my Applications list, I have a beta Kindle reader, which I had to side-load as it is US only: the best Twitter experience is something called "Spaz HD Beta Preview 2", which is both award-winning and open source, though apparently named by the people who came up with "The GIMP". In fairness, it's not bad, it's just not up to the experience which is available on any one of the great Twitter clients for other platforms. And with the on-again off-again abandonment by HP, surely most of those who came into the TouchPad did it eyes-open, knowing the chances of it ever developing a good app ecosystem were not high.

Most of what I do on a tablet is web browsing, and so even if it had no apps but did web browsing brilliantly, it might be redeemed. It doesn't. It has Flash, which really just serves to make YouTube worse. Maps are horrible, scrolling is slow and sluggish, and clicking doesn't normally hit the link you want it to.

Physically, it feels cheap, due to the plastic back.  It is a good weight however.

The purchase

In my mind, there were three groups of people who wanted to buy a TouchPad at fire sale prices:

  • People who wanted a "tablet" (iPad), but couldn't afford or justify one at market (iPad) prices
  • People who wanted an "Android tablet" and figured that a port couldn't be far away
  • People who liked webOS and actually wanted a TouchPad to use webOS on it

I was in the third group, but I also suspect that was about 1.8% of the people who actually got the device.

If you were to compare the experience on a £89 TouchPad vs. whatever else you could legitimately purchase for £89 - how long were the queues for the Binatone HomeSurf 7? - it seems like a no-brainer. If there was no chance that the tablet were ever able to run Android, I don't think it would have sold nearly as quickly. At the time of writing there is an alpha-quality CyanogenMod release of Android for the TouchPad, for developers, rather than end users. With the recent release of Android 4.0, it's likely there will be a reasonably good upgrade path for the application story, and on this kind of hardware Android should be about as good as it is on any other kind of hardware.

I bemoaned this fact when I came to buy it:

Three months later, has my attitude changed? Somewhat. I simply don't want to own an Android tablet. (Neither do many other people, as we established before.) Would it be better on this hardware than webOS? Probably. Ask me again when 4.0 is released for the TouchPad - I don't think the attempts to shoehorn Android 2.x onto tablets have done hackers any better than Samsung.

I don't think there can be any argument that the fire sale was a dumb idea, and HP's CEO eventually paid the price. Would I have paid £200 for this? No, but they would still have sold out at that price.

The summary

First world problems much? Our two tablet household isn't as good as it would be if we had an iPad each. Sure. I knowingly bought an £89 gadget to have a play with, and I suspect I could easily get that back if I wanted to sell it. Alternatively, if either of my brothers read my blog, I might be convinced to post it to them for Christmas. Over time, I think I might find a use for it - if I could pick up the Touchstone dock-slash-stand, I think it could make a great digital photo frame.  Even if all it ever did was be an LCD Kindle, it was still a bargain.

But the crux is that neither of us ever want to use it. It almost got put in the cupboard today. Attempts to use it provoke disgust, throwing it back onto the couch, and getting up to find the iPad. There is really nothing redeeming about it.

  1. Fern later clarified: "It wasn't thrown on the couch, it was thrown at the couch. 
  2. If I were to look back on that purchase, I would say the money spent on the 3G was mostly wasted - tablet usage is mostly at home. The iPad spent over a year without a 3G SIM card, though it has one now thanks to Arunabh, who pointed out that T-Mobile have a remarkable 12 months free on an iPhone 4 PAYG SIM, and the iPad takes the SIM quite happily. 

10 Responses to “Three months with the TouchPad”

  1. Sammydre says:

    I bought an Android tablet in Shenzhen for ~£28. A better purchase than your £89?

  2. Roy says:

    Kind of glad I didn't end up getting one during the firesales. I still have a hard time of even justifying buying an iPad - I've tried it at the stores and at friends' houses, and I just can't bring myself to see when it'd be useful, so I'm guessing this TouchPad would have been an overpriced paperweight.

    • Craig says:

      There's generally always a laptop within arms reach in this house, so the iPad is mostly used for bedroom and breakfast reading. I used to be in the habit of checking e-mail, Hacker News etc before getting out of bed, but that wasn't really a good idea!

  3. xyf says:

    As with most things in this space the software is connected to the human being so much more than it used to be. Keyboards and mice add an area of delay that is considered acceptable (perhaps also because of our previous decades worth of experience) but when you are cuddling this little pad of glowing goodness our ability to interact with it needs to be exact and instant.

  4. Mudface says:

    Good article….I remember at the time being really annoyed at missing out on what seemed like a real bargain and even tried to convince some new zealaned person to sell me his (although, it probably still is a bargain at £89 ~ curry + few drinks + taxi) …but if an ipad 1 is still faster….well…..I will take it of your hands for a curry + few drinks + taxi

  5. Raif says:

    I have had the touchpad for about 3 months now. I also have 2 Ipad 2's. Funnily enough I use the touchpad routinely for work with apps like splashtop and its ability to bring all my mail (and contacts) is fabulous. Its really easy to use and carry around to meetings, looking at materials etc in meetings. I don't want to bring my games / leisure reading Ipad2 to work even though its lighter.

    I have installed Android on the touchpad and occaisionally switch to Android but the mail client isn't as good, nor is it as intuitive to use in my opinion - although its a good android implementation - I kind of use it like my 'leisure partition' on the touchpad plus access to network files and a have decent explorer give it some additional legs and flexibility over Webos and Ipad. I use Android on the touchpad for netflix when I have to because there's no netflix lclient for touchpad. Had some serious early problems with wifi connectivity in android which kept me in webOS till alpha3 - now resolved - but I still prefer the mail client in Webos.

    The newer apps on Android are also catching up greatly with Ios in terms of breadth of covereage and quality. Eventually (after ICS) I will likley migrate it fully to Android and stay theere. I have 3 young kids and they really enjoy the mix of educational and games available. I like some of the educational stuff coming on Android bettter rthan Ios now but if I searched more I could probably find equivalents on both sides. The big bummer is having to pay for the same software on different platforms for non free software.

  6. Ron Collinson says:

    What about going the other way, buying an android tablet (more powerful spec) and putting webos, it doesnt really fix issues of cost and what ever HP position on webos is now, hopefully the community could pick it up, reimplement parts of it (similar to beos -> haiku, but that's a complete rewrite).

    WebOS seems to be the tablet OS I want, but its kinda hard to justify, the dual boot idea may make it happen thou.

  7. Yuning says:

    TouchPad is another example of big company no one responsible of anything even a better optimised version of sw, how can it be slower the first version iPad. Joke on webOS/HP. btw, the guy running Palm before they got bought by HP was Steve Jobs left hand man who created the IPod. so it is NOT one person could make a good product but a spirit which could.

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