HP is the latest PC maker to jump into tablets - and in entering the market, it has immediately become the latest tablet maker to land under Apple's shadow. The HP TouchPad is the first tablet based on the WebOS mobile operating system, which HP acquired when it purchased Palm a year ago.

The Wi-Fi TouchPad comes in two versions at launch, with a 16GB model costing £399 and a 32GB model costing £479 – price tags that put it on a par with the iPad 2.

As the first WebOS tablet HP's TouchPad is obviously playing catch-up with the Apple iPad, despite the fact that it has several distinguishing features. Chief among them are the immersive meshing of contacts from multiple Web services and sources, the ability to print, Touchstone inductive charging, and touch-to-share (a Web, phone, and messaging transfer capability that will eventually work with the HP Veer and the upcoming HP Palm Pre smartphones).

HP TouchPad: Physical Design

The HP TouchPad has a 9.7-inch IPS touchscreen display, with 18-bit colour and 1024-by-768-pixel resolution. Though it matches the iPad 2 in offering IPS and that particular resolution, Apple's tablet has 24-bit colour. Android tablets with 10.1-inch screens have a higher resolution (1280 by 800), but Android renders in 16-bit colour.

Encased in glossy piano-black plastic, with rounded edges, the TouchPad has a less appealing look and feel than competing tablets do, including those that have plastic edges and backings. The TouchPad's plastic backing makes it very easy for the tablet to slide around, and the surface accumulates fingerprints very quickly (more rapidly than I recall the similarly designed Apple iPhone 3GS getting covered in fingerprints, to be honest).

The TouchPad weighs 740g, about the same as the heaviest Android tablets we've seen, and a little heavier than the iPad 2. It's also a smidgen more than a half-inch thick, matching the thickest of the Androids and the first-gen iPad, but two-tenths of an inch chunkier than the 0.33-inch iPad 2.

Overall the design strives for minimalism: It has just one button, a flat oval centered beneath the display that returns you to the home screen, and just one port, a MicroUSB connector on the bottom (both positions assume portrait mode). The port works for charging, as well as for transferring data to the device from your PC; the included wall charger is compact, and as with Apple's iPad, you use the USB sync cable to connect with the AC adapter.

The only other controls are the prominent, pleasingly contoured volume rocker (at the right side in portrait mode or the top in landscape), the power/wake button (top right in portrait), and the headphone jack (top left in portrait). Also positioned for use in portrait mode is the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video chat, which is centered above the display. Unlike the vast majority of competing tablets, the TouchPad lacks a rear-facing camera for still-photo and video capture.

In contrast, the stereo speakers are optimally located for use in landscape orientation; they're positioned out the bottom, and designed to maximize the audio by vibrating against the plastic backing. The audio sounded terrific with my test tracks, the best I've heard on a tablet so far. I can't say that the inclusion of Beats Audio made any difference, though; my tracks sounded the same whether that feature was enabled or disabled.

HP TouchPad: A Slow Start

Inside, the TouchPad has a 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. But its performance was anything but snappy: The tablet lagged behind my expectations in more operations than not. The one area it did keep up was in touch typing, as my fingers flew over the on-screen keyboard.

In my tests, the TouchPad felt slow from the initial boot-up. Out of the box, it took 1 minute, 50 seconds before the HP logo yielded to the first setup screen. In the clear but multistep setup process, you start by choosing the language: English (US, Canadian, UK, or Irish), French, German, or Spanish. Next, the setup drops you into Wi-Fi setup. You then agree to the HP terms of service, and set up an HP WebOS account (assuming that you don't have one already as a previous Palm Pre or Pixi owner) for backup and data restoration (including apps, settings, and accounts) and HP services. Finally, you can name your device--a handy bit of customization that's nice to see up front.

The thing is, setup felt as if it took more effort than starting up a tablet should require. Even this early in the process, WebOS distinguishes itself with clear language and big, colour-coded buttons--but it also continues the slow-response trend, introducing the spinning circle.

The sluggish performance was enough of a concern to me that I tried a second TouchPad to make sure that the problem wasn't isolated to the unit I had. But the second TouchPad fared little better: The spinning circle and pulsating app icons (two indicators that the tablet is busy loading something) became very familiar to me as I opened new apps and files, and loaded Web pages. Even scrolling through items (such as the list of zillions of Wi-Fi networks in the neighborhood) and flicking left or right among open items looked jerky, not smooth.

The TouchPad took 69 seconds for a cold boot-up, in contrast to the iPad 2's 26 seconds; it also took nearly twice as long as most of the competition did in our SunSpider JavaScript test. Loading apps felt interminable; Quickoffice repeatedly took a full 10 seconds to launch to the file-browser page, as opposed to the near-instant launch of Apple's Pages.

I found that the TouchPad had a frequent tendency to get a bit toasty at the back, too--not warm enough to start roasting marshmallows, but noticeably so. The battery life didn't impress, either: In our continuous video playback test, the battery drained in just 5 hours, 25 minutes--nearly half the time the Android 3.1-based Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 lasted, but about the same as the Acer Iconia Tab A500, Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101, and T-Mobile G-Slate.

See also: Group test: what's the best tablet PC?

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